The Other Side

‘LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA' & ‘PAN'S LABYRINTH'

For Letters from Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood used the same cinematographer, Tom Stern, who shot the film’s predecessor and companion piece, Flags of Our Fathers (see “A Heroic Effort,” November 17, 2006). The battle scenes in Flags were done in a black and white pierced by orange and red-the orange of bomb bursts and gunfire, the red of blood and spilled innards. But when the main characters left the Iwo Jima battlefields to boost war morale back in the States, Stern assembled a bouquet of colors that let us feel the vitality and innocent sensuality of the 1945 American home front, a land sensing its impending deliverance from war.

No such bouquet could be permitted in the new film, for Letters from Iwo Jima isn’t about the contrast between battlefield and home front, but rather how the contingencies of the home front doom its own defenders. Because the Japanese government has withdrawn all remaining air and sea support from the outlying islands in order to defend Tokyo, and because the military hierarchy maintains the Samurai ethic of death-before-surrender, the Iwo Jima troops must accept the fact that not only defeat awaits them but also obliteration. Stern’s camera evokes this sense of doom by using limited shades of black, gray, drab whiteness, and pallid green. (And the few flashbacks to the home front are in subdued colors, too.) As in Flags, the orange and red of gunfire and blood cut through the dreariness. But long before that occurs, the rising sun on Japan’s flag registers its red. This, too, is the flag of fathers: fathers who demand blood sacrifice.

Eastwood and his scriptwriter, Iris Yamashita, always treat the plight of the soldiers with sympathy and often with admiration, but when you see this movie after seeing Flags of Our Fathers, you may feel that more than a purely physical victory was won by the Americans on that island battlefield. In Flags, the Americans too are fighting for their homeland but, more immediately, each man fights for the buddies by his side. Sheer comradeship is a prime factor in American esprit de corps; if defeat looms, GI Joe picks up his wounded friend and retreats to fight another day. Judging by Letters and by several Japanese movies of the past (Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition and Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain), Japanese esprit is much different: if your comrade falters, you are honor bound to shoot him. And since this kind of patriotism derives from the Samurai ethic, it is basically an honor code for aristocrats, even if the common soldier is allowed to share in it. In an early scene in Letters, when an officer catches a soldier grousing, he beats him mercilessly and calls him “stupid peasant.” One might as well be in sixteenth-century Japan with a man-at-arms brutalizing the nearest spear-carrier. Even the deeply compassionate and cosmopolitan commander, Lieutenant General Todamichi Kuribayashi (magisterially played by Ken Watanabe), is an upholder of the idea of death rather than surrender. My favorite moment in the film (a fictional one, since we don’t know exactly how Kuribayashi died) occurs when the commander, preparing for suicide on a deserted area of the beach, asks Saigo, the aforementioned “stupid peasant,” whether “this island is still Japan,” before shooting himself with the very pistol that was a gift from American friends when he was a military attaché in the United States.

The infantryman Saigo never showed cowardice during the battle yet behaved more like an American serviceman, not ashamed to retreat in order to fight again. That he is the man who lives to bury his (beloved) commander, and that we see him at the conclusion, lying wounded (but not mortally so) alongside American survivors with the beginning of a smile on his face, is significant. Japanese courage has not been broken, but Japanese feudalism is cracking up. Honor is being redefined.

The horrors of war are also on view in the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s film, Pan’s Labyrinth, here from a child’s point of view. It is 1944, Franco’s forces have won the Spanish Civil War, but a mop-up operation is underway in the countryside. Captain Vidal, your standard-issue fascistic monster, is pursuing Loyalists entrenched in the hills while his wife is undergoing a difficult pregnancy in the comfortable manor that the captain occupies in the valley. Vidal is just as fascistic in matters of parturition as in his politics: he knows that his wife can bring forth only men-children, for his undaunted Falangist chromosomes can compose nothing but males; and he warns the doctor that if the birth comes to a crisis, the mother should be sacrificed in favor of the baby.

Vidal even has qualms about shaking his little stepdaughter’s hand when he meets her, because she has extended-horrors!-her left hand in greeting. This girl, Ofelia, is the story’s protagonist. Acutely conscious of the ugly violence around her, she takes refuge in the fantasy world of a labyrinth adjoining the manor, where a large faun, agent of an otherworldly king, proclaims Ofelia the reincarnation of the long-lost royal daughter, and promises the restoration of her princesshood if she can pass three tests. Ofelia is game, for who wouldn’t want to escape Vidal’s household in favor of fairy-tale splendor?

A child’s discovery of a hidden fantasy realm in the countryside while soldiers are slaughtering one another in this world, plus the appearance of a faun early in the adventure, brought The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe immediately to mind (see “No Tame Lion,” January 17, 2006). However, the differences between C. S. Lewis’s fantasy and del Toro’s quickly become more striking than the similarities and are well exemplified by the fauns. Lion’s Mr. Tumnus is charming, homely, and-once he quashes the initial temptation to betray Lucy to the Ice Queen-unambiguously virtuous. But del Toro’s courtier-faun is all ambiguity. Physically a cross between a gigantic goat and a monstrous cockroach, he is unpleasantly oleaginous in his manner and, vocally, all too reminiscent of Peter Lorre, if you can imagine Lorre speaking Spanish. He offers Ofelia a kingdom, yes, but finally reveals that her very last test demands the shedding of innocent blood. Narnia was a delicious place that had to be wrested from a tyrant, just as England had to be defended against Hitler. But is the magical kingdom discovered by Ofelia a viable escape from Fascist Spain or is it just as unjust and violent in its essence? At the climax of the movie, Ofelia must make a courageous move that both defies Vidal and purifies the realm of Pan’s labyrinth. Her action doesn’t so much uphold the kingdom’s honor as bring to it a new virtue.

Del Toro renders the Spanish warfare competently and Vidal’s malevolence with vigor, though strictly along traditional hiss-the-villain lines. Much more interesting are the fantasy sequences, which are made memorable by crustacean-like costumes and cavernously dark photography, not to mention excellent digital special effects. Enter Pan’s Labyrinth by all means, but don’t take little children with you.

About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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