Letters from Iwo Jima is simply indescribable in terms of filmmaking. It succeeds on every possible front, even eliciting guilt from its audience for sympathizing with the lead characters from Flags of our Fathers. This is an absolute masterpiece, and the best film of the decade thus far.
Rarely content with showing epic action, Jima is focused on a few wonderfully crafted Japanese soldiers. The war happens around them, and barely ever are they part of the combat. The cast here is mesmerizing, led by Ken Watanabe, eliciting immeasurable amounts of emotion in every scene.
Eastwood creates unforgettable moments throughout, the highlight of the film is a conversation between Japanese Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and a captured, wounded American solider. In their brief time together, they become friends, shaking hands and laughing with each other as other troops off screen are dying. It’s a brilliant scene, creating a depressing, powerful statement of war.
Flashbacks are minimal, used as needed and appropriately. Even these become emotional, pushing the drama further. Foreshadowing is flawless, and the fate of the Japanese soldiers is known before the first gun is fired. First time screenwriter Iris Yamashita skims the problems the Japanese will face without forcing it on the audience. First and foremost are their honor, pride, and stern dedication. Their desperation in terms of defending the island is always secondary.
The few large scale battles scenes are stunning accomplishments for a $15 million film. Shots of planes taking camps apart are spectacular. Offshore bombardments also become pyrotechnic powerhouses.
What Iwo Jima accomplishes however isn’t visual splendor. Yes, the film is beautifully photographed with a muted color tone nearly placing the film in black and white. However, it’s always the human side that takes precedent. Personal conflicts seem meaningless in the end as the soldiers perform their duties for their countries as needed. Eastwood captures this in engrossing fashion, ensuring the troops are presented as strong-willed even as they walk to their death.
Pushing emotional content aside, Iwo Jima simply crushes its companion piece, Flags of our Fathers. This is far more focused without convoluting its story by taking it in countless unneeded and confusing directions. Even without Flags' action scenes, Iwo Jima elicits a far deeper emotional response simply because the people portrayed are so vigilant and determined.
That said, Flags is still a critical piece to Iwo Jima’s success. Although it’s able to stand on its own as the one character crossover is barely apparent, the opposing view aids in making this follow-up work on a different level. It’s impossible to take sides, though it’s hard not to feel as if Eastwood is making a point that the overblown media impact the American soldiers felt in the famous flag-raising photo was an easy way out comparatively as Japanese troops kill themselves instead of surrendering.
Letters from Iwo Jima is a film everyone should see, though sadly that’s unlikely to be the case after a disappointing box office take. It’s not a war movie as many may be accustomed to, but a human drama placed in a set of circumstances that are unimaginable to the majority of the audience. This has instant classic written all over it.
With faded color, it’s surprising to see some excessive compression. Edge enhancement is also a problem in spots, both avoidable problems if handled properly. Black levels are thankfully spot on as much of the film takes place inside caves draped in darkness. Contrast can be a bit high in the early moments, blotting out background detail. Detail feels muted throughout however. It’s a soft transfer as well. This is truly a DVD presentation not up to par with the film material.
Audio will likewise be a concern early on. A plane bombardment that begins the battle feels flat in terms of bass. Not long after, ships begin blasting the island and as the troops huddle inside tunnels, the blast begins reverberating throughout the sound field. That’s when this mix is at its best, and the massive shots from other scenes using the LFE channel are amazing. Surround use is aggressive during gunfights, and there are bullets consistently being fired in the rear speakers during dialogue sequences.
Extras are sparse, barely warranting a two-disc set. Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of Letters from Iwo Jima is the key feature, running 21 minutes. It’s a making-of piece that discusses Eastwood’s decision to create the film alongside plenty of behind the scenes footage. Faces of Combat is a 19-minute feature on the casting, which was somewhat difficult as the battle is rarely discussed in Japanese classrooms.
Images from the Frontlines is a brief three-minute collection of still images from the film. The Japanese premiere is a 16-minute piece that lets each actor discuss their roles before the audience, while a follow-up piece is a 24-minute press conference that occurred a day later. The audience asks some deep questions to Eastwood and the cast.
Sadly and somewhat surprising, there’s nothing here on the actual battle. No documentary, no historical piece, and no interviews with experts. It’s inexcusable given the serious nature of the subject matter.
A box set which includes this two-disc set, the two-disc edition of Flags of our Fathers, and a bonus fifth disc is the way to purchase the movies on standard DVD. There’s an extra documentary from the History Channel along with an award-winning short from 1945 on the battle for the island. Still, there’s little excuse for leaving historical material off the second disc of the standard editions.