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(2006) (Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya) (R)

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Drama: Japanese military forces prepare for the American invasion of Iwo Jima in WWII.
It's 1944 and the Japanese military is preparing for the expected American invasion of Iwo Jima, a pivotal island that could be used as a base for launching air attacks against mainland Japan. Accordingly, General Kuribayashi (KEN WATANABE) has been sent there to examine the defensive preparations. His unorthodox but educated changes don't sit well with likes of Admiral Ohsugi (NOBUMASA SAKAGAMI), Lieutenant Ito (SHIDOU NAKAMURA) and others.

Yet, former baker turned soldier Saigo (KAZUNARI NINOMIYA) is grateful when the general stops Captain Tanida (TAKUMI BANDO) from physically punishing him and his friend Kashiwara (TAKASHI YAMAGUCHI) for sounding less than patriotic. Saigo -- who spends his down time writing letters to his wife Hanako (NAE) -- and friend Nozaki (YUKI MATSUZAKI) wonder if new arrival Shimizu (RYO KASE) is there to spy on them.

Kuribayashi, however, is happy to see former Olympic champion equestrian Baron Nishi (TSUYOSHI IHARA) who's there to lead the tank brigade. With time running out before the Americans arrive, they and others try to get the island ready for the inevitable invasion, a battle that will take weeks and test the resolve of both sides.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Since war planners, those who serve, and the public who supports such military action adopt a one-sided mentality and don't often look at the enemy with any sort of compassion or as fellow human beings, I guess it isn't that surprising that films about the same also sport a one-sided approach at such storytelling.

That's not to say that all such movies are rah-rah, patriotic affairs that never show the opposing side as anything but either targets or killers of the "good guys." Yet, most "war is bad" pictures don't usually show much more than the token enemy soldier who turns out not to be that different from those trying to kill him and vice-versa.

Of course, some of that has to do with logistics, mainly of the temporal as well as momentum variety. Telling a tale from both sides certainly necessitates many more minutes, which logically leads to a longer running time. That's generally a no-no in filmmaking -- regardless of the subject matter -- since that equals fewer showings in a day and/or less viewers wanting and/or willing to sit through a three-plus hour film (which is why so-called "Oscar bait" are usually the only movies to run that long).

Then there's the issue of dramatic momentum, where constantly switching back and forth between opposing characters runs the risk of diluting the power of either or both stories. So, what's a filmmaker to do when he or she wants to damn the proverbial cinematic torpedoes and forge ahead anyway?

Well, one answer is to do what Clint Eastwood has done in his dual-sided look at WWII's battle of Iwo Jima. And that's to make two films, one from the American perspective and another from the other side. The first, of course, was "Flags of Our Fathers," a big budget Hollywood flick that focused on the aftermath of the conflict as seen through the eyes of some of the American flag raisers -- immortalized in the famous photo and later memorial -- as they traveled around the country like celebrities to help sell war bonds.

In stark contrast is "Letters From Iwo Jima," a decidedly lower budget picture that mostly trains its view on the days immediately preceding and then during the American invasion and Japanese defense of the strategic island. Filled mostly with Japanese actors speaking in Japanese (with English subtitles), the film continues Eastwood's theme from the earlier pic that yes, war is indeed hell.

Working from screenwriter Iris Yamashita's adaptation of "Picture Letters From Commander in Chief" by Tadamichi Kuribayashi, Eastwood utilizes a mostly unknown cast (except for Ken Watanabe of "The Last Samurai" and "Memoirs of a Geisha" fame) to tell the Japanese side of the famous story. Watanabe plays the general assigned to hold the island during the Japanese invasion, Tsuyoshi Ihara an Olympic celebrity and army officer, and Kazunari Ninomiya embodies a former baker turned military soldier.

All have differing viewpoints about the pending battle and the overall war. Kuribayashi and Nishi have been to America and liked the people they met in more peaceful times, while Ninomiya's Saigo hasn't had that luxury, thus making him susceptible -- along with others of various ranks -- to the propaganda fed to him by his government.

In getting viewers to spend time with all of them and more, Eastwood deliberately makes them so human that many non-Japanese viewers will care about them and their stories. The latter is from whence the film's title comes, in that some of them write back home to describe their experiences, be they good, bad, sugar-coated or raw.

Perhaps because the flashbacks are fewer in quantity and thus spaced out more, I found this side of the battle more engaging than "Flags" that, while good, suffered from the constant shifting back and forth between the battle and its aftermath.

As in that first film, Eastwood does a stellar job of recreating the battle scenes (more remarkable considering the reported difference in the two pic's budgets), with most of the film being shot in an effectively de-saturated and nearly monochromatic palette (save for explosions and fires that are pop-out vivid in their contrasting color saturation).

While this film -- like its predecessor -- isn't as emotionally devastating as "Platoon," "Saving Private Ryan" or "Glory," it certainly demonstrates the destructiveness of war where most of the participants are nothing more than pawns manipulated into fighting in the name of patriotism, nationalism, and other "ism"s that only end up leaving many people dead and both the landscape and hearts and minds of the survivors there and back home scarred forever.

Showing that the enemy back then -- and by association, most any other time past, present or future as well -- isn't that different from the rest of us, "Letters From Iwo Jima" concludes Eastwood's considerably above-average look at the participants and that pivotal place in WWII history. The film rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed January 17, 2007 / Posted January 19, 2007

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