HTF HD-DVD Review: Letters from Iwo Jima

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by PatWahlquist, May 26, 2007.

  1. PatWahlquist

    PatWahlquist Supporting Actor

    Jun 13, 2002
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    Letters from Iwo Jima (HD-DVD)

    Studio: Warner Home Video
    Rated: R (Sequences of graphic war violence)
    Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
    HD Encoding: 1080p
    HD Video Codec: VC-1
    Audio: Dolby TrueHD: Japanese 5.1; Dolby Digital Plus: Japanese 5.1
    Subtitles: English, French, Spanish; English SDH
    Time: 140 minutes
    Disc Format: 1 SS/DL HD-DVD
    Case Style: Keep case
    Theatrical Release Date:2006
    HD-DVD Release Date: May 22, 2007

    Note: The HD-DVD was released in the HD-DVD/DVD combo format. This review is only covering the HD-DVD side of the disc. Please refer to Ken McAlinden’s review of the SD DVD.

    Taking a familiar story and changing its perspective, Clint Eastwood’s companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, does not detract from the impact of the overall story. I was more interested to see Letters than Flags since overall I have become bored with American war pictures. While I appreciate what our soldiers have done for our country, I think it has become a tired genre that lacks little new to say. We know war is hell, we know of the great sacrifices made and the heroism that was displayed, but that is all we usually get in a war movie anymore. Flags put a bit of a spin on it by spending an equal amount of time with the soldiers at home dealing with their new found celebrity. Letters, however, goes even further by showing us an entire story from the enemy’s perspective, showing us, in these situations, we are not so different from one another.

    General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) has arrived on Iwo Jima in advance of the American troop invasion to get the Japanese soldiers ready for combat. He has some unorthodox ideas on how they will defend the island, as he storms around the beach telling his men to think like the Americans. He inspects the caves and the troops in them, delivering rousing speeches on the need to fight hard in honor of Japan. The story also focuses on some of the troops, including Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and a former Olympic equestrian and current tank commander, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara). The men write letters to loved ones telling about the difficulties of their station and how they long to see them. These letters form the emotional core of the story and make us see the Japanese soldiers as human and filled with the same worries as their American counterparts.

    Letters delves deep into the harsh conditions the Japanese soldiers faced in the caves, from dysentery to lack of food, water, and ammunition. In seeing the story from this perspective, it seems difficult to imagine they were able to hold off the Americans for as many days as they did. The Japanese quickly become disillusioned and begin deserting, only to be met with shots from the Americans and their own comrades. Eastwood and screenwriter Iris Yamashita produce a very compassionate story that strips away much of the savagery that clouds history. They show the men as not only soldiers, but men duty bound to ancient codes of honor that demands they die for their country one way or another. It’s sad to think the amount of men who committed suicide during the battle in pursuit of this honor.

    Note: I am watching this title using a Marantz VP 12-S4 DLP projector, which has a native resolution of 720p. I am using a Toshiba HD-A1 for a player and utilizing the HDMI capabilities of both units.

    The picture is framed at 2.35:1, and it is encoded in VC-1 at 1080p. Eastwood continues a similar visual palate he had in Flags, but this time the picture is de-saturated to a level that is just barely above black and white. Reds become a blood-like maroon, greens and blues become sickening and pallid. Since the picture was shot like this, I almost evaluated it more in terms of accuracy of grey scale than of richness of colors! Contrast levels are excellent in this video presentation and black levels are exceptional. Detail in the shadows (and there’s plenty of them) is precise and defined. Sharpness was also very good and I think the lack of color in the picture makes the detail that much more noticeable. Edge enhancement was not noticed and there was no film dirt. This is a beautiful and smooth transfer.

    The Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack was attained by a 5.1 analog connection.

