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Letters from Iwo Jima

Review Written by: Wiliam Grady
Film: A+
What the MPAA Rating should be: R (for strong brutal violence)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Iris Yamashita
Produced by: Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz and Steven Spielberg
Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomaya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamura
Studio: Paramount Pictures

It's surprisng how biting is the nature of Letters from Iwo Jima. Its pure bitterness goes far beyond the average war film. The Japanese, although the film is told from their point of view, are not sentimentalised in any way. There are scenes showing a captain educating his soldiers what American medics look like so they can shoot at them first. There is an extremely upsetting, awfully brutal sequence when a cave full of men commits suicide one by one by holding grenades to their chests. There are scenes where Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamura) tries to go against orders to retreat and retake a portion of the island with only 20 or so men, resulting in an almost comically absurd sequence where they walk right into a trap.

Letters from Iwo Jima is not a film without flaws - indeed, there are many. The narrations by different characters run too close to each other and the music turns out to be always variations of the same theme. But they don't really affect the film in any major way. Basically, Eastwood pulls out all the stops in how we think he was going to direct this film and wipes out our low expectations. This is an unflinchingly intelligent film. General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, a face familiar to American audiences) may seem like the wisest person in the film at first, but his own confusion and disillusionment with reality becomes more clear as the film reaches its close.

Since watching from the other side makes it very hard to know who to cheer for (and leaving the audience cheerless), Letters' battle sequences are solidly more effective than anything Spielberg has tried in Saving Private Ryan. Not only that but the majority of them are confused, insane blurs where we don't see or know who's who. The film also dares to go into the subject of class, which is a breath of fresh air for those used to the tired WWII patriotism flicks that seem infinite in number.

Kazunari Ninomiya, who gives the best male lead performance of the year, is Saigo, a grunt soldier who one day is spared a beating by arriving General Kuribayashi. The two of them, polar opposites, will meet several more times in the film. Saigo begins to admire the General after he sees him defying his officers to build less traditional kind of defense. His defense will hold the island far longer than the Americans expected to take it. But the film doesn't dwell much on tactical matters either. It focuses mostly on the bitter confusion of soldiers like Saigo, who abandon one section of the island after the next. Here is a truly original and devastating war film. If I had any doubt of Eastwood as a director, it has been lost now. Letters from Iwo Jima should be required viewing for all who consider themselves patriots.

Ken Watanabe in the Oscar-nominated Letters from Iwo Jima.
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