Wakamatsu Koji is a fascinating figure, not only one of the most famous and lauded directors in the uniquely Japanese pinku genre (a sort of soft, though often highly inventive pornography which has no real equivalent elsewhere), but also a helmer of highly challenging social commentary films. His latest outing, “Caterpillar” is a prime example, being a searching and highly critical depiction of World War II Japan, based on the banned and particularly gruesome 1929 short story by Edogawa Rampo. Unsurprisingly, like Wakamatsu’s acerbic 2007 outing “United Red Army” (which at three hours was in some ways the anti-thesis of pinku films, which as a rule clock in at around an hour), the film was a controversial affair with markedly anti-right wing themes, not least since it was released to theatres around key Japanese World War II anniversaries. Despite the outcry from certain quarters, the film was critically praised at home and abroad, being nominated for the Golden Bear at Berlin, where Terajima Shinobu (“The Fallen Angel”) won the Silver Bear for Best Actress, an honour she was also bestowed by the Japan Academy Awards.
The actress plays Shigeko, the unfortunate wife of Kyuzo Kurokawa (Shima Onishi), a lieutenant who returns to their village from the fighting during World War II horribly maimed and burned, having lost all his limbs and the ability to speak and hear. With Kyuzo hailed by the patriotic locals as a ‘God of War’, Shigeko is forced to care for him night and day, feeding and cleaning him, as well as attending to his still voracious sexual appetites. Gradually, the relationship between them becomes a power struggle, as Shigeko comes to realise that she now has the upper hand and begins to take out her frustrations on her helpless husband.
Although unflinchingly grim “Caterpillar” is clearly a film with a point, and despite its deeply unpleasant subject matter never descends into becoming a gratuitous freak show. Mining the Rampo story mainly for its premise and characters, Wakamatsu finds in it a perfect, mocking metaphor for right wing warmongering and mindless patriotism, and the film functions superbly as a bleak piece of political criticism. By staging the film from Shigeko’s perspective, he focuses on the effects of war and of the ideologies which drive it on common people, who are after all the ones who bear its brunt, women in particular. The film also makes fine, ironic and bleakly amusing use of newsreel footage and other propagandist materials, finding echoes of their absurdities in the behaviour and attitudes of the villagers.
At the same time, the film also succeeds on a more basic cinematic level, as a tense character study and portrayal of the cycle of abuse. The balance between Shigeko and Kyuzo shifts throughout, and allows Wakamatsu to also offer commentary on traditional male and female gender roles, with the man quite clearly having been a monstrous brute even before his mutilations, beating her and enjoying raping and killing Chinese women during his wartime exploits. Unsurprisingly, this comes back to haunt him after he takes on the ridiculous dual role of helpless victim and worshipped war god, being dragged around the village by his wife after she realises that she can use his fame to improve her own standing. Even then, the film is multi-layered and thoughtful, and develops far beyond Shigeko transforming into an aggressor, as she herself becomes increasingly tortured by her unshakable bond with her husband and the awful insanity of their situation.
Whilst Wakamatsu’s direction fits the material perfectly, being oddly intimate and humanistic amidst all the horror, the film undoubtedly belongs to Terajima Shinobu, who is simply amazing in what must have been an extremely difficult role. Having to portray a complex range of emotions and different faces, as well as running a gamut of physical, emotional and psychological injury, she carries the film, maintaining audience sympathy while functioning as a figurehead for its dark themes. The film is certainly a very graphic and frequently grotesque piece of work, with a great deal of perverse sex and nudity, not to mention horrific wartime flashbacks, and this is something which may put off some viewers. However, it’s never exploitative, and is about as far from titillation as it’s possible to get, with any offensiveness being very much part of the overall point.
It’s impossible to mistake “Caterpillar” as anything other than a fiercely intelligent film, and as one with a scathing message, grimly attacking the right wing and lying bare the harm which Wakamatsu sees it as having inflicted on the nation. Although tough viewing, the film is an accomplished and worthy piece of work, anchored by a marvellous and brave turn from Terajima Shinobu which is worth the price of admission in its own right.
Kôji Wakamatsu (director) / Hisako Kurosawa, Masao Adachi (screenplay)
CAST: Shinobu Terajima … Shigeko Kurokawa
Keigo Kasuya … Tadashi Kurokawa
Emi Masuda … Chiyo Kurokawa
Sabu Kawahara … The Village Chief
Maki Ishikawa Maki Ishikawa …
Katsuyuki Shinohara … Kuma