    I watched the disc with the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track engaged. The movie was shot in Japanese, so you will have to utilize the subtitles. Having just watched Flags last week and reviewed its excellent DD+ soundtrack, I was pleasantly surprised to see the TrueHD track on this disc. This is an exceptional soundtrack featuring great panning effects across all the channels and a very spacious soundstage that provided much more ambience and presence than in similar combat scenes in Flags. This soundtrack presents a warmth and richness that was missing in the Flags soundtrack and also the DD+ track on this disc. The battle scenes scream with the sounds of bullets, gunfire and planes whizzing all around the five channels. You almost always hear gunfire in the rear channels and the rumble of bombs reverberating through the ground (pay particular attention to this in the scenes in the caves when the American’s begin bombing). This is an excellent way to heighten the tension felt by the soldiers. Bass effects are low and thunderous enough to rattle you in your seat. Mixes such as this can easily lose the dialogue in the effects, but that is not the case here: each actor is clearly heard in harmony with his surroundings. Voices are natural and guttural, emphasizing the desperation in the soldier’s plight.

    Bonus Material:
    With the advent of HD-DVD, we are faced with several different audio and video codecs being used on each disc. Due to this, I have begun adding the encoding details as part of the explanation of bonus features when applicable and relevant. For this release, the extras are in VC-1 encoding unless otherwise noted.

    Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of Letters from Iwo Jima (21:00): Eastwood and the producers and writers discuss the importance of telling the story from the Japanese perspective and why there was a need for a companion piece. They also go into the production of the picture and the inherent problems of Americans doing a Japanese film.

    The Faces of Combat: The Cast of Letters from Iwo Jima (18:38): The cast discusses the picture and how they were chosen for their roles. They provide more of a Japanese perspective of what being in the picture meant to them.

    Images from the Frontlines: The Photography of Letters from Iwo Jima (MPEG-2) (3:26): a montage of still photos of from the picture set to the score.

    The World Premier (MPEG-2) (16:06): The picture debuted on 11/15/06 at Budo-kan in Tokyo, and this segment features the stars, Eastwood and others arriving and providing an introduction to the audience.

    The Tokyo Press Conference (MPEG-2) (24:27): Eastwood the producers, screenwriter and cast members meet with the press to discuss the picture the day after its premier. The press asks questions that were pretty much covered in the other docs.

    Theatrical Trailer: Not in HD, very strange!

    For me, a much more interesting telling of the story that benefited from its excellent cast and visual presentation. I would encourage you to seek out Flags of our Fathers first and get the bigger story out of the way, then come back to Letters from Iwo Jima to get the smaller and more interesting competing viewpoint. The disc itself provides an excellent video presentation filled with sharp detail and a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack that will impress as well.
  2. Cees Alons

    Cees Alons Moderator

    Jul 31, 1997
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    Cees Alons
    Thanks, Pat, for such a passionate review.

    Like you, when I first read about "Flags", I decided to skip this movie. Then I learned about "Letters" and I was rather sure I wanted to have those two together now.

    It's great that we can own films like these on HD. I cannot honestly say that your reviews brought me to pre-order these two HD DVDs [​IMG] , but reading them, I'm very glad I did and wait for those two films with great anticipation.

  3. Michael Osadciw

    Michael Osadciw Screenwriter

    Jun 24, 2003
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    Michael Osadciw say watch Flags first then Letters? ...I was going to go directly to Letters because it got better reviews. If you insist, I'll do Flags first.
  4. Robert Crawford

    Robert Crawford Moderator

    Dec 9, 1998
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    As somebody that has read the book and watched both films multiple times including my movie theater experiences, I think watching Flags might be better before you watch the other film with a different perspective that has never really been told beforehand.

    Anyhow, a great film and the BRD I viewed did it proud.

  5. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer

    Feb 20, 2001
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    Livonia, MI USA
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    Kenneth McAlinden
    "Flags..." actually does a more straightforward job of laying out the geography and tactics of the battle even though it spends less of its running time on the battle itself. This is one practical reason you may want to watch it first unless you are already very familiar with the Battle of Iwo Jima from a historical perspective.


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