Letters from Iwo Jima
R4 - Australia - Warner Home Video
Review written by and copyright: Noor Razzak and Joe Harbridge (28th July 2007).
The Film

"History is written by the victors", or so Winston Churchill said, but Letters from Iwo Jima is a film that is told from the Japanese point of view, and tells the story of the build-up and battle that occurred on Iwo Jima towards the end of World War II. Shot back-to-back with the American perspective (Flags of our Fathers), Clint Eastwood has taken on an ambitious project to attempt to show both sides of the conflict, and at least for the Japanese side, he has provided a credible and moving experience.
When I was asked to review the film, I first considered whether or not to watch both films and treat them as pieces of a puzzle. I decided against it, because I believe that the films should be assessed on their own merits. For this reason, I have deliberately not watched Flags of our Fathers prior to writing this review. That said, now that I have seen Letters from Iwo Jima, I was sufficiently impressed that I intend to watch Eastwood's other offering to contrast the two films.
The battle of Iwo Jima, from a Japanese point of view, was a disaster. Of the 22,000 troops posted to defend the island, almost all were killed, with less than a few hundred captured. The narrative is structured not from the point of view of the survivors, but as you might expect, from narrating letters from the lowest soldier to the thoughts of the commanding General. It also nicely fills in the gaps between, and shows snippets from back home in Japan to help develop the characters in the letters and show their emotions and fears as the battle progresses.
The film itself is well shot, footage feels authentic and the actors all do a great job of showing the darker side of war. And the film is indeed dark, from the outset, the Japanese face an impossible task. With little hope of reinforcement, there is a growing realisation that they have no hope of victory. The clash between the pride they have for Japan and to serve the emperor, and the knowledge that the will likely never see their families again makes for sad but compelling cinema. It is the film's treatment of this contrast, through the narration of letters, and the tension that arises between the officers that set it apart from other war films I have seen.
The film is long, like many films these days, but it does pace well, and it did not seem unnecessarily so. Occasionally, following the subtitles got a bit distracting as one attempted to follow the action on screen, but the authenticity is worth the sacrifice in my opinion. My only major gripe is the overly cheesy ending, where the film has been hugely realistic, then almost breaks out into slapstick as the letters that from the film are found and cascade from the parcel they have been buried in. By adding this dramatic, but highly unrealistic scene, Eastwood does a little damage to the integrity of the film which up until then has been also documentary in nature. While pretentious, this is easily over looked and should not dissuade anyone from deciding to watch the film for themselves. Is this film for everyone? Probably not, but it is certainly a strong addition to the genre, and a contrast to the many films that have glorified war.

Video

Presented in the film's original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 this anamorphic widescreen effort is another stunner than brilliantly compliments the release of Flags of our Fathers. As expected the image is razor-sharp and displays detail excellently. Much like the American counterpart the film's tone is muted and as a result the image is saturated. Colours are rendered accurately in this instance adding a depth to each frame. Black levels were solid and held up well throughout the print and shadow detail was consistently good especially in scenes that took place inside the caves and low-light situations. As far as I can tell there was no evidence of compression related problems and no edge-enhancement applied. This is a solid transfer that rates in the reference-quality category.

Audio

The film includes audio in Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 surround as well as a Descriptive track in English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround for the visually impaired. The original Japanese track is superb and compliments the image perfectly. With solid, clear and distortion free dialogue the real star is the range of this track. It balances soft ambient moments and aggressive war-time battle sequences with expert precision. The depth is staggeringly good, the invasion sequence is a wonderful example of this with about a million things going on at ones, from carriers landing on the beaches, soldiers rushing out, airplanes flying over head, bullets firing, canons blazing, etc. It's an aural treat that will put any surround sound system through the ringer.
Optional subtitles are also included in English, English for the hearing impaired, Arabic, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic and Portuguese.

Extras

The only major extra on this release is the featurette "Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of Letters from Iwo Jima" which runs for 20 minutes 58 seconds. In this clip it covers how the project originated during the development of Flags of our Fathers as well as finding a suitable Japanese writer to take the project on, the research involved in remaining authentic, the difficulty in directing a film in a different language and also looks at the production design, costumes and visual style among other things. This is a basic making-of that doesn't fall into the trap of patting everyone's back and focuses on the production. It's brief but worth watching.

Rounding out the extras is the film's original theatrical trailer which runs for 2 minutes 16 seconds.

The US Region 1 release gets a 2-disc set but this Region 4 is stuck with only a stripped down single-disc edition, which is a let down considering all the good stuff that's on the US release.

Overall

The Film: B+ Video: A Audio: A+ Extras: C+ Overall: B

 


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