During the production of Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood and his cast and crew learned of the remarkable story of General Kuribayashi and the Japanese defense of Iwo Jima. Adapted from the book “Picture Letters from Commander in Chief”, Letters from Iwo Jima is a fascinating, moving and epic story about the General Kuribayashi and the soldiers that fought America on Iwo Jima.
It’s not even the presence of an American director that makes the story of Iwo Jima so touching. The history of the soldiers we learn and their loyalty to Japan (unlike American soldiers who were given good wishes and luck to arrive home safely, Japanese soldiers were told they would not return and that to die in the battlefield would be a great honor) is greatly moving and the execution of the story from both the visual and acting standpoints is remarkable.
Unlike its sister film of Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima is a much more violent and war torn story. We see the battle of Iwo Jima more in-depth than we saw in Flags of Our Fathers (and I’m sure there was some repeated footage in both films—which film reused whose shots is a discussion similar to the chicken and the egg, unless you’re Eastwood and know what was intended for each film) and the pre-invasion preparations and the invasion and occupation itself is stretched across the films near two and a half hours.
The acting in the film is remarkable. I don’t understand the Japanese language, but like Eastwood says on the DVD special features: “good acting is good acting.” Ken Watanabe gives a remarkable performance s the compassionate and experienced General Kuribayashi and Kazunari Ninomiya gives us a superb character in Saigo. Kuribayashi and Ninomiya may be the most flushed out characters in the film, but the rest of the cast is undeniably remarkable in their rolls, offering us a view of the Japanese soldier that is no different from the American soldier we’ve seen in so many war movies. If Flags of Our Fathers makes an American feel patriotic about his country than Letters From Iwo Jima no doubt inspires the Japanese people to learn more about their World War II history, as the performances in this film do nothing else but honor the memory of all those who died on Iwo Jima.
One remarkable thing I discovered while watching the special features of this film is that the Japanese are not taught about the Battle of Iwo Jima in their schools. While it is likely due to historians not wanting to record Japanese losses, it’s a true shame as the soldiers and generals that died on Iwo Jima were remarkable men. I didn’t realize just how much of an impact this film had on Japan until I watched the special features, with the world premiere being held there and the actors of the film talking about how the truth about the island could not be known throughout Japan.
Visually impressive through and through, Letters from Iwo Jima never fails to impact the viewer with the beautiful cinematography and directing; in particular I found some of the dimly lit cave scenes to be the most striking, with the lighting only illuminating brief silhouettes of the characters against the stark black and jagged cave walls. Combined with the strength of the acting and the story, Letters from Iwo Jima is a film that should be seen by all interested in the stories of World War II.
While Flags of our Fathers had a previous DVD release this will mark the first time Letters from Iwo Jima is on DVD. Unlike a lot of recent Warner releases, Letters from Iwo Jima arrives only in a two-disc release (as well as day-and-date Blu-Ray and HD-DVD releases). The set arrives in a sleeve-less two-disc amaray case with no inserts. Disc art mirrors the outside packages art and the menus on both discs are simple and easy to navigate.
Video and audio on this release is superb. I’ve not heard so much chatter coming from rear channels in a film before and while most of it was all gunfire the audio track was as immersive as the gorgeous video transfer that accompanies it. No signs of artifacting, grain or compression, Letters from Iwo Jima looks flat out gorgeous, bringing the darkness of the caves out in rich blacks and the washed out palette of the film, similar to Flags of our Fathers, through brilliant clarity. If the standard definition DVD transfer looks this good I can only image how pristine the Blu Ray and HD-DVD releases look.
Special features on this release run a little over an hour in length. While Flags of our Fathers had more content in the extras department, Letters from Iwo Jima doesn’t slouch either. Included are two featurettes, one covering the making of the film and another including interviews with the cast of the film. The majority of the special features is all in Japanese and is subtitled in English and all are worth watching. Images of the production are included in the “Images from the Frontline” feature which runs under five minutes in length.
The two remaining looks at the film take place in Japan. The first is the night of the movie premiere and we’re shown clips of cast and crew being interviewed as well as the full pre-show stage discussions, which has the major actors of the film, as well as Eastwood, producer Robert Lorenz and writer Iris Yamashita, speaking to the large crowd about their thoughts on the film and what it means to them. The second extra in Japan is a panel discussion that took place a day after the films premiere and features the same group of cast and crew who answer questions for a discussion that lasts a little over twenty minutes.
Despite the lack of commentary or deleted scenes (which one of the actors remarked there were a few of in the panel discussion), the two-disc set is well worth the price of admission and when paired with the two-disc Flags of our Fathers it makes for a remarkable four hours of cinema.
Overall Letters from Iwo Jima comes Highly Recommended. Those looking to purchase it when it comes out should look for the Letters from Iwo Jima / Flags of Our Fathers (Five-Disc Commemorative Edition), as both films are worth owning.
Letters from Iwo Jima arrives on DVD, HD-DVD and Blu Ray on May 22nd.