Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, which explored the US victory at Iwo Jima in 1945, was a muted war film that couldn't quite shake off the bombast of the genre. Only a few months after its release comes Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood's story of the same battle seen from a Japanese perspective. The film, which opens on 23 February, is being sold as the companion piece to the earlier work. That status can only be provisional. It is Flags of Our Fathers that is the adjunct or footnote, outclassed and overshadowed in every department by the newer picture.
Both films are strikingly photographed by Tom Stern using a drained palette that is as close to monochrome as colour could get. Yet, in moral terms, these works are far from black and white. Letters from Iwo Jima concerns Japanese soldiers faced with defending the island. Lieutenant General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) has decided that the best hope of success lies in establishing miles of tunnel within the volcanic rock. This is greeted with incredulity by the grunts assigned to do the digging, including the puckish young baker Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). Every potential fillip turns out to have its downside. A comrade's persistent bowel trouble provides cause for hilarity, until he becomes the unit's first loss to dysentery. Then there is the exciting arrival of the Olympic horse-riding champion Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara). "He's a real womaniser," writes Saigo admiringly in a letter to his wife, but then notes that there are no women left on the island anyway.
As the Americans creep across the Pacific, the Japanese are equipped with the necessary psychological armoury, though the physical stocks required to see them through sustained combat - small things such as ammunition, reinforcements and food - are in shorter supply. They are assured that the enemy is prone to letting emotions interfere with duty - which is why it's best to aim for a medic, so you can pick off anyone who rushes foolishly to his aid. As the battle intensifies, and the lieutenants warn that no man will be permitted to die until he has despatched ten enemy soldiers, the troops begin to wonder if their position is futile. "I want to fulfil my duty," bleats one soldier, "but I don't want to die for nothing."
It is not essential to be familiar with Flags of Our Fathers before you see Letters from Iwo Jima, but the two films enhance one another. Eastwood inserts a few judicious shots from the first picture: a sniper's view of the US troops advancing along the beach, or a Japanese soldier being blasted out of his burrow by a flame-thrower. But, instead of being among the Americans, wondering where the enemy is lurking, the balance of our empathy now lies with the Japanese, who fear the arrival of their own enemy. It is with similarly mounting dread that we realise Eastwood is revisiting a harrowing scene from the first film, in which the aftermath of a gruesome group suicide is discovered. This time we witness the agony that preceded those deaths.
What is most admirable about Letters from Iwo Jima is the deftness with which Eastwood and his screenwriter, Iris Yamashita, distil the charred chaos of war into tiny, telling details. In one scene, Saigo is busy emptying his platoon's bucket of steaming waste down the side of the cliff from which he has just emerged. Seeing the approaching US armada, he drops his cargo in horror, then recalls his commanding officer's promise that if he loses the bucket, he'll be carrying out everyone's crap in his hands for the rest of the war. Despite the imminent arrival of thousands of enemy troops, Saigo fixates on retrieving the bucket from the spot where it is snagged.
The opening 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan were vital in bringing the Second World War to ugly, urgent life. The petty struggles of the indefatigable PoWs in La Grande Illusion were crucial, too, in rendering war in human terms. To those examples, I would now add Saigo and his bucket of shit, as potent a symbol of hope and vulnerability in the face of annihilation as you are ever likely to see.
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