Rarely has an American filmmaker recounted the horrors of war from the perspective of a onetime enemy, but here is Clint Eastwood’s "Letters From Iwo Jima," the stirring companion-piece to "Flags of Our Fathers," reimagining one of World War II’s most harrowing campaigns from the standpoint of the Japanese. In doing so, it reaches a simple, inescapable conclusion — that war, while sometimes inevitable, is truly barbaric, and that our adversaries often have more in common with us than we might like to believe.
Gen. Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) certainly does. As the military tactician charged with protecting the ancient homeland and a former envoy to the U.S., he faces a unique dilemma. He admires the Americans, knowing that his commanders have underestimated the enemy’s mastery of war technology. He also knows that his troops will be outnumbered and most likely slaughtered. Though he pays lip service to the rigid warrior code, he is unwilling to sacrifice his men simply to save face. He struggles to find honor in life needlessly wasted, and his humanism draws mixed reactions from the troops.
Some, like Lt. Ito (Shido Nakamura), regard it as weakness, dismissing Kuribayashi as an American sympathizer. They would rather kill themselves than suffer the humiliation of surrender, and in one chilling sequence, an entire squad is ordered to commit ritual suicide.
Others, like former Olympic champion Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), appreciate Kuribayashi’s pragmatism. They are prepared to give their lives for Japan, but they understand that a living soldier will serve the country better than a corpse.
While "Flags of Our Fathers" examined the Truman administration’s use of a dramatic photo to sell war bonds, "Letters From Iwo Jima" emphasizes the humanity of the Japanese troops, whose suffering was at least comparable to that of our own. They, too, had worried mothers and frantic wives. Many of them lived with the certain knowledge that they would never see them again.
Eastwood pays fitting tribute to their courage and decency without a hint of bias or mawkish melodrama. The film’s dialogue, conceived in English, then translated into Japanese, is simple but powerful, and Eastwood treats his characters with the same respect he displayed for American soldiers in "Flags." The lesson here — that war is hell, and that our humanity is something we share with those who oppose us — is hardly original, but here it is taught profoundly.
Famous in his native Japan for playing samurai over the course of two prolific decades, Ken Watanabe is something of a throwback. Like the stern, meticulously disciplined warriors he so often depicts on screen, he eschews material possessions, preferring a "strict, proud and honorable" life marked by simplicity. He welcomes the accolades that his performances inspire, but he couldn’t be less interested in the trappings of stardom.
No wonder he hasn’t made more of a splash on these shores. Although Watanabe, 47, is no stranger to international acclaim — his domestic debut, alongside Tom Cruise in 2003’s "The Last Samurai," earned him an Oscar nomination — he remains a relative unknown to American audiences.
That might change with today’s release of Clint East-wood’s "Letters From Iwo Jima," the companion-piece to "Flags of Our Fathers" that chronicles one of World War II’s bloodiest battles from the perspective of the defeated. Watanabe was quick to embrace his role as Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the shrewd military strategist who, against impossible odds, defended the tiny strip of Japanese island for 40 days. But he didn’t expect an American director to be calling the shots.
"I had assumed that a Japanese director would make this movie, but after ‘Flags,’ Clint made the decision to try the movie himself," Watanabe says. "I was so surprised that an American would undertake that responsibility, but he was very open-minded. He allowed us to create our dialogue in Japan, and so I had to research the true history of Japan’s involvement in the war. It wasn’t easy, because there are no survivors left from Iwo Jima — the last of them died years ago. So I had to do lots of work to find the real story."
"Letters," which premiered in Tokyo on Nov. 15, has been greeted with great enthusiasm by Japanese audiences, who, Watanabe says, "needed to face their past."
"This movie was important to me because the Japanese people had to know the truth about the war," he says. "There has been a tremendous reaction. People recognize that this was a tragedy, that many men sacrificed their lives. But they also take great pride in the film, because it is a tribute to the courage of that generation."
Although he acknowledges that Americans are not accustomed to stories told from the perspective of the proverbial "other" — in this case, a onetime enemy — he still believes that "Letters" will resonate with them.
"American audiences saw the other side of the story in ‘Flags,’ and I think they will respond to the tragedy in this movie as well," Watanabe says. "They will relate to the history, which is presented very objectively. Beyond that, it’s a very unique, special film. Maybe Americans will see it and understand the Japanese a little bit more."
Starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Shido Nakamura, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase
Written by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Running time 2 hours, 21 minutes