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LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA

SYNOPSIS:
More than 60 years after the battle on Iwo Jima, Japanese historians discover a buried sack of letters written by the Japanese soldiers on the island, which were never sent. Among the soldiers are Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker with a young wife and new baby at home; Baron Nishi (Tsuyshi Ihara), the Olympic equestrian; Shimizu (Ryo Kase) a former military policeman; and Lt Ito (Shidou Nakamura), who would rather suicide than surrender. Their leader is Lt. General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), a traveled and sophisticated man, who is mistrusted by some of the officers around him. But his strategy makes it much harder for the massive US war machine to capture the island, and amidst the brutal battles, the soldiers pen their letters for home in hope.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
With his second film about the WWII battle of Iwo Jima (shot back to back with Flags of Our Fathers), Clint Eastwood has succeeded in showing us the two enemy armies (US and Japan) as simply two sets of soldiers, each human, each fighting in a futile, often brutal war. If Flags was also about the tragic racist attitudes of the times in America, Letters is also about the tragic deception practiced by the Japanese high command on their own commanders. But those admonishments are too little, too late, and this film's primary purpose is to humanise the Japanese even as they machine gun the advancing American soldiers. What better way to ridicule war - albeit without the humour. Indeed, the film is frequently gruelling, just like the noisy and terrifying reality.

The device of presenting individuals through their letters written at the front is valid enough, as anyone who has seen Tolga Ornek's powerful doco, Gallipoli (2005) will know. But where Ornek allowed the letters to become the primary source of the all important voices, Eastwood limits their use to such minimal effect that it serves only to make the film seem mawkish. (Nor is the bookend scene with the discovery of the letters handled credibly, Eastwood opting instead for a cinematic flourish for the closer.)

Primarily, Eastwood uses other means to humanise the Japanese soldiers, and while much of this is effective, the result is a film often pausing for moments of establishment between fierce fighting scenes, making it play more episodic than it really is. Still, the performances are all superb, with Ken Watanabe (surely Japan's Gregory Peck) delivering a sympathetic and unpredictably humanistic commander - so much so we wonder at the character's accuracy. The diverse characteristics of Japanese soldiers - representing the variety of the nation's community- are conveyed with economy, and the direction of both action and static moments is fluent. Drawn to a couple of the soldiers through the intimacy of their stories, we are not so keen to see them shot by the US Marines as we were when we were taken inside the US ranks with Flags.

This is perhaps Eastwood's major accomplishment, especially if the film has the same effect on US audiences; sadly, it can't wind back the clock and stop the war, but it may, even if only for a couple of hours, make some of us contemplate how to avoid making the same mistakes again.

Review by Louise Keller:
Unique and profoundly moving, Clint Eastwood's beautifully crafted Letters from Iwo Jima offers an insight not only into the ferocious battle that lasted an epic 40 days, but into the hearts, minds and culture of the Japanese. It digs far deeper than its companion piece Flags of Our Fathers, with intense and unrelenting examination of events from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers sent to certain death. Personal stories are interwoven into the horrors of war, as soldiers are conditioned to believe dying with honour is paramount. The experience is often a harrowing one, as we become involved with the characters and their lives. The meticulous research is apparent and subtitles brings insightful authenticity.

With deft strategic planning, Ken Watanabe's tough General Tadamichi Kuribayashi devises the construction of a labyrinth of tunnels under the black volcanic sands of the island garrison considered vital to the nation's defence ('A good captain uses his brain not just his whip'). Yet there is another side to the General which we learn through his letters and sketches to his beloved family. The complexity of Kuribayashi with Watanabe's charisma is a beguiling mix, and when he tells his men 'Do what is right because it is right', the irony is not lost that this is the same sentiment expressed in a letter to an American prisoner of war by his mother. The futility of war is reiterated by the fact that there is fundamentally little difference between the men on both sides. Recriminations and demands that duty to country come first are repeatedly thrust down the throats of the soldiers, who are each ordered to kill ten soldiers before they die.

Told in flash back, screenwriter Iris Yamashita offers few distractions from the hell hole of Iwo Jima, where the men face appalling conditions: stifling heat, lack of food and water and debilitating dysentery. Tom Stern's monotonic cinematography with its unsaturated colours, accentuates the bleakness of the desolate locations, shot on the Island of Iwo Jima itself and Iceland. It's a masterly work from Eastwood that once again shows the extraordinary diversity of his talents.

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CRITICAL COUNT
Favourable: 1
Unfavourable: 0
Mixed: 1

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (MA)
(US, 2006)

CAST: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomya, Shido Nakamura, Tsuyoshi Iyara, Ryo Kase, Yuki Matsuzaki, Hiroshi Watanabe, Takumi Bando, Nobusama Sagakami, Takashi Yamaguchi, Nae Yuuki

PRODUCER: Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Robert Lorenz

DIRECTOR: Clint Eastwood

SCRIPT: Iris Yamashita (with Paul Haggis; book by Tadamichi Kuribayashi)

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Tom Stern

EDITOR: Joel Cox ACE, Gary D. Roach

MUSIC: Clint Eastwood

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Henry Bumstead, James J. Murakimi

RUNNING TIME: 241 minutes

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow

AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 22, 2007







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