Letters returns to World War II's battle for Iwo Jima, this time taking the perspective of the Japanese soldiers fighting there against the superiorly manned American forces featured in Flags. The story uses real-life letters excavated from a cave on the island to speculate on the last days of some of these Imperial troops. From the campaign's contemplative, realist leader, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, who's pointedly Eastwoodian in his soft-spoken gruffness), to Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic equestrian who counts Douglas Fairbanks among his friends, to the sensible Private Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), the movie juxtaposes the warriors' wrenchingly tender private thoughts with the barbaric acts they engage in and witness aboveground.
Like Flags, then, Letters is a paean to grunts hung out to dry, this time by corrupt, delusional leadership rather than War Office flacks. Call it a pet theme: Eastwood explored this turf for the first time decades ago in Don Siegel's sly, bitterly reactionary Dirty Harry (a film with a bone to pick about a war of its own). No Harry Callahan-esque cowboy justice is dispensed here, though; instead, the characters do what soldiers do—fight the enemy, with varying degrees of dedication and skepticism, until they can't anymore.
This regard for factualism and emotional nuance underscores Eastwood's remarkable transition over the course of his career, and Letters exhibits a burgeoning artistic maturity, as well. The film is more fluid than its predecessor, and its flashbacks less temporally disruptive (credit tyro screenwriter Iris Yamashita for crafting a more natural lead-in device with the voice-over reading of the missives). The tone, too, is funereal rather than frantic, and Eastwood's direction is looser, as though he's liberated by working in something other than an American milieu. Despite the Eastern characters, however, this is a very much a Western film, and in some regards even a western one—Baron Nishi's horse, which he brings to the island, is a blatant symbol of an older, nobler, more naturalistic way of life that's been sidelined by modernity.
Ever-ready with self-critique, Eastwood subtly poses this golden-ageism as the root of the Japanese defeat. The Imperial forces are undone by a horrifically unreasonable nationalism that trickles down to the troop level as class-based inter-military squabbling and outright cruelty, as well a dedication to "honor" that ultimately manifests itself as a propensity for suicide. Ironically, or perhaps not, the two officers who explicitly reject this stance are Kuribayashi and Nishi, both of whom separately resided in America prior to the war.
The point is clear: Egalitarianism and a corresponding impulse to survive are what the United States has to offer, despite its citizens' increasing enthrallment with hollow, PR-generated fantasy narratives, as detailed in Flags. Implicitly, these qualities are also what we stand to lose, and it's here that Letters makes its most salient, albeit understated, commentary on America's current, corrosively class-riven war of choice.
But passing judgment on history, recent or otherwise, isn't Eastwood's primary goal. A director has to know his limitations, and Clint has always been a storyteller above all else. The story he tells in Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima—in which war has the same depleting effect on the victors as well as the vanquished, but most especially on those who fight it—represents a cinematic triumph.