Letters From Iwo Jima is an excellent film that depicts the pivotal battle for the island of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese.
Ken Watanabe plays the Japanese General in charge of the defense of the Island of Iwo Jima which soon will be attacked by American forces. Watanabe has an interesting role as he plays who would technically be the unseen and unknown villain in most World War II films set in the Pacific theater. Watanabe does not portray the General as villain working for an evil regime in fact he is quite the opposite as Kuribayashi first arrives on the scene. Watanabe carries himself with a strong commanding presence as the General begins to instruct the men. Watanabe though along with the command has a considerable natural warmth he brings in the part to. There is a naturalism optimism about Watanabe’s manner in the scene and effectively allows Kuribayashi to be the inspirational figure he should be upon his arrival.
This is rather interestingly undercut by the fact that one of the first things we hear from Kuribayashi is his thoughts which is basically accepting his fate which is to die defending his country. Watanabe is very affecting by having this somberness that is pervasive in his performance. Watanabe is particularly good as he very quietly suggests this in his scenes with his men, but as a man trying to cover up his own hesitations. Watanabe is very good as he depicts Kuribayashi as a devoted soldier as he fervently attempts to make the right adjustments to make the island's defenses as formidable as he is able to make them, but also a man who is well aware of the futility of his objective. Watanabe make this inconsistency entirely understandable as he portrays Kuribayashi as having the convictions to his men, yet in his personal feelings reflect a reasonable man.
Watanabe has two especially great contrasting scenes where he motivates the troops. The first time is just before the beginning of the battle and it's a terrific scene for Watanabe as he shows Kuribayashi attempting to reinforce the ideals of Empire. In this scene Watanabe has a great forceful intensity as Kuribayashi fulfills this particular role. There is a coldness though that Watanabe suggests that this is obviously not the true nature of the General. Watanabe shows the effectiveness of this sort of speech, but there is one truer to his heart near the end of the film when Kuribayashi rallies his men for a final charge. Watanabe presents a far greater depth of feeling showing now that all of what the General is in this speech as he does believe it will be his last stand to protect his family. It's a powerful scene and particularly remarkable due to the contrasts that Watanabe presents between the moments.
Watanabe's screen time is somewhat limited due to the nature of the film where he goes back and forth between several men involved in the conflict. There is enough focus on Kuribayashi and perspective given to him that I don't hesitate calling him lead though. Watanabe's presence is felt throughout, and you are never at loss for where Kuribayashi is in terms of dealing with the battle. The film returns back to Watanabe's ongoing depiction of the psychological wear of the battle, which is not helped by men committing suicide against his orders, as the American front line slowly comes closer to his headquarters. It's a rather remarkable portrait of the career soldier devoted to a cause he does not truly believe in. Watanabe seemingly with such ease makes that conflict understandable realizing the human, really rather gentlemanly, nature of the man within along with the fearless convictions of a man of duty.