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Letters from Iwo JimaLetters from Iwo Jima on DVD

Clint Eastwood's companion piece to his excellent Flags of our Fathers is an interesting counterpoint, a look behind the scenes at the WWII-era Japanese mindset we don't often get to see.

Where "Flags" was no sot much about the battle for Iwo Jima as it was a tale of heroism on and off the battlefield, Letters is a more intimate look at a few of the Japanese soldiers whose bad luck it was to be sent to the little island in the Pacific to stave off the inevitable invasion by American forces as they brought the fight back to Japan a few short years after their "sleeping giant" was awakened by the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.

It's best that you see the film after watching "Flags", if only so the necessary humanization of the Japanese characters doesn't make you forget the barbarity for which the Japanese forces became known, and which is shown more clearly in "Flags". Here, there's one particular scene of uncalled-for killing – but it's the Yanks who do it, a much more typical perspective from Hollywood of recent years though, to be fair, not of Eastwood that we can remember.

That said, the humanization of the Japanese soldiers here is good – these were for the most part "ordinary citizens" of a society where duty, discipline and honor ruled and whose rulers were not, shall we say, as concerned about the health and well being of their citizens as they could have been. So we have the reluctant recruit pulled from his home and away from his pregnant wife so he can partake in the honor of the war, of defending a homeland that would perhaps not have needed that defending if its rulers hadn't fired the first shots.

As such, the movie follows Japanese soldiers who for the most part were not monsters but were people thrown into a hopeless situation in which they were tasked to defend what appears through the telescope of history to be an indefensible regime, with limited resources and even less hope of survival.

The movie for the most part follows two main protagonists, Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) – the abovementioned foot soldier and General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the real life Japanese commander at Iwo Jima. Both are interesting three dimensional characters unfortunately bound by rigid military discipline that saw death as preferable to surrender, which during the course of the film leads to many unnecessary deaths as soldiers who could have retreated to fight again instead choose suicide. In fact, at one point we learn that they were ordered to do just that – retreat and regroup – but their way of life and code of honor prevented most of them from obeying.

We see through flashbacks some of the characters' lives before the war, or at least before Iwo Jima, and this gives us perspective into their backgrounds, including glimpses at the brutal discipline of the Japanese military establishment, even toward their own.

It's a remarkable story, well told and crafted. You may miss some of the visuals, since the film is in Japanese with English subtitles (except for a couple of brief scenes that are in English) and so you'll be reading from the bottom of the screen, but that adds more realism. And where "Flags" was an epic-scale film, the Japanese soldiers' lives inside claustrophobic tunnels and caves brings and much more intimate feel to the feature.

The movie is shot with a nearly black and white color palette that makes the stark bareness of the caves and tunnels even more depressing than they undoubtedly were. It's reminiscent of the faded look of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, though there's even less color here than in Spielberg's epic.

Eastwood's direction is superb, not surprisingly. He manages to capture the fear, hopelessness and bravery of these doomed soldiers as they bore into – and live inside – the volcanic rock of Iwo Jima. Just as with many soldiers from many armies in many wars, many – if not most – would rather be somewhere else but they have a duty to perform and will do it to the best of their ability and to the last of their energy.

Like "Flags", "Letters" looks extremely good on DVD. The anamorphic widescreen (16x9 TV compatible) picture is sharp and very clean, and the "lack of color palette" works with the excellent picture quality to help create a "you are there" feeling.

The audio, which is Dolby Digital 5.1, does an excellent job of recreating the echoic interior of the caves, as well as the concussion of the ordnance both in the tunnels and outside.  

It's nice to see the DVD released right off the bat as a "special edition," too. "Flags" had to wait for a special edition to come later, which was a shame – though not surprising given the trend of Hollywood to take multiple dips into the DVD pool.

There's no commentary track here, but there's a great selection of extra stuff on the second disc. "Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of `Letters from Iwo Jima'", a terrific "making of" documentary shows us (anamorphically) Eastwood and his gang discussing the challenges of making this film – and the extra challenges creating two complementary, though very different, films back-to-back.

"The Faces of War" brings us the cast members discussing their characters, and it's pretty good as well. Not as interesting is "Images from the Frontlines: The Photography of Letters from Iwo Jima", which is basically a montage of stills from the picture.

You also get a look at the film's world premiere at Budo-kan in Tokyo, and a November 2006 press conference.

Letters from Iwo Jima, from Warner Home Entertainment
140 min. anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1, 16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase,
Produced by Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz
Written by Iris Yamashita, directed by Clint Eastwood

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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