WTF ASIA 66: Caterpillar (2010)
Yes, that’s right. Another story about a village. Oh, and it’s a Japanese movie about WWII. This is going to be something.
Available onÂ Amazon for $2.00.
It is 1940 and the Second Sino-Japanese War is in full swing. The movie begins with old reels of Japanese war propaganda and what looks like the end credits sequence. The propaganda transitions to a scene where a Japanese soldier is raping a Chinese woman. Lovely. The movie switches to a Japanese village. Lieutenant Kyuzo Kurokawa has returned home from fighting in China. Well, around half of him has returned. He is missing all of his limbs, half of his face is burned off, he is deaf, and almost completely unable to speak. His family initially wonders if he is dead, but he is just unconscious due to the drugs that his troop escort gave him to keep him from acting up, whatever that means. His wife, Shigeko, screams in terror and tries to make a run for it across the river, but her brother-in-law brings her back. Shigeko continues screaming, refusing to believe that that is her husband.
As the louder drama is going on outside, Kyuzo’s father and sister quietly contemplate what to do with this shell of a man. A third brother had died in the war; sad indeed, but there were no responsibilities other than honoring a dead hero. But tending to the needs of this guy? They agree that it is a fortunate that they had not sent Shigeko back to her parents. Kyuzo’s sister begs Shigeko to take care of him, as is her duty as a wife and servant of the Emperor. They then leave them alone, excusing themselves of any responsibility towards him. Shigeko, still an emotional wreck, attempts to strangle Kyuzo as a mercy killing, intending to commit suicide later on. She cannot go through with it, and immediately turns into a dutiful wife when Kyuzo mouths that he needs to urinate. Then he wants her to show him his medals. In a public village ceremony, Kyuzo is been dubbed the War God, a symbol for the heroism and bravery of the Japanese military that will surely lead to glorious victory. The other village women remind Shigeko of her responsibilities, how they will be difficult, but just as important as the actual fighting. Much of the movie shows Shigeko and Kyuzo uneasily settling into a routine. Shigeko feeds him, cleans him, indulges his sexual appetites (apparently, he still has his penis), and occasionally wheels him outside in his military regalia as she works in the fields. For the most part, nobody visits their home; only Kyuzo’s brother, who has some sickness that prevented him from fighting, occasionally shows up to bring something. Kyuzo, though barely able to move or talk (he can sometimes write by holding a brush in his mouth), manages to still be overbearing and demanding, with little regard to Shigeko’s feelings. Around halfway through the movie, however, things start to change. The title “Caterpillar” may refer to how Kyuzo looks like a human caterpillar, but it is also the secret transformation that both characters go through as the years go by and the war drags on.
Some people may notice some similarities between the premise of this movie and Johnny’s Got His Gun, a book written in 1970 that was supposedly about WWI, but more likely about the Vietnam War. There are also similarities to The Caterpillar, a previously banned Japanese short story written in 1929, that was about the Russo-Japanese War. I am not particularly familiar with either works, so I will not say how this movie is similar or different; I am just acknowledging what others have said. This movie is both as subtle as a hammer, and surprisingly complex in terms of themes. I will try to go through as many as I can think of, but I will be scratching the surface. Anti-war movies in Japan are easy to come by, particularly those set in World War II. The same could be said about pro-war movies in Japan, though. In both cases, though, Japan can often be seen as a tragic victim or a failed hero. Yes, go ahead and watch Grave of Fireflies again and tell me that I am being unfair. There is quite a bit of the former here as well, enough to earn the ire of one particular Amazon reviewer. I guess that the guy did have a point. For one thing, there were many murderers and rapists in the Japanese army who never faced justice, either legally or cosmically. Kyzuo faces the wrath of the cosmos by being horribly mutilated, while the movie ends with text about war criminals who were hanged for fighting for their country. The end of the movie also has text referring to the two atom bombs as well as the carpet bombing of Tokyo. All of this could be seen as portraying Japan as a victim of militarization. I am not sure that it is that simple, though.
Maybe there is a movie out there that focuses on war criminals who not only never faced justice, but never had to flee from justice or suffer in any way for their actions. I am sure that it is great, too.
