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The working title of the film was Red Sun, Black Sand. Only the company credits and title appear before the film; all other credits are at the end. Among several organizations given written thanks in the closing credits were the Association of Iwo-Jima, the Ogasawara Municipal Office and Special Thanks to Johnny's Junior Kids. Dialogue in Letters From Iwo Jima was in the Japanese language with English subtitles. Several reviews of the film noted that the film's desaturated color heightened the mood of the film and made it appear almost black and white.
According to a January 2006 Variety news item, Letters From Iwo Jima was developed by director Clint Eastwood while working on the 2006 Paramount release, Flags of Our Fathers, which related the story of the World War II battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the United States Marines. That film centered on the events surrounding the now iconic image of Mount Suribachi as the American flag was raised by Marines on the fifth day of the battle. A photograph of the event became world-famous and was later the basis for a memorial to the U.S. Marine Corps on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The news item indicated that Eastwood concluded that the only way to tell the full story of one of the bloodiest campaigns in the Pacific theater was to present both the American and Japanese experiences, but in separate films. According to interviews, Eastwood had investigated purchasing the rights to the book of Flags of Our Fathers, but upon learning that they were held by Steven Spielberg, gave up on the project. Later, Spielberg approached Eastwood to direct the film. Spielberg then went on to produce Letters From Iwo Jima for DreamWorks and Warner Bros.
An October 2006 Los Angeles Times article indicated that producer Paul Haggis selected screenwriting novice Iris Yamashita to write the script. Yamashita, a second-generation Japanese American, knew nothing about Iwo Jima prior to her work on the script. In researching, the writer utilized the same historical documents that Eastwood examined, including the letters of Tadamichi Kuribayashi (1891-1945), the commander of the Japanese forces on Iwo Jima. Although the film depicts Kuribayashi writing to his family during his period on Iwo Jima, the book credited as a basis for the script, Picture Letters from Commander in Chief, contains correspondence from Kuribayashi's service as a military envoy in America and Canada from 1928-1931. In the writing of the script Yamashita also employed information from descendents of Baron Takeichi Nishi (1902-1945), the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic gold medal winner for equestrian show jumping, and from soldiers' diaries. As the film is almost entirely in Japanese, Yamashita's English language script was translated by several Japanese transcription services. Letters From Iwo Jima marked Yamashita's screenwriting debut. The role of "Saigo" was played by popular Japanese pop-star Kazunari Ninomiya. Although Eastwood normally has composed the score for films he has directed, for Letters From Iwo Jima Eastwood's son, Kyle Eastwood, co-wrote the film's music with Michael Stevens.
Described as a "companion piece" to Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima contains moments of footage from the prior film, including shots of the U.S. Naval force surrounding the island and the Marine landing. A few sequences from the earlier film, such as the American flame-thrower assault on Japanese soldiers falling out of their cave are mirrored in Letters From Iwo Jima. A scene from the first film that shows a horrified medic's response to the brutal mutilation of a comrade, whose body is never shown, is revealed in the second film as the result of the Japanese soldiers' outrage at the horror and devastation of the use of flame-throwers. Although the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi is not seen in Letters From Iwo Jima, the raised flag is witnessed by Japanese soldiers from a cave several miles from the volcano.
While Eastwood had filmed most of Flags of Our Fathers in Iceland, which had black sand on its beaches similar to that on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima, he received special permission from the Japanese government to film portions of Letters From Iwo Jima on the island. The bulk of the film was shot in Southern California. The final budget for the film was twenty million dollars. Letters From Iwo Jima was initially scheduled to be released in February 2007, four months after the release of Flags of Our Fathers. In November 2006, however, the decision was made to move the release up to December 2006 to qualify it for Academy Award eligibility. An October 2006 Daily Variety news item indicated that Eastwood requested the change after the enthusiastic response in Tokyo to a preview of the film. Letters From Iwo Jima marked the final film of longtime Eastwood associate, production designer Henry Bumstead (17 March 1915-24 May 2006), and casting director Phyllis Huffman (23 June 1944-2 March 2006).
The Battle of Iwo Jima occurred from 19 February to March 26, 1945. Iwo Jima (Sulfur Island) was part of the Ogasawara, a group of islands approximately 520 miles south of Tokyo, which the Japanese knew were crucial to defending the home islands. As noted in numerous historical sources, after the loss of the Marianas to the Americans in the summer of 1944, a critical event mentioned in the film, reinforcements were sent to build up the Iwo Jima Army garrison and naval base. As indicated in the film, Lt. Gen. Kuribayashi arrived on Iwo Jima in June 1944, which shortly thereafter was bombed by the U.S. Navy, destroying all every building and all but four Japanese aircraft on the island. As shown in the film, army Lt. Gen. Hideyoshi Obata believed the defense of the island should follow the standard military practice of defending the beaches, but Kuribayashi insisted on radical measures. These included placing artillery, mortars and rockets at the base of the dormant volcano Mount Suribachi, and the controversial plan for a vast system of caves and tunnels from which the troops would defend the island.
At Kuribayashi's request, mining engineers were dispatched to Iwo Jima to create blueprints for the underground network. Although tunnels were intended to connect Suribachi, at the southernmost end of the island, with Kuribayashi's command post in the northern part of the island, only eleven of the projected seventeen miles of passageways were completed before the Marine landing. As depicted in the film, frantic work on the caves and passageways were constantly disrupted by continual American bombardments from December 1944 up until the February 1945 invasion. In addition to these measures, Kuribayashi's tactics included not firing on American naval vessels in order to prevent disclosing artillery locations; offering no opposition to the beach landing; waiting for the enemy to advance 500 meters on the beach before commencing their assault; and while inflicting as many enemy casualties as possible, forbidding large-scale counterattacks and withdrawals or "banzai" (suicide) charges. The American attack plan, led by veterans of the successful amphibious assaults on Guadalcanal and Guam, anticipated taking the island within a matter of days. The Marines suffered 23,000 casualties, including nearly 7,000 dead, out of a force of 70,000. Out of a force of 23,000, 22,000 Japanese died during the thirty-nine-day conflict.
Letters From Iwo Jima was selected by AFI as one of the Movies of the Year for 2006. AFI also named Eastwood a "national treasure," declaring his work on both Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers "a moment of significance for post 9/11 cinema." In addition, Letters From Iwo Jima received an Academy Award for Achievement in Sound Editing and nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. The film was honored by the National Board of Review as Best Film of the Year and received a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. Eastwood received two nominations in the Golden Globes' Best Director-Motion Picture category, one for Letters From Iwo Jima and another for Flags of Our Fathers, but lost to Martin Scorsese for The Departed.