Wakamatsu's film follows the misfortunes of Tadashi Kurokawa (Keigo Kasuya), the warrior idol of a small rural village who returns home a "war god." He's survived some terrible ordeal that cost him all his limbs as well as his hearing. Nearly half his face is scarred from burns. Given the reputed Japanese attitude toward death in battle I'm surprised the effort was made to save his life. Kurokawa was probably surprised as well. His wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima) is horrified but eventually assumes a patriotic duty of caring for him: feeding him, cleaning him, dressing him up for outings and, increasingly, servicing him sexually. However improbably, Kurokawa's manhood survived his trauma, and he comes to crave sex as much as he craves food. Through the miracle of CGI we get to see him do the deed, frequently, albeit at a distance intended to be respectful. I imagine many viewers will find it neither respectful nor distant enough, but Wakamatsu specialized in disquieting cinema and wants you to be disturbed.
Kurokawa, before and after
We're used to an unfortunate like Kurokawa learning to bemoan war, but the man's deafness, and possibly other brain damage, make such pathetic eloquence impossible. He can barely choke out single words, though an attempt to write with a pencil in his teeth indicates that he's somewhat more sentient than he looks. Shigeko reads a little of his scrawl: the subtitles translate it as "I want to do it." Suicide? Sex, more likely, or so Shigeko assumes. Kurokawa, we learn, was a domineering, violent husband when whole, but war has reduced him to a sulky, demanding invalid. But maybe he was a big spoiled baby all along.
The symbolism of the "war god" as an embodiment of Japan's fatal militarism is pretty blatant, but the virtue of Caterpillar isn't its political satire but its unflinching examination of the shifting dynamics of the Kurokawa marriage. Just as mutilation doesn't confer sainthood on Kurokawa, neither can we easily identify Shigeko as victim, heroine or other. On one obvious level, Japan's defeat in war and its analog in the film's village, an impoverished yet strangely idyllic place haunted by a jolly village idiot and untouched by bombing, from what we can tell, are a kind of liberation for her. At the same time, she discovers a capacity for intimate cruelty, whether she's smashing precious eggs into hubby's face or mocking him (and giving the film its name) by singing some kind of nursery rhyme as he rolls on the floor in an agony of the damned, flashing back to his rape of a Chinese woman -- referenced briefly at the start of the show -- and the ensuing fire and building collapse that ruined him. The Kurokawas are a plausibly if idiosyncratically dysfunctional couple, and Wakamatsu's gutsy portrayal of it, aided by two gutsy actors, transcends the picture's more obvious political context. Caterpillar definitely works as a satiric history play, but it works best when Wakamatsu refrains from reducing his characters to generic or sexual-political types. That creative restraint makes Caterpillar probably the best mutilated-veteran picture ever made.
Koji Wakamatsu died on October 17, aged 76, after getting hit by a taxi. He made one more film after Caterpillar, a film about Yukio Mishima that should prove one of the must-see pictures of 2013 in the U.S. Long a cult figure for his provocative "pink" films of the Sixties and Seventies, Wakamatsu seemed to hit a new stride in his eighth decade, his global profile raised by his 2007 portrait of leftist self-terrorizing, United Red Army. One suspects, or at least hopes, that his last film will reconfirm what the two prior films suggest, that Wakamatsu, tragically, died at the peak of his powers.