On one level, it reminded me of Akira Kurosawa‘s work, in both the direction and some of the characters–a mix of heroes, buffoons, buffoon-heroes, tyrants and tragics. Ken Watanabe as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, Japanese commander on Iwo Jima, is a hero, a noble soldier doing his duty for his country, despite his fondness for America–clearly the smartest man on the scene, a thoughtful and compassionate general adored by ordinary soldiers and despised by some other officers who seek to undermine his authority. Kazunari Ninomiya is Saigo, a hero-buffoon (the sort of character Matthew Broderick would have played in his younger days), the one man left standing at the end, saved three times by Kuribayashi–a conscripted baker who longs to return to his wife and the infant daughter he’s never seen.
Is it anti-American? Yes. Does it white-wash Japanese attrocities? Yes. War is bad, is the message. Doesn’t matter why or how you fight. It’s bad.
My disappointment with the film is less with that, and more with some of the choices Eastwood made. In contrast to “Flags of Our Fathers,” with its cast of thousands (almost all Icelandic), “Letters from Iwo Jima” has a cast of dozens. The Americans storming the beaches are CGI. There are maybe a dozen live Americans, and three dozen or so Japanese in the film. This to depict a battle which involved 110,000 US Marines and 22,000 Japanese soldiers for 36 days. Over 6,800 Americans died–and just about all 22,000 Japanese. I suppose we need to follow Shakespeare’s advice:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass …
Eastwood has lieutenant colonels leading a dozen men and generals with staffs of four. The epic scale of the Battle of Iwo Jima is lost. This isn’t the last stand of a fanatical Japanese military seeking to delay the inevitible onslaught of a vengeful America–this is theater-in-the-round psychodrama, with a handful of Japanese actors shadow-boxing against an invisible enemy. But that still could have made a great film–imagine a black and white, film that didn’t leave the cave–a sort of “12 Angry Men.”
As it is, it’s a so-so film lacking the emotional impact of “Flags of Our Fathers.”