Shot in the sad, dark color of ash and brightened only by streams of human blood, Letters From Iwo Jima is one of the great war movies - or antiwar movies - of all time.

Clint Eastwood, whose directing career continues to astound (Bird, Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby - and a paltry 26 others!), has managed what few, if any, filmmakers have attempted. That is, to offer dual projects that capture the bravery, the fear, the bungling, the strategizing, the loss of life - and taking of life - experienced by both sides in a war.

More important: Letters From Iwo Jima and its companion piece, Flags of Our Fathers, show that the demonized, dehumanized "enemy" is, in fact, composed of very real, very similar sorts of human beings.

With Flags, released in October, Eastwood showed the 1945 invasion of the tiny volcanic isle from the vantage point of U.S. participants - Marines and Navy - in the historic World War II battle. Encumbered to a degree by a tricky framework (present-day interviews and layers of flashback) and a second act that described how the iconic photograph of a small band of Marines raising the American flag was co-opted by politicians back home, Flags had moments of fierce intensity and insight.

But despite its cutting commentary about presidents and propagandizing, about the shaky nature of heroism and the making and breaking of men, Flags was a flawed, occasionally unfocused affair.

By contrast, Letters From Iwo Jima, with its simpler structure and superb performances, is just about perfect. In Japanese, with a Japanese cast led by Ken Watanabe (as the commanding officer who knows that his mission, and men, are doomed) and Kazunari Ninomiya (a young baker who leaves his bride back home to join the Imperial Army), the film offers a powerful study of a nation, and military culture, rooted in honor. But it also shows how the realities of war - and the mounting hopelessness of Japan's Iwo Jima stand - clashed with the Imperial Army's "death before surrender" mandate.

Watanabe, who played Tom Cruise's antagonist-turned-mentor in The Last Samurai, stars as Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, a gentleman officer whose prewar visits to the States afford him a view of America, and Americans, far different from the one promulgated by his commanders. Kuribayashi arrives on Iwo Jima in the weeks before the U.S. attack, surveying the terrain and talking to his troops. He writes long, eloquent letters home, embellished with lovely drawings and sketches. (Crash writer-director Paul Haggis used the real Kuribayashi's letters, discovered decades after the war, to shape the screenplay, which was written with Iris Yamashita.) But the general's humor, and easygoing rapport with the conscripts, engenders the resentment of his fellow officers.

Ninomiya, a Japanese pop star with a shaggy, wide-eyed demeanor, plays Saigo, a soldier who has left his wife and infant daughter back home for this desolate place, and whose comments, laced with irony and fatalism, border on treason - at least as far as his immediate superiors are concerned. As the troops build a vast network of tunnels and fortifications, artillery fire punctuates their talk - and rocks the ground beneath them. The men share stories about friends and family. They wonder if there's any hope of getting out alive.

Although Letters From Iwo Jima is very much a pair with Flags of Our Fathers - intersecting, at several points, with the same swift, chilling, deadly confrontations - it is possible to see one without the other. And it is possible to come away, especially from a viewing of Letters, but also from Flags, with a deeper sense of the futility, but also the seeming inevitability, of war.

Letters From Iwo Jima **** (out of four stars)

Produced by Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz, directed by Eastwood, written by Paul Haggis and Iris Yamashita, based on the book Picture Letters From Commander in Chief, photography by Tom Stern, music by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. In Japanese with subtitles.

Running time: 2 hours, 21 mins.

Gen. Kuribayashi........ Ken Watanabe

Saigo. . . Kazunari Ninomiya

Baron Nishi. . . Tsuyoshi Ihara

Shimizu. . . Ryo Kase

Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz FiveEndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea
at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/
stevenrea.