The film was released in Japan on December 9, 2006 and received a limited release in the United States on December 20, 2006 in order to be eligible for consideration 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 on January 19. An English-dubbed version of the film premiered on April 7, 2008. Upon release, the film received considerable acclaim and did slightly better at the box office than its companion.
In 2005, Japanese archaeologists explore tunnels on Iwo Jima, where they find something in the dirt.
The scene changes to Iwo Jima in 1944. Private First Class Saigo and his platoon are 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 by Captain Tanida for 'unpatriotic speeches', and orders the men to begin tunneling underground defenses into Mount Suribachi. Kuribayashi and Lieutenant Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi, a famous Olympic gold medalist show jumper, clash with some of the other officers, who do not agree with Kuribayashi's defense-in-depth strategy: Kuribayashi believes the US will take the beaches quickly, and that the mountain defenses will have a better chance for holding out.
Poor nutrition and unsanitary conditions take their toll; many die of dysentery, including Kashiwara. The troops begin using the caves. Kashiwara's replacement, Superior Private Shimizu, arrives for duty. Saigo suspects that Shimizu is a spy from the Kempeitai sent to report on disloyal soldiers.
Soon, American aircraft and warships begin to appear and bombard the island, causing significant casualties. A few days later, the U.S. Marines land. The American troops suffer heavy casualties, but the beach defenses are quickly overcome, as Kuribayashi predicted, and the attack turns to the positions on Mount Suribachi. While delivering a request for more machine guns from his commander to the Suribachi garrison, Saigo overhears Kuribayashi radioing orders to retreat. The commander, however, ignores the general and instead orders his company to commit suicide. Saigo runs away with Shimizu, convincing him to continue the fight rather than die. They find two other soldiers, but one is incinerated by an American flamethrower, and they witness a captured Marine being bayoneted to death.
Saigo and the soldiers in Mount Suribachi try to flee with Lieutenant Oiso at night, but they run into Marines, who wipe out all except Saigo and Shimizu. They flee to friendly lines, but are accused by Lieutenant Ito of desertion. Ito raises his katana to execute them for cowardice, but Kuribayashi arrives and saves Saigo again by confirming his order to retreat.
The Japanese attack US positions but take heavy losses. The survivors are told to regroup with Colonel Nishi while Ito heads to the US lines with three mines, intending to throw himself under a tank. Nishi converses in English with a captured Marine, Sam, until Sam eventually dies from his wounds. Later, blinded by shrapnel, Nishi orders his men to withdraw and asks Lieutenant Okubo to leave him a rifle. Upon leaving, the soldiers hear a gunshot from Nishi's cave.
Saigo plans surrender, and Shimizu reveals that he was dishonorably discharged from the Kempeitai because he disobeyed an order to kill a civilian's dog. Shimizu escapes and surrenders to Americans, but is later shot dead by his guard Meanwhile, Ito, desperate and malnourished, breaks down and, when found by the US Marines, surrenders.
Okubo is killed as he and his men arrive at Kuribayashi's position. Saigo meets up with Kuribayashi, and one last attack is planned. Kuribayashi orders Saigo to destroy all documents, including his own letters, saving Saigo's life a third time.
That night, Kuribayashi launches a final surprise attack. Most of his men are killed, and Kuribayashi is critically wounded, but Kuribayashi's loyal aide Fujita drags him away. The next morning, Kuribayashi orders Fujita to behead him; however, Fujita is shot dead by a Marine sniper before he can do so. Saigo appears, having buried some of the documents and letters instead of burning them all. Kuribayashi asks Saigo to bury him where he will not be found, then draws his pistol, an American M1911 — a gift Kuribayashi was given in the US before the war, and commits suicide. A tearful Saigo then buries him.
Later, a US patrol find Fujita's body. One Marine officer finds Kuribayashi's pistol and tucks it under his belt. They search the area and find Saigo with his shovel. Seeing the pistol in the Marine lieutenant's belt, Saigo becomes furious and attacks the Americans with his shovel. Too weak to fight, he is knocked unconscious and taken to the POW beach. Awakening on a stretcher, he glimpses the setting sun and smiles grimly.
Back in 2005, the archeologists complete their digging, revealing the bag of letters that Saigo had buried, and open it.
The film was originally entitled Red Sun, Black Sand. Although the film is set in Japan, it was filmed primarily in Barstow and Bakersfield in California. All Japanese cast except for Ken Watanabe were selected through auditions. 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. Principal photography finished in late 2006.
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 its 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.
The battleship USS Texas (BB-35), which was used in closeup shots of the fleet (for both movies) also participated in the actual attack on Iwo Jima for five days. The only character to appear in both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima is Charles W. Lindberg, played by Alessandro Mastrobuono.
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.
The film was critically acclaimed, and well noted for its portrayal of good and evil on both sides of the battle. The critics heavily praised the writing, direction, cinematography and acting. The review tallying website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 180 out of the 198 reviews they tallied were positive for a score of 91% and a certification of "fresh." Lisa Schwarzbaum 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 four 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, 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, while Clint Eastwood held a nomination for Best Director.
CNN'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." Roger Ebert awarded the film a perfect score (4 out of 4 stars) and raved about it as well. James Berardinelli awarded a 3 out of 4 star review, concluding with that although both 'Letters' and 'Flags' were imperfect but interesting, 'Letters from Iwo Jima' was more focused, strong and straightforward than its companion piece.
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. It was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay. The film took home one award, Best Sound Editing.
The film also appeared on many critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2006.
The film was far more commercially successful in Japan than in the U.S., ranking number 1 for five weeks, and receiving a warm reception from both Japanese audiences and critics. The Japanese critics noted that Clint Eastwood presented Kuribayashi as a "caring, erudite commander of Japan's Iwo Jima garrison, along with Japanese soldiers in general, in a sensitive, respectful way." Also, the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbun noted that the movie is clearly "distinguishable" from previous Hollywood movies, which tended to portray Japanese characters with non-Japanese actors (e.g., Chinese-Americans, and other Asian-Americans). Consequently, incorrect Japanese grammar and non-native accents were conspicuous in those former films, jarring their realism for the Japanese audience. In contrast, most Japanese roles in Letters from Iwo Jima are played by native Japanese actors. Also, the article praised the film's new approach, as it is scripted with excellent research into Japanese society at that time. According to the article, previous Hollywood movies describing Japan were based on the stereotypical images of Japanese society, which looked "weird" to native Japanese audiences. Letters from Iwo Jima is remarkable as the movie that tries to escape from the stereotypes. Owing to the lack of stereotypes, Letters from Iwo Jima was appreciated by Japanese critics and audiences.
Since the film was successful in Japan, a tourist boom has been reported on the Ogasawara islands, of which Iwo Jima is part.
Nicholas Barber's review in the UK's The Independent on Sunday, argued that the movie was "a traditional film wearing the uniform of a revisionist one" which proved Hollywood could be "as mawkish about other country's soldiers as it can about its own", and that the Japanese characters were "capable of being decent, caring fellows, just so long as they've spent some time in the United States".
Despite favorable reviews, the film only grossed $13.7 million domestically in the United States. Foreign sales of $54.9 million helped to boost revenue over production costs of $19 million.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:
78th National Board of Review Awards:
11th San Diego Film Critics Awards:
Best Director (Clint Eastwood)
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 Film
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
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Epic Film
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 film was rereleased in 2010 as part of Clint Eastwood's tribute collection Clint Eastwood: 35 Films 35 Years at Warner Bros.. 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 the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
The English dubbed version DVD was released on June 1, 2010. This version was first aired on cable channel AMC on April 26, 2008.