Letters from Iwo Jima (硫黄島からの手紙 ,Iō Jima Kara no Tegami?) is a 2006 war film directed and co-produced by Clint Eastwood whose cast includes Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya. The film portrays the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers and is a companion piece to Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, which depicts the same battle from the American viewpoint. The film is almost entirely in Japanese but was made by four American production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures, Malpaso Productions and Amblin Entertainment.
The film was released in Japan on December 9, 2006 and received a limited release in the United States on December 20 in order to compete for the 79th Academy Awards. It was subsequently released in more areas of the U.S. on January 12, 2007, and was released in most states by January 19. An English-dubbed version was premiered on April 7, 2008.
The film is based on the non-fiction books "Gyokusai sōshikikan" no etegami ("Picture letters from the Commander in Chief") by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (portrayed on screen by Ken Watanabe) and So Sad To Fall In Battle: An Account of War  by Kumiko Kakehashi about the Battle of Iwo Jima. While some characters such as Saigo are fictional, the overall battle as well as several of the commanders are based upon actual people and events.
In the present day, Japanese archaeologists explore tunnels on Iwo Jima. They find something in the dirt and the scene changes to Iwo Jima in 1944. Private First Class Saigo, a baker conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army, and his platoon are grudgingly digging beach trenches on the island. Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi arrives to take command of the garrison and immediately begins an inspection of the island defenses. He saves Saigo and his friend Kashiwara from a beating for having uttered 'unpatriotic speeches' and orders the men to stop digging trenches on the beach and begin tunnelling defenses into Mount Suribachi.
Later, Lieutenant Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi, a famous Olympic gold medalist show jumper, joins Kuribayashi for dinner. They discuss the grim prospect of no naval support and the fanaticism their fellow officers would show. Kuribayashi evacuates the civilian population of Iwo Jima to mainland Japan. He clashes with some of his senior officers, who do not agree with his strategy of defending inland instead of the beaches; Kuribayashi believes the Americans will take the beaches quickly, and only the mountain defenses will have a better chance for holding out against the enemy.
Poor nutrition and unsanitary conditions take their toll on the garrison; many die of dysentery, including Kashiwara. The Japanese troops begin using the caves as barracks. Kashiwara's replacement, a young soldier named Superior Private Shimizu, arrives for duty on the island. Saigo and his friends suspect that Shimizu is a spy sent from Kempeitai to report on disloyal soldiers. The first American aerial bombings occur shortly after, causing significant casualties. After the raid, Saigo is sickened when he sees the corpse of a friend, still sitting upright. Another casualty was Uranus, Baron Nishi's horse, which was also killed by a bomb. The raid forces the Japanese to dig deeper into the volcanic island. The battle for Iwo Jima begins.
As the landings occur, the American troops suffer heavy casualties, but the Japanese beach defenses are quickly overcome, and the attack turns to the defensive positions on Mount Suribachi. Saigo assists the defense by carrying ammunition to machine gunners. When a Japanese machine gunner is killed by a shell from an American ship, Saigo is ordered by the company commander to use his rifle, since the machine gun is damaged. He handles it so clumsily that he is sent to retrieve some machine guns instead. While delivering the request from his company commander to the commander of the Suribachi garrison, Saigo overhears General Kuribayashi radioing orders to retreat northward. The Suribachi commander, however, ignores the order from the general and instead orders Saigo to deliver a message ordering the men of his company to commit suicide. The Japanese soldiers of Saigo's unit commit suicide with grenades, and the company commander shoots himself in the head with a pistol, but Saigo runs away and leaves the cave with Shimizu, convincing him that it is more productive to continue the fight rather than die. The two men flee to friendly lines, but they are accused of deserting Suribachi. They are about to be executed for cowardice when General Kuribayashi appears to stop the punishment, confirming that he had indeed ordered the retreat.
The soldiers from the caves attempt a futile attack against American positions, with the Japanese taking heavy losses. A wounded U.S. Marine is subsequently captured by Nishi's men. He reveals his name to be Sam, and Nishi orders his medic to give him aid despite the Japanese's dwindling medical supplies. Despite their efforts, the Marine dies of his wounds. Nishi reads a letter the American received from his mother.
As a bomb hits Nishi's cave, Nishi is badly wounded and blinded. His men bind his wounds, and Nishi orders them to another position on the island. As a last favor, he asks Lieutenant Okubo to leave him a rifle. After leaving that position, the soldiers hear a distant gunshot from Nishi's cave.
Shimizu divulges to Saigo that he had been dishonorably discharged from the Kempeitai. In a flashback, it is revealed that he was discharged because he refused to obey a superior's order to kill a barking dog. He was then reassigned to Iwo Jima. This causes Saigo's attitude towards Shimizu to soften considerably. Shimizu breaks down and fearfully asks Saigo to surrender with him.
