There’s a couple of things about Letters from Iwo Jima that I didn’t realise before watching it. The first is that it’s a companion film to Flags of Our Fathers (which I haven’t seen) and that film tells the American side of this true story. The second is that 99% of the dialogue is in Japanese, with the only time English is spoken is if it’s an American character, or there’s a Japanese soldier who knows the language. It makes sense that a true story about Japanese soldiers should have all the characters speaking their own language but I’m so used to American films where everyone speaks English but with an accent, that it was a pleasant surprise. Often even when it’d make sense for characters to speak their own language, like when there’s no English-speaking characters around, they still don’t so the fact that the story of Letters from Iwo Jima is told in Japanese made everything seem more authentic. Maybe what made me presume this film would be in English was because it’s directed by Clint Eastwood?
Onto the film proper. As mentioned, I knew very little about the film going into it, and I knew even less about the real events. So, learning about this small island and the brave men who defended it was really interesting and thanks to so many of the actor’s performances I found myself pulled into their story pretty quickly.
I suppose there were two main characters General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) a soldier. Following these two men who were either ends of the military hierarchy meant that you got to see all aspects of the battle and its preparation. Kuribayashi has to deal with other generals who think his plan of digging tunnels in the mountains is pointless, or who would rather make their men commit suicide than retreat as were his orders. Watanabe plays those doomed hero characters so well. Saigo is just an ordinary man, a baker, who was conscripted and does what he can to survive.
There’s also Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) who was interesting as he was an Olympic gold medallist showjumper who is in between the other two in terms of hierarchy. There’s a scene where he reads a letter from a mother to her American son who’s a soldier, translating it from English to Japanese for his men to hear, and that letter along with the score made me tear up. It’s such a simple but impactful scene. That scene, along with a couple of others, show how on both sides of a conflict there can be cruel people but there can also be kind people.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film like Letters from Iwo Jima in terms of how it used colour. It is a colour film, but the colours are so washed out that so much of it looks to be in shades of grey, especially in scenes set during the night. The colours are so muted that when there’s a bright yellow flash from a grenade or the splatter of red blood, they’re even more startling. The few flashback scenes that set away from Iwo Jima, have more colour to them but it’s still muted compared to what you generally see on screen nowadays.
Letters from Iwo Jima is an impressive war film, showing the bravery of the soldiers without being overtly jingoistic. The score by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens is often soft and heart-breaking, contrasting with the horrors of war on screen but it makes those images even more impactful. Went into Letters from Iwo Jima knowing nothing and finished it being thoroughly impressed by all involved. 5/5.