Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima tells the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from a Japanese perspective, and in doing so, humanizes what heretofore was always the "enemy." Now the Japanese soldiers have families to go home to, wives to love and children to raise. They're real people, not just caricatures of foe, which for (arguably) the first time allows us to realize that although a lot of American troops died during this crucial World War II battle, the Japanese actually lost a lot more.
One of the fathers of note is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker who's forced to leave his pregnant wife (Nae Yuuki) when he's given the "honor" of serving his country. On Iwo Jima, he complains to his friend Nozaki (Yuki Matsuzaki) of his hatred for the war, and suspects that the new guy in the unit, Shimizu (Ryo Kase), is there to spy on them. All of the men write and read letters to and from home, almost all of which speak of the decrepit conditions, feelings of despair and love for those they hold dear.
It's interesting to see not only the minutiae of the infantrymen's daily lives, but also the strategic planning of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai). He's spent time in America, and because of his knowledge of American technology, he decides to not defend the beaches, instead opting to build underground tunnels. The Japanese mentality is also interesting: On the eve of battle, Kuribayashi tells his men they're "not allowed to die until they've killed at least 10 enemy soldiers," and that they should "not expect to live." The battle scenes are stark and unapologetic. Eastwood's raw, washed-out colors and fierce action show how the Japanese resisted but inevitably fell to the American battalion. And the truly startling aspect from the American viewer's perspective is that with only a few exceptions, most of the American soldiers are nameless, faceless entities. This would not work if Eastwood had not by this point spent one hour establishing the Japanese characters and getting us to care for them, if not root for them.
The film was shot back-to-back with Eastwood's critically admired, yet box office sore spot (it made a mere $33 million) Flags of Our Fathers, and in many ways, the two create an artistically ambitious WWII opus. But aside from telling of the same battle, the two share no connection to one another: No actors who appear in one film are in the other, and in Letters, we never see the American flag atop Mount Suribachi.
What makes Letters superior to Flags is not just the tenacity with which Eastwood focuses on the detritus of the soldiers' lives, but also the fact the he uses flashbacks smartly and with a purpose. Whereas Flags jumped from one era to the next each time its individual storylines gathered momentum, Letters uses flashbacks to articulate and elaborate on what's happening to the men on the island, and thus offers a deeper, richer perspective of who these soldiers are.
It's not a remarkable feat for Eastwood and screenwriter Iris Yamashita to get us to feel for Japanese soldiers, especially if we accept that there's humanity in every story, be it during a time of war or peace. What is remarkable is how well it depicts the bravery of the soldiers in the face of imminent death, and the authenticity it brings to the "enemy's" side of the battle. This may not win Eastwood another Academy Award, but it might be the triumph of his career.