War movies have long moved past the concept of good guys versus bad guys. While Hitler will most likely remain the ultimate evil of the modern age, recent war movies are more likely to depict the soldiers who served under him as unfortunate kids who were just as innocent and noble as the unfortunate kids fighting for the Allies.
Clint Eastwood decided to take that notion even further, making two entire movies about one seminal World War Two battle, showing it from each side. First, there was Flags of Our Fathers, the story of the American Marines who took Iwo Jima. Then, later that same year, came Letters From Iwo Jima, the story of the Japanese troops fighting to hold it.
Ken Watanabi is General Kuribayashi, the noble, proud leader. The kind of upper management who chastises middle management for their mistreatment of troops. The kind of guy who is the hero of the movie, even though he’s leading the side we’re supposed to hate. Like Flags of Our Fathers, the one dimensional, easily digestible characters don’t stop there. There’s an abusive middle manager for Kurubayashi to chastise, and there’s a wide eyed rookie who, of course, left a pregnant wife at home when he set off to fight for their Emperor.
The clichés don’t stop with the characters either, they fill the story and plot too. Because this is a war picture from the Japanese perspective, you’d better believe there’s a lot of talk of honour and duty, a lot of digs at the Americans for being undisciplined and lazy, a lot of speechifying about tradition and respect. And because this is war picture from the Japanese perspective, you’d better doubly
believe there’s a sepaku scene. But that’s one example where Eastwood goes way beyond any cliché to do something really new, really shocking and really effective.
While Flags of Our Fathers is about the effects of war after the fact, Letters From Iwo Jima is much more concerned with the horrors of war in the moment. In Flags, we see these men sent home broken and forever changed, we see how they have to remember how to live in the normal world, and we see how some of them never quite figure that out. Aside from the odd short flashback to these characters pre-war, Letters gives us much less context about who these men were before or after this one, specific battle.
When they were released, this move got all the praise and Flags of Our Fathers copped all the flack. I don’t understand either reaction. I don’t think the first movie is nearly as bad as the criticism would have you believe, and I don’t think Letters From Iwo Jima is the near masterpiece it was hyped to be. Separately, both are solid, better than average war movies. Put together, they make a really interesting double. Two sides of the same coin, telling a story in a way that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen before.