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Ken Watanabe stars as General Kuribayashi, the leader of the Japanese troops on Iwo Jima who held up against the American forces for over a month in a battle that was only expected to last a few days. His methods are unorthodox and he doesn’t endear himself towards some of his men by refusing their requests to commit suicide when the enemy is drawing close, instead ordering them to fall back. Among his men is a young soldier called Saigo and we learn about life on Iwo Jima before and during the battle from the letters written by him and Kuribayashi.

Letters From Iwo Jima
It’s impossible to talk about Letters from Iwo Jima without discussing it in the same breath as Flags of Our Fathers. Made at the same time, the lower-budget Japanese language film focuses on the perspective of the ‘enemy". As a result, the scope of the film is narrower and more personal. With very few Japanese survivors of the attack, the story is based on a short compilation of letters sent home from Japanese soldiers, both from Iwo Jima and other conflicts in the Pacific. Narration from the writers of the letters gives us a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of the soldiers. By doing this, Clint Eastwood successfully makes the point that Michael Bay attempted to make in Pearl Harbor—that men on both sides are essentially the same. They want to fight for their country and go home to their families and these notions are universal, irrespective of which side you are fighting for.

Ken Watanabe is the stand-out performance. He’s quickly becoming the go-to-guy when a Hollywood director is looking for a wise middle-aged Japanese man and it’s likely that a decent slice of the estimated $15m budget went on his services. Kazunari Ninomiya also impresses as Saigo, who just wants to survive the war and go back to his wife and newborn child he has never seen. For the first forty-five minutes we learn about the characters, and I found the relationships between the characters more compelling than they were in Flags of Our Fathers. We get to learn about the people who pulled the triggers in the other movie, which also goes some way to helping the viewer appreciate Flags of Our Fathers more.

Letters From Iwo Jima
The theme of letters is a thread that runs through the whole film, whether it is the soldiers writing home to their families or the discovery of buried letters that prompts the flashback that tells the story. Even though the film is subtitled, this more personal approach makes the film more accessible because it’s a lot easier for the viewer to imagine themselves in the position of the main characters, in particular Saigo. However, there was one scene that I thought laid on the sentiment a bit thick. When the Japanese capture an American soldier, they read out a letter from the soldier’s mother and use her words to rouse the troops. Given that the writers had to fictionalise more of this side of the story, this scene feels particularly contrived.

Another theme that is too overused for my liking was the notion of honour and suicide. Clint Eastwood has obviously researched Japanese culture for his first movie in a foreign language, but the development of the Japanese people in general above the screaming savages of Flags of Our Fathers is not as fully realised as I would have liked. The only real difference we see is in the attitude of their superiors—the American soldiers were expected to serve their tours of duty and return home whereas the Japanese soldiers were expected to die with honour for their Emperor.

Letters From Iwo Jima
Letters from Iwo Jima has a very similar look to Flags of Our Fathers, and with almost all of the action taking place in tunnels and on the black sands of Iwo Jima, the colour is even more washed-out. This is of course intentional and often tips the picture towards black and white. Some key special effects shots are recycled from the other movie, which complement it rather than giving the impression that the filmmakers were working on a significantly tighter budget. All in all, I would say this is an excellent example of how to make a movie that tells the same story in a different way. The two could easily have been edited together into a four-hour epic but the differing themes deserve to be seen separately and Letters from Iwo Jima stands up on its own as a piece of high quality filmmaking.

Letters From Iwo Jima

Video


With both movies sharing the same cinematographer and being shot at the same time, it’s no surprise that the picture quality of Letters from Iwo Jima is very similar to that of Flags of Our Fathers. The caves and tunnels of Iwo Jima are the settings for most of the action and I’m happy to report that I couldn’t find any problems with compression artefacts or colour levels in the shadows. Vibrant colour is only really provided by explosions but as expected, the picture is up to the standard you might expect from a recent Hollywood release.

Audio


One thing that sets Letters from Iwo Jima apart from its companion is the wonderful original score. One word of warning—it’s used to death in the extra features so even though it sounds really good in Dolby Digital 5.1, you may become sick of it if you take in the whole package. The surround track to the movie is more enjoyable than in Flags of Our Fathers. With more battle scenes, there are more bullets flying around the speakers and powerful explosions going off all around you and it's almost worth picking up this DVD just for the audio track alone.

Letters From Iwo Jima

Extras


There are two main featurettes that appear to have been made as part of the same package of extras on the Flags of Our Fathers release. In the ‘Making of’ featurette, Clint Eastwood talks about his desire to make a movie from the Japanese perspective and the complications that arose from filming it in a foreign language. The featurette that focuses on the cast includes interviews with the principal actors, who talk about their roles, and also the casting director who talks about how she pulled such a large number of Japanese actors together at short notice.

‘Images from the Frontlines’ is a short montage of still shots from the movie and behind the scenes. If you’re watching the extras in this order and you're anything like me, the score may be starting to grate on you by this point. Also included are featurettes that show footage from the world premiere and press conference in Tokyo. In both, Eastwood and the cast all talk about their roles and discuss the finer points of ensuring historical accuracy in a film that is mostly fictionalised. The theatrical trailer is also thrown in to round out the package.

Letters From Iwo Jima

Overall


Letters from Iwo Jima is a compelling film worthy of your time, especially if you have recently watched Flags of Our Fathers. The different perspective is welcome and reminds us that the soldiers on any side of a conflict all share common values. The movie looks and sounds great and while the extras aren’t as comprehensive as those included on the companion release, this two disc set is still worth picking up.


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