Letters From Iwo Jima Review

After the utterly conventional and unimaginative approach to the war movie demonstrated in Flags Of Our Fathers, you’d be forgiven for expecting the second part of Clint Eastwood’s diptych to be similarly loaded with cliché, banal observations and an ambivalent, confused view about the nature of war heroism. And with Paul Haggis involved as producer and co-scriptwriter, chances are you’d be right. An Asian outlook given a Hollywood spin, it’s another fundamentally flawed film that brings its own set of problems.

The primary reason for the existence of Letters From Iwo Jima would seem to be as a sop to political correctness, an attempt to avoid accusations of only viewing the war from one side by showing that the Japanese were real people too. Like, as if any side went to war with humane considerations for the viewpoint of the enemy other than how to kill them most expediently. There’s nothing politically correct about war, and this is modern revisionism at its worst. Having no deeper understanding of the Asian mindset, and no other purpose for its existence other than to act as a balance for Flags Of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima consequently flounders with no sense of structure, story or real characters. Essentially, it relies on the standard approach that you’ll be familiar with from even Blackadder Goes Forth, showing the little man on one side, grimly trying to survive their dug-in position in trenches, while on the other showing the incompetence of the commanders who send them conflicting orders that only serve to hasten their glorious death for the Empire.

The perfunctory “little man” character in Letters From Iwo Jima is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). Showing the view from the ground, he writes letters to his wife describing the grim conditions they are living in, beaten by officers, dying from dysentery, knowing that they face certain death on a bleak, barren island far from the mainland and far from the cares of the Japanese high command in Tokyo who have other things to worry about. On the command side, you have the good leader, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), in the unenviable position of having to prepare the island for the onslaught of the full strength of the American forces, knowing his men have no support from the almost completely destroyed Japanese Navy and that they all face almost certain death, but charged nevertheless to do his best to hold back the American forces for as long as possible. His position is undermined by the more traditional officers, who value honour above all else - it’s not enough to fight and die for their country, they have to do so according to the traditional Bushido ethic.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with such stereotypes in a wartime drama – it’s undoubtedly true that such divisions between the high command, the local command and the troops on the ground are common. Letters From Iwo Jima’s problem however is its failure to so anything meaningful with them other than play them through standard and increasingly contrived dramatic situations and devices that reek of Hollywood, such as heart-tugging letters to home and flashbacks to memories of happier times. To balance the one-sidedness of Flags Of Our Fathers the film has a calculated brief moment of poignancy and mutual understanding of respective positions between an injured American soldier and a caring Japanese officer just to show us that the Japanese weren’t all bad people, and an incident that shows us that American soldiers weren’t all good guys either. It’s nothing but platitudinous drivel. Primarily though, and repetitively, the film relies on the situation of the little man showing more sense than his immediate superiors and not exactly being valued for their contribution, being frequently pulled out of the frying pan by the good commanders who suddenly and opportunely turn up just in the nick of time to prevent a great injustice. Out of the frying pan and into the line of fire evidently, since the outcome of the soldiers’ ultimate fates has already been written by history and over-dramatised in Flags Of Our Fathers.

Essentially then, in the absence of many Japanese survivors from the battle of Iwo Jima to offer testimony, Letters From Iwo Jima has no brighter ideas than to serve up fictional stock characters with sentimentalised backgrounds similar to their American counterparts in Flags Of Our Fathers and put them through contrived situations with a predetermined outcome in mind. The first tedious forty-five minutes of “character development” out of the way then, Letters From Iwo Jima has nowhere else to go than see them through to their predictably bleak ends. Although it is certainly not as graphic as most modern war films, Letters From Iwo Jima finds more elaborate means to show soldiers blown-up, mutilated, and burning while attractively framed in wonderfully composed images and dramatically desaturated colours.

Expectations were never high on Clint Eastwood having anything original or insightful to say about the Japanese position on the war after Flags Of Our Fathers, but he really struggles here to offer anything more than the reductive western view that they were just like their American counterparts, didn’t want to die and just wanted to get back to the folks back home, but suffered and died horribly on account of their superiors. This tells us nothing that we didn’t already know about war before, but over-dramatised, over-sentimentalised and over-elaborately photographed, it seems particularly trite and even distasteful here.

