A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this war drama deals with a very serious subject: the defeat of soldiers who know they'll die and that their cause is lost. Thanks to that and the fact that it's deliberately paced and spoken entirely in Japanese (with English subtitles), it will likely appeal only to older teens. The explosive action scenes include brutal battles with shootings, stabbings, and the use of flamethrowers -- resulting in dismemberment, beheading, burning, bloody injuries, and general chaos. Some wounded soldiers appear in distress, and U.S. Marines take and abuse prisoners. A dog is shot off screen (kids can be heard crying), and a beloved horse is killed in an explosion. A character dies of dysentery (off screen, though he's sick for some time). A couple of soldiers write letters home that reveal their awareness of their imminent bad ends. Characters smoke cigarettes, and officers drink in flashbacks.
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What's the story?
Concentrating on the battle at Iwo Jima, director Clint Eastwood's film depicts the daily grind and worries of the Japanese soldiers that occupied the island, awaiting an inevitable attack by U.S. forces. We see them digging trenches and constructing tunnels for battle, and, at last, waiting to die even as they extol the nobility of their hopeless cause. General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) carries an American Colt .45, which makes him suspect in the eyes of more traditionalist officers, including Admiral Ohsugi (Nobumasa Sakagami). Saigo, a young baker recruited against his will, and the general both write letters home, Saigo to his wife and Kuribayashi to his son Taro. Each, in his own way, understands what's coming, and each embodies a certain nobility that is at once familiar from U.S. war movies and unconventional. They question conventional wisdom and look after their fellows, but neither is inclined to the sort of unquestioning obedience displayed by the fierce Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamura), who, unable to convince anyone else to follow him, straps mines to his body and heads off into the night, determined to find an American tank and lie beneath it to blow it up.
Is it any good?
Elegant and sad, Letters from Iwo Jima is a war movie about loss. Director Eastwood conceived it as a companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, and it is at once a more finely focused and more profound film, with violence that can never answer the questions raised by its long moments of anticipation.
The film interrogates the inevitability of loss in war, even when victory is proclaimed. Superiors communicate to their men that the rationale for war is always the future. Ironically, this is precisely what's lost to those who fight, whether they come back with memories or don't come back at all. Letters ends on the beach where it begins, refusing to illustrate a future after loss, concentrating instead on loss itself. It makes war seem too terrible to bear.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the dedication shown by the Japanese soldiers -- to their nation and sense of cause, and, more immediately, to their commander. How does the movie connect this dedication to their previous experiences? How is their behavior different from that of the U.S. soldiers in Flags of Our Fathers? How does this movie draw connections between history and current events? How does the film argue against war, even as it admires national pride and individual soldiers' bravery? How is the Japanese perspective (filtered through director Clint Eastwood's U.S. lens) different from one that might be considered strictly American? Is there such a thing as the "true" version of history?
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