Thursday, June 30, 2011
In Koji Wakamatsu's Caterpillar (Kyatapira, 2010), the wife of a returned Japanese soldier is expected to treat her husband as a hero, a "god soldier" -- trouble is, the bloke's an absolute cunt. This is one of the best films yet from Wakamatsu, and you'd be hard put to find anything that deals with the subject of war, duty, patriotism, and the definition of "hero" as beautifully, directly, and metaphorically as this does.
Based on a short story by Edogawa Rampo, the film's title is taken from the condition of the solider. His arms and legs have been blown off in combat and his face has horrendous scarring. He resembles a caterpillar, and sleeps, eats, and screws like one. A physically similar "caterpillar" appeared in Todd Browning's Freaks. He was known as 'The Human Torso'. This creature's name is Lieutenant Tadashi Kurokawa (Keigo Kusuya), a decorated military man who went to war representing the hopes and dreams of his small village.
Wakamatsu and his scriptwriters make some telling decisions about how they present Kurokawa from the outset, and these clarify the director's desire to get us to question what wartime heroism actually is. Is raping, setting fire to villages, and shooting civilians something to celebrate? The film opens with an unidentified Japanese soldier raping a Chinese woman while her house burns down. We then cut to the soldier's homecoming. Clearly, the rapist was Kurokawa, our "hero". Bestowed with honors by the village and the military, the physically devastated returnee is given the name "god soldier" and wheeled off to a life of dependence. Although the Japanese officials assure him of their support, it doesn't materialize. Instead, the man's troubled wife, Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima in an award-winning performance), is left to nurse and feed him.
Things take a little while to get ugly between the two. The limbless Kurokawa, starved of sexual affection, gets his fill from Shigeko. It's just a little oral at first, but it progresses to intercourse in assorted positions. The fornication scenes are suitably bizarre and convincing, and give the film a delightfully grotesque edge. They reminded me of the late director Teruo Ishii's best work. Eventually, the god soldier's demands become abusive and unreasonable, and Shigeko is forced to question the true meaning of "patriotic duty". Unable to complain about her situation, Shigeko does finds ways to equalize the relationship. One of these is to wheel her husband around the village like a carnival exhibit and force him to watch able-bodied people going about their day. Other options include starvation and neglect.
As described above, Kurokawa is depicted from the outset as less than a hero. Introduced as a rapist, our sympathy for him is certainly not overt. During the couple's confrontations, we also learn that Kurokawa beat Shigeko frequently even before he went to war. The writer in me feels that the film's drama might have been better served if Kurokawa had been a good man turned into something bad by his wartime experiences -- simply not mentioning that he beat Shigeko before the war would have achieved this. It would have intensified our ambivalence about Shigeko's treatment of him also and created a greater moral quandary for her. But since the man is and always was a violent cunt, our sympathies barely shift. War simply made a bad man worse. Dramatically, that's not as interesting. As material for Wakamatsu's thematic intentions, it serves its purpose, however. I sense that's more the point.
The film is what it is, though, and I liked it for the most part. Although digital technology has produced some extraordinary looking films recently, this is not one of them. It's certainbly adequate, but the images are a bit murky at times or too stark at other times. There's no texture or "feel" to the film's look, so I always felt that an opportunity was missed.
The same source material, Rampo's short story, was recently adapted by director Hisayasu Sato for the anthology Rampo Noir (Ranpo jigoku, 2005). A grotesque, grisly, and beautiful collection of short stories based on the writer's fascinating work, Sato's Caterpillar is the stand-out piece. It diverges, however, from Wakamatsu's take, in that the returned soldier's limbs are hacked off not by war, but by his psychotic wife in order to prevent his return to soldiering. The expected consequences of THAT you need to see for yourself.
The Hong Kong-based Panorama Corporation is the first distributor out of the gate with an English-subtitled Blu-ray of Caterpillar. Presentation quality is good and cover art is suitably bizarre. A French DVD with English subtitles was issued in early May, 2011.
The amazingly prolific and original Wakamatsu is already knee-deep in his next production; again,
Shinobu Terajima stars.
Caterpillar is highly recommended.
Towards the very end of 2011 and into 2012, New York-based Kino-Lorber will release Caterpillar and Wakamatsu's brilliant United Red Army both theatrically and on DVD in the U.S. Please support these releases.
Another upcoming release from Kino-Lorber is My Joy (Schastye Mo), one of my favorite films of 2011.