Letters from Iwo Jima: Two-Disc Special Edition – DVD Review

Directed by:
Clint Eastwood

Starring:
Ken Watanabe … General Tadamichi Kuribayashi
Kazunari Ninomiya … Saigo
Tsuyoshi Ihara … Baron Nishi
Ryo Kase … Shimizu
Shido Nakamura … Lieutenant Ito
Hiroshi Watanabe … Lieutenant Fujita
Takumi Bando … Captain Tanida
Yuki Matsuzaki … Nozaki
Takashi Yamaguchi … Kashiwara
Eijiro Ozaki … Lieutenant Okubo
Nae Yuuki … Hanako
Nobumasa Sakagami … Admiral Ohsugi

Warner Brothers presents Letters from Iwo Jima. Based on the book “Picture Letters from Commander in Chief” by Tadamichi Kuribayashi. Screenplay by Iris Yamashita. Running time: 140 minutes. Rated R (for graphic war violence). Released on DVD: May 22, 2007. Available at Amazon.com.

The Movie


While working on pre-production for Flags of our Fathers, director Clint Eastwood began ruminating about following it up with another film, only this time from the Japanese perspective, as a companion piece. Eventually he was able to win over the higher ups on the idea since he would be able to reuse so much of the material left over from Flags. Just like the good ol’ days of Hollywood filmmaking where studios would milk every last red cent out of what they invested money into — unlike today where sets are destroyed almost as fast as they’re built.

So with the studios signed off on the idea of turning the one war film in to a full-fledged epic event, Eastwood rallied the usual suspects and got to work on the project while filming Flags. It’s almost scary how he is able to take something that was essentially an after thought and craft it in to an award winning, critically hailed masterpiece. He’s become the King Midas of Hollywood over the past decade. Well, with the exception of Flags.

The single thing that made Clint interested in the prospect of doing a film from the Japanese perspective is all because of what he saw in General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s writing. He was captivated by what was going through the man’s head in preparation for the war, how he processed what was needed to win, his strategies and simply how he presented himself as such a visionary General that, had he not died, may have gone down as one of the best in his field.

Kuribayashi asked for the opportunity to be positioned on the island, he sees this as a critical moment in the war and knows how crucial the stand off on Iwo Jima is in terms of keeping Japan safe. He’s studied America’s strategic way of fighting, due to spending a fair amount of time in the west getting to know some of the American soldiers before either country even contemplated entering the war. And he uses that previous knowledge when on the island to begin laying down his plans to best control the imminent conflict.

He basically arrived and changed everything, taking focus off of the beaches, planning out a series of underground tunnels and caves, gaining the trust of his troops by showing them that the only thing that matters to him is the larger picture, realizing the key points on the island that are crucial to maintaining the upper hand, while also keeping casualties to a minimum.

It’s as this all happens where we get to meet and follow Saigo, a baker who is drafted into the war before the birth of his first born daughter. Saigo is in many ways the lead character of the film, even though several characters remain prominent, and continuously shares his inner thoughts and beliefs on the war by writing letters, even tough he knows it’s unlikely that they will ever be sent.

As tension build on the island, Kuribayashi is ignored by the higher ups in terms of what he needs to make a successful stand off. And as the American’s get closer, the realization sets in within the ranks; his commanders, who start to view him as an American sympathizer due to spending so much time rubbing elbows with people from the west, soon ignore his strategies and begin to all craft their own plans, which continuously lead to dead ends due to a lack of communication between everyone. The rest, as they say, is history.

Acting in the film is where everything comes together. Eastwood has compiled a cast of actors that once they step foot on screen, for what ever reason, you instantly find a connection with them. With the films subject matter that is a very integral part; while the script puts the humanity of war on display, the actors are able to give us a reason to care about these soldiers, to become emotionally invested in their well being. With very little dialogue in the film, the actors expressions and mannerisms play a key role, a simple glance by Watanabe does more than any words could possibly convey.

The profound thing about Letters is that it forces us to reassess our opinions about our then enemies. While back in the 40’s we were, as a nation, the most patriotic, we are now able to finally look at all the pieces to the puzzle and form an opinion that best suits the conflict. Because while the the Japanese were considered our enemies, we’re able to see them as the selfless, honorable soldiers that they were. People who, while knowing their final outcome of the war, still soldiered on; still had a flame within themselves to defend their commander, their small strip of land, and their country.

While most directors these days try to either carry on from former success or start a career by remaking the success of those that came before them, Eastwood has put together a film that stands on its own. Granted, watching Flags of our Fathers will give you a better view of things, it isn’t necessary to bask in the glow of Letters; to fully appreciate what the movie is trying to do or say.

While Eastwood may have been dealing with too much information in Flags of our Fathers to form a fully coherent story, Letters is able to take a small leap of faith due to the unknowingness of what actually took place on the island and benefits from it. It has a far greater reflection on modern times in its story and far more focused in what it’s trying to show audiences about war. As a matter of fact, Letters may go down as the quintessential film based on this chapter of World War II. This is a touching and moving film that makes its audience view the conflict through new eyes.

It’s hard to put together a film where the enemy is painted as the heroes, but Eastwood is able to make these soldiers human, which is where so many directors before him failed. They tried to paint them as broad characters with no personalities or characteristics. Simply making them the bad guys in war films, never going in to detail to show people that they were just as unsure about going to war as we were.

