By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 5, 2011 at 4:14AM
Acclaimed Japanese director Koji Wakamatsu's latest feature, "Caterpillar," breaks down the notion of wartime bravery by disabling it. Working from a short story (one that was banned in 1939 by Japanese censors) by Edogawa Rampo, Wakamatsu achieves this with a haunting physical manifestation: an injured Japanese soldier during the Second Sino-Japanese War, returned home minus his arms and legs. Rendered useless except as a symbol, the injured man receives a hero's welcome, only to become the disfigured face of a lost cause.
From its opening minutes, Wakamatsu announces his intention of dismantling militarist propaganda. Newsreel footage of Japanese attacks suddenly turns real, following the pre-mutiliated Tadashi into a Chinese home where he brutally rapes a shrieking woman, while triumphant music plays in the background. Tadashi's later appearance furthers this ironic juxtaposition of celebration and cruelty, as he becomes the de facto face of Japanese strength despite having none himself.
Wakamatsu introduces Tadashi's grave condition by first showing him propped against the wall, more object than person, and only his sullen expression giving away the complex identity still festering beneath the surface. Slowly, as Shigeko settles into a life of servitude and begins to resent her husband's debilitated state, Wakamatsu peels back the accolades and explores the ugly truth behind Tadashi's heroic reputation.
Deemed "a Living War God" by his military colleagues, the crippled Tadashi (Keigo Kasuya) arrives at his country home as a shell of his former self, terrifying his fragile wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terjima). With half of his face melted off, four stumps in the place of his lost limbs and the apparent incapacity to speak, Shigeko initially tries to flee their home, but eventually returns to face the sense of duty imposed on her.
It's easy to see why Terjima won a prize for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival: Proclaimed a model for soldiers' wives across the country, Shigeko is constantly forced to wear a frozen grin and stand tall while catering to Tadashi's most basic needs, which include an insatiable sexual appetite. Like the festive announcements on the radio ("a good soldier's pleasure is to serve justice") and the medals affixed to Keigo's chest, her cheery demeanor is just another facade. But this one won't last.
Before its spell unravels with overdone theatricality and on-the-nose flashbacks, "Caterpillar" succeeds as a kind of representational horror movie. Although comparisons have been made to Sam Fuller's anti-war narratives (and Tadashi's condition resembles that of the protagonist in Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun"), Wakamatsu takes a freakier route. The way he positions the mute Tadashi's ghostly presence recalls Bob Clark's frightening Vietnam parable "Deathdream," where a dead recruit shows up at his parents' house as a zombie. Tadashi lives, but the mythology of his heroism slowly expires along with the prevalent belief that Japan could win the war.
Wakamatsu closes with notes about the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were followed by the execution of Japanese soldiers. Those events deliver the final blows to the illusions of battlefield honor, but Tadashi receives his comeuppance before then. His surface scars garner respect, but no protection from the guilt and trauma slithering through his mind.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? This is screening at New York's IFC Center two weeks before Wakamatsu's 2008 epic "United Red Army" plays in the same location. That pair should draw new audiences to Wakamatsu's work and do decent business as a result of fairly strong critical reactions.
criticWIRE grade: B+