Caterpillar (キャタピラー, Koji Wakamatsu, 2010)

Koji Wakamatsu made his name in the pink genre where artistic flair and political messages mingled with softcore pornography and the rigorous formula of the genre. Wakamatsu rarely abandoned this aspect of his work but in adapting a well known story by Japan’s master of the grotesque Edogawa Rampo, Wakamatsu redefines his key concern as sex becomes currency, a kind of trade and power game between husband and wife. Caterpillar (キャタピラー), aside from its psychological questioning of marital relations, is a clear anti-war rallying call as a small Japanese village finds itself brainwashed into sacrificing its sons for the Emperor, never suspecting all their sacrifices will have been in vain when the war is lost and wounded men only a painful reminder of wartime folly.

Kyuzo Kurokawa (Shima Onishi) has returned from the war. This makes him luckier than many of the other young men who disappeared from the village over the last few years. His return, however, provokes howls of fear and disbelief from his long suffering wife, Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima), who refuses to believe the creature they’ve brought back from the battlefield is really her husband. Kyuzo has lost all of his limbs, has facial disfigurement from burns, and has also lost his voice and hearing. Sitting across from the remnants of her brother, Shigeko’s sister-in-law remarks that she’s glad they didn’t “send Shigeko back to her family” because she is obviously the one who will have to look after this entirely helpless though apparently conscious battle scarred man.

This being early in the war, the village is in a fury of patriotic zealotry, determined to make Japan glorious again in the name of the Emperor. Far from letting the case of Kyuzo dissuade them from their warlike fervour, his sacrifice becomes a totem. He’s not a man destroyed by war but a “war god” and the pride of the village, a testament to their love and devotion that they would send a son of theirs to war who would return to them even in such a ruined form. Shigeko, quickly getting over her initial revulsion, comes to realise that her husband’s new-found status is also her own. As the wife of the war god, she becomes his voice and mistress in a way she had never been permitted before.

Truth be told, the war did not ruin Kyuzo’s character. The marriage of Kyuzo and Shigeko was never a happy one and perhaps her initial reeling, wailing flight on learning of her husband’s return was more out of fear than disbelief and compassion. Despite a lengthy marriage the couple had no children (perhaps an explanation for that early “sent back” comment), and Kyuzo regularly beat his wife for her failure to bear him a male heir. Now his carer, the roles are reversed as Shigeko babies her defeated husband, lamenting that all he is is urge – sleep, eat, sex. Kyuzo’s needs are animal and definite despite the signs of intelligent communication in his eyes. Shigeko, constrained to satisfy them, bends his need to her own advantage.

Emasculated in a deeper way by Shigeko’s increasing dominance, Kyuzo first attempts to assert himself in resentment at being trotted out to sell the virtues of war in his pristine uniform even as a man destroyed by nationalised violence. Spitting in Shigeko’s face as she dresses him, he attempts to refuse but is powerless to reject her authority. As time wears on and Kyuzo submits to female authority, memories of his atrocities haunt him as the fire which marked his face mingles with the faces of the Chinese women he raped and killed as a brave son of Japan on Manchurian soil.

For Wakamatsu war and sexualised violence are synonymous as the local women train for defending their village by repeatedly penetrating hey bales with long spears crying out patriotic slogans as they go. The flag waving and furore never waver despite the evidence of Kyuzo’s suffering and the numerous young men who will never come home or have done so in square boxes wrapped with white cloth. Only nearing the end is Shigeko left wondering what will become of her war god husband when no one needs a talisman. What will the nation do with these men who’ve sacrificed so much and received nothing in return?

