Interest in the work of legendary “pink” film director Kōji Wakamatsu has been resuscitated since his most recent film, the emotionally wrought Caterpillar, was nominated for the Golden Bear at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival. Prior to this, Wakamatsu was probably best known for serving as executive producer on Nagisa Oshima’s controversial art-house sex film In the Realm of the Senses. Long considered one of the best directors working in the Japanese “pink” or soft-core industry, Wakamatsu capitalized on the relative autonomy offered by forming his own production company in the mid ’60s, and by working within extremely miniscule budgets, to produce a body of work that’s sexually explicit as well as explicitly political. For instance, 1972’s Ecstasy of the Angels in many ways rehearses the self-destruction of United Red Army’s revolutionary cell, albeit played out in a far more sexualized fashion. Interestingly, that film’s writer, Masao Adachi, who would go on to write Caterpillar for Wakamatsu, in the interim gave up screenwriting altogether in order to join the Japanese Red Army, training and living with the group for nearly 20 years in Lebanon, until his arrest and deportation to Japan in 2001.
United Red Army and Caterpillar are at bottom studies in hypocrisy, ideologically complementary companion pieces that examine, respectively, the shortcomings of militant student revolutionaries and fervently patriotic (read: jingoistic) nationalists. Both films bookend highly charged fictional recreations within ostensibly objective documentary frameworks. Divided into three parts of unequal length, United Red Army’s first 45 minutes employ a wealth of newsreel footage and a voiceover narrator to situate growing discontent among Japan’s college students with, first, the 1960 U.S.-Japanese security treaty and then escalating tuition costs and other administrative skullduggery, resistance that was met with increasing police violence and mass arrests. Not only does this contextualization align the Japanese student movement with coeval events in the U.S. and France, to some extent universalizing the struggle, it also justifies, or at least seeks to explain, a growing sense of militancy among Japanese youth and their willingness to employ violent means. To its occasional detriment, however, this sequence barrages the viewer with so many characters, each one carefully identified by name and age, as well as filling the screen with so much text (newspaper headlines, scrolling text from political speeches, subtitles that shift from top to bottom of the screen as need be) that it can oftentimes be more than a little disorientating, a whirlwind tour of radical political movements and players.
Fast-paced informational overload turns into something of a political horror movie during the extended middle act, 90 terrifying minutes during which Red Army factions turn on each other and themselves like rabid animals, carrying out an increasingly pointless and absurd purge. More than a dozen members are beaten, stabbed, and starved to death for the slightest infraction, often for no discernible reason at all, other than the fact that an “us” always requires its “them.” Faction leaders Mori (Gô Jibiki) and Nagata (Akie Namiki) use language throughout as a tool for vendetta and hypocrisy: They refuse to admit any of their followers have been killed; rather, fallen comrades have suffered “death by defeatism,” their fatal flaw an inability to properly “self-criticize,” a watchword (derived from Maoist doctrine) that’s ultimately more accurately translated “battered.”
In the most horrifying example of this self-consuming insanity, one lovely young woman, targeted by the frumpy, asexual Nagata, it’s suggested, more out of jealousy than anything else, is encouraged to “self-criticize” by repeatedly punching herself in the face. Wakamatsu shoots the scene so that the violence is entirely out of frame; the viewer only hears the dull thuds of impact and cringe-worthy crunching sounds, until Nagata holds up a mirror so the girl (and the audience) can inspect her handiwork.
Mori and Nagata’s hypocrisy seemingly knows no bounds. While the remaining members are busy breaking down one base camp and humping across the inhospitable wastes of the Japanese Alps to slap together another, they’re meeting in relative comfort to inform Nagata’s husband, Sakaguchi (Arata), that she’s leaving him for Mori, out of purely revolutionary, anti-bourgeois reasons, naturally, and that it’s his revolutionary duty to quietly and meekly accept this transfer of affections. Lest the scene collapse into completely one-dimensional caricature, Wakamatsu stays on Nagata’s face when she’s alone afterwards, allowing the actress to convey contradictory emotions, and granting the character at least a modicum of humanity.