Shimizu surrenders to a U.S. Marine patrol and finds himself in the company of another Japanese soldier who had surrendered. One of the American guards, who does not want to be burdened with POWs, later shoots them. The dead soldiers are discovered by the Japanese and Lieutenant Okubo points it out as a lesson for anyone else who wishes to surrender. Saigo, deeply saddened by his death, puts Shimizu's senninbari on his dead body.
Saigo and the remaining survivors find that Kuribayashi's cave is under attack, and a fierce battle rages. They charge through the crossfire, and lose several men, including Lieutenant Okubo. They enter the cave under a storm of American bullets, meeting up with Kuribayashi, who recognizes Saigo. One last attack with all the remaining men is planned. Kuribayashi orders Saigo to stay behind and destroy all the documents, including his own letters to his family. By this, Kuribayashi saves Saigo's life a third time. Kuribayashi and his remaining troops launch their final attack. Most of Kuribayashi's men are killed, and Kuribayashi is critically wounded.
Kuribayashi's loyal aide Fujita drags him away from the battle. The next morning, Kuribayashi orders his aide to behead him; however, the aide is shot dead by an American marksman as he raises his sword. Saigo appears at this moment, having buried some of the documents in the cave instead of burning them all. Summoning his last reserves of strength, the very weak Kuribayashi asks Saigo to bury him so that nobody will find him. Kuribayashi then draws his souvenir M1911 pistol. In two previous flashbacks, it was revealed to be a gift from a party in the United States before the war, where Kuribayashi was given the pistol as a gift at a ceremony where he was the guest of honor. Kuribayashi shoots himself in the chest. Saigo carries away the dead general and buries his body.
Upon his return, Saigo finds that a patrol of American Marines have claimed Kuribayashi's pistol and Fujita's sword as war trophies. Upon seeing the pistol tucked into a Marine's belt, Saigo swings angrily and wildly at the Americans with his shovel. Too weak to fight properly, Saigo is knocked unconscious with a rifle butt and is taken on to a U.S. aid station on the beach. Awakening a while later, he glimpses the setting sun, with ships in the distance, as well as a U.S. truck, and smiles grimly.
The scene shifts back to the Japanese archaeologists who uncover the bag of letters written by Japanese soldiers on the island, never sent, that Saigo buried in 1945. As the letters fall from the bag, the voices of the fallen Japanese soldiers are heard reading from them.
The film was originally entitled Red Sun, Black Sand (see Letters from Iwo Jima, DVD version, Disc 2). Although the film is set in Japan, it was filmed primarily in Barstow and Bakersfield in California. Filming in California wrapped on April 8, and the cast and crew then headed back to the studio in Los Angeles for more scenes before Eastwood, Watanabe and a skeleton crew made a quick one-day trip to Iwo Jima for some on-location shots.
The filmmakers had to be given special permission from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to film on Iwo Jima, because more than 10,000 missing Japanese soldiers still rest under the soil. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) operates a naval air base on Iwo Jima, which is used by the United States Navy for operations such as nighttime carrier landing practice. Civilian access to the island is restricted to those attending memorial services for fallen American Marines and Japanese soldiers.
Filming finished in late 2006.
Letters from Iwo Jima was released on DVD by Warner Home Video on May 22, 2007. It was also released on HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc. Furthermore it was made available for instant viewing with Netflix's "Watch Instantly" feature where available
The Two-Disc Special Collector's Edition DVD is also available in a Five-Disc Commemorative Set which also includes the Two-Disc Special Collector's Edition of Flags of Our Fathers and a bonus fifth disc containing History Channel's "Heroes of Iwo Jima" documentary and To the Shores of Iwo Jima, a documentary produced by US Navy and Marine Corps.
The film received highly positive reviews, with the review tallying website Rotten Tomatoes reporting that 168 out of the 184 reviews they tallied were positive for a score of 91% and a certification of "fresh." Lisa Schwartzbaum of Entertainment Weekly, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, and Richard Schickel of Time were among many critics to name it the best picture of the year. In addition, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune both gave it 4-stars, and Todd McCarthy of Variety praised the film, assigning it a rare 'A' rating.
On December 6, 2006, the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures named Letters from Iwo Jima the best film of 2006. On December 10, 2006, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association named Letters from Iwo Jima Best Picture of 2006. Furthermore, director Clint Eastwood was runner-up for directing honors. In addition, the American Film Institute named it one of the 10 best films of 2006. It was also named Best Film in a Foreign Language on January 15 during the Golden Globe Awards. It had been nominated for Best Film in a Foreign Language; and Clint Eastwood held a nomination for Best Director.
CNN.com's Tom Charity in his review described Letters from Iwo Jima as "the only American movie of the year I won't hesitate to call a masterpiece." On the "Best Films of the Year 2006" broadcast (December 31, 2006) of the television show Ebert & Roeper, Richard Roeper listed the film at #3 and guest critic A. O. Scott listed it at #1, claiming that the film was "close to perfect."
