Letters from Iwo Jima

Critically hailed as an instant classic, Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima is a masterwork of uncommon humanity and a harrowing, unforgettable indictment of the horrors of war. In an unprecedented demonstration of worldly citizenship, Eastwood (from a spare, tightly focused screenplay by first-time screenwriter Iris Yamashita) has crafted a truly Japanese film, with Japanese dialogue (with subtitles) and filmed in a contemplative Japanese style, serving as both complement and counterpoint to Eastwood’s previously released companion film Flags of Our Fathers. Where the earlier film employed a complex non-linear structure and epic-scale production values to dramatize one of the bloodiest battles of World War II and its traumatic impact on American soldiers, Letters reveals the battle of Iwo Jima from the tunnel- and cave-dwelling perspective of the Japanese, hopelessly outnumbered, deprived of reinforcements, and doomed to die in inevitable defeat. While maintaining many of the traditions of the conventional war drama, Eastwood extends his sympathetic touch to humanize "the enemy," revealing the internal and external conflicts of soldiers and officers alike, forced by circumstance to sacrifice themselves or defend their honor against insurmountable odds. From the weary reluctance of a young recruit named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) to the dignified yet desperately anguished strategy of Japanese commander Tadamichi Kuribayashi (played by Oscar-nominated The Last Samurai costar Ken Watanabe), whose letters home inspired the film’s title and present-day framing device, Letters from Iwo Jima (which conveys the bleakness of battle through a near-total absence of color) steadfastly avoids the glorification of war while paying honorable tribute to ill-fated men who can only dream of the comforts of home. —Jeff Shannon, Amazon.com
Year Released
Running Time
141 min.
Warner Home Video
Average: 3 (1 vote)


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Letters From Iwo Jima Film Review

Field of Interest/Specialty: History
Posted On: 05/19/2011

Review by NCTA teacher Brianne Brown (Pittsburgh)
10th Grade American History II (Reconstruction - Present Day)
Plum Senior High School
Letters from Iwo Jima, directed by Clint Eastwood, is a film about the one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. The film tells the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective.
The story begins with the “recruitment” of soldiers for the Japanese Army. This “recruitment” consists of knocking on young men’s doors and telling them “congratulations,” they have the honor of serving (and probably dying) for their country.
The next portion of the film centers on the Japanese preparing for the imminent arrival of the Americans on Iwo Jima. The Japanese dig trenches, and then are forced to dig tunnels and holes once their new and controversial commander (played by Ken Watanabe) arrives.
Saigo (played by Kazunari Ninomiya) is the main character. He is a “simple baker, who is forced to leave his young, pregnant wife to serve his country on the island of Iwo Jima. The film follows him as he digs trenches, tunnels, and holes in anticipation for the American arrival. Saigo sends letters to his young wife explaining what he is doing on the island and how he feels about it. “We soldiers dig. We dig all day. This is the hole that we will fight and die in. Am I digging my own grave?” It is apparent from one of the first scenes on the island how Saigo feels about being there and participating in the war. “Damn this island! The Americans can have it!” Saigo struggles with honoring his country when he just wants to return home to his wife and child.
The film encompasses the idea of Japanese bushido. Bushido is the Japanese code, or way of life, of the warrior. Bushido strictly enforces the promise of honor and loyalty to the mother country (Japan). Japanese soldiers are expected to kill themselves honorably rather than be taken prisoner by the enemy. Saigo and his fellow soldiers realize that the battle at Iwo Jima cannot be won by the Japanese. Many soldiers honorably commit suicide within the tunnels they were forced to dig. Saigo chooses to be taken prisoner by the Americans (after much thought, confusion, and frustration).
The cinematography of Letters from Iwo Jima is beautiful. The story is historically accurate, and the characters are complex and interesting. However, I am not sure that I would recommend this movie to be shown in a classroom setting. The film is 141 minutes and would take about four class periods to show in its entirety. I would only recommend this film to be shown in a high school setting, if at all. There are a few parts of the film that are very gruesome and may be inappropriate for students in 9th or 10th grade. I think the film is appropriate to show the other side of the war (students usually only get the American version of WWII in Asia). This is a great way for students to connect with those who fought on the other side. In addition, it would spark a discussion on who is the enemy in a war and how we know who the enemy is. Is there really a right and a wrong side in a war? If so, how do you know which is which? Most students would say that the Americans were the right side. They’ve only been taught to believe that. This film would open their eyes to new and different perspectives of war.
I would use clips from this film to show Japanese warrior culture. The concept of bushido is a major theme of this film. If it were part of the curriculum, this would be a great way to show an example of bushido and a Japanese warrior’s struggle with it.
The film is entirely in Japanese, thus the students would be reading English subtitles the entire time. I’ve show films that are subtitled in my class before. No matter how wonderful or exciting the film, I always lose about half my class. They simply don’t want to read the subtitles, they can’t read them, or it goes too fast for them. This should be taken into consideration before showing the film to a class of students who may not be able to follow subtitles.
To conclude, I would only recommend this film be used in clips and to upper class students who are studying Japanese cultures or World War II.