'Letters from Iwo Jima' can best be described as a companion piece to director Clint Eastwood?s 'Flags of our Fathers'. This however doesn?t mean the film can't be seen on its own: it has its own set of characters and storyline, and it isn?t a continuation or sequel or anything.
Whereas 'Flags' told the story of the WWII battle of Iwo Jima from the Americans? side, 'Letters' simply tells the tale of the battle from the perspective of their Japanese opponents.
The film focuses on several characters, most prominently amongst them the general who commanded the Japanese forces in the face of insurmountable odds, and a young conscripted soldier who isn?t having any of this ?dying for the Emperor? stuff. He simply wants to be home with his wife and newborn baby daughter.
Chances are most audience members would identify most with the young soldier. The Imperial Japanese army circa WWII was (in)famous for its discipline, brutality and self-sacrifice. They would literally fight to the last man, which explains why out of 22 000 Japanese soldiers defending Iwo Jima only slightly more than a thousand would actually survive.
One particularly harrowing scene has a platoon of Japanese soldiers committing suicide with hand grenades instead of retreating. In our post-9/11 age of suicide bombers this scene strikes a particular chord as this is a degree of fanaticism that is wholly alien to most Westerners.
'Letters from Iwo Jima' would, however, have more meaning for viewers who have seen and enjoyed 'Flags of Our Fathers'. To a certain degree 'Letters' is a better film. Its narrative structure is more straightforward and has none of the confusing flashback scenes of 'Flags'. The Japanese soldiers prepare for the attack; the Americans first bomb the island and then land in their thousands while the Japanese soldiers are holed up in an intricate network of tunnels and caves.
Be sure to have your subtitles set to English, unless your Japanese is better than ours of course. Practically all the film?s dialogue is in Japanese. Ironically a Japanese American woman who couldn?t speak a word of Japanese wrote the screenplay ? in English! When she had finished it, it was then translated into Japanese, and the film was consequently filmed in the language. (This must have presented quite a challenge to director Clint Eastwood who can?t speak a word of Japanese either!) For some reason the DVD isn?t set to English subtitles automatically.
Extras: A half-hour-long ?making of? feature which supplies little if any info on the historical battle ? for that you have to view the second disc of the 'Flags of our Fathers'. It does however provide some interesting info on the making of the film, such as those language issues.