Aesthetically, emotionally, and intellectually crude, Koji Wakamatsu’s brutally effective Caterpillar finds the legendary fringe-relegated director making obvious points about Japanese nationalism/militarism and less obvious ones about the sexual dynamic of marriage. Naturally, the two are intimately linked. Shooting in a unlovely palette of browns and employing barely functional framings and jagged shock cuts, Wakamatsu’s latest revamps most of the premise from Dalton Trumbo’s classic novel Johnny Got His Gun; our returning “hero,” fresh from the second Sino-Japanese War, similarly loses his arms, legs, and hearing, but maintains his eyesight and ability to speak. More importantly, Wakamatsu’s film places the soldier’s homecoming in the context of a small-town village brainwashed by wartime patriotism and focuses its attention on the veteran’s wife, torn between an indoctrinated sense of duty and her growing sense of the absurdity of her situation.
Also her hatred of her husband. Introduced via flashback raping a Chinese girl during the war, Kyuzo Kurokawa (Shima Ohnishi) is unmistakably a first-rate bastard. As the film progresses, we learn that prior to the war, he beat his wife every day for her failure to provide him with a child, and, even in his post-combat stump-like state, he’s a man of aggressive appetites, continually demanding sex (which Wakamatsu shows us, in a combination of long shots and cubistic close-ups) and browbeating his wife into giving him her soup which he greedily gulps down. Eventually, though, Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima) begins to turn the tables on her former tormenter, hitting and taunting what’s left of her husband.
Still, this is no simple tale of the dominated become the dominator. Shigeko has so ingrained the propaganda of duty—which we hear every time she turns on the radio or enters the village—that she struggles as much against herself as she does against her husband in fighting against these notions. When she parades her husband, designated a “War God,” around the town, she’s praised by the locals for her devotion. “I’m just doing what a wife should do,” she says, and means, which is why it costs her such a great effort to rebel. In one scene, while wiping what we can assume is Kyuzo’s shit-stained ass, she desperately sings a patriotic song to rouse herself to her task, but ends up breaking down in tears. The emotional cracks have started to show.
Though little more than a stump, Kyuzo comes to some sort of self-understanding as well—or at least a realization of the absurdity of his situation. Tiring of his role as local war hero, he refuses to be paraded around any longer, spitting in his wife’s face when she tries to dress him up in his uniform. Similarly, he soon becomes impotent as the memory of his wartime rape comes to haunt him via a series of fast-cut flashbacks. Husband’s and wife’s crises come together in one scene of unbearable intensity as Wakamatsu’s penchant for crude melodrama, high emotions, and hypercharged cutting between different materials reaches its climax. After a past-haunted round of failed sex (punctuated by the raped girl’s scream on the soundtrack), Shigeko tries to contain Kyuzo while the latter flops maniacally around the room and tries to bash his head in. A riot of wobbly, almost incoherent shots, flashbacks and stock footage, this scene is simply the heated climax of Wakamatsu’s alternatively placid and hysterical chamber piece.
This explosion of repressed emotion is what the town attempts to obscure through their nationalist ceremonies, and the contrast between Kyuzo’s heroic status and his actual state (and personality) is a point the film repeats endlessly through a variety of means, crude and cruder: a shock cut from an unhappy Shigeko mounting her wounded husband to the villagers practicing bayoneting hay bales; a shot of Kyuzo in front of his uniform and sword, which gives way to close-ups of first his medals and then his stumps and vein-encrusted forehead; and continual cutaways from Kyuzo lying in a heap to framed pictures of the emperor and empress. It’s about as subtle as the atomic bombs dropped by Truman and seen in the film’s conclusion in stock footage, but it’s thuddingly effective—at least initially. By ending the film with images and statistics tallying the Allies’ war crimes side by side with those of the Japanese, Wakamatsu exempts no one from the carnage of imperial combat. But only by tying this model of patriarchal warmongering to its necessary counterpart in the domestic sphere does Wakamatsu overcome the inevitable simplicity of his anti-nationalist commentary and endow his over-the-top premise and its hysterical inevitabilities with a power drawn from an interlocking web of social and historical circumstance.