Wakamatsu’s message is an unmistakably anti-war one though the curious inclusion of the executions of the lower class war criminals “hanged by the country they fought to protect” almost undercuts it even if his sympathy lies with those who succumbed to a national madness and have been made to pay a personal price. Kyuzo becomes the literal caterpillar of the title, taunted by Shigeko as he writhes and crawls around, condemned to eternal undulation, but it’s Shigeko who has been in a chrysalis all this time waiting to emerge from the fear and tyranny which has marred her married life into something with more freedom and autonomy – much like a nation waking up and realising that its Emperor is just a man and the long years of suffering nothing more than brainwashed madness.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kuro (はなればなれに, Daisuke Shimote, 2012)

poster2All these years later, it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary the wheezy, breezy youthfulness of the French New Wave was. Kuro proves that there’s life in this whimsical, summer seaside feeling yet as three misfits find themselves holing up at a disused small hotel to think about what they’ve done until they learn to grow up a little.

Kuro starts our story as she mournfully chows down on some of the pastries at the bakery she works at whilst treating a customer in a very disdainful way. She wanted to be a baker but her boss never really lets her do anything and when they argue about her guzzling half the stock she quits in a fit of pique. Roaming around the city doing absurd things like partying with a jazz band before running off with their change can or messing around with a sharp suited guy in a hotel room she meets womanising stage actor Gou who’s had a tiff with his actress wife after paying to much attention to the new girl. He flirts with and eventually semi-kidnaps Kuro for a road trip where they meet photographer Eito who has also had a tiff with his woman over having neglected to file the marriage papers at city hall. He’s heading up to an old hotel his uncle used to own where he was meant to spend his honeymoon and invites Gou and Kuro to join him.

Kuro’s original Japanese title, はなればなれに “Hanarebanare ni” literally means “scattered pieces” and was, coincidentally, the same title used for Godard’s 1964 masterpiece Bande à part. First time director Daisuke Shimote wears his influences on his sleeve with an atmosphere that recalls early period Godard which is all whimsy minus Godard’s slightly arch, confrontational irony. Leading lady Kuro, played by Airi Kido, has a definite touch of Anna Karina running through her from the way her retro haircut neatly frames her child-like face to her striped top and colourful red skirt. Taking her cue from Karina’s innocent insouciance, her absurd, pixyish pranks take on a cute and quirky quality which is backed up by a youthfully punkish disregard for the normal order of things.

Kido dances with the jazz band like Karina dancing in the bar in Vivre sa Vie and the gang even fake die in a water gun and finger shoot out a la Franz and Arthur in Bande à part. There’s also something of Tati in the intricate way Shimote sets up what are actually quite small and simple jokes like the Wii tennis match that suddenly turns into an entirely different kind of “virtual” game. At this point, the photographer who’s been perpetually on the sidelines, observing, finds himself joining in and experiencing his very own Natasha at the dance moment which, perhaps, finally allows him to break through something that’s been causing a rift in his personal life.

Through their season at the sea, each of these disparate characters comes to a kind of personal realisation that leaves them, well, more or less the same but much more settled. Kuro learns that sometimes you just have to buckle down and do as you’re told, Gou perhaps learns to be nicer to his wife and Eito maybe realises that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s leaving you. Each of the characters is quite depressed, in the best new wave tradition, or just filled with ennui but perhaps you can’t have these kinds of absurd adventures in any other mood. That said, the heavier side of new wave surrealism with its nihilistic overtones is almost entirely absent leaving the atmosphere light and bright with the feeling that everything will (probably) be alright in the end.

Light on conventional narrative and high on sight gags and surrealist humour, Daisuke Shimote has crafted a charming and amusing new wave inspired ensemble comedy that, yes, wears its influences on its sleeves but isn’t afraid to bring its own moves to the dance floor. It might seem a little bit like a curveball from someone who’s spent so much of his previous life studying the work of Ozu with his formalist compositions and inclusory tatami mat viewpoint, but then Ozu was also a master of subtlety who could make peeling an apple into one of the most profoundly moving scenes in cinema history and Shimote is able to harness a similar fastidiousness here only in more of a comedic bent. Charming, whimsical, absurd but absolutely internally consistent, cinematically literate and beautifully made Kuro is one of the most impressive feature length debuts of recent times and hints at a promising career for its still inexperienced director.


Bonus videos of people (mostly Anna Karina) dancing in Godard films: