The World War II battle for the strategically important island of Iwo Jima, told from the Japanese perspective. Focusing on the stories of General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and young conscript Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) as the assault rages about them.
The terms brave and important have been attached wantonly to this picture, and considering it is an American film made from the perspective of the Japanese during a World War II engagement, that seems justified. Clint Eastwood famously realised during the making of Flags of Our Fathers, that there was a vital story to be told about the opponents of this assault. The question is, was this that story?
Enormous attention to detail went into this film, as is always the case with Eastwood's movies, and it was extremely refreshing to find the whole film in the Japanese language. The script was based on works of non fiction, and the story co-written by the Japanese screenwriter. It felt authentic, and its success in Japan proves the point.
In Eastwood's hands, the drama is taught throughout, characters are given personal battles to fight before and during the assault, with satisfying conclusions. There is a sense of the classic war movie, without the action degenerating into the glamourisation of post war, propaganda pictures. But this also presents one of the films flaws.
As with The Changling, despite the factual basis of the film, it feels too cinematic. There are overt story arcs, which, while drawing us in, taint the piece by presenting history as a framing device to a personal tale. Like The Thin Red Line, there is a great sense of the foot soldier being passed from pillar to post with little understanding of what is actually happening. But there is too clear a journey for Saigo, as he attempts to get from A to B.
If his path through the war zone had been the main focus of the film, it may have worked, but we also see a great deal through the eyes of General Kuribayashi. The plot strands of the two characters intertwining a little too often.
There is also great effort to humanise the Japanese forces, necessary if we are to root for them in the way Eastwood wants us to. But then we are suddenly presented with scenes to remind us that, actually, the Japanese were baddies - only the characters we are meant to like are acceptable, and then, only because they disagree with the ethos of Imperial Japan.
Each of the main characters are clearly shown to be rebellious and disenfranchised, but nonetheless patriotic to a fault. This need not be the case, Downfall dealt with the very tricky subject of the core of the Nazi party, and succeeded in portraying Hitler and his associates without making us complicit in their beliefs.
Letters From Iwo Jima is a notable stride forward in the American perception of the world beyond its vast borders, and worth watching. However, while featuring engaging performances and excellent photography, it fails to tell us anything new about the conflict that a short documentary on The History Channel could not.