The film is in Japanese, with English subtitles printed in italics. Eventually I tilted in my theater seat to read better. The translation is blocky and literate, filling in plot points in a way that made the movie clearer and infinitely more boring. The dialogue that the Japanese actors were speaking actually seemed well-written and conversational. The discrepancy between it and the translation made me wish I knew Japanese better. But, oh well, on with the italics.
Not content to make two separate films about the same subject, Eastwood has further divided Letters into two general storylines. The first is blissfully centered on Ken Watanabe as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi -- the man commanding the Japanese troops on Iwo Jima. Watanabe blends his imposing character into a mixture of Toshiro Mifune and Keanu Reeves. His loose, easygoing general firms into a ferocious genius when the moment requires.
The second story in Letters focuses on Saigo, a young peon in the military.
Saigo is being beaten when General Kuribayashi arrives. In the first of Watanabe's far-too-few moments, the general stops the beating. It seems wasteful to him. And so I was forced to endure several hours with one of the worst young actors ever to make his feature-film debut. Kazunari Ninomiya, as Saigo, speaks in the loping cadences of bad Japanese television. His idea of acting is to make a face -- any face -- for every emotion and thought.
And so we see the operation at Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective, alternating between the general and the peon. Watanabe wanders the island, rethinking his tactics and brusquely dismissing the advice of his staff. They begin to question the general's loyalty to the Japanese empire. He has friends in America, after all. Like an infection, the doubt about Kuribayashi spreads through the camp. And as the Americans approach, Saigo is caught in the dissension that spread through the Japanese troops.
The resultant war drama has its share of over-baked moments. When the American ships are first sighted, they are dense across the ocean like the thousand CGI ships of Troy. After the Americans attack, Eastwood dollies the camera past a Japanese flag, centers it on the mangled face of a Japanese soldier, then shows Saigo looking like a Little Rascal who just saw the gosh-darndest thing ever. Only one sequence in the film -- a shocking series of suicides -- takes the film firmly into another culture.
If Eastwood is interested in telling the story of the Japanese soldiers in Iwo Jima, he doesn't seem interested in exploring their patriotism or military mythology. The two most charismatic Japanese officers had American connections, and they receive the most screen time. (Watanabe is joined by a splendid Tsuyoshi Ihara as an equestrian tank commander.)
Aside from several set pieces involving swords and screams of honor, Eastwood directs his actors as though they were caught up in any cinematic combat from Helm's Deep to Seven Samurai. Their convictions are scripted for them. Drama demands what they do next. There is no examination -- not even a hint of a character trait -- that the Japanese idea of battle and honor arises from convictions at least as old as American independence.
In the late 16th century, the Japanese general Uyesugi Kensin said, "Engage in combat fully determined to die and you will be alive." Most of the soldiers in Letters From Iwo Jima seem to be engaged in combat just so that they can snag a few moments on camera in a big-budget Clint Eastwood Japanese spectacular.
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase