The 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! set out to produce a factually scrupulous account of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In doing so, the producers arranged for both an American production crew, directed by Richard Fleischer, and a Japanese production crew, originally helmed by Akira Kurosawa (Kurosawa's slow-burning perfectionism led to his replacement by Kinji Fukasaku). The integration of the two teams suggested a new way of making a war film, from two perspectives.
Thirty-six years later, director Clint Eastwood hatched a similar plan: to excavate the Battle of Iwo Jima in two consecutive films. The first, Flags of Our Fathers, depicted the American assault and its lingering effects, especially on the battle's celebrity survivors (William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis shared screenplay credit). The second film, Letters From Iwo Jima, finds Japanese screenwriter Iris Yamashita working from the recently discovered and published letters written by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi and other soldiers on the scene.
Flags of Our Fathers floundered, due to evident screenwriting problems and a failure to "find" the film in the editing room. The companion film works slightly better, but brings its own set of frustrations. The film's strength is in its summation of Japanese military strategy, as disagreed upon by traditional-minded militarists and the more pragmatic Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe). Unfortunately, Letters shares with Flags an awkward flashback structure and a patronizing tone.
The story begins as Kuribayashi arrives at the strategic island and sizes up the hopeless situation. With the combined fleet decimated, the general's superiors cannot allocate any additional resources to the defense of Iwo Jima. Kuribayashi's significantly undermanned forces must make the best of a doomed standoff with the American fleet, soon to arrive en masse. Kuribayashi's ingenious plan to build a series of tunnels helps to forestall the inevitable, and gives Eastwood a theatrical setting to double as trench and premature grave.
Yamashita and Eastwood do a fair job of setting the sinking feelings of a cross-section of Japanese soldiers: Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), an innocent baker whose dread borders on the comical; do-or-die, stick-in-the-mud patriot Lieutenant Ito (Shidou Nakamura); ex-Olympic equestrian Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara); and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a former member of the Kempeitai (military police) whose background causes his fellow soldiers to regard him with paranoid suspicion.
Tom Stern's extremely desaturated photography draws attention away from the film's function and to its form (only explosions and blood bloom in full, brilliant red). Likewise, the editing scheme becomes tiresome as, even in the 141-minute film's apparent home stretch, Eastwood continually flashes back to better days for the soldiers. These truncated mini-dramas either hit familiar melodramatic notes, as when a conscripted Saigo is pulled from his inconsolable, pregnant wife ("The men never come home"), or set up ironic punchlines, as when Kuribayashi's American visit culminates in an all-smiles farewell (and the foreshadowy gift of a Colt .45).
There's something to be said for cataloguing the ironies of the Japanese defeat (that both Kuribayashi and Nishi once hung out with the L.A. hoi polloi, or the broadcast of a peppy, patriotic children's choir echoing through the tunnels), but Eastwood fares better in depicting the tension and misfortune leading up to the big battle, as men drop from dysentery and leaders weigh limited options. Once embroiled in the battle, the film locates the appropriate war horrors—from the combat itself to conflict over "honorable" self-slaughter—but also falls over itself in trying to achieve the film's raison d'etre of humanizing America's one-time enemy.
At times, the filmmakers do so in thuddingly simplistic fashion, by depicting American cruelty (a marine shooting two surrendered Japanese in cold blood) in opposition to Japanese sensitivity (treating a wounded captive and sadly reading his letter from Mom). The latter seems especially at odds with the film's acknowledgement that the Japanese targeted American medics: are we to believe the same men get misty reading a middle-aged American woman's advice to "Do what is right because it is right"? Yamashita also has a bad habit of repeating dialogue (like Kuribayashi's promise "I will always be in front of you") for viewers she suspects won't get it the first time.
Letters From Iwo Jima represents another nice try for Eastwood, but he doesn't have the dramatic genius to pull off stories that rely on this much narrative complexity, and his painful repetition of Kyle Eastwood's sole musical theme (dissonant variation notwithstanding) exacerbates the tediousness of the film's construction. By the time the director reveals his final irony—the setting sun: get it?—exhausted audiences may be too tired to effect their own translation of the film's muddled missives.