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I’ve seen Letters from Iwo Jima on more top ten lists than Flags of Our Fathers, also directed by Clint Eastwood and filmed at the same time. Instead of favoring one over the other, I prefer to see them as two halves of the same movie.

The Same Coin

Saigo makes a very good tour guide through the 2 1/2 hours on Iwo Jima
Saigo makes a very good tour guide through the 2 1/2 hours on Iwo Jima

Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers are actually very different films, and nobody is saying that they are literally parts I and II of the same movie. But the fact that they were made by the same man at the same time, telling two sides of the same story makes me think it’s more productive and more interesting to consider them together, even if they are more different than similar.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that Flags of Our Fathers gets to leave the little island of Iwo Jima, whereas Letters is set almost entirely on the island. Then again, the Japanese soldiers were left on the island and ordered to die defending it. Almost none of them made it off alive, and so the Japanese experience was actually more closed and claustrophobic than the American one.

American Perspective

Although Letters is a Japanese story, it feels very Western. Even though the protagonists are Japanese, their story doesn’t seem particularly exotic or foreign. That’s in part because Eastwood chooses general Kuribayashi and private Saigo as his heroes.

General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is something of an outcast because of his sensible, secular views on how the war is being waged. The rest of the army is loyal to the faith-based view of Japan as a mighty, infallible empire. General Kuribayashi lives — and wants to live — in the fact-based world where smart, strategic decisions would actually do more to serve the cause than blind faith and slavish devotion to tradition.

General Kuribayashi is far more worldly than most of his comrades. He visited America during the 1936 Olympics in Los Angeles and was feted by dignitaries and movie stars. In other words, his experience of Americans extends far beyond the propaganda that makes up most of what his foot soldiers think they know about America.

The other protagonist is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a survivor — naturally, or else he wouldn’t make a very good tour guide through the 2 1/2 hours of the film. Many of his comrades see his survival instinct as cowardice, and he himself has probably condemned himself with that label too. But he has promised his wife and unborn child that he will return, and if that makes him a coward, he will make that trade.

Japanese Perspective

Through their moderate eyes we see some of the more surprising aspects of the Japanese vision of World War II. Perhaps most foreign to Americans is suicide, which lays heavily on the minds of the outnumbered Japanese soldiers. For them, suicide is a noble and worthy death. Besides, everybody knows that the Americans don’t treat prisoners well. Better dead than red, white, and blue.

The American soldier in WWII has a reputation for being curious, friendly, and gregarious, and Eastwood seems happy to perpetuate this stereotype. When the General wings an American G.I., he brings him in to treat the wounds. The enlisted men are horrified; after all, the Americans would never treat a Japanese soldier so well — or so they’ve been told. But there is a nice scene between the Japanese general and the wounded G.I. In my proud American mind I imagine that the general is relishing one last taste of America before he is killed. Or maybe the general is just trying to show his men that the propaganda is not all true.

Nevertheless, as an American who is proud of our “friendly” stereotype, I was a bit shocked when Eastwood shows us a scene of two American soldiers who break that stereotype. If the Japanese soldiers could have used a little dose of reality to break through the stereotype, the same was true for this American moviegoer.

Sepia Tone

As in Flags of Our Fathers, the footage from Iwo Jima (shot in Iceland) is so washed out as to be nearly black-and-white. I can imagine any number of justifications for such a stylistic decision — matching audiences’ perceptions that World War II took place in black and white; giving the movie a more historical feel; conveying the barrenness of the volcanic island — but my own guess is that Iceland just doesn’t look enough like the South Pacific, and something had to be done to fool the eye.

Eastwood reuses a few scenes from Flags of Our Fathers, and in a few, rare cases, he even includes the same exact event, shown from a different perspective. It’s a little inside nod, a “thanks” to anyone who see both movies.

Private Ryan in the Pacific

Letters from Iwo Jima is good in many respects. It’s an exciting war movie. It’s a tour of life on the front lines (like Saving Private Ryan). It’s a window onto Japanese Imperial culture. And it’s an ambitious experiment in cinema (telling the same story from two sides, a la Hell in the Pacific).

It’s probably not as ambitiously detailed, as emotionally moving, or as well acted as Saving Private Ryan. But it is a very good movie in its own right, and it’s an even better movie if you’re willing to consider it as a companion to Flags of Our Fathers.