Once an enfant terrible, who as a young filmmaker challenged censors and outraged conservative critics with everything from surreal S&M sex to sympathetic portrayals of Palestinian radicals, Koji Wakamatsu has not mellowed so much as ripened.
Unlike many older directors, Wakamatsu still makes films that probe deep into controversial subjects, from the inner and outer journey of a teenage killer (“17-sai no Fukai: Shonen wa Nani o Mita ka [Cycling Chronicles: Landscapes the Boy Saw],” 2004) to the murderous career of the Japanese Red Army in the early 1970s (“Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun: Asama Sanso e no Michi [The Red Army],” 2007).
At the same time, he has evolved from the rough-edged, shot-on-the-fly experiments of his early years to stylistically pared-down films that are a form of passionate witnessing — but from a distanced, nuanced viewpoint that reflects his years and experience.
Screened in competition at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, his new film “Caterpillar” is a case in point. Though based on a story by Edogawa Rampo, Japan’s master of the mysterious and bizarre, the film is not Rampo-esque in the least. (Porn-meister Hisayasu Sato used that approach, with an S&M twist, in his “Caterpillar” segment of the 2005 omnibus “Rampo Jigoku [Rampo Noir].”)
It is closer to the World War II trilogy of the late Kazuo Kuroki, from the 2002 “Utsukushi Natsu no Kirishima (A Boy’s Summer in 1945)” to 2006′s “Kamiya Etsuko no Seishun” (“The Youth of Etsuko Kamiya”) — films that sparely but powerfully examined home-front realities.
Wakamatsu’s hero is Lt. Kurokawa (Shima Onishi), who has returned from China in 1943 minus his arms and legs, his once-handsome face disfigured by burn scars. He is also deaf and able to utter only grunts and croaks. Though decorated with three medals, this “war god” (as his comrades and fellow villagers describe him) is as helpless as an infant — and hates what he has become.
His wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima) reacts to his homecoming with undisguised horror, but being a dutiful type, stoically tends to his needs — including his appetite for sex. She soon realizes that being the spouse of a “war god” has raised her status in the village — so she trundles her scowling husband about in a cart, ostensibly to give him fresh air, in reality to lap up praise from all and sundry.
But as the months pass and the war situation worsens, Shigeko begins to hate being enslaved to a man who beat her daily when he was healthy and is now little more than a noisy, unsightly organism that must be constantly fed, cleaned and sexually serviced. Meanwhile, Kurokawa obsessively remembers the Chinese women he raped, killed and left to burn in flames. His wounds that we see are only one form of torture; his mental anguish is worse.
Japanese WWII films with an antiwar slant usually portray the folks at home as either naturally pacifistic — that is, good — or mindlessly jingoistic — that is, bad. Shigeko, however, willingly does what is patriotically expected of her, such as proudly displaying her husband’s medals and newspaper clippings in a sort of “war god” shrine.
But as the reality of her situation sinks in and as Japan’s loss approaches, she begins to question the propaganda she has been fed. The radio, with its constant stream of faked news and idealistic blather (whose text scrolls on the bottom of the screen like a CNN news crawl, as though to underline its emptiness), is no longer a source of comfort. She begins to act out her resentment and hatred. The “war god” is dethroned. She calls him a “caterpillar” — that is, a loathsome crawling bug.
Terajima, whose talents have too often been wasted in formulaic roles in mediocre films, hits a new career peak as Shigeko, flawlessly registering her complex mix of emotions from the inside out. Her performance rightly won her the Best Actress prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
Onishi plays Kurokawa as both monster reduced to raw need, and man trapped inside the monster’s ruined shell. Rather a demon in human form, his Kurokawa is one of the damned who will live with his crimes for the rest of his life. No metamorphosis for this caterpillar.
Wakamatsu, on the other hand, has evolved into the elder who is the fearless memory and conscience of his tribe. No fragile butterfly he.