Tuesday, February 13, 2007

'Letters' tells Japanese experience on Iwo Jima

The good films stay with you long after the lights come up. You think about it on the way home, replay certain scenes in your head, go back to it in your mind during the coming days and weeks.

So it is with "Letters from Iwo Jima," Clint Eastwood's amazing, remarkable new film. A companion piece to "Flags of our Fathers," this movie tells the story of the fighting on the Pacific island, this time from the Japanese perspective. An unlike the disappointing, cliched "Flags," the film is a masterpiece.

General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arrives at Iwo Jima and quickly realizes the plan in place won't work. He orders a series of tunnels built to help thwart the coming American attack. In flashbacks, we learn that Kuribayashi knows all about Americans. He spent time with them before the war, and likes them very much.

Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) is a baker who leaves his wife and unborn child behind when he's drafted into military service. He says he's proud to fight for his country, but he really just wants to go home.

At its core, "Letters" is Saigo and Kuribayashi's story, and it is filled with pathos and nuance, style and character development --- everything, in short, that "Flags of our Fathers" so remarkably lacked. This is Eastwood's best film since "Unforgiven."

Watching the battle unfold from this perspective is as powerful, right up to the moment when the American flame throwers send gasps of fire into the Japanese line. The battle scenes are realistic, confusing, loud and dramatic.

But the best moment happens late in the film, when a Japanese officer reads a letter found on a dead American GI to his troops. One by one, they all stand in respect. One of them realizes that the GI's mother's words are eerily similar to his own mother's letter.

What you learn from this film is that the Japanese were code-bound warriors who would just as soon commit suicide (and they do) rather than lose face. And, in a curious way, you realize that the affect of war on the average combat soldier is fairly universal, no matter the native tongue.

"Letters from Iwo Jima" is now playing at Regal CinemaArt Downtown West. It is rated R for graphic war violence. Japanese with English subtitles.

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