This movie is a companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, which I saw a few months ago. (Both were directed by Clint Eastwood.) I found this one even more impressive.
The earlier film showed the Battle of Iwo Jima from the American perspective. Half the screen time was devoted to the aftermath of the battle for three of the participants, and the survivor’s guilt that they felt. The second film shows the battle from the Japanese perspective, so survivor’s guilt should not be much of a problem.
One of the two main characters is General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) who finds himself charged with defending a tiny barren island with no naval or air support, against an overwhelmingly superior invading force. Most of his officers can only imagine making a quick and glorious last stand, to be followed by an honorable suicide once their men have been wiped out. General Kuribayashi has no intention of surrendering, but he is too much of a professional to throw away the lives of his men so carelessly. Instead he devises a plan for a grim, tenacious defense using a network of underground tunnels and fortifications. The Americans may still take the island, but at least this will ensure that they will pay a high price for it.
At the other end of the scale is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) a lowly foot soldier. Once a baker (until a desperate government seized his equipment to melt down for scrap metal) he has been drafted and sent to die with 20,000 others in a hopeless defense of the island. He has no illusions about a glorious death. He tries to do his duty, but all he really wants is to go home to his wife and unborn child.
If you are going to tell a story like this, the only decent thing to do is to present it respectfully, without embellishment or posturing. Clint Eastwood does the right thing here. The result is somber and violent, but very powerful and effective.
My only real complaint is about the plain white subtitles, which are sometimes hard to read against the washed-out daytime backgrounds. Perhaps Mr. Eastwood thought that colored subtitles would be too garish, but they would have been much more readable. I hope the DVD release does a better job with them.