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DVD Review: Letters From Iwo Jima

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It is an oft-repeated saying that there are two sides to every story. Filmically, I am hard pressed to imagine a better representation of this truism than Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of our Fathers, the two films on the Battle of Iwo Jima directed last year by Clint Eastwood.

The first movie, Flags of Our Fathers, is a wonderful film; it takes a cold, hard look at what happened, what people alleged happened, and the aftermath. It is an unflinching, not always positive look at the American soldiers and their masters.

On the other side of it all, and coming to DVD this week, is Letters From Iwo Jima. A fantastic film in its own right, when paired with Flags the scope of Eastwood’s endeavor becomes clear and truly astounding. Letters, providing a look at the Japanese soldiers on the island, is an even stronger film than Flags.

The film centers on General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), a general recently arrived on the island of Iwo Jima, who has the task of preparing his troops for the upcoming battle against American forces. Kuribayashi has an advantage in his planning that many of his troops lack — he spent several years in the United States and thus understands more of the U.S. psyche than do his compatriots.

For different reasons, virtually every Japanese soldier on the island believes that they will not make it off the island. Sometimes they are lied to by their direct commanders, and sometimes by the commanders back in Tokyo. It is incredibly sad, and somber. Every Japanese soldier on the island deals with the battle in different ways, most of them mustering more strength than I can imagine.

The film is beautifully shot, with muted tones and a dark cast covering everything. People are hidden in shadows as they struggle to find a way to survive. Everything about it is both haunting and heart-wrenching, without ever being an over-the-top tear-jerker.

While some of the other characters in the film, like Lt. Colonel Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), are people who were actually on Iwo Jima during the fateful battle, others, like Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), are merely representative of the type of people who would have been present at the time. The use of fictional and non-fictional characters proves essential due to the fact that the vast majority of Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima during the battle died and there are few records of what took place from the Japanese perspective.

This lack of records may hinder the truth claim of the movie, and yet Eastwood, with help from his writers, Iris Yamashita (story and screenplay) and Paul Haggis (story), are able to create such an astounding film that every second of it is completely believable. It doesn’t truly seem to matter that some of the specifics have been fudged. There is a book, Picture Letters From Commander in Chief (with TsuyokoYoshido) that the movie is partially based on, but that book was written by Kuribayashi years before the battle (presumably they provided insight into who he was).

It is clear that Clint Eastwood has a gift. In a single year, Eastwood was able to create two movies about the Battle of Iwo Jima. In one of them, the enemy coming over the hill was the Japanese, and in the other it was the Americans. He has managed to tell both sides of the story with an eloquence not often seen in depicting a single side.

Letters From Iwo Jima is a better all-around movie than Flags of Our Fathers. While both feature wonderful performances, Letters’ dark atmosphere and its look inside our war-time enemy provides greater interest than does Flags. I wouldn’t argue that Flags of Our Fathers is lacking in any way, but Letters has more style to go with its substance and is a view of the war not often seen. Combined, however, the two provide an incredible look at the first battle of World War II to be fought on Japan’s home soil.

The DVD, available May 22, comes in a two-disc edition that contains a couple of relatively standard, though still interesting, behind the scenes documentaries on the creation and casting of the film. There are also looks at a press conference and a premiere for the film and photographs from the filming as well.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.