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)

United Red Army (実録・連合赤軍 あさま山荘への道程, Koji Wakamatsu, 2007)

Koji Wakamtasu had a long and somewhat strange career, untimely ended by his death in a road traffic accident at the age of 76 with projects still in the pipeline destined never to be finished. 2008’s United Red Army (実録・連合赤軍 あさま山荘への道程, Jitsuroku Rengosekigun Asama-Sanso e no Michi) was far from his final film either in conception or actuality, but it does serve as a fitting epitaph for his oeuvre in its unflinching determination to tell the sad story of Japan’s leftist protest movement. Having been a member of the movement himself (though the extent to which he participated directly is unclear), Wakamatsu was perfectly placed to offer a subjective view of the scene, why and how it developed as it did and took the route it went on to take. This is not a story of revolution frustrated by the inevitability of defeat, there is no romance here – only the tragedy of young lives cut short by a war every bit as pointless as the one which they claimed to be in protest of. Young men and women who only wanted to create a better, fairer world found themselves indoctrinated into a fundamentalist political cult, misused by power hungry ideologues whose sole aims amounted to a war on their own souls, and finally martyred in an ongoing campaign of senseless death and violence.

Dividing the narrative into three distinct acts, Wakamatsu begins with a lengthy history lesson starting right back in 1960 with the birth of the student movement and the first casualty of the unborn revolution as a young woman loses her life protesting the rise of tuition fees. Despite the lack of success, the student movement intensifies during the turbulent 1960s with the renewal of the ANPO treaties and the perceived complicity of the Japanese government with America’s anti-communist warfare in Asia. Mixing archive footage with reconstructions and on screen text detailing timelines, names and affiliations these early segments are hard to follow but bear out the complexity and chaos which contributed to the inefficacy of the student movement. Soon, each of the leaders we have been introduced to has been removed from the scene leaving the older but inexperienced Tsuneo Mori (Go Jibiki) in charge of what was then the Red Army Faction.

Mori had only recently rejoined the movement after leaving in disgrace at fleeing a protest and thereby evading arrest. The Red Army Faction then merges with another sect, the Revolutionary Left Wing (RLF), to form the United Red Army. Led by Mori and a female commander, Nagata (Akie Namiki), the United Red Army holes up in a cabin in the woods in order to undergo military training for the upcoming armed insurrection. Prior to this, there had been a series of purges and executions in the city producing an atmosphere of terror and paranoia which only intensifies in the incestuous and claustrophobic environment of the ascetic mountain retreat.

Out of his depth and eager to prove himself, Mori’s revolutionary consciousness developes into a dangerous cult of personality in which his iron rule is more akin to fundamentalist religion than a serious political movement intended to change the world for the better. Wakamatsu’s depiction of these events is as terrifying as it is absurd. Maoist doctrine becomes a holy scripture as each of these would be revolutionaries is forced to undergo self criticism in order to devote themselves fully to the revolution and become a “true communist”. Brainwashed and naive, the cadre comply seeming not to realise that no self criticism they can offer will ever be good enough for Mori’s constant need for identity erasure and that each fault they offer will only be used to form the basis of the next charge levelled against them. What begins as questioning develops into screaming before descending into bloody violence and eventually murder.

If Mori’s fault is a kind of madness born of fear and insecurity, it is Nagata whose mania takes on an almost gleeful quality. A plain woman with unremarkable features and a sharp personality, Nagata, as she’s portrayed in the film, displays extreme issues relating to femininity. When an idealistic young woman arrives dressed in typical city fashions necessary to blend in with the capitalist bourgeoisie, Nagata wastes no time in berating her for her stylish clothes and makeup. Threatened both by the woman’s conventional beauty and high ranking position in another faction, Nagata takes especial care to make sure she herself remains on top. Despite being in a relationship with one cadre member and later leaving him for Mori (because it’s “right from the communist perspective”), Nagata cannot bear any hint of sexual activity and it is an ill judged kiss which ends up leading to the first set of mercilessly violent self criticism sessions eventually resulting in death as both parties are beaten and then tied up in the freezing mountain air where death by exposure is all but inevitable.

Mori declares that “leadership means beating” but when this is no longer enough the death sentences come thick and fast. Eventually, some members manage to escape and the mountain hideout is discovered. Splitting up and heading on the run, Mori and Nagata are captured while a group of five break into a mountain lodge where they take the caretaker’s wife hostage and remain under siege for nine days until the police eventually break in, arrest the terrorists and rescue the woman all of which became the first such event to be live broadcast on Japanese TV. The Asama-Sanso incident, as it came to be known, sealed the fate of the left wing protest movement in Japan as the terrorist violence of the renegade protestors forever coloured public perception.

