Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamura, Hiroshi Watanabe
Director: Clint Eastwood
Summary: The story of the battle of Iwo Jima during World War II, from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers who fought it
Other Nominations: Director, Original Screenplay, Sound Editing*
Letters from Iwo Jima is an interesting one, developed as soft of a companion film to the much bigger movie about the Battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, yet it actually made more money on less than a quarter of the budget because it did huge business in Japan. It only got made because of Clint Eastwood, a legendary actor/director whose patriotism couldn’t be questioned by conservative outlets, and is the extraordinarily unusual Hollywood war film that’s exclusively from the perspective of those fighting against the Americans. It depicts the General in charge of the Japanese troops, Kuribayashi (Watanabe) as a sort of Robert E. Lee-type figure (or at least what Lee had mean mythologized into): a decent and honorable man who harbored no ill will towards the enemy and didn’t particularly buy into the nationalistic rhetoric of his side, and was an excellent general who ended up fighting for the wrong side because of the circumstances of his birth. Furthermore, it sees the average soldier in any war as basically the same, someone who just wants to survive and get home, and the average Japanese soldier as maybe just more prideful and that their military conduct standards (like with ethics and “discipline”) as different, but that mainly comes from the top-down. Basically in any military structure, there are decent and honorable people (such as Watanabe’s character) and there are shitheads and the latter can have an outsized impact on everything. For a Hollywood film to be as sympathetic to the soldiers who were fighting against us as this movie is, and especially one from the guy who later made American Sniper, is downright remarkable; the value of that approach can be debated, but in my opinion showing how similar people the people drafted into wars tend to be across cultural borders is a healthy mindset.
As for the film as a whole and not just what it stands for…it’s pretty good, but wasn’t anything particularly memorable for me. From a story standpoint, the crux of the movie after the first 30 minutes ends up being that defending Iwo Jima is a suicide mission for the Japanese and everyone there knows it, so at that point, what do you do if you’re there? This is a fairly interesting premise for a part of a movie, but it’s not enough to sustain about 2 hours of movie and it gets dry after a while. Furthermore, this is a really dull movie to look at-they used an extreme amount of color desaturation (with the notable exception of the color red) to the point where it looks like one of Zach Snyder’s DC films. Movies like Saving Private Ryan have done this too, but not to this extreme and I don’t know why they didn’t just film the movie in black and white instead which would have looked much better. Ultimately, the movie has its heart in the right place and I liked Watanabe, but other than its basic concept didn’t do anything especially worthy of praise.