LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Iris Yamashita from the book by Tadamichi Kuribayashi, with Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya and Tsuyoshi Ihara. A Warner Bros. release. 138 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (January 12). For venues and times, see Movies, page 68. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Just 12 years after the end of the first world war, Hollywood made All Quiet On the Western Front, about the experience of front-line German soldiers.
But it's taken 62 years since the second world war for the delivery of Letters From Iwo Jima, a near masterpiece about the doomed Japanese defence of that Pacific island in 1945.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, the most "American" of filmmakers, and originally called Red Sun, Black Sand, a more appropriately poetic title that was perhaps a bit too close to Eastwood's own White Hunter, Black Heart, Letters is a savage and emotionally devastating elegy entirely devoid of Hollywood-style heroicism.
Having got Letters' inferior companion piece, Flags Of Our Fathers, a jingoistic film obviously made as an entertainment, out of his system, Eastwood seems to feel free to create something more ambitious yet leaner and entirely more aggressively moving.
Letters is all the more remarkable because it's told entirely from the Japanese perspective, and the cast, primarly made up of unknowns (The Last Samurai's Ken Watanabe is likely the only familiar face) speak subtitled Japanese. It's a rare feat regardless of Eastwood's laconic reputation.
Eastwood has never considered himself a political filmmaker, although this story of war's futility is both timeless and urgently topical. Much like his on-screen personae, from The Man With No Name to Dirty Harry to William Munny, he's drawn to solitary men of some principle and purpose who are guided by their sense of duty.
In that regard, it's easy to recognize his attraction to Watanabe's stoic General Kuribayashi, the American-educated Japanese commander who arrives on Iwo Jima knowing that defending the island against the American fleet is hopeless, yet believing that dying in its defence is honourable. He even gives orders that no one can die before he has killed 10 enemy soldiers, at which point it becomes horrifyingly clear, both to his men and the audience, that his strategy can't lead to victory, or even survival.
Watanabe, who earned an Oscar nomination as the samurai who makes a doomed stand against American machine gun fire, gives a thoughtful and textured performance full of graceful authority as the even more tragic Kuribayashi.
Also worth singling out is Japanese pop star Kazunari Ninomiya as Saigo, a baker-turned-soldier who wants only to return home to his wife and the child he's never seen. He and a fellow soldier come to depend on each other for something approaching friendship as well as survival, and their relationship is reminiscent of that shared by the two brothers trapped amid the chaos of the Korean War in the remarkable Korean film Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood Of War.
Stark and grim, Letters, appropriately enough, is shot in near black-and-white, with blazes of colour erupting from machine gun muzzles and hand grenades launched at the American invaders or clutched to the chest in an act of suicide.
Much of the film takes place within the grimy, claustrophobic tunnels the soldiers dug throughout the island. Days of constant artillery bombardment prior to the Allied beach landing take a devastating physical and psychological toll on the Japanese soldiers.
Like the depth charge assault endured by German submariners in Das Boot, it is unrelentingly tense - so much so that you find yourself wishing right along with the soldiers for the bombs to stop falling.