Wakamatsu does not end his story here – returning to the captions which opened the film, he reveals to us the legacy of the failed student protest movement in the overseas activities of the Japanese Red Army, most notably in North Korea and the Middle East. The protest movement in Japan resulted in abject failure – the ANPO treaty survives, the Sanrizuka villages were destroyed and an airport built, the capitalist future arrived at speed heading into the bubble economy where the only revolution was consumerism. The glorious future of which these young people dreamed, free of class, gender, and social inequality, would not materialise as their idealism devolved into introspective dogmatic rhetoric, violence and murder. Trapped inside a fundamentalist cult, the true tragedy is that this was a children’s revolution – the vast majority of its victims under 25 years old, one just 16 and forced to participate in the death of his own brother. How much good could each of these socially conscious young people have gone on to do if only they’d found a less destructive cause? Would anyone want to live in the world born of this revolution? Contrasting the joyous camaraderie of the peaceful protests with the escalating, internecine violence of the URA, Wakamatsu’s vision of the movement he was once a part of is a necessarily bleak one but resolute in its gaze. Ugly, cold and unforgiving United Red Army is a warning from history which has only sympathy for those caught up in its terrible machinations.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (リップヴァンウィンクルの花嫁, Shunji Iwai, 2016)

the_bride_of_rip_van_winkle“Being naked in front of people is embarrassing” says the drunken mother of a recently deceased major character in a bizarre yet pivotal scene towards the end of Shunji Iwai’s aptly titled A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (リップヴァンウィンクルの花嫁, Rip Van Winkle no Hanayome) in which the director himself wakes up from an extended cinematic slumber to discover that much is changed. This sequence, in a sense, makes plain one of the film’s essential themes – truth, and the appearance of truth, as mediated by human connection. The film’s timid heroine, Nanami (Haru Kuroki), bares all of herself online, recording each ugly thought and despairing notion before an audience of anonymous strangers, yet can barely look even those she knows well in the eye. Though Namami’s fear and insecurity are painfully obvious to all, not least to herself, she’s not alone in her fear of emotional nakedness as she discovers throughout her strange odyssey in which nothing is quite as it seems.

We first meet Nanami on an internet blind date with the man who will later become her husband. Looking lost and alone, she passively waits for her online suitor to find her in the busy city streets. Tetsuya (Go Jibiki) does indeed turn up and assume control of the situation, to which Nanami submits just as she has to everything else. Bonding over little more than their shared vocation of teaching the pair drift into a relationship and then later into a marriage, as is the natural order of things.

Though she seems happy enough, Nanami vents her frustrations in her caustic online blog. Isn’t this all just too easy? She asks herself. It’s almost like online shopping, she simply added a boyfriend to her basket and now she’s about to check out. A failure to win over Tetsuya’s mother adds to her sense of unease as does the fact she has no close friends or relatives (aside from her soon to be divorced parents) to invite to the wedding. Her decision to take the advice of an online friend and employ the shady fixer Amuro (Go Ayano) to hire a selection of professional party goers to bulk out her side of the hall will prove to be a disastrous one (though perhaps more in the short term), turning her entire life inside out.

Nanami’s essential personality trait is her passivity. Like Rip Van Winkle, she is largely asleep while things happen all around her. Though she dreamed of being a teacher, Nanami has only been able to find temporary supply roles with an agency but even this seems unlikely to last thanks to her softly spoken nature which makes classroom teaching a poor fit for her shy, attention avoidant personality. Discovered at her part time combini job by an old university friend, Nanami is embarrassed and has even been wearing a (useless but endearing) disguise in case any of her students come by despite the fact she chose a store far away from the school. Her friend now works at a hostess bar which Nanami finds a little bit shocking. That kind of unconventional way of living is not something she would contemplate, and so when offered the extremely dull but comfortable life alongside the dull but comforting Tetsuya, Nanami settles.

After Amuro spectacularly derails her non-happiness, Nanami is cast adrift which eventually leads her straight back into Amuro’s web of morally dubious activities. Taking a job as a maid at the cheap hotel she ends up in after leaving Tetsuya, Nanami also works part time as another of Amuro’s professional guests which is where she meets motivator no. 2 – Mashiro (Cocco), “actress” and all round live wire. Bonding over sad karaoke, Nanami and Mashiro later wind up working together as live in maids in a creepy, isolated mansion filled with poisonous animals. Enforced proximity leads to genuine friendship and then to more than that, but, ironically enough, Mashiro has not been entirely honest about her intentions and Nanami is soon adrift once again.

Undergoing a “fake” wedding that’s sort of real (in contrast with the “real” wedding which was sort of “fake”), at least in sentiment, Nanami looks much happier than in the extremely bizarre ceremony which bound her to Tetsuya. Nanami and Mashiro’s union was “engineered” yet mutually beneficial and ultimately genuine despite its artificial genesis. Making a last, heartbreaking speech, Mashiro attempts to explain herself and her life philosophy in a final act of nakedness. She prefers to pay for connection because, she says, the world is too full of kindness. There is so much happiness out there that it’s completely overwhelming. Sometimes there’s more truth in the lie than there is in the reality.

