One of the most satisfying things about film festivals can be the sidebar of retrospectives or, in the case of the LA Film Festival, the intermittent “Films That Got Away”. There was only one such this year, but it was a good one – Wakamatsu Kōji’s follow-up to United Red Army (2007), and his penultimate completed feature before his accidental passing in 2012. Caterpillar played at Berlin and various other festivals – to generally favourable notices – and this did indeed disappear (from these shores at least) almost without trace, so it was a treat to have a chance to see it on the big screen.
At the tail of his long and not-conventionally-distinguished career, Kōji let allowed the righteous leftist anger that bubbled through his 70’s pink movie output come to the fore. United Red Army was a sprawling, coruscating, semi-personal history of leftist activity and its self-destructive tendencies in the 60s. Caterpillar is a film on a much smaller scale – almost a chamber piece – but the anger is thus even more focused and intense.
The set-up is simple: mid-way through the second Sino-Japanese war of 1937-45, a soldier (Kasuya Keigo) is brought back to his village, along with medals for bravery, and his wife is hysterically horrified. He has a dreadful scar on his head, a slash on his neck, no speech or hearing, and no limbs. Wakamatsu is bitterly sarcastic in having all revere this broken man as “a living war god”, a village burstingly proud of its local hero, not least as we learn gradually that he was an unpleasant, violent husband before he went to war, and that he has returned haunted by the rape he committed on the mainland; we are certainly not encouraged to sympathize with the torture of being imprisoned in what remains of his body, in which this horrific memory replays to the point of madness.
Nor, in fact, are we especially encouraged to sympathize with the wife (Terajima Shinobu), although her feeling of bad faith in acting out the dutiful wife is palpable, serving her husband and thus the Empire, in caring for its hero, and setting an example to all other wives of returning soldiers. Although little wider context is indicated, beyond some filtered period footage (and some recreated), the small village can of course be taken represent Japan as a whole, the same sentiments of a nation microcosm, in which all are in thrall to the might, and right, of the Empire; everyone is given to spouting encouraging home front maxims at one another; and none, not even the wife, can open their eyes to the ludicrous human cost of war, chalking it all up to glory.
Behind the closed doors of the twisted conjugal home, however, things play out differently, almost entirely in the realm of sex. The wife submits with bored resignation to her immobile husband’s urges increasingly visible, until gradually her frustration – partly at the absurdity of it all – and her long-harboured resentment bubble forth into open, rageful mockery.
Although much of the psychological action takes place in the shadowy confines of this house, Wakamatsu takes us regularly outside, to the gorgeous mountain-backed countryside and glimmering rice fields. The sheer beauty of the landscape is another sarcastic jab, in contrast to the maimed man’s terrible existence and conscience, and the bitterly poisoned atmosphere of his household. Indeed, the film does not run on subtlety. It establishes a minimal (but satisfying) amount of psychological depth (enhanced by nice performances from the leads) and proceeds with a steady pace and seductive photography, to beat home its disgust, bordering on disbelief, at the nationalistic derangement of the times, and at the horrific futility of war. In this it is entirely successful.