When a pregnant wife begs for her husband to be spared from military service, an older woman sternly reminds her, "We have all sent our husbands and sons to war."
But the mother-to-be knows the men never come home. Not a single soul.
The fearful woman and her husband are Japanese, and he will be shipped to Iwo Jima, an island of unforgiving volcanic rock, black sand, and strategic location that will claim almost 7,000 American soldiers and more than 20,000 Japanese during World War II.
In Letters From Iwo Jima, director Clint Eastwood does the simplest and most complicated of movie maneuvers: He turns the camera and perspective around and tells the story of the Japanese who tried to hold the island under the most arduous and impossible of conditions.
He concentrated on the Americans in October's Flags of Our Fathers, and now he does an equally brilliant job in Letters, named best foreign film at the Golden Globes and the recipient of four Oscar nominations, including best picture.
The 76-year-old Eastwood, who was a teenager in 1945 when this bloody battle was raging, grew up with war pictures featuring "good guys and bad guys," as he describes it. "Life is not like that, and war is not like that," he says in the movie's notes.
"These movies are not about winning or losing. They are about this war's effects on human beings and those who lose their lives much before their time."
As with Flags, he focuses on a handful of soldiers, but the rank and pay grade are much higher here with the inclusion of Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), a strategist whose travel in the United States gave him a unique perspective on how to hold the island. It will also prompt another officer to brand him a weak American sympathizer.
Before his arrival, the grunts are digging trenches on the beach, wondering if they're preparing their own graves. When Kuribayashi arrives, he not only brings a touch of benevolence, "A good captain uses his brain, not a whip," but an innovative strategy the enemy will not expect.
He orders the building of a sophisticated, unseen web of tunnels (which had to be carved out by men battling dysentery and dwindling food and water), caves, and pillboxes. The Americans would expect to be attacked on the sand below, not from the rocky cliffs above.
Eastwood, directing a screenplay by newcomer Iris Yamashita based on a story she wrote with Oscar winner Paul Haggis, puts a face on the enemy. Several faces.
In addition to the general, Letters introduces: a baker (Kazunari Ninomiya) who yearns to see his newborn daughter; Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a dashing equestrian and 1932 Olympic gold medalist; a former military policeman (Ryo Kase) who arouses suspicion; and Lieutenant Ito (Shidou Nakamura), a traditionalist who believes suicide is preferable to surrender.
Letters makes it clear that the Japanese thought that if Iwo Jima fell, the Americans would use it as a base to attack the mainland. The Japanese are told they are not allowed to die until they have each killed 10 Americans.
The less well-known actors are as fine as the familiar Americans in Flags, although the picture hinges on Watanabe, who played the Chairman in Memoirs of a Geisha and co-starred with Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. He gives an understated, excellent performance as a man caught in a Gordian knot.
The general promised to fight to the death for his family, but thoughts of his wife and children make keeping that promise difficult. He was welcomed by the Americans and now is charged with defeating them.
Eastwood, who references Flags with a faraway shot of Old Glory fluttering atop Mount Suribachi, has made two superb movies, one in English and one in Japanese. Both address sacrifice and honor and raise a single voice against war.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Barbara Vancheri is the movie editor for the Post-Gazette.
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