DIRECTED BY: Kôji Wakamatsu
FEATURING: Shinobu Terajima, Keigo Kasuya
PLOT: Lieutenant Kurokawa loses all four limbs and is rendered deaf, dumb and disfigured during the Japanese invasion of China on the eve of World War II; when the Emperor declares him a “Living War God,” his wife Shigeko is ordered to care for the living torso, including fulfilling all her usual wifely duties.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite its perverse premise and its superficial similarities to the Certified Weird Johnny Got His Gun, Caterpillar isn’t that weird; instead, it’s an intense domestic drama about duty.
COMMENTS: Lieutenant Kurokawa is a monster. Scarred by the war, unable to hear or to speak (with great difficulty, he can sometimes painfully squeeze out a single syllable), he’s essentially a torso, an esophagus and a fully-functional phallus. Flashbacks reveal that the caterpillar, now revered as a god, was actually a moral monster long before his physique was carved up to match. The duty to care for the god-monster falls upon long-suffering partner Shigeko, who must feed him, wipe him, and cater to his suddenly insatiable sexual needs. For the wife, the mangled Lieutenant combines the worst aspects of an infant and a spouse—completely dependent, demanding, and incoherent, but with no compensatory cuteness or tenderness. She lives alone with him in a one-room house of horrors. Yet, perversely, this disaster delivers an unexpected upside for the poor farm wife. She gains social standing in the village as the caretaker for a god. She is sure to wheel him out in his cart daily to shore up the morale of the rapidly depopulating village as all available able-bodied men are shipped to the front to help failing war effort (even as the daily radio broadcasts detail Japan’s magnificent martial victories). On the home front, Shigeko also eventually learns to enjoy the petty power she has to deny the god a little bit of rice or sex, becoming herself a mini-dictator of an empire consisting of one subject on a straw mat. Caterpillar starts slowly but draws you in to the compellingly claustrophobic dynamic between these two unlikely mates yoked together by fate and obligation. Shinobu Terajima’s performance as the wife is brave and sympathetic (she won many awards, including the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival), but Keigo Kasuya’s turn as the caterpillar is even more crucial to the film’s success. His ability to convey mute fury and desperation with just his eyes, stutters and howls humanizes his role as a symbol of national and domestic fascism. The film never becomes truly exploitative, but there is plenty of caterpillar/human sex, in multiple positions, to titillate the curious. The cinematography is mostly cast in a drab browns that are effective at evoking a backwater rural lifestyle but aren’t particularly pleasing to look at. The budget is obviously tiny: for events outside of the hut and the village, the movie mainly relies on archival footage, along with one war crime recreation with distracting CG flames superimposed over the scene. But the inherent horrific drama and Wakamatsu’s insistent indictment of unthinking duty overcome the cheapness, and Caterillar metamorphoses into an anti-authority parable worth paying attention to.
Like many Japanese directors, Kôji Wakamatsu began his career in the trenches making “pink” films before graduating to more serious features. His filmography contains some titles he’d probably prefer we forgot: movies with names like The Embryo Hunts in Secret, Diary Story of a Japanese Rapist, and Violated Angels. In the 1970s Wakamatsu began slipping more politics into his exploitation films, culminating in United Red Army (2008), an entirely serious drama about the collapse of the Japanese radical movement in the 1970s, and in this film. Caterpillar was adapted from a 1929 short story by Edogawa Rampo that was originally banned as perverse and unpatriotic.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a sexually charged two-hander with blunt allegorical implications… 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.”–Vadim Rizov, Boxoffice Magazine (contemporaneous)