The resurfaced Iwai is both more cynical and more romantic than he has ever been before. He has serious things to say about constructed identities and disconnectedness, that the increasingly open nature of the anonymous online world only makes the real one seem less reliable and harder to navigate. We’ve all been wearing masks but we turned them round when we went online, and now perhaps we’re forgetting that we made them in the first place. Nanami may be adrift again at the film’s conclusion but she finds herself in a world of infinite possibilities. Emerging with more certainty and firmer sense of self, Nanami has retaken control and even if she doesn’t know where she’s going, the choice is entirely her own. Another beautifully nuanced, endlessly affecting character study from Iwai, A Bride for Rip van Winkle is a gloriously rich experience, filled with both hope and despair, but told with all the ethereal warmth and strangeness of the best of dreams.


This review refers to the 180 minute director’s cut, rather than the shorter international or four hour TV version.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Chokolietta (チョコリエッタ, Kazama Shiori, 2014)

ChokoliettaWhen examining the influences of classic European cinema on Japanese filmmaking, you rarely end up with Fellini. Nevertheless, Fellini looms large over the indie comedy Choklietta (チョコリエッタ) and the director, Shiori Kazama, even leaves a post-credits dedication to Italy’s master of the surreal as a thank you for inspiring the fifteen year old her to make movies. Full of knowing nods to the world of classic cinema, Chokolietta is a charming, if over long, coming of age drama which becomes a meditation on both personal and national notions of loss.

The story begins in the summer of 2010 when five year old Chiyoko (Aoi Morikawa) is involved in a car accident that results in the death of her mother. Flash forward ten years and Chiyoko is a slightly strange high school girl and a member of the film club. Her parents, as far as she knows, were both big fans of Federico Fellini – in fact the family dog is named “Giulietta” after Fellini’s muse and later wife Giuletta Masina. As a child, Chiyoko also received the strange nickname of “Chokolietta” from her mother which also seems to be inspired by the star. Sadly, their Giulietta has also recently passed away removing Chiyoko’s final link to her late mother and once again forcing her to address the lingering feelings of grief and confusion which have continued to plague her all these years.

At this point Chiyoko goes looking for the DVD of La Strada they watched in film club last year which leads her to the now graduated Masamura Masaoka (Masaki Suda). Masaoka is an equally strange boy with possible sociopathic tendencies though he does own a large collection of classic DVDs and the pair settle down to return to the world of Fellini. Eventually Masaoka convinces “Chokolietta” to star in a movie for him and the two take off on a crazy road trip recreating La Strada where Masaoka stands in for the strong man Zampanò and Chiyoko plays the fragile Gelsomina.

Thankfully, the partnership between Chiyoko and Masaoka is not quite as doom laden and filled with cruelty as that between Gelsomina and Zampanò. Though Masaoka often talks of the desire to kill and Chiyoko the desire to die, both appear superficial and are never presented as actual choices either will seriously act on. Masaoka is cast in the role of the strong man but he more closely resembles The Fool as he gently guides Chiyoko onto a path of self realisation that will help her finally learn to reach a tentative acceptance with the past and begin to move forward rather than futilely trying to remain static. Of course, he’s also forcing himself into a realisation that he doesn’t have to play the role he’s been cast in either and so it doesn’t follow that one has to behave in the way people have come to expect simply because they expect it.

Technically speaking the bulk of the story takes place in a putative future – around 2020, or ten years or so after the death of Chiyoko’s mother in 2010. 2010 is also a significant date as it’s the summer before the earthquake and tsunami struck the Japan the following March causing much devastation and loss of life as well as the resultant nuclear meltdown which has continued to become a cultural as well as physical scar. The journey the pair make takes them on a fairly desolate route past no entry signs into ghostly abandoned shopping arcades still strewn with the remnants of a former, bustling city life but now peopled only by a trio of silent, stick bearing men. This is a land of ghosts, both literal and figural but like most things, the only way out is through.

Taking a cue from Fellini, Chiyoko has frequent visions of her her deceased mother and fantastical sequences such as boarding a whale bus like the whale in Casanova or suddenly seeing Gelsomina and an entourage of dwarfs trailing past her. Her world is a fantastical one in which her daydreams have equal, or perhaps greater, weight to the reality. Her now empty indoor dog house comes to take on a symbolic dimension that represents an entirety of her past her life as if she herself, or the dog she claimed to want to become, had been hiding inside it all along. The film returns to La Strada in its final sequence only to subvert that film’s famous ending as where Zampanò’s animalistic, foetal howling spoke of an ultimate desolation and the discovery of a truth it may be better not to acknowledge, here there is a least hope for a brighter future with the past remaining where it belongs.

However, Chokolietta runs to a mammoth 159 minutes and proves far too meandering to justify its lengthy running time. Truth be told, the pace is refreshingly brisk yet the central road trip doesn’t start until 90 minutes in and there are another 30 minutes after it ends. It’s cutesy and fun but runs out of steam long before the credits roll and ultimately lacks the necessary focus to make the desired impact. That said there are some pretty nice moments and a cineliterate tone that remains endearing rather than irritating all of which add up to make Chokolietta an uneven, if broadly enjoyable, experience though one which never quite reaches its potential.


Unsubtitled trailer:

Bonus – here’s an unsubtitled trailer for La Strada (which is possibly the most heartbreaking film ever made).

Also the other two Fellini movies mentioned in the film:

Casanova

and Amacord (original US release trailer)