The famous Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II has become a part of American mythology. The image of six American soldiers raising Old Glory has been stamped in our collective memory, a symbol of triumph in the face of difficulty and of the long-held belief that the United States will never be defeated. But for all of the power brought forth from that iconic image, the souls of the men who fought in the battle and gave their lives for their countries have been all but neglected. For those who died, it was not an experience of triumph and victory, but one of fear and tremendous loss for their families.
Director Clint Eastwood, who over the last decade has emerged as one of the foremost American directors of our time, chose the Battle of Iwo Jima for his own cinematic diptych, an artistic study of the true events from both sides. Beginning with "Flags of Our Fathers," he examined the American point of view, exposing the truth behind the famous photo and following the tribulations of the men who raised the flag. As an intriguing counterpoint, his companion film "Letters from Iwo Jima" takes us to the war-torn island to experience the battle through the eyes of a diverse group of Japanese men.
The first of these men is General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), whose arrival signals a heightened attention to protocol on the island. Decent and rational, Kuribayashi quickly puts a stop to unnecessary corporal punishment, warning that the soldiers will need all of their strength for the battle. His gentle manner and ability to look at the bigger picture quickly ingratiate him with the foot soldiers, but the other commanding officers resent him. Knowing that he served for a time in the United States and that during his residency he gained a deep respect for Americans, the other officers accuse Kuribayashi of being an American sympathizer. In his tranquil way, the general remains steadfast in his views and spends much of his time writing letters to his family.
Among the soldiers in Kuribayashi's garrison is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a young baker who was forced to leave an expectant wife at home when he was drafted. He also devotes his time to writing letters, though he is frequently told they may never reach his home. Something of an idealist, Saigo complains openly about the war—something that was viewed as treason—and the only thing that keeps him going is the promise he made to his then-unborn child that he would return safely to her. This is a promise that, deep down, he knows is nearly impossible to keep.
Newly transferred to the post is Shimizu (Ryo Kase). From his prestigious uniform and upright mannerisms, Saigo and his companion gather that Shimizu may be a spy sent in to report unpatriotic behavior. Stoic and aloof, Shimizu remains isolated through much of the battle until circumstances draw him closer to Saigo, whom he must depend on for survival.
At either side of Kuribayashi are Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamura). The handsome Nishi is a former Olympian, famous for his equestrian skills. Like Kuribayashi, Nishi also spent time in America, hobnobbing with movie stars like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. He sees the impending battle as a futile mission, believing it may be better to just sink the island. Lieutenant Ito, by contrast, is the very embodiment of a Japanese patriot. So driven is he to die heroically for his country that he lies among piles of dead bodies, holding explosives, in hopes of blowing up an enemy tank.
Through the eyes of these five men, Clint Eastwood presents us with a complex vision of the Japanese defense. Without naval or aerial support, the battle for Iwo Jima grows increasingly fatal for the Japanese. They are outnumbered by the Americans by thousands and are poorly equipped. When preparing the men for action, Kuribayashi does not refrain from giving them the truth. He tells them flatly that they most likely will not return home alive. They must die as soldiers. However, he also urges them to fight to the death, discouraging the common custom of heroic suicide. Lastly, he promises them that he will always be in front of them.
Ken Watanabe's performance is the work of a truly great actor. Dialogue is sparse in this film, and there are few moments of great dramatic emotion. Watanabe does not need such moments. He has that rare ability to communicate volumes with little more than a glance. The power of his rich characterization lies in his body language and soulful facial expressions. We see him not just as a general, but as a man.
Narratively, the film is given the distinct feel of Japanese cinema. Although some intensely graphic battle scenes are interspersed throughout, the movie is told largely in quiet, tranquil strokes that reflect Japanese simplicity. Filmed in a muted, almost monochromatic color scheme, the movie is stripped of vivid colors to convey an emptiness, a futility that matches the plight of its characters. The minimalist score by Kyle Eastwood (Clint's son) and Michael Stevens adds an authentic texture to the action, carefully underscoring the events with clean efficiency.
Though some have been quick to label "Letters from Iwo Jima" an anti-war movie, this is a disheartening simplification. War is much too complex an issue for such generalizations, and Eastwood recognizes this. The movie does not go after the governments of either country. It does not depict a corrupt political system, nor does it attempt to paint a black-and-white picture of heroes and villains. Instead, it brings out the humanity in all of its characters. These are simple men. They are not superheroes; they are not warriors. They are men with families, with jobs, with fears, with insecurities. These are ordinary people who have been swept into a life-or-death experience far beyond their control or understanding. What Eastwood focuses on is the ways in which they cope with their plight. In his depiction of the very fragility of these five men's lives, Eastwood takes this film out of the realm of a typical war picture to illuminate the boundless nature of the human spirit, which extends far beyond race and nationality.
Warner Home Video has certainly done an excellent job in bringing "Letters from Iwo Jima" to DVD, presenting the film in an anamorphic 2.40:1 widescreen transfer. The picture is crisp and clear with no noticeable artifacts. Black levels are rich and deep, which is vital for the predominant night and shadowed scenes. The muted colors are rendered nicely. Fine detail is visible throughout. For a standard DVD, this could not look any better.
The audio is given equally fine treatment in a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. We are treated to a dynamic mix during the battle scenes with thundering rear distribution, fully immersing us in the action. Voices and music are consistently clear. The film was shot primarily in Japanese, though there are a few English segments as well. The DVD is equipped with only a Japanese-language track with English subtitles. In addition, French and Spanish subtitles are included.
Warner's two-disc set offers up several excellent features on its second disc, beginning with "Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of Letters from Iwo Jima." This 21-minute featurette gives us the backstory on this important film, revealing how Eastwood first conceived the idea to take on the Japanese perspective. On-camera interviews with Eastwood, the cast, and screenwriters Paul Haggis and Iris Yamashita help illuminate the movie's background and production. This feature also contains a good amount of behind-the-scenes footage.
Next up is "The Faces of Combat: The Cast of Letters from Iwo Jima." At 19 minutes, this enlightening featurette contains interviews with the casting directors and all of the leading actors who discuss the roles they played and how they connected with their characters. It was interesting to discover that many of the young Japanese actors had never heard of the Battle of Iwo Jima before, as this is not taught in Japanese schools. A roughly three-minute montage of stills follows, set to the film's haunting score.
After this, we are presented with 16 minutes of footage from the movie's world premiere at Budo-kan in Tokyo on November 15, 2006. Eastwood, Iris Yamashita, producer Robert Lorenz, and actors Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, and Ryo Kase all appear as guests. Before the premiere, each one gives his or her thoughts on the film before a large crowd, providing some of the most interesting commentary on the entire disc. Tsuyoshi Ihara offers some especially thoughtful insight.
This is followed by a 24-minute look at the next day's press conference at which all of the above guests made up the panel. Once again, they offer up more intelligent, insightful, and sometimes humorous comments on their work in the film and what it meant to them. That this American film could be so widely accepted by Japanese audiences is a triumphant turn after the events depicted in the movie. A theatrical trailer rounds out the bonus features.
In its unbiased exploration of enemy territory, "Letters from Iwo Jima" shows that there are more similarities than differences between the fighters on opposite sides of the killing fields. The film stands as one of the crowning achievements of 2006 and as a new benchmark for war films. It is not so much anti-war as it is pro-understanding, asking that we take the time to look at a situation as it must be seen by our adversaries. People are essentially alike all over, and as long as they are forced to fight for someone else's cause, they will suffer the same universal indignities.