“I don’t want to die for nothing,” says a Japanese soldier toward the end of “Letters From Iwo Jima,” Clint Eastwood’s remarkable Japanese-language companion piece to his English-language 2006 Iwo Jima drama, “Flags of Our Fathers.”
Clearly reaching the end of his tether, the man is running out of reasons to be fighting American forces to the death on a barren Pacific island. When a wounded U.S. prisoner turns out to be vulnerably human, undermining the Japanese government’s insistence that American soldiers are savage fools, a stereotype is quietly shattered.
It’s a deeply humanizing moment in a film that turns out to be considerably less grim than its subject. For each shocking or despairing moment, Iris Yamashita’s screenplay (partly the work of Paul Haggis) comes through with an insight that rewards your patience.
Often it seems that testosterone and/or blind patriotism are the chief motivators for the soldiers, who don’t want to be thought of as weak or disloyal to the emperor. At one point it’s suggested that the ultimate sacrifice is justified if the safety of one child is guaranteed for just one day.
A cruel echo of this idea quickly arrives on the radio, as soldiers listen to Japanese children innocently belting out a propaganda song. Knowing that they’re outnumbered, that they’ve recently suffered an overwhelming naval defeat and no reinforcements are on the way, the men react to the voices with a mixture of sour pride and revulsion.
Yamashita focuses on four men. Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is a smart general who halts the digging of beach trenches in order to create a series of tunnels that slow down the American invasion in February-March 1945. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a lively baker, hopes to return home to see his daughter. Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a celebrity athlete, once hobnobbed with famous Americans. Shimizu (Ryo Kase) ended up on this suicide mission because he refused to follow orders.
Each character has a back story that reveals something essential, and Eastwood gives the actors plenty of opportunities to flesh out the flashbacks. Ninomiya, a Japanese pop star, is the most charismatic; Saigo’s memories of his wife and the cruelties that led to his recruitment are especially touching.
Watanabe (an Oscar nominee for “The Last Samurai”) brings a commanding intelligence to a complex role. Ihara has an appropriately aristocratic air, while Kase is instantly sympathetic as a soldier who gets into trouble because he isn’t brutal enough.
Some of the men choose to blow themselves up with grenades. Others wonder if they’re digging their own graves in the trenches. One offers to save another’s honor by executing him with a sword. A couple of soldiers surrender, only to be dispatched by an impatient American who does fulfill the “savage fool” stereotype.
There are no good choices for these men, just as there were none for the exploited, soon-forgotten American war heroes of “Flags of Our Fathers.” But in these two films, they are united in their humanity.