About halfway through a showing of "Letters From Iwo Jima" – Clint Eastwood's epic about Japan's futile stand during the World War II battle – a 30-something Japanese salaryman takes off his glasses to wipe away the tears from his eyes. He does this several times during the movie, the first time after a young American soldier dies.
Told from a Japanese perspective, the film recounts the 36-day struggle for an island the soldiers were led to believe was essential for the survival of their homeland, but which ended up costing more than 20,000 Japanese lives.
Eastwood took a huge risk in planting an American flag in a historical episode so haunting to the Japanese that the nation has largely shied away from producing movies about it. But instead of being shunned as the work of an ignorant outsider, "Letters From Iwo Jima" is resonating with critics and public alike during a pivotal political moment. The film is stirring emotions – reports of men weeping during screenings aren't uncommon – and debate as Japan mulls rewriting its pacifist constitution and some look longingly to a more patriotic past.
"The way [the movie] has been advertised certainly has something of a nationalist drumbeat. And yet the left is taking this as an antiwar film," says Aaron Gerow, an assistant professor of film studies at Yale university who spent 12 years working for the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival.
Both sides of the political spectrum are battling over the soul of the nation's future direction. Current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already pressed to have the Defense Agency upgraded to ministry status and last week succeeded in getting laws through the upper house requiring schools to teach patriotism.
"Letters From Iwo Jima" arrives during a time of general debate about whether young Japanese know enough about the war. Certainly, some younger moviegoers have been surprised by the brutality of the fighting.
"I didn't really know what to expect, but it seemed very real," says 20something Wakako Hattori after a recent screening. "My boyfriend even cried when he saw it."
But outside the cinema here in the Roppongi Hills district – its luxury high-rise apartments and upscale restaurants a testament to the city's rise from the devastation of the war – a theater manager bemoans how few youngsters have seen the movie. "Mostly it has been older people who have been coming to see it, and people in their 30s," says the manager, who asked not to be identified for fear of his cinema being embroiled in a controversy. "Young people haven't come as much because they don't know as much about the war."
Eastwood's movie, which has been top of the Japanese box office for the past two weekends even as it generates buzz in the US as an Oscar front-runner, is one of few to tackle Iwo Jima. (Earlier this fall, the director released a companion piece, "Flags of Our Fathers," which explored the American experience in the battle as well.) Just two nondocumentary Japanese movies have previously focused on the assault, a 1959 effort called "Iwo Jima" and "Kaigun Tokubetsu Shonenhei" ("Special Naval Youth Soldiers"), released in 1972.
"More movies have focused on Okinawa, primarily because they could take up the story of suffering civilians," says Mr. Gerow. "But in Iwo Jima it was just soldiers."
"Letters" has been winning over Japanese film critics. The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper praised the way the movie was able to personalize the soldiers, while the Mainichi applauded its sympathetic portrayal of some of the young Japanese soldiers, arguing that a film showing the soldiers' humanity could in fact only be shot by an outsider – that it would be impossible for a country that is constitutionally denied its own military to properly honor them.
Indeed, Japan is wrestling with the idea of revising its American-drafted constitution. A powerful movement argues that Japan should adopt a more assertive national pride and take a more active role militarily in its US-led defenses.
"Japan needs to have a discussion with its people about what sort of nationalism it wants," says Steven Clemons, founder of the Japan Policy Research Institute. He believes this discussion must include the younger generation of Japanese.
The decision to cast Kazunari Ninomiya, better known for his role in the pop band Arashi, may have been with a view to broadening the movie's appeal to a younger audience in what is the second-largest movie market in the world.
"I thought the movie was very good," says Kenji Tanigaki, a young viewer. "But it was sad to see so many people dying for no reason. I don't think I could do what they did."