Koji Wakamatsu's Caterpillar, screening at Edinburgh International Film Festival, is a short yet grueling tale of domestic horror set in a semi-depopulated Japanese village during World War Two. Protagonist Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima) is given the task of looking after her husband (Keigo Kasuya), multiply-disabled in the second Sino-Japanese war.
In Dalton Trumbo's novel Johnny Got His Gun (filmed by Trumbo in 1971), the hero is left limbless, deaf, dumb and blind. Wakamatsu's "living war god" suffers all these losses except for his eyesight, which is spared. But any assumption that Wakamatsu is therefore a more merciful filmmaker than Trumbo is swiftly dispelled.
Trapped in their loveless relationship, man and wife can only achieve contentment in incompatible ways. Reduced to a set of physical drives, he sleeps, eats, and demands sex regularly (Wakamatsu's pinku background is evident, but there is little of eroticism here). She enjoys wheeling her spouse around the village in his uniform and medals, enjoying the prestige and free gifts of food which come her way, but he is clearly uncomfortable being displayed like a portable idol.
Throughout, Wakamatsu toys with the audience's sympathies: we are introduced to Kasuya's character as he rapes a Chinese civilian, which rather undercuts any compassion we might have for his subsequent misfortune. We also learn that he was brutal to Shigeko because she couldn't give him a child. But just as she tires of being his slave and starts exploiting her power over her helpless charge, flashbacks allow us to see his remorse for earlier actions, and any vengeful satisfaction we might feel at his punishment is compromised.
It's unfortunate that the nuanced performance of Terajima and the involutions of the characters' relationship are not supported by comparably subtle filmmaking. The score tends to underline every emotion in a way that's a bit daytime soap. Only when the emotions have become too contorted, conflicted and generally messed up does this stop being redundant and patronizing. Flashbacks paint in every corner of the story, helpfully desaturated to avoid any possible confusion (one would think the presence of limbs on the leading man would be enough to alert us to a scene being out of chronological order), and Wakamatsu presents his special effect hero via a series of rather gloating closeups of his stumps and scars. At a climactic moment we get a macro shot of a caterpillar on its back, stuck on the surface of a pond. I would characterize this kind of filmmaking as overly helpful.
The worst moment is a series of superimposed factual announcements right at the end, informing us of of the number slain at Hiroshima, and a few other tragic statistics of uncertain relevance to the story at hand. At this point the movie lurches from being merely over-explicit to over-explicit and confused. With the triumph of his last film, United Red Army (2007), which also featured Kasuya, Wakamatsu, who's been directing since 1963, showed artistic as well as biological longevity. Let's hope he marches on with another movie to take away the slight sour taste of this one.