(14/03/07) – The tiny volcanic island with its black sand feels far from home, far from the Japanese mainland, and yet these soldiers have been stationed here to defend it to the death. Defend it from whom? The US army, which views Iwo Jima as a vital tactical step towards the defeat of Japan. It’s 1945, and while the European fight nears its end, the war in the Pacific rages on, costing lives on both sides.

To the Americans, the Japanese have a reputation as ruthless combatants, adopting kamikaze means to take out enemy camps, and preferring suicide over surrender. One such Japanese soldier, and one of the central characters of Clint Eastwood’s new film Letters from Iwo Jima, is young baker and father-to-be Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a droll and mischievous puppy-like lad with an unfortunate habit of mouthing off about the unreasonableness of his superiors. Saigo is a voice of protest at the Japanese military tactics – why are the soldiers in such a hurry to give their lives for a seemingly impossible cause? – yet he is not an out-and-out rebel: he does his duty. There is another voice of reason further up the hierarchy: General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who is also determined that he and his men do their duty, but who reasons that they are in a better position to defend their island if they fight to the death rather than take the suicide option. It is characters like these who situate Letters from Iwo Jima as a film that attempts to reconsider the battle, and by extension the war, from the Japanese side.

Last year Clint Eastwood released two films about Iwo Jima. The first, Flags of Our Fathers, told the story on a grand scale from the points of view of three young American protagonists (played by Ryan Philippe, Adam Beach and Jesse Bradford). During production, Eastwood felt that the project could benefit from another movie, a less expensive ($15 million as against Flags’ $55 million), pared-down war drama, in Japanese, shedding some light on the ‘enemy’. While Flags arrived on a wave of expectation, and turned out to be an affecting but far from blockbusting anti-war story, the second movie, Letters from Iwo Jima, which was widely perceived as something of an after-thought, has been more highly acclaimed, receiving numerous awards and four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.

It’s easy to see why Letters has fared better. Flags was honest and touching, but its subject matter was perhaps overly familiar: while we may not have been aware that the raising of the US flag was manipulated for public relations purposes to raise money for the war effort, we have seen countless films about American servicemen fighting overseas in World War II. On top of that, Flags had a complicated structure, telling its story through a series of flashbacks, flashforwards, and flashbacks within flashbacks. It will take at least a second viewing to piece it all together, and this was not a film sold on the thrill of being a narrative jigsaw – it’s no Usual Suspects, no Prestige. And with no major stars and a fudged promotion from Paramount, Flags was a film struggled to fulfil its promise.

On the other hand, Letters has novelty on its side (even if it’s a kind of novelty which doesn’t make for big box office) – it’s a movie in Japanese from a major American director; and it’s also tighter and easier to follow than Flags. Letters, written by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis, is more of a combat movie, taking us right into the thick of a battle situation. but this is no Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan. With muted colour and camerawork which strives to be largely invisible, Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern give Letters a serenity that avoids melodrama in favour of minute detail and calm reflection.

This visual style is something of an acquired taste. Eastwood the director has repeatedly shown a fondness for images devoid of conventional light and colour: Bird is one of the darkest films ever made – even the sunlit scenes look overcast; Mystic River was painted in faded blues and mauves – the colours, perhaps, of a prison uniform; Million Dollar Baby is a chamber drama etched in black. The visual style is a shroud which dampens the drama and encourages close attention. To this end, Letters is not a film that grabs the attention at once; it is a film which must be met at least halfway.

At the same time, the style gives both Flags and Letters an effortless period flavour. Rather like Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, the desaturated images evoke a sense of the past, of a privileged view into history itself. The look removes our need to question the flavour of authenticity – surely the key to a successful period picture, and something which Polanski has demonstrated time and time again.

Given that Eastwood does not appear onscreen, Flags and Letters add to our sense of Eastwood the director. We can see that he is showing an increasing desire to look back on the past from the perspective of the present. Of course he is getting older, and films such as Unforgiven have been widely seen as attempts to deconstruct the earlier stages of his career. But there is also a wish to tell stories which analyse themselves as they go along. The Bridges of Madison County, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima tell their stories in flashback, Unforgiven is bookended by explanatory text, while Million Dollar Baby‘s voice-over narrator is seeking to analyse and interpret events.

What is being analysed in Letters is not just the Japanese in the war, but Hollywood’s view of them. One could say of Letters (as people said of The Pianist) that it has a somewhat old-fashioned style, that it doesn’t advance on classicism. But the fact that a major American movie is in Japanese is radical enough, let alone the film’s attempt to show the Japanese army in a new light. We see that the soldiers can hardly grasp the point of the war, and can only think of their loved ones back home, to whom they write letters destined never to arrive. Meanwhile, they must battle the elements, the claustrophobic caves from which they hope to ambush the Americans, and the rapidly dwindling supplies of food and water.

Has Eastwood gone far enough in his portrayal? There is, of course, ample evidence of the shocking brutality of Japanese soldiers in World War II. The fate of the character of Iggy (Jamie Bell) in Flags of Our Fathers, for example, who is captured by the Japanese, is not dwelt upon in Letters, although in real life he apparently suffered a particularly humiliating, painful and inhumane death. Letters focuses more on moments such as the scene in which the fallen company elects to commit collective suicide by blowing themselves up, one after the other, with hand grenades. These moments do demonstrate their clear conviction that this is the most honourable response to military failure. But the scene, while moving, loses something of its power in not having been especially foreshadowed. We feel the desperate, brave honour of the men as they blow themselves up, we share Saigo’s distress, and we are in suspense when he tries to flee the scene and is challenged into joining his countrymen in suicide. But is the suspense anything more than a standard example of a sympathetic hero in peril? Do moments such as this really achieve a reconsideration of the Japanese army’s reputation?

I’m not sure. But perhaps this is expectation being disappointed, and another example of how we must meet the film halfway, rather than waiting for it to come to us. If Flags is explicitly critical of the US government and media’s hands in the treatment of the war, Letters is not so much an anti-war movie as a movie about how people should be treated. We see it in the execution of two captured Japanese by a cluster of US soldiers, just as we see it in the treatment of a newbie Japanese recruit by Saigo and the others. To this end, Watanabe’s excellent performance as General Kuribayashi is a study in decent, humanistic leadership in the face of overwhelming odds. As his men prepare for battle, he tells them that they should not expect to survive, but that they are not allowed to die until they have each killed at least ten US soldiers. It is a moment rousing and poignant in equal measure, as it illustrates how important, and unavoidable, it is for the men to do their duty. But what Kuribayashi hopes above all to do is lift their spirits so that they may meet their fate as bravely and painlessly as possible. If this is what soldiers have to do, the implications for war as an endeavour speak for themselves.

Letters From Two Jima is playing in the UK now.