Japanese soldier Kyuzo Kurosawa (Shima Ônishi) returns home in 1940 a near-comic stump of a man: missing his arms and legs, he's a torso plus head that demands constant care from his formerly abused wife Shigeko (Shinoibu Terajima). Revered as the "War God" by the villagers, at home Kyuzo-who can't even speak-demands his wife's food and constant sex, driving her to madness. Essentially a sexually charged two-hander with blunt allegorical implications, Kôji Wakamatsu's one-note follow-up to United Red Army is a disappointing affair, visually indifferent and thematically simplistic. Audience interest will be limited to Wakamatsu devotees and the kind of cult-oriented audiences who automatically perk up at the chance to see simulated amputee sex.
Pulling no punches, Caterpillar opens with Kyuzo raping a Chinese woman, firmly erasing any potential audience respect for veterans. At home and in flashbacks of his departure for combat, fatuous villagers burst with patriotic fervor and repeated cries of "Banzai!" without personally risking anything. Their shallow nationalistic devotion is undercut by the village idiot, who picks his nose at the send-off but celebrates wildly when peace is announced. It's a ham-handed way of indicating that the nominally insane person is, in fact, the most perceptive person around.
Such crude dramatic ironies suffuse the film on every level. The "War God" is a wretched, selfish stump, no more sympathetic in barely human form than he was in life. Shigeko first tries to be the dutiful wife her wartime life requires of her, but eventually loses her calm, pressured as she is both by her now-useless husband and the unhelpful villagers. Charged bouts of sex (reflecting the ever-changing balance of power), screaming and physical abuse follow.
With its unsubtle indictment of Japanese nationalism and wartime fervor, Caterpillar is a logical thematic prequel to United Red Army, creating an amped-up portrait of the kind of unthinking fervor the students/terrorists of that film both tried to destroy and unintentionally emulated. But unmoored from specific, documented history, it lacks either the historical detail or sense of reality: the allegory here is so simple and unrefined it fails to really come to life. United Red Army looked functional but so plunged-in-the-moment the expediency seemed like the only way to keep up with the fiery action and speeches: Caterpillar looks merely brown and drab. The balance of power between husband and wife doesn't so much change as swing back and forth repetitively.
The muddled end hurriedly expands its targets to include anger at the nation of Japan for sending its soldiers to war, and then for refusing to acknowledge their sacrifice. It also includes a parting reminder about the atomic bomb, thereby damning every single person involved in World War II. It's an understandably angry sentiment, but not particularly well served by this execution.
Distributor: Lorber Films
Cast: Shinobu Terajima, Shima Ônishi, Keigo Kasuya, Emi Masuda, Sabu Kawahara and Maki Ishikawa
Director: Kôji Wakamatsu
Screenwriters: Hisako Kurosawa and Masao Adachi
Producers: Kôji Wakamatsu
Genre: Drama; Japanese-language, subtitled
Running time: 85 min.
Release date: May 6 NY