Thursday, May 05, 2011

Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar

What ideological extremists call “martyrdom” or “sacrifice” is rather ugly to behold. Dubbed a “War-God,” quadruple amputee Kyuzo Kurokawa should more rightly be considered a war criminal. Indeed, Kurokawa deserves even worse than the daily degradation of his freak-show existence in Kōji Wakamatsu’s scalding WWII-era morality play Caterpillar (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

When we first meet Kurokawa, he is raping an innocent young Chinese girl. We soon learn he treated his wife Shigeko in essentially the same manner, before shipping out in the Imperial Army. Returning home completely incapacitated with only a rudimentary ability to communicate, Kurokawa is now utterly dependent on his wife. Initially though, his attitude towards her remains unchanged, demanding food and intercourse on a regular basis. Yet, slowly Shigeko Kurokawa realizes how profoundly their respective positions have changed.

Though he is still abusive (to the best of his limited abilities), she finds she enjoys the perks and privileges of being the wife of a War-God. She never misses an opportunity to parade him at patriotic assemblies, both to maintain their social position and to humiliate him in public. For his part, Kurokawa starts to lose his ferocious sex drive, resenting the way she services his needs as one might reward an obedient child, while haunted by memories of the Chinese girl he brutalized.

Considering Wakamatsu’s background as a Pinku Eiga filmmaker who broke through to the mainstream, it is hardly surprising his films often involve provocative sexual matter. However, the scenes of the Kurokawas’ marital relations are in a disturbing league of their own. Yet, there is a very definite point to it all.

In his postscript, Wakamatsu explicitly argues war crimes are never isolated incidents, but the deliberate and systematic product of the prevailing power structure on whose behalf the war criminals act. Whether we accept this or not, it is painfully clear Kurokawa never transcends the institutionalized violence of the Imperial government or the misogyny of his society (as established by Wakamatsu). Despite his attempts to universalize Caterpillar’s painfully intimate story, he still does not allow collective guilt to mitigate personal responsibility.

An intense filmmaker, Wakamatsu never shies away from the shocking aspects of his story. Largely but not entirely a two-hander confined to the Kurokawa house and surrounding environs, he shrewdly exploits the staginess of the claustrophobic setting. You are right there with them, like it or not. Fortunately, Caterpillar’s leads are quite riveting, especially Shinobu Terajima, who convincingly conveys a host of conflicting responses simultaneously as the anguished Shigeko. Likewise, Shima Ohnishi suggests much through facial expressions, while forced into what must have been physically uncomfortable situations.

As a filmmaker, Wakamatsu is consistent in his boldness and his decisive rejection of ideology in general. Caterpillar uses a very personal drama as an indictment of Imperial militarism. In contrast, his previous film, United Red Army (which Lorber Films will also release later this month), viscerally depicts in documentary-style the descent into madness of Japan’s homegrown Maoist terrorist militia. Essentially, they are the opposite sides of the same coin and perfect companion films. Caterpillar is a certainly a work of power and directness, but URA is a legitimate masterwork. This week, the former is definitely recommended when it opens tomorrow (5/6) in New York at the IFC Center.