Written by Iris Yamashita, Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima is the flip side of his recent Flags of Our Fathers, which told the story of America's bloody 1945 invasion of the tiny Japanese island that cost 7,000 American lives. Letters tells the story of the 22,000 Japanese who defended the island without air support or hope of reinforcement. Their orders were to fight to the death, and they did. Only 1,000, mostly wounded, survived.
General American history has painted the Japanese defenders as fanatical adherents to a nationalistic cult that expected death as a requisite of defeat. Such elements certainly existed within Japanese culture at the time, as exemplified by the Kamikaze and the hari kari practiced by certain defeated military commanders. In Letters, this attitude is portrayed by Colonel Adachi (Toshi Toda) who orders his men to grenade themselves when they cannot hold Mt. Suribachi in the early days of the battle.
But Eastwood's overall depiction of the Japanese defenders is far more human and more multidimensional. Most endearing of the men is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker with a cherished wife and a baby daughter he's never seen. Saigo is a simple man proud of his profession and devoted to his family. He wants nothing but to grow old with his wife and enjoy the rearing of his progeny. Saigo resents that he has been sent to a desolate island to toil on doomed fortifications, then to kill Americans with whom he has no quarrel and ultimately to die at their hands or even to take his own life.
The nobleman Colonel Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) offers a dramatic contrast to Saigo. Nishi's family is wealthy and well-connected. He has traveled widely and won a medal in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. He counts Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks among his acquaintances. And when the platoon he leads captures an American G.I., he insists that the man be treated humanely. Unlike Saigo, Nishi could have avoided service at Iwo Jima. He wasn't drafted; he volunteered. And he did so knowing his command there would likely take his life.
Private Shimizu (Ryo Kase) provides another contrast still. Shimizu was trained in the stern military police corps and eventually kicked out for having too soft a heart. Saigo thinks Shimizu is a spy sent to inform on men who complain of their circumstances and fate. And Shimizu thinks he should be such a man, but he can't bring himself to be.
The most complex of the characters we encounter is the island's commander General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe). Like Saigo, Kuribayashi is devoted to his wife and family, and he suffers touchingly mundane regrets, like failing to finish a kitchen remodeling project before leaving for Iwo Jima. Like Saigo, Kuribayashi writes letters to his wife almost every day, even when little likelihood remains that they will ever be delivered. But the general is a man endowed with the power of command. He is a career officer who trained for a time with the American cavalry, and he is a brilliant military strategist. He is also a modern man, appalled by cruel military authority that treats its infantry like draft animals to be whipped into obedience rather than inspired and led.
And in Kuribayashi Eastwood finds a tragic paradox. The general is a good man who has devoted his life to a sorry business. He is smart, and he is brave. He is loyal and kind. He is a visionary, and he is utterly blind. He sustains a battle he cannot win in a war he knows his country will surely lose. He stops the insane process of having men kill themselves rather than endure defeat. But he leads his men to certain death in service of an unexamined ideal. Eastwood is attracted to the valor and honor of men like Kuribayashi who are willing to sacrifice for things greater than self, but in the service of war, they waste the very qualities he admires.