In my review of Flags of Our Fathers (2006) I noted the facelessness of the Japanese enemy in that story told from the American soldiers' point of view of the WWII battle for the island of Iwo Jima, from where the Americans would then start an attack on the Japanese mainland near the end of the war. Letters from Iwo Jima, a companion film also directed by Clint Eastwood, brilliantly fills in those missing perspectives and surpasses the slender merits of Flags of Our Fathers.
Downfall was set in Hitler's bunker during the fall of Berlin. Letters from Iwo Jima portrays the last stand of the Japanese imperial forces, fighting on to certain death. The charismatic General Kuribayashi is drafted in to lead the depleted forces, bereft of any support from the destroyed naval fleet. His men are suffering from low morale and dysentery. They have no hope of withstanding an American attack. The US have more advanced military technology, aerial dominance and vast numbers. The shots of the American flotilla as they approach the island - borrowed from Flags of Our Fathers - are staggering (and almost certainly computer generated).
The film focuses on two main characters: Kuribayashi, who had spent some time in America before the war; and Saigo, a lowly private, who has left behind a wife and child, who had not yet been born when he was drafted. He tells his buddy about how the war effort put his bakery out of business. Also reporting for duty is Baron Nishi, an Olympic equestrian champion and celebrity. He wanted to serve under General Kuribayashi, even though he knew the situation they would be fighting in would be futile and lead to almost certain death.
Inevitably with subtitles, some of the conversations feel a little contrived and the narrative flashbacks are a rather tired part of cinematic language, particularly when the characters' eyes glaze over before and after the cut away, as if we wouldn't understand that what we were about to see is in their mind's eye.
Nevertheless, the film as a whole is a success. At times it is sick-makingly gruesome because it doesn't flinch from showing the brutality of men at war. It is also morally ambiguous, investigating the complicated Japanese code of honour, serving emperor and country. There is not the same brotherhood of soldiers that is common in American portrayals of active service. This film, on the contrary, investigates the troubling dilemmas of fighting on the losing side; of following orders one knows is futile; and on whether there is a right and wrong on the battlefield. It is appropriate that they are fighting in caves as sometimes one realizes perhaps we have not advanced much beyond the ethics of the neolithic.
Nugget: by no means a flawless film. It is an unusual look at the enemy, who are rarely given such depth of character. The lasting impression is the utter futility of war. What on earth were the Japanese fighting for anyway? There is in fact a flashback scene when Kuribayashi envisages fighting alongside the Americans in the war, not against them. It overlaps cleverly at times with Flags of Our Fathers, sharing some of the same shots and showing the same situation from an entirely a different perspective. Neither film would work quite as well on its own without the compliment of the other, but Letters from Iwo Jima is definitely the stronger.