On January 23, 2007, the film received four Academy Award nominations. Eastwood was nominated for his directing, as well as Best Picture along with producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz. The film also received nominations for Original Screenplay and Sound Editing.
The film has been far more commercially successful in Japan than in the U.S., ranking number 1 for five weeks. Though mostly appreciated for its empathetic view, the film has, however, received criticism from some Japanese moviegoers, including several staff members of the Association for the Advancement of Unbiased View of History (自由主義史観研究会 ?), who question the historical accuracy of its depiction of the Japanese military police, or the use of gairaigo terms like raifuru (ライフル ?, "rifle") or jīpu (ジープ ?, "Jeep") by Japanese Army soldiers, at a time when such practice was generally frowned upon. Renowned nationalist and Prefectural Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, whose efforts and influence played a significant role in allowing the film's crew to shoot on Iwo Jima, criticized director Clint Eastwood's portrayal of American Marines. He stated that he believed Ore wa, Kimi no tame ni koso Shini ni iku (俺は、君のためにこそ死ににいく ,I Go to Die for You?), a film for which he wrote the screenplay and acted as executive director, was far superior to the Hollywood blockbuster.
Furthermore, several non-U.S. reviews, such as that of the Independent of the United Kingdom, took offense at the characterization of good officers solely as those having had experience in the U.S. Those viewers believed that these characteristics make it an American film presenting a vision of the Japanese that reflects American cultural values and perceptions, in stark contrast to its framing in the American press as a film in the "Japanese point of view".
Despite rave reviews, the film only grossed $13.7 million domestically in the United States. Stronger foreign sales grossing $54.9 million helped to boost revenue over production costs of $19 million.
Top ten lists
The film appeared on many critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2006.
1st - A.O. Scott, The New York Times 1st - Claudia Puig, USA Today 1st - Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times (tied with Flags of our Fathers) 1st - Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly 1st - Richard Schickel, TIME magazine 1st - Mike McStay, Socius (website) 2nd - Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter 2nd - Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter 2nd - Manohla Dargis, The New York Times 2nd - Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune 2nd - Scott Foundas, LA Weekly (tied with Flags of our Fathers) 3rd - Jack Mathews, New York Daily News (tied with Flags of our Fathers) 3rd - Lou Lumenick, New York Post (tied with Flags of our Fathers) 3rd - Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club 3rd - Peter Travers, Rolling Stone (tied with Flags of our Fathers)
3rd - Shawn Levy, The Oregonian (tied with Flags of our Fathers)
4th - David Ansen, Newsweek 4th - Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle 5th - Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune 5th - Michael Rechtshaffen, The Hollywood Reporter 5th - Stephen Holden, The New York Times 5th - Ty Burr, The Boston Globe 6th - Keith Phipps, The A.V. Club 9th - Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald General top ten
Carrie Rickey, The Philadelphia Inquirer Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal Peter Rainer, The Christian Science Monitor Steven Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Ken Watanabe Kazunari Ninomiya Tsuyoshi Ihara Ryo Kase Shido Nakamura Hiroshi Watanabe Takumi Bando Yuki Matsuzaki Takashi Yamaguchi Eijiro Ozaki Nae Yuuki Nobumasa Sakagami Akiko Shima Yoshi Ando Lucas Elliott Mark Moses Roxanne Hart
Academy Awards record 1. Best Sound Editing Golden Globe Awards record 1. Best Foreign Language Film
79th Academy Awards: Best Sound Editing (Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman) Berlin Film Festival: Cinema for Peace Award 12th BFCA Critics' Choice Awards: Best Foreign Language Film 19th Chicago Film Critics Association Awards: Best Foreign Language Film 13th Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association Awards: Best Foreign Language Film 64th Golden Globe Awards: Best Foreign Language Film 32nd Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards: Best Picture 78th National Board of Review Awards: Best Picture 11th San Diego Film Critics Awards: Best Director (Clint Eastwood) Best Picture Japan Academy Prize: Outstanding Foreign Language Film
79th Academy Awards — Best Picture - Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, & Robert Lorenz 79th Academy Awards — Best Director - Clint Eastwood 79th Academy Awards — Best Original Screenplay - Iris Yamashita & Paul Haggis 64th Golden Globe Awards — Best Director - Clint Eastwood 12th BFCA Critics' Choice Awards — Best Picture 12th BFCA Critics' Choice Awards — Best Director - Clint Eastwood 19th Chicago Film Critics Association Awards — Best Picture 19th Chicago Film Critics Association Awards — Best Director - Clint Eastwood 19th Chicago Film Critics Association Awards — Best Original Score 19th Chicago Film Critics Association Awards — Best Screenplay, Original - Iris Yamashita 2007 MPSE Golden Reel Awards — Best Sound Editing in a Feature Film: Dialogue and Automated Dialogue Replacement 2007 MPSE Golden Reel Awards — Best Sound Editing in Sound Effects and Foley for a Feature Film