Following hot on the heels of 'Flags of Our Fathers' comes the tale of the opposite side in the historic Battle of Iwo Jima, which took place on the Pacific island towards the end of World War Two.
While 'Flags...' concentrated on the implications the famous flag placing incident had on the lives of the US soldiers who appeared in the iconic photo, 'Letters from Iwo Jima' centres on the experiences of the Japanese troops who fought in the legendary battle. A significant difference between the two is that while 'Flags...' mainly followed the fortunes of the American men after the war, 'Letters...' focuses on the build up to the confrontation and, of course, the battle itself.
There is a simple logic to this. The vast majority of the Japanese soldiers who were stationed on the island during the fighting met their deaths there. The fact that the Japanese forces went in never expecting to survive is a chilling aspect to their participation, and one that is hammered home early and often.
Director Clint Eastwood was inspired by correspondence sent by Japanese General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Watanabe). The innovative leader sent regular letters to his wife, daughter and son. It was from these letters that Eastwood connected with an intelligent, honourable and sensitive man.
Certainly not the stereotypical commander, Kuribayashi spent time in the US as an envoy. He had a great admiration and respect for America and its people and questioned the validity of the war against them. However, despite this, he remained loyal to his native land and led his men with courage, conviction and not a little compassion.
His tactic of having kilometres of tunnel built in the volcanic rock of Iwo Jima was ingenious. Ignoring the advice of many of the senior servicemen on the island, Kuribayashi forsook Japanese military conventions and, as a result, prolonged the battle way past its predicted lifetime. He also oversaw the only battle where the US incurred more losses (that's combining deaths and injuries) than their Asian counterparts. He achieved this despite having a significantly smaller pool of men at his disposal.
Watanabe, probably best known to Irish audiences for his appearance alongside Tom Cruise in the excellent 'The Last Samurai', is absolutely superb here. He reportedly went as far as meeting relatives of his character in his research of the role and this attention to detail and commitment shines through in his performance.
Among the foot soldiers, we get closest to Saigo (Ninomiya), a baker who wants nothing more than to survive the war and get home to catch a first glimpse of his infant girl. While most of the men around him would rather die in combat or take their own lives than bring shame on their families by surviving or being captured, Saigo's sole objective is to fulfil a promise to his wife Hanako (Nae) that he would live to see his family again.
While you can't help but be in awe of how incredibly loyal and brave the Japanese troops were and how, for the most part, they seemed to accept the inevitability of their demises with little or no complaint, you also have to feel a little embarrassed by their collective inability to grasp and act upon the complete futility of their resistance.
Even given the fact that they held up a battle that was only supposed to last five days for over a month, the simple fact is that around 20,000 (some 12,000 of whom are still unaccounted for) of them gave their lives for what has transpired to be, and was abundantly clear at the time, a lost cause.
Any fears of a Hollywood tint to this never materialise and, if anything, the reputation of the American soldiers suffers more from this account. Eastwood has the Midas touch at the minute, and although 'Flags...' bombed at the box office (It took in $33m in the US but cost an estimated $55m to make), these two films will rank high among his growing list of achievements.
Like its sister movie there are lessons to be learned here that the United States and its 'coalition of the willing' would do well to take on board. A point that comes across regularly in 'Letters...' is that one of the greatest crimes of war is ignorance of your enemy. It's a belief that's as true today on the streets of Baghdad, as it was on the blood-stained and sulphuric surface of Iwo Jima.