This emotional betrayal leads directly to the film’s tense final act. When word gets out that Mori and Nagata have been arrested and, what’s worse, several escapees have informed the police of the group’s whereabouts, the survivors decide to split up. One bunch is arrested almost immediately. The other, led by Nagata’s ex, Sakaguchi, winds up breaking into a mountain lodge and taking the manager’s wife hostage, leading to a standoff with police and paramilitary Defense Forces. Here, too, the psychological effects of their “training” at the hands of Mori and Nagata persists, as the militants inform the woman that she is, in fact, not a hostage, but rather a willing participant in their armed struggle to fundamentally alter the very structure of Japanese society. Then there’s a confrontation over another of the men breaking the code of insurrectionary discipline by eating a cookie, “the very symbol of reactionary attitudes,” as he’s promptly informed. To which the other man responds, “There’s no such thing as an antirevolutionary cookie!” Comedy, to be sure, a reductio ad absurdam of revolutionary logic even, yet at the same time deadly earnest, as the men—stretched to the mental breaking point by events—threaten to come to blows, or even gunfire, over one purloined pastry.
In many ways, Caterpillar plays like a smaller-scale variation on United Red Army’s third act. Adapted from a short story by Edogawa Rampo (say the name fast, it should ring a bell) and filmed previously by Hisayasu Sato (of Naked Blood fame) as the strongest segment in the otherwise uneven anthology film Rampo Noir, Wakamatsu actually downplays the perversity contained in the original (and Sato’s adaptation), a florid and disturbing tale that describes with relish the sadistic revenge taken by an abused wife on her incapacitated husband, who has returned from the Sino-Japanese war as a quadruple amputee with half his face burned away, his condition likened to that of the titular insect. Wakamatsu, on the other hand, seems more interested in using the situation as pretext for delving into the vacillating emotional response of the wife, Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima), exposing the degree and kind of hypocrisy displayed by other denizens of the rural village, and even providing the husband, Tadashi (Keigo Kasuya), with a moment of self-realization as he recalls with anguish the atrocities he committed for the glory of Emperor and country in mainland China.
Caterpillar’s crux is the shifting balance of power between the couple. At first, Tadashi has his way. His status as “war god” (a superbly ironic euphemism) and his prior history of violence toward Shigeko force her into a holding pattern of deference and even self-sacrifice. Thus she half starves herself so the gluttonous Tadashi can wolf down her share of the rations as well. She even attempts to gratify his seemingly insatiable sexual needs. Ultimately, the futility strikes home, and she attempts minor acts of revolt: smashing some eggs, a tributary offering to the “war god,” in Tadashi’s face, or dressing him up in his uniform, sticking him in a pram-like wicker conveyance, and wheeling him around the village, letting him know that it’s his duty to set an example for the others. Shigeko’s epiphany (“They didn’t send you back a war god, they sent you home a cripple!”) echoes the “antirevolutionary cookie” moment in United Red Army: A character, for a brief moment, breaks through the coercive chicanery of hypocritical language to see clearly the true nature of things, only then to realize how very little can be done about it.
Caterpillar strategically complicates its nonfiction framework by opening with footage that only looks like it’s stock, full of sub-Grindhouse imitation artifacts, showing Tadashi on the rampage, raping and slaughtering female civilians. United Red Army opens with a claim that all the events depicted are true, only some fiction has been used to convey them. Likewise, Caterpillar ends with statistics on wartime deaths, verifying its fiction with a documentary disclaimer to the effect: “All these events are a matter of public record.” Toward the end of the film, actual stock footage begins to intrude, interrupting the final dissolution of Shigeko and Tadashi’s relationship, signaling at the same time the final days of WWII: Foremost among them we see the devastation and carnage wrought by the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the execution by Allied Forces of a handful of low-ranking Japanese war criminals. Such a juxtaposition is bound to provoke questions about large-scale atrocities committed on either side, whether the Rape of Nanking or dropping the A-bomb, questions that yet remain largely unanswered, swept under the carpet of history by the broom of consensual silence.
Kōji Wakamatsu’s United Red Army and Caterpillar are now out on DVD from Kino Lorber.