Clint EASTWOOD's latest film, "Letters From Iwo Jima," takes audiences to a place that would seem unimaginable for an American director. Daring and significant, it presents a picture from life's other side, not only showing what wartime was like for our Japanese adversaries on that island in the Pacific but also actually telling the story in their language. Which turns out to be no small thing.
Made back to back with Eastwood's recently released "Flags of Our Fathers," "Letters" deals with the same World War II battle in completely opposite ways. Unlike that big-budget, structurally complex film, shot on location with recognizable actors, "Letters" is a simpler and more straight-ahead picture, shot in Japanese on the Warner Bros. lot with a $20-million budget (and a 32-day shooting schedule) that would have made it eligible for this year's Spirit Awards.
Though each project stands on its own merits, like the panels of a diptych they inevitably inform one another. Individually and as a unit, these films are a cry against the awful, horrifying futility of war, a cry made all the more poignant because it is made by a man who has been an avatar of on-screen mayhem.
But while each film reinforces the other, it is "Letters" that is finally the more remarkable accomplishment, a feat of empathetic cross-cultural connection that Eastwood (working from a script by Iris Yamashita from a story by her and "Flags' " Paul Haggis) more or less willed into existence.
Initially inspired by a book of illustrated correspondence home from Iwo Jima's commander, Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (potently played by "The Last Samurai's" Oscar-nominated Ken Watanabe), Eastwood has, against considerable odds, made a film that feels both Japanese (to the point of being accepted there by audiences and critics alike) and like one of his own.
What Eastwood seemed to sense intuitively was the connection between his own themes of men being men and the challenges of masculinity, and the notions of honor, duty and heroism that are embedded in Japanese culture and tradition. While it is far from clear that any other American director could have made a Japanese film or that Eastwood, for that matter, could have made one in yet another culture, the fit here is unexpectedly strong.
Also, though making the film in Japanese may sound arbitrary (the script was translated from English, and subtitles appearing below the images), the reality is the opposite. When actors speak in their own language, they bring an entire world with them; they give a sense of reality to their culture that, for instance, even as fine an actor as Marlon Brando couldn't create for his German soldier in "The Young Lions." Paradoxically, the difference in language makes the similarities between people that "Letters From Iwo Jima" wants to emphasize so much the stronger.
"Emphasize," however, is a word that doesn't completely suit the characteristic restraint Eastwood has brought to his work here. He has so eliminated nonessentials, so gone away from showy directorial flourishes, that his only fingerprints are the absence of fingerprints, the way he allows us to be unaware that we are watching a directed film at all.
This is especially true once "Letters" gets past its framing device of the modern discovery of a cache of correspondence on the island. At that point we flash back to 1944 and see a young soldier named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and a friend digging trenches on Iwo Jima and doing what soldiers everywhere do: complaining ("Damn this island; the Americans can have it") and wishing they were back home.
Saigo doesn't know it yet, but his days of trench digging are about to end. A new commander is coming to the island, an unorthodox, energetic individual so consumed with his mission he has trouble sleeping. This is Kuribayashi (played by Watanabe with intelligence, concern and a feeling for command), a leader who pushes a heretical strategy even though it alienates many of his officers.
Rather than meet the Americans on the beaches, the general decides to dig in in the interior of the island, creating an underground world of 18 miles of tunnels and thousands of hollowed-out rooms and caves.
Kuribayashi increasingly understands that defending this island is a suicide mission, that the only kind of success he can hope for is inflicting so many casualties on the Americans that they will lose heart. To do this, he must convince his men, many of whom are determined for reasons of honor to take their own lives, that fighting to the death should be their mission.
Kuribayashi has an additional reason for sadness. Both he and his closest comrade, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), who was an equestrian gold medalist at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, have spent considerable time in America and feel a sense of regret that a country they are so connected to is their enemy.
We discover this and more in part from the letters, read in voice-over by Watanabe, which the general sends home, letters that also have inexpressibly poignant details like an apology to his wife for not getting the kitchen floor taken care of before he shipped out.
We also hear letters from Saigo to his wife, Hanako (Nae), as well as flashbacks that focus on how reluctant this former baker was to go to war. We get similar insight into Shimizu (Ryo Kase), who was part of the zealous kampetai, or military police, before his current posting. And we witness an encounter with an American prisoner that reinforces this theme of unexpected kinship between adversaries.
For one of the engines driving "Letters" is a compelling other-end-of-the-telescope phenomenon that plays out both literally — the raising of the American flag on Mt. Suribachi was up close and personal in "Flags" and a tiny speck in the far distance here — and metaphorically.
Though war movies traditionally encourage our patriotic blood lust by making the enemy faceless or worse, we realize here, as the fighting begins, that the people we badly wanted dead in the first film are precisely those who we are made to care deeply about here and whose bravery this film so admires.
It's not that we want the Japanese to win the war; it's that we absolutely do not want these men we've come to know intimately to lose their lives. The laconic, pitiless way Eastwood shot the violence of battle underscores what a waste it all is, underlines the futility that so many have to die because of the misguided ideology of a few in leadership positions.
That notion is summarized beautifully in, of all places, a short story by Sholem Aleichem, the great Yiddish writer. He tells of a naive young man drafted into a European army in World War I who is commanded to shoot when the enemy attacks. The attack comes, the recruit doesn't shoot and the enraged officer points at the enemy and repeats the order. "Over there?" the man asks, confused. "But there are people over there."
"Letters From Iwo Jima." MPAA rating: R for graphic war violence. Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes. Exclusively at Pacific's ArcLight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-4226, and Laemmle's Monica, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times