Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Although couched in the realities of conflict, Wakamatsu is equally, if not more, concerned with the little horrors caused by organised, countrywide violence."

Caterpillars are usually the starting point of a life, marking time with eating until they turn into beautiful butterflies. Kôji Wakamatsu's film is all about metamorphoses big and small that are brought about by the cocoon of war - but these are metamorphoses in reverse, as beauty and complexity are stripped away to leave a shadow of what existed before. Although, as Wakamatsu will come to point out, some butterflies' beauty may be only wing-deep in the first place.

The conflict that acts as a catalyst for the action is the second Sino-Japanese war of 1940 and Wakamatsu sets his pacifist cards on the table from the outset, assaulting the audience with a barrage of archive footage and a sequence involving rape and murder in the name of emperor and country, as a Japanese soldier is seen forcing himself on a screaming woman. It's a scene made all the more affecting by the fact that it is shot in monochrome, while superimposed coloured flames lick their way over the images. What emerges from this fire is reborn, but a long way from being a phoenix.

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Lieutenant Kurokawa (Keigo Kasuya) returns from war in just about the worst shape possible. He has lost all his limbs, almost all his ability to speak and his face is badly burned. And those are only the visible scars. He is the caterpillar of the title - reduced to the most basic of bodily functions. Not that his fellow villagers view him that way. He has been declared a "war god" by the ever-present propaganda machine of the Japanese press and is therefore revered by all. At home, however, his needs and desires pose a very different prospect for his wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima), who finds her own service to emperor and country must be to take care of this wreckage of a human - "you're nothing but a pile of flesh" - serving all his needs, including his frequent desire for sex.

Although couched in the realities of conflict - an epilogue also serves to bring home the horrors of war in no uncertain terms - Wakamatsu is equally, if not more, concerned with the little horrors predicated by organised, countrywide violence. Shigeko is fighting a daily battle against repulsion, finding new ways to combat her mixed emotions about what has happened and, surprisingly, discovering that despite her servitude to her husband she is enjoying a level of emancipation as a result that she could never have dreamed of in the past.

This is, for the most part, Shigeko's story. Wakamatsu wants us to consider, not just the soldiers but those who are funnelled into becoming fighters by the draft system and the others who must deal with the end product of the violence they inflict and have inflicted upon them once the conveyorbelt of war spits them out the other end. Terajima - who won the Silver Bear in Berlin for this role - puts in a remarkable performance. Since Kurokawa is virtually speechless, much of the dialogue she and Kasuya achieve is developed through looks alone, aided by some excellent camerawork from Wakamatsu.

His direction is generally under-stated and naturalistic but in key scenes the action becomes practically grand guignol in its excessiveness, which, when coupled with its female-centric viewpoint, make it reminiscent of film's such as Zhang Yimou's Ju Dou and Raise The Red Lantern. The shift into frenzied emotion serves to emphasise the moment all the more and to underscore the futility of this sort of violent outburst, which though exhausting and excessive offers little or no relief. This Caterpillar creeps under your skin and stays there.

Reviewed on: 19 Jun 2010
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Drama about a World War II veteran, left crippled and entirely dependent on his wife.
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Director: Kôji Wakamatsu

Writer: Hisako Kurosawa, Masao Adachi

Starring: Shinobu Terajima, Keigo Kasuya, Emi Masuda, Sabu Kawahara, Maki Ishikawa, Gô Jibiki, Arata, Katsuyuki Shinohara, Daisuke Iijima, Ichirô Ogura, Sanshirô Kobayashi, Mariko Terada, Ken Furusawa, Shima Ônishi

Year: 2010

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: Japan

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