There have been many films that depict the casualties and the horrors of war. But movies that deal with its aftermath are often few. Films such as “Black Rain” have portrayed the aftermath of the Atomic bombings upon the Japanese people. Director Koji Wakamatsu’s award-winning film “Caterpillar” stands as a critique of the right-wing nationalism that guided Japan’s conduct in Asia during the 2nd Sino-Japanese war and World War II. War is hell. And sometimes, the hidden truths about what happens during the war and the consequences that follow for a country’s citizens can be even more hellish.
Set in the late 1930’s during the second Sino-Japanese war and at the beginning of World War II, Lt. Kyuzo Kurokawa (Keigo Kazuya) has come home to his wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima) with a terribly mutilated body, mute and deaf with burns to his face but has returned as a war hero. He is alive but is reduced to a torso, with no arms or legs, and Shigeko, proud for her husband’s service in the military is committed to taking care of him. But the days and nights take their toll, and amazingly, Kyuzo is still eager for sex, and Shigeko although repelled, feels a duty to attend to his desires. Is Kyuzo truly a war hero and deserving of the honor given him by the government?
The film is a difficult watch and being drawn from a banned short story by Edogawa Rampo, it is to be expected. While at its core it is a criticism of Japanese militarism in the past, it satirically deploys propaganda as it seeks to demystify the glorification of war, which is used to hide war’s very ugly reality. The screenplay also depicts the unfair demands of the Japanese women, during war and peacetime. The film deals with many different issues and all of them are harsh hidden realities of war. War crimes, handicapped veterans and spousal abuse all come into mind when one watches “Caterpillar”. The script also seeks to bring into the fold the twisted reality of sexual perversion, and just how the male appetite can often lead to the abuse of women.
There is much to be said for the film. At first, the viewer would find it easy to root for Shigeko, as she is an example of commitment. It was easy to feel her pain, her confusion and her hardship as she tends to her invalid husband. Once the film has grabbed you with what is being seen, and just how she submits to his sexual desires, you would immediately feel sorry for her. The direction made it a point to keep many details from Shigeko’s eyes but brings exposition in the viewer’s to replicate the many emotions that come from being misled. After all, Kyuzo is not a true hero, but rather someone who is more of a war criminal, who has committed rape and other horrible acts during his stint as a soldier. The direction wanted to point out the many lies presented to the public just so it could promote a deception and have the country stand behind its empire.
Besides the lies and propaganda, the director and the writer wanted to truly voice out the unfairness that has been dealt to Japanese women. True, they seem to have this blind sense of duty, and despite all that has happened in the past, Shigeko was committed to tend to a war hero. Wakamatsu pulled no punches, as he came through with a very strong criticism as to just women were seen in Japan during this period. Shigeko is such a tragic figure, that even when she tries to appear content and happy, there is a strong sense of melancholy around her. It is almost as if they blindly cling to a lie, even when they feel the truth, they choose to ignore such harsh reality. The film criticizes what is commonly called blind nationalism, and how such things could definitely lead to ruin.
Shinobu Terajima won the best actress award in the 2010 Berlin International film festival and she deserves such accolade. She was incredible. Her portrayal of a wife whose sense of duty supersedes her own feelings was just so heart-breaking that rooting for her came with very little effort. Terajima has the personality of a simple woman that fit her character and she truly does come through for her role with such flying colors. Kazuya was just as able as Terajima. The man was able to communicate the needed emotions despite the limitations of movement and speech in his character. Remorse, anger and perhaps even guilt came across the screen to envelope its viewer, and what makes it even more powerful is the fact that such things are very real during wartime.
“Caterpillar” is a film that is not meant to be merely watched, since it presents a lot more things that lie beyond its surface. It is heart-wrenching and tragic, and yet some stories need to be told just so future generations can learn from its country’s past. It is a horrifying indictment of Japan’s blind nationalism that needs to be seen even once. Recommended. [4 Out of 5 Stars]
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