A more intimate, impressive picture than Flags Of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood’s Japanese-language take on the battle for Iwo Jima is less concerned with making a point than with caring about people. So while Flags wrestled with heroism and propaganda and losing your soul, Letters From Iwo Jima is a more restrained, simpler depiction of men under duress, struggling to find some sense in a senseless situation: hope amid the hara-kiri. It’s a worthy and well-meant movie that wouldn’t trouble Oscar in a stronger year, but its win for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes is far from bewildering (though still disappointing, given that award is designed to highlight foreign fare, not backslap a studio-made movie by a legendary American director). Shot again by Tom Stern, the film is washed out to the point of almost being black and white and is a little too considered and polite to be entirely involving – even shots of dismembered limbs feel elegantly composed.
But if the visuals and the script are sometimes manipulative, the performances ensure an emotional connection. The story is largely split between three characters: the dignified, intelligent General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), dashing Olympian-cum-tank commander Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and baker-turned-grunt Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). The last of the three is the audience substitute – a draftee forced to leave his pregnant wife and just desperate to make it off the island alive. Ninomiya is terrific as an everyday Joe placed in extraordinary circumstances; a boy slowly waking up to the nightmare reality he finds himself in. He feels real, bantering with fellow soldiers, under the heel of the largely oppressive officer caste.
Much has been made of an American filmmaker showing the Japanese perspective in World War Two, but let’s not get carried away... Letters seeks to humanise the other side in a way Flags never did, not daring to see the Yanks as a rabid enemy (despite a nod to Allied prisoner abuse). And if Bataan or The Bridge On The River Kwai portrayed the Japanese military as run by samurai sadists, Letters hardly depicts them as reluctant warriors. Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamura) is a leader as lunatic and cruel as any ‘Jap’ from a 1940s war flick, while there’s something questionable in having the only officers shown with any sympathy as, coincidentally, having spent time in America. If you drink Johnnie Walker instead of saki then you’re probably all right; you’ve been civilised by the nation that went on to drop The Bomb.
It’s in scenes designed to show how we’re all the same underneath – such as when Nishi reads out a mother’s letter found on the body of a dead GI – that Letters veers closest towards Flags’ trite sentimentality. There’s probably a bolder, tougher, much less accessible film to be made exploring the Japanese code of Bushido – which values honour over life – without simply dismissing it in contrast to Western pragmatism. But that film is probably Japanese, and it won’t win a Golden Globe.