I saw an advanced screening of Letters from Iwo Jima, the last 2006 film I'll review before next Tuesday's Oscar noms. (I planned to see Notes on a Scandal, but a sneak preview of Smokin' Aces is scheduled for the same night. I'll admit it: I'd much rather see a lesbianic Alicia Keys than a lesbianic Judi Dench.)
Letters from Iwo Jima is the Japanese bookend of Clint Eastwood's one-two punch of World War II films. (I didn't see Flags of Our Fathers.) The movie was more engaging than I expected, but still supremely frustrating, as perhaps a war movie should be.
General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) descends upon the island of Iwo Jima to prepare the soldiers for a strategically likely American attack. (About halfway through we learn why: Iwo Jima makes a good base for the United States military to occupy, so they may plan an assault on Japan's mainland.) But essentially he's preparing them for death: reinforcements are unlikely, and they lack the artillery and personnel to properly hold off the Americans.
From what I understand about Flags of Our Fathers, both films use symbolic propaganda to retain support for the war. Here, it's the purely spiritual support that the Japanese command give the doomed general, essentially broadcasting the martyrdom of his men in advance by having the children sing a patriotic anthem of Iwo Jima. It's an effectively aggravating moment.
War is hell at all levels, and the film also delves into the lives of a few soldiers as they anticipate and endure battle; you can't help but become attached. I felt for Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), seemingly the only soldier with a lick of sense. His superiors are quick to label him dishonorable, but it's Saigo's actions that have the most historically enduring effect.
One final note: I liked how the film used an all-Japanese cast, with only Ken Watanabe as a recognizable name. I prefer to think of it as Eastwood's "screw you" to the makers of Memoirs of a Geisha.