Dough! Peaceful baker Saigo finds himself unsuited for soldiering.

Sign up for our free newsletter

In Letters From Iwo Jima, Lt. Gen. Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) watches from a distance the event that’s central to director Clint Eastwood’s companion film, Flags of Our Fathers: the raising of the U.S. flag on Mt. Suribachi. Despite such parallels, the two movies are not mirror images. Flags takes the American viewpoint of the battle for Iwo Jima and has English-language dialogue, while Letters sees the invasion from the defenders’ perspective and is mostly in Japanese. But the first film emphasizes the public propaganda campaign to exploit the iconic Iwo Jima flag-raising photograph, while this one is punctuated by private, and largely mundane, correspondence from doomed Japanese soldiers to their families. As the Americans and death inexorably advance, Kuribayashi makes drawings for his son and apologizes in voice-over to his wife for never having finished the kitchen floor. Scripted by Japanese-American Iris Yamashita, Letters is another of Eastwood’s cinematic reparations for a career based on trigger-happy cowboys and cops. Like Unforgiven, it adopts the weary worldview of a man who no longer finds any glory in killing. In tone, the movie recalls the elegiac Japanese samurai dramas made in the 1950s and ’60s, shadowed by defeat in World War II. Kuribayashi is the reluctant warrior, impelled by duty to a final fight he cannot win, while Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya)—an unbellicose baker who wants only to return to his wife and infant son—is the hapless conscript whose life was preempted by forces beyond his ken. What Eastwood fails to convey is a palpable sense of the emperor-worshipping fanaticism that demanded such pointless battles as Iwo Jima, which ended 6,000 American and 21,000 Japanese lives. While depicting war crimes committed by both sides, he never gets inside the minds of the Japanese true believers who consider Kuribayashi and Saigo’s reluctance to die a form of treason. Although more elegantly structured than the clunky Flags, Letters is an almost generic antiwar picture: stoic, somber, and bleached of color, save for the reds of fire and blood. It’s a worthy undertaking but not a great accomplishment.