"Men, we are honorable soldiers of the Emperor. Don't ever forget that. The only way left for us is to die with honor."
When he started pre-production on his WWII epic Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood did not originally envision the material split into two separate movies. As work progressed, however, the idea of retelling the story of the famous battle from the Japanese perspective kept gnawing away at him until eventually the companion piece Letters from Iwo Jima was launched for back-to-back production. Conceived as such practically as an afterthought, the latter movie (produced entirely in the Japanese language) surprisingly went on to much greater acclaim and largely overshadowed the original project.
The shot that opens Letters is a deliberate parallel to the one that closes Flags, a view of the Iwo Jima shoreline seen beyond the war monuments present there today. Like its American counterpart, the film begins in contemporary times and flashes back to the events of 60 years earlier.
The main storyline picks up with Japanese General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arriving on the tiny Pacific island and finding its defenses disorganized. Learning that they will have no naval or aerial support from the mainland despite a massive advance of American military on their position, the clever tactician immediately sets about redirecting the island's forces, removing them from the beach where they would be quickly overwhelmed and digging them into fortified positions in the mountain. This causes consternation among the other military commanders, who favor traditional battle strategies and consider the new General a weak American sympathizer. As the first waves of bombing runs and artillery bombard the island, Kuribayashi orders his men to wait out the onslaught in their underground cave bunkers, in order to ambush the Americans when they advance further inland. Many impatient Japanese soldiers disagree with his plans, considering it cowardly and dishonorable to shrink from combat. To die in defense of their sacred homeland is a great honor, greater even than victory, a mentality the commander must overcome in his men.
Unlike Flags of Our Fathers, Letters is less sweeping war epic than
smaller scale character drama, presenting us with the humanistic side of the conflict. The movie spends more time on the island in the days preparing for the invasion than it does lingering in combat footage, some of which when it comes is actually reused from the previous film. The movie's greatest strength is the depth of its characterizations, a significant failing in Flags. We get to know these men intimately and understand their great diversity of personalities and opinions. The screenplay by Iris Yamashita plays a little bit with flashbacks, but is much more tightly structured than the mess that was Flags, and Eastwood's direction displays the nuance and mature contemplation of his best works.
Letters is certainly, indisputably the better of the two films. Nonetheless, the combination of the two movies together is stronger than either individually. Only by having seen Flags first do events in Letters achieve their greatest resonance. As we watch the brutal fighting against the anonymous American hordes, the realization dawns on us that we've already seen all of this from the other perspective, and the characters we're so wrapped up in now were the faceless enemies then. It's a harrowing portrait of the war, more so when you've seen it from both sides.
The HD DVD:
Letters from Iwo Jima has been released on the HD DVD format by Warner Home Video. A comparable Blu-ray edition is also available. Due to complicated financing arrangements, the movie's American counterpart Flags of Our Fathers is distributed by Dreamworks Home Entertainment, who have released that film on both High Definition formats on the same day that Warner released Letters.
The Letters disc is a Combo release with a standard DVD version on the flip side. The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying clicking sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc is a Combo release that specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Letters from Iwo Jima HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
Eastwood takes the bleaching and desaturation he played around with in Flags of Our Fathers
several steps further in Letters, leaving the movie with practically black & white photography except for the faintest hint of coloration in things like sepia flesh tones or the subtle blue sky. Specific colors do creep in for effect, such as the red sun in the Japanese flag or the blue of the ocean. The stylization is really quite beautiful, mimicking the austerity of classic Japanese films, and the HD DVD captures it very well. The colors that do appear are rendered with much cleaner precision than the standard DVD version of the movie.
The picture is a bit softer than the Flags HD DVD from Dreamworks. I expect the conspiracy theorists out there on internet discussion forums to rant and rave about Warner's supposed video filtering, but in truth the difference was likely intentional to distinguish the two films visually, much as the drained colors were. Visible detail is quite good, a significant improvement over the DVD. It's a dark film, taking place largely inside caves, and the picture has rich black levels with plenty of shadow detail. Truly, this is a very impressive and film-like High Definition image.
The Letters from Iwo Jima HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 or lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 formats. Letters is a much quieter film than Flags of Our Fathers, with more time spent waiting for the invasion (or waiting it out underground) than spent in combat. When the action does come, the soundtrack roars to life with stunning vibrancy. The crack of rifle fire, growl of engines, and thunder of explosions fill the soundstage with immersive directionality and excellent fidelity. Once again, dialogue is a little low in the mix, causing the battle scenes to seem deafeningly loud in comparison to the dramatic scenes, but that was probably deliberate. Like its American counterpart, Letters offers a stellar audio track.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - N/A.
The English subtitles are positioned half-in/half-out of the movie image, which is a tremendous nuisance for 2.35:1 Constant Image Height projection viewers.
The bonus features on this HD DVD title are duplicated from the DVD edition, though many are presented here in true High Definition video using VC-1 compression. All of the supplements from the DVD have carried over.
Note that Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima were also released together on DVD in a 5-Disc Commemorative Collector's Edition box set that contained an exclusive "Heroes of Iwo Jima" bonus disc. The contents of that extra DVD (an A&E Channel documentary) are not included in the HD DVD edition of either film.
- Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of Letters from Iwo Jima (21 min., HD) - A solid overview of why Eastwood decided to make two separate movies, how the script was written in English and later translated, what it was like for an American to direct a Japanese cast, and the difficulties of editing the Japanese footage when the editor doesn't speak the language.
- The Faces of Combat: The Cast of Letters from Iwo Jima (19 min., HD) - The challenges of international casting are covered. Several of the main actors are also interviewed.
- Images from the Frontlines: The Photography of Letters from Iwo Jima (3 min., HD) - An animated still photo montage.
- The World Premiere (16 min., SD) - Footage from the Tokyo red carpet and introductory speeches.
- The Tokyo Press Conference (24 min., SD) - Interviews with Clint Eastwood, producer Robert Lorenz, screenwriter Iris Yamashita, and stars Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, and Ryo Kase.
- Theatrical Trailer (2 min., SD) - The trailer is offered in its original widescreen aspect ratio, but is strangely not subtitled.
The better half of Clint Eastwood's WWII diptych, Letters from Iwo Jima is a compelling piece of drama, and the HD DVD offers excellent picture, sound, and a handful of decent bonus features. It comes highly recommended, with the emphasis that the combination of this film and Flags of Our Fathers together make an indispensable package.
Flags of Our Fathers (HD DVD)
The Last Samurai (HD DVD) - Ken Watanabe
Million Dollar Baby (HD DVD) - Clint Eastwood
HD Review Index
High-Def Revolution - DVDTalk's HD Column
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player