Thoughts on life after the PhD
Wakamatsu Koji’s Caterpillar takes a seemingly simple premise—a wounded soldier returns home from the war and is cared for by his wife—and turns it into a raw, powerful examination of the brutal absurdity that was Japan’s invasion of China and Korea. Never one to shy away from graphic sex and violence, Wakamatsu here uses such scenes to vividly condemn the ultra-nationalistic fervor that led to so much suffering and death.
Based on an Edogawa Rampo short story of the same name, Caterpillar tells the story of Kyuzo Kurokawa, a soldier from a small village who returns home minus his arms and legs, hailed as a war hero for his sacrifice. His wife, Shigeko, is initially horrified by his appearance and runs from him, but in the end (on the surface, at least), accepts her role as the dutiful caretaker. Her job is not so simple–Kyuzo may be mute and immobile, but his sexual appetite is not at all diminished. Shigeko’s grudging sense of duty gradually becomes mixed with sadism, and we’re not inclined to feel much sympathy for the crippled soldier—flashbacks reveal that he raped and murdered his way through China and abused his wife. Now helpless in her hands, he suddenly finds himself in the same position as his victims, and the dawning horror of what he has done begins to drive him mad.
Shigeko says that all her husband does is “eat, sleep, eat, sleep” (“eat, sleep, screw” would be more accurate), and Wakamatsu’s film shoves this repetition in the audience’s face, zooming in on Kyuzo’s opening and closing mouth that grabs for food and his wife’s body with equally blind hunger. When not at home demanding food or sex he is dressed in full regalia and wheeled through the village in a wagon, where the villagers bow to him and call him “gunshin-sama” (the honorable war hero). Cut with actual newsreel footage and radio broadcasts of patriotic songs, the image evokes bitter laughter.
At the center of the film is Terajima Shinobu, who won the Silver Bear at the Venice Film Festival for her brave, unflinching performance. She moves smoothly between outbursts of emotion and stoicism—we’re not always sure if she’s faking her patriotic dutifulness or if part of her actually buys into it. Near the end of the film she suddenly begins singing a children’s song in a voice that gave me genuine goosebumps.
Unfortunately Caterpillar takes a baffling turn toward sentimentality and preachiness in its last ten minutes, even going so far as to end with a pop song about the children of Hiroshima who will never grow up. Was there a Wakamatsu in-joke that I was missing here, or were there some last-minute edits in the writing room?
In the end this misstep doesn’t significantly diminish the power of the film, though. Several days later plenty of its images are still with me. I’m surprised that the far right hasn’t started picketing the one theater where it’s showing, because it’s certainly an indictment of Japan’s wartime aggression (and more specifically of the rapes and murders of civilians that the right has so vehemently denied). For the time being, though, it’s easily accessible, and the afternoon showing that I attended was packed. Hopefully it’ll get a U.S. distributor soon.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
tales of travel, research, and life
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