BERLIN (Hollywood Reporter) - There’s nothing oblique or nuanced in Berlin festival competition selection “Caterpillar,” Koji Wakamatsu’s indictment of right-wing militarist nationalism and the partner piece to his relentless expose on left-wing extremism, “United Red Army.” The tone is as consciously strident as the various forms of World War II Japanese propaganda he deploys satirically, his conviction so strong and his argument so persuasive that this masterpiece has the blunt force of a tank rolling over naked flesh.
Instead of the raw verite style of “Red Army,” “Caterpillar” has a riveting fictional framework and visual bravura, which will help the film reach out to a considerably wider international theatrical circuit. It makes for essential educational material for the above-18 generation.
Significantly politicizing and humanizing Edogawa Rampo’s 1929 horror-fantasy short story of entomological sexual instinct (banned from reprinting in 1939), his focus is on war’s impact on the civilian psyche and the hypocrisy of “patriotic duty,” expressed through a woman’s sadomasochistic relationship with her husband after he is horribly maimed in battle. The original setting of the Russo-Japanese War, from which Japan emerged victorious, is transposed to WWII, which ended in defeat.
In the late 1930s, Lt. Kyuzo Kurokawa (Shima Onishi) returns from the China front limbless, deaf, scarred by burns and gloriously decorated as a “War God.” His relatives think he’s a burden but hypocritically admonish his wife, Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima), to care for him. Kurokawa soon tires Shigeko out with his insatiable sexual demands, but her only way of punishing him is by carting him in his uniform around the hamlet like an exhibit, to invite praise for being a “role model for Japanese wives.”
Kurokawa’s initial consolation in seeing his medals and reading the news about his heroism is gradually replaced by neurosis caused by flashbacks of his crimes. Shigeko, who was physically abused before he was drafted, starts to get even in bed. In Edogawa’s story, Kurokawa was injured in combat, but Wakamatsu’s inference that he was hurt accidentally after his rape further debunks the heroic image of soldiers.
Terajima’s performance is deliberately reserved, making her intermittent outbursts all the more effective. Onishi’s is more exaggerated for effect.
The film’s most distinctive feature is its striking use of associative montage, which harks back to Eisenstein. The first three minutes of “Caterpillar” crosscuts archival footage of the Sino-Japanese war with a Japanese soldier raping a Chinese woman, and a procession of women marching with the Hinomaru flag to a score of patriotic battle songs. It sums up the film’s motive of connecting Japan’s war policy with sexual aggression and brainwashing of civilians in WWII.
The formally composed shot of Kurokawa as a human stump propped up on a cushion before his military regalia is crosscut with shots of a framed photo of the Imperial couple. Furious editing merges the distorted faces of rapist and raped until they are indistinguishable. The final sequence is an emotive montage of archival footage culminating in abstract numbers that manifest the worldwide scope of war.
Though Wakamatsu is an auteur of pink movies (Japanese softcore pornography), he tones down Edogawa’s “eroticism, grotesquerie, and the nonsensical” in favor of greater realism, concentrating more on Shigeko’s suffering than her sexual perversion. In the original, Shigeko sexually and physically abuses her husband, but the roles are reversed, with Kurokawa continuing to demand her sexual servitude, and her retaliations more gestural.
To show how Japan’s war mobilized the nation on a grassroots level, Kurokawa’s bourgeois background is changed to that of peasantry, and Shigeko is constantly engaging in productive labor -- weaving, hoeing the soil. While the short story unfolds in the claustrophobic attic, Wakamatsu incorporates pastoral scenery and outdoor communal life to reinforce the social pressure on Shigeko.