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Letters From Iwo Jima - Review

Letters From Iwo Jima

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

IN FLAGS Of Our Fathers Clint Eastwood looked at the key Second World War battle of Iwo Jima from the American perspective, depicting both the heroism of the soldiers who fought the campaign and how their bravery was exploited by the US government in order to continue to provide funding for the war effort.

In Letters From Iwo Jima he examines the conflict from the Japanese perspective, putting a face to “the enemy” and treating their attempted defence of the island with the respect it deserves, whilst also exposing the cruelty of the government leaders who asked them to fight such a doomed cause.

The result is an astonishing piece of work that confirms Eastwood as one of the most important filmmakers of contemporary cinema.

Letters From Iwo Jima follows the fortunes of a handful of Japanese defenders as they are forced to defend Iwo Jima with little hope of success or survival.

Leading them is the brilliant tactician Lt General Kuribayashi (The Last Samurai‘s Ken Watanbe), an honourable man who came up with the controversial tactic of digging into the rock and carving out an intricate tunnel system that could be used to defend the island.

Under his command, a defence that was expected to last just five days held out for an amazing 35.

Serving beneath him are the likes of Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamura), a more traditional leader who would rather perish by his own sword than give in to the American invaders, and Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a former Olympic horse-rider who shares Kuribayashi’s respect for the West.

And then there’s lowly baker conscript Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a common footsoldier whose determination to stay alive for his wife and child must be weighed against his willingness to die for his country.

Under Eastwood’s assured direction all four allow us to sympathise with their plight and consider the war from their perspective, unswayed by any flag-waving propaganda.

Eastwood doesn’t shy away from the hardship of war, or the atrocities committed by those fighting it. There are horrific actions carried out by soldiers from both sides – whether it’s a harrowing mass suicide by the Japanese, or the shooting of PoWs by battle-hungry Americans.

But his film is, first and foremost, a compelling human drama that offers plenty of pause for thought as well as some sly commentary on many of today’s conflicts. There are lessons that can still be learned by every political leader.

Performance-wise, Watanabe is typically excellent as the noble Kuribayashi, an articulate, intelligent man whose respect for his enemy stems from the time he lived with and befriended many of them.

His stubborn resilience is capably offset by the fear that stems from his ever-worsening situation and viewers will be able to sympathise with the ethical dilemmas he must face as a man and a soldier.

There’s equally notable support from Ihara, as his friend, and Ninomiya in the key role of Saigo, the everyman soldier whose efforts to survive for his family are truly heartbreaking.

There are minor criticisms, of course. The film is a little too long and it’s occasionally difficult to distinguish between certain lesser characters.

But in all other respects, Eastwood has succeeded in creating another masterpiece. Letters From Iwo Jima is, without doubt, one of the definitive war movies of all time; an achievement that’s made all the more remarkable by the fact that it’s told from such a different perspective.

Audiences should be horrified and moved in equal measure.

Read our interview with Clint Eastwood

View photos from the film

Certificate: 15
Running time: 2hrs 21mins