Letters From Iwo Jima is released in the UK by Warner Home Video as a 2-disc set. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, the extra features on a single-layer disc. The set is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.

The video quality is much the same here as it was on Flags Of Our Fathers. If anything the overall tone is darker, much of the film taking place at night and in dark tunnels, the image almost completely drained of any colour whatsoever. Technically the transfer copes well with this colour scheme, the image looking clear and properly toned, if a little over-processed. Although there are no marks on the print itself, flaws can certainly be detected in the transfer if you are looking for them – faint macroblocking artefacts, cross colouration, a slight softness and some dot-crawl – but they are very minor issues indeed and scarcely visible in normal playback on an average-sized screen.

Dolby Digital 5.1 is the only option available for the soundtrack and again it’s clear, strong and functional, but not overly impressive. Dialogue, sound effect and music score are reasonably well distributed and clearly audible, but the constant ping of bullets around your head does seem over-emphasised, sounding like nothing more than special effects. It lacks the full body of a DTS mix to bring it more fully to life. A Dolby Digital 2.0 Audio Description option is also included.

English and English for Hearing Impaired subtitles are included for the feature and for all the extra features. Bizarrely featuring a completely different set of secondary subtitles to the R2 of Flags Of Our Fathers, this one has subtitles in Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish on both film and extra features.

Red Run, Black Sand: The Making of Letters From Iwo Jima (20:58)
A comprehensive Making Of includes interviews with Eastwood, Haggis and screenwriter Iris Yamashita talking about the initial idea of telling the story from the other side and developing this into a companion piece for Flags Of Our Fathers. It goes on then to look at the set designs, costumes and research done to ensure the highest level of authenticity.

The Faces of Combat: The Cast of Letters From Iwo Jima (18:36)
Eastwood makes an interesting observation that the story of Iwo Jima is not well known in Japan and not taught as part of Japanese history. Although I hardly think that either of Eastwood’s films are the most factual of sources, the cast are nonetheless very moved by this almost forgotten event. This feature goes through how casting was achieved for a film in a language the director didn’t speak, interviewing each of the main cast, who are all very engaging.

Images from Front Lines: The Photography of Letters From Iwo Jima (3:25)
A slideshow shows a number of high-quality fullscreen stills, toned in the same style as the film.

11/15/2006: World Premiere at Budo-kan in Tokyo (16:06)
The reaction to the film in Japan is well-covered, Eastwood choosing to have the film’s world premiere shown in Tokyo, and going along to the screening. Each of the cast members, as well as producer, director and screenwriter all make short speeches before the presentation of the film.

11/16/2006: Press Conference at Grand Hotel Hyatt Tokyo (24:28)
The cast and crew subsequently answer questions from the press, explaining choices made and giving their impressions of the final film.

Theatrical Trailer (2:15)
The film’s trailer is pretty bleak and depressing. In addition to the film being in a foreign language and subtitled, I can’t see that it would have attracted many people along to see it.

There seems to be no real justification for existence of Letters From Iwo Jima at all other than to present a politically correct balanced view of the American perspective of war shown in Flags Of Our Fathers. Despite the dubiousness of the rationale, it is at least a very brave effort from Eastwood, not only for making a film in a foreign language, but in putting out a film that forces a mainstream audience to read subtitles. Ultimately, it’s a futile effort however, since the filmmakers singularly fail to find anything new to say from a non-American perspective, Eastwood and Haggis unimaginatively relying on the same old hoary war-movie conventions and Hollywood sentimentality, tastelessly depicting it in glorious ‘Scope compositions and over-processed colouring. Even so, it’s still a marginal improvement over the sickening piety and hopelessly confused mixed messages put out by Flags Of Our Fathers, even if it’s just for the novelty of seeing an Asian war film made Hollywood-style by conservative American filmmakers.

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