Humanizing The Enemy

Clint Eastwood tells the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese side in "Letters From Iwo Jima." You can view it as a bookend to his recent "Flags of Our Fathers," or on its own. Either way, it's unprecedented, a sorrowful and savagely beautiful elegy that can stand in the company of the greatest antiwar movies.

Written in English, which was then translated into Japanese by the young Japanese-American Iris Yamashita (who shares story credit with Paul Haggis), the screenplay brings to life four indelible characters, all of whom know there is little chance they'll leave the island alive. General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is the untraditional officer in charge, who devised the 18 miles of tunnels that enabled the Japanese to withstand the American invasion for almost 40 days. He fights with the irony that, having spent time in the United States before the war, he reveres Americans. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) is an irreverent young baker who just wants to stay alive to see his newborn daughter. The aristocratic Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) is a famous equestrian who competed in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Private Shimizu (Ryo Kase) was trained in the elite military police but shipped off to Iwo Jima for disobeying orders to kill a dog. We see, as well, the old-guard officers who would shoot any soldier who tries to surrender, and who, when defeat seems inevitable, order their men to die with honor by blowing themselves up with grenades. Eastwood's depiction of the horrors of war--and the atrocities committed on both sides--has a shocking intimacy.

If "Flags" is more complex in its ambitions and structure, the leaner, simpler "Letters" is even more emotionally devastating. Superbly acted, unblinking and unhysterical, it looks beyond politics into the hearts and minds of the men called "the enemy," and lets us see ourselves.

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