The latter film came out last October, telling the story of the American soldiers who raised the flag on Iwo Jima after the troops landed there in World War II. Despite winning rave reviews from everyone except me, the movie sank quickly at the box office. Now the former film is playing here, has earned even better reviews, and has won three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. I wish I could join the celebration, but while Letters From Iwo Jima is hardly a bad film, it’s a widely overrated piece of work.
The story is told through two characters: Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the real-life commander of Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, and PFC Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a simple baker from the provinces who only wants to get back home to see his wife and the five-year-old daughter he has never met. Kuribayashi knows that his men are vastly outnumbered and that Tokyo’s promises of reinforcements are probably empty. Saigo hates life on the hot, rocky, foul-smelling island and jokes that they should just let the Americans have the place, which gets him a beating from his sergeant that lasts until the general intervenes. There is, of course, no improbable victory in store, and the soldiers know as well as us that they’ll most likely die when the Americans come.
The movie is performed mostly in Japanese and partially based on a published volume of letters sent by Kuribayashi to his wife and children. Screenwriter Iris Yamashita, whose work has also garnered an Oscar nomination, does a pretty good job of developing the main characters as well as a few sharply defined supporting roles — a discharged military policeman widely suspected of spying for the higher-ups (Ryo Kase), an Olympic gold-medal equestrian rider and confidant of the general’s (Tsuyoshi Ihara), and a traditionalist lieutenant who detests Kuribayashi’s tactics and seeks a glorious death (Shidou Nakamura).