DVD SPECIAL FEATURES REVIEW: Letters from Iwo Jima

 

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA

Starring: KenWatanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase and Shido Nakamura.

Written by: Iris Yamashita

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

142 mins

SUMMARY

Letters from Iwo Jima is the companion film to Flags of Our Fathers, both directed by Clint Eastwood, but from different perspectives on the war.  Iwo Jima , which won the Golden Globe for Best Picture Foreign Language, focuses on the Japanese warriors, their plans of defending their soil as well as their personal battles dealing with the war itself, their fellow soldiers and their feelings for the loved ones they left behind. 

Among the most poignant and telling scenes from the movie is after an American soldier’s letter from his mother is read, and Kazunari Ninomiya, the young hero of the movie, begins crying, saying how the American letter and his own mother’s letters were almost the same.  This seems to be the true spirit of the movie, the notion that we are all the same animal with similar hopes and dreams that, at some points, are forced to go to extremes

SPECIAL FEATURES

The first special feature of the two-disc collection is called Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of Letters from Iwo Jima (21:00). This is a very worthwhile watch with interviews of just about all major figures providing great insight.  It’s easy to miss out on things when watching a foreign language film, and this feature helps clear away a lot of the fog. “The Americans believed they were coming back (home).  The Japanese were told they weren’t coming back,” Eastwood says. Indeed, the difference between the two cultures seemed to be the focal point of this special feature. Tom Stern, the Director of Photography, states “(It’s) most interesting when you see the two together (Americans and Japanese) because it really gives you the totality of the event…I came up with the idea that it was a noble journey to oblivion…These characters under incredible duress had a nobility about them.”

In addition to Eastwood and Stern, other names and quotables include:

Paul Haggis – producer, co-writer:  “(It’s important to) empathize with people who would be villains in other films.”

Iris Yamashita – Japanese-American screenwriter:  “(I) tried to find personal accounts, but there are not many survivors of Iwo Jima .  I think I found a couple.”

Deborah Hopper – Costume Designer:  “A lot of actors come to me and this is the way they find their characters – through the clothes.”

Joel Cox – Editor:  “I had a script in English and so I tried to figure what they were saying in the Japanese language and edit accordingly.”  

The Faces of Combat: The Cast of Letters from Iwo Jima (18:38) is the second special feature on the DVD. Of all the special features, this is the one that deals with the history of the event the most.  Through meeting the cast we learn that, in Japan , they are not taught about the Battle of Iwo Jima.  Eastwood says, “They don’t talk about it.  Just now it seems they’re starting to revisit their history.”  It seems that much of the cast learned about the battle through the filming of the movie. 

Meeting the cast in this feature is one of the greatest joys of viewing this DVD.  Collectively, the Japanese actors were humbled and grateful for the opportunity to not only work with Clint Eastwood, but to learn about their past.  Says Casting Associate Matt Hoffman, “A lot of the Japanese, they take this very spiritually.”   Actor Ken Watanabe said, “We felt obliged to try to listen to the voices of the voiceless spirits,” then went as far as to say, “We felt like we could give up our own lives to make this film.”

Through interviews, we also learn much about how each actor finds their character and, in general, how the movie was made.  Most actors studied whatever they could get their hands on to learn what it would take to embody a Japanese soldier in WWII.  They speak of working with the props department for advice on guns, how they were getting paid to act just as a soldier got paid to fight, and even the longing to go home (Ironically, much of the film was shot in Malibu).

Images from the Front Lines: The Photography of Letters from Iwo Jima (3:26) is a slideshow of some pretty amazing photos taken during the shooting of the film, anywhere from Eastwood directing the actors to shot of nasty battles in the trenches.  It only lasts a few minutes, but don’t be surprised if your eyes get a little wet. You’re not alone. Appropriately, the image that comes to Americans when they think of this battle is never shown or even mentioned.

The November 2006 World Premiere at Budo-kan in Tokyo (16:06) is basically what you would expect from a world premiere for a major film, except it was in Japan .  There were many autographs, interviews and cheering fans outside the theatre.  On the inside, the filmmakers were introduced to several thousand people and took turns talking about the film and how much they hoped to stop war in general.  The same goes for the November 2006 Press Conference.  They’re nice features, but nothing you don’t see or hear in the first two.  If you have an extra hour on your hands, check them out; if not, you’re not missing a whole lot.

Overall, this is great stuff, especially the first two special features. I think it was a wise choice not to include any type of overlapping production or director commentary, simply because it would conflict with the subtitles. 

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