Eastwood’s recent directorial work, films like Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River, aren’t quite deserving of the heaps of praise that have been put upon them. They’re films with small things that are done superbly but, as a whole, both tend to not quite reach the finish line without a few pulled muscles. Mystic River was more of a performance piece, with Tim Robbins and Sean Penn putting out perhaps their best work, but the movie’s plot felt like a TV show procedural with a big screen feel. While Million Dollar Baby was all about the characters and their journey to one last hurrah, but the story itself felt very cliche.

With impeccable performances and masterful direction, Letters from Iwo Jima is without a doubt the best film of 2006, and will certainly go down as one of the best films of all-time. Filmmaking at its absolute finest.

The DVD


Video:
(Presented in 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen)
While one might expect this DVD to be just as impressive as the transfer for Flags of our Fathers, there are a few issues with it that need to be brought to light.

The DVD seems to handle several things poorly, simple things like fading in and out of scenes seem marred with posterization and blocking. Blacks, while mostly solid throughout, still tend to have some instances of digital noise and a few instances of more posterization. Edge enhancement is another thing that seems to be present through most of the films runtime.The transfer also appears slightly softer than it looked in theaters, losing some of the sharp details.

There are many scenes here presented in stunning quality, where not a single problem is to be found, which makes the ones that are troublesome stand out even more. The movie as a whole plays out very well, it’s just a small handful of scenes or moments that have been poorly handled and stick out like a sore thumb. One has to wonder how some of these problems were overlooked during the mastering of the DVD, because they’re obvious to even the untrained eye.

I don’t know why, but for some reason this is an issue that has popped up on almost all of Warner’s newer titles. Many of which have had HD-DVD and Blu-ray releases to come out with highly praised transfers. While I hardly consider myself a conspiracy theorist, this trend is becoming slightly too common to be coincidence. I don’t know if they’re improperly compressing these titles for standard DVD or what, but before HD these problems were non-existent in Warner releases.

Audio:
(Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround)
The track offers a nice sense of panning around the speakers creating a atmospheric presence, putting the audience further into the story that Eastwood is trying to tell. You feel the rumble of bombs blasting while inside the tunnels with our main characters, all of the speakers are given plenty of range and usage. The Japanese dialogue is clearly audible throughout, however the subtitles, while entirely legible, can occasionally go by fast. Which may cause some viewers difficulty keeping up with what is happening at times.

English, French and Spanish subtitles are included.

Extras:

All bonus material can be found on disc two on this DVD set.

Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of Letters from Iwo Jima (20:59) – This very well put together featurette tells us the story of the films production from concept to the final cut of the film being set. We begin by hearing from Eastwood and the two writers as they discuss the challenge of writing the entire script from scratch and all of the research that went in to forming the story. They then go in to talking about how they were forced to create fictionalized characters but justify their inclusion by doing a lot of research on what was happening with the Japanese at the time, and all of the views and opinions that were swarming around. That allowed them to include alternate views on the war while still remaining faithful to what these soldiers may have been feeling, showing multiple sides of the Japanese. Viewing the situation through different eyes, similar to the way we would make an American war film with soldiers. The language barrier is an important factor here, as both Eastwood and his editor both talk about the trouble of directing actors in an unfamiliar language, along with the same difficulty of editing a film in a language you don’t understand. Having only the script and the actors physical emotions to guide you. Other things talked about are the costume designs, as well as some of the crews views on Eastwood wanting to make such a risky film. It’s a wonderful little piece that I wish ran longer and really delved into the production more.

The Faces of Combat: The Cast of Letters from Iwo Jima (18:36) – Another nice little extra, her we are introduced to both of the casting directors who worked on the project and they talk about trying to find the best Japanese actors around for these roles. Once Watanabe was signed on as the lead, all of the other roles seemed to have fallen into place rather quickly, because everyone wanted the opportunity to work with him on this film. All of the main actors share their connection with their characters and really show their personal side here. They talk about being home sick, wanting to do justice to the soldiers who died on Iwo Jima, and what their take on the movie as a whole was. We also learn just how famous some of these actors are in their home country. The featurette is very insightful and moves along quickly.

Images from the Frontline: The Photography of Letters from Iwo Jima (3:25) – What is essentially a montage, this feature is a series of photographs taken from the movie accompanied by the sensational score composed by Kyle Eastwood (Clint’s son). A nice addition, but only worth one viewing.

11/15/2006 World Premiere at Budo-kan in Tokyo (16:06) – Starting out with a brief clip from the red carpet premiere, this piece isn’t what some might be expecting. Shown in front of a packed auditorium of almost 10,000, Masahiko Ueyanagi welcomes the crowd and gives them a brief description of the film. He then welcomes actors Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Producer Robert Lorenz, Screenwriter Iris Yamashita and Director Clint Eastwood on to the stage. They all individually thank the crowd for showing up and share their opinion on the film. Watanabe especially give a heartfelt speech about how the film tries to preserve a part of Japanese history that many are trying to forget ever happened.

11/16/2006 Press Conference at Grand Hyatt Tokyo (24:27) – Is basically a nearly half hour Q&A with the same cast and crew members listed above. Many questions that audience member might have had about what was going through the minds of the actors or Clint are raised here and are give very well thought out answers by the panel. This is a nice featurette that really allows the people involved to share their personal opinion. Thankfully, the piece is filled with astute questions and are given insightful responses in return.

Rounding out the DVD is the films terrific Theatrical Trailer (2:32).

The DVD Lounge’s Ratings for Letters from Iwo Jima
CATEGORY
RATING
(OUT OF 10)
THE MOVIE

10
THE VIDEO

7
THE AUDIO

9
THE EXTRAS

7
REPLAY VALUE

10
OVERALL
8
(NOT AN AVERAGE)