Setting the movie in WWII (or the Second Sino-Japanese War) instead of the Russo-Japanese War changes at least one major facet. In the Russo-Japanese War, Japan won, and firmly established itself as a world power that White Nations should respect. In WWII, Japan lost so badly that it underwent a severe cultural metamorphosis. By presenting the recorded statistics of the war’s human cost to the nation (it is not as if the Japanese need reminding) and by having Kyuzo becoming maimed, it takes away all sense of victory, even a pyrrhic victory. War is simply not worth it. I suppose that becoming a war god is a victory of sorts, but there is nothing to it. The villagers may praise Kyuzo and Shigeko in public, but they never come around to visit. Only the sick brother occasionally comes to provide a modicum of help. In worshiping Kyuzo in public ceremonies, the villagers can forgive themselves for not tending to him at any other time or giving him the help that he really needs. In sympathizing with the major difficulties that Shigeko faces in fulfilling her duties, they themselves can feel better about making no attempts to help out. One can mourn the dead, but it is harder to deal with the consequences of war when said consequences are still alive. So the villagers pretend that he is not really alive. Kyuzo is no longer a person to them; he is a symbol and a tool for war. Shigeko is his keeper. And as the story progresses, Shigeko learns how to play the game in her changed role. It is not so much brainwashing or self-deception as it is putting on a public face. It is institutionalized and internalized hypocrisy. Everyone is lying, but everyone knows it; it is as plain as the upbeat war reports that clash with the actual news of Allied victories. They may be victims, but they are also perpetrators. Shigeko is not exempt.
Lest one start feeling sympathy for the plight of Kyuzo, I must remind people that he is not a nice man. It is implied (and later stated outright) that Kyuzo was less than ideal husband material, though his behavior may have been common for the time. Unbeknownst to Shigeko, though, was that Kyuzo was a pretty horrible rapist during his stint in China. Yep, he was that soldier in the beginning, if you hadn’t guessed already. It is also implied that his getting burned and maimed was a direct result of his attack on that Chinese woman. On the one hand, this provides a sense of cosmic justice that many similarly barbaric Japanese soldiers escaped. On the other hand, it robs his injuries of the glory his fellow villagers bestow upon him. Only he knows the truth of what really happened, and it gradually starts to eat at him. Before that happens, though, he remains the jerk of a husband that he has always been. He may be robbed of his speech, but he is still able to communicate with Shigeko, and his words are as insightful and as poignant as a butterfly when he tells her that he wants to do it. Whether or not the term “spousal rape” existed in Japan at the time, Kyuzo was guilty of it, both before he left and after he returned. Many reviews may focus on the numerous short sex scenes. Director Koji Wakamatsu got his start making erotic “Pinku” films before moving onto more political provocation films, so the amount of sexual content here is of little surprise. There is almost nothing erotic, romantic, sensuous, or titillating about the sex, though. Initially, it is very unsettling, partly because Kyuzo has no limbs and partly because Shigeko clearly does not want to have sex. Perhaps she acquiesces out of pity, or maybe because she is so used to such behavior that she does yet not realize that he can no longer chase her or beat her. Eventually, though, it becomes routine, just like everything else in the movie. And just when it threatens to become completely boring…the change comes.
Going back to the theme of Japan as a victim of war, one could look at Kyuzo and merely see him as a victim of what war does to people. He is dehumanized, rendered speechless, unable to stand up for himself or move on his own. One could also see Shigeko as a victim of war, shackled to this dirtbag of a husband and saddled with all of these responsibilities that she never deserved. Yet, I kind of take a different approach to the subject matter, maybe one that was never the intention of the movie makers. Some reviewers have said that the themes of power dynamics in marriage was more interesting than the statements about war, but I sort of see them as directly related. What if one were to interpret the movie as being a story of when the war was already lost and they just cannot comprehend it? Not literally, of course: Japan was on a roll in 1940 and the United States would not get involved for another year. Thematically, though, this Japan that was on the rise was on its way down. Yet Kyuzo, this god amongst men, is broken, ruined. He can only somewhat understand the world around him. Shigeko, who had probably lived with an uncertain level of autonomy within her husband’s family before, has had this huge new development in her life: the one to whom she had pledged her lifelong loyalty has been almost completely destroyed, and it is her responsibility to maintain and bestow dignity upon what is left. There is immense pressure to adhere to what has been before, to hold onto the glory of tradition. People pay lip service to this god, but otherwise ignore him. But he is still around. What happens when those given the burden of responsibility realize that the pressure to conform has serious cracks in it that can be exploited? What if they stopped playing lip service and got rid of the old ways altogether? What power these people hold in their hands. What they could do with it if they only knew what they could do. The end of World War II was traumatic for Japan, but maybe it both a trauma that Japan deserved and a blessing in disguise that Japan needed to change. It takes something violent and unbearable to bring about necessary change, but maybe JapanÂ has not changed as much as it needed to. There is a reason that this movie is called Caterpillar and not Butterfly, and it is not just that I already talked about a movie called Butterfly. That’s just my take on it.
Caterpillar is one of the shortest movies that I have included in this series, but is also one of the hardest to watch. You might be disturbed; you might find yourself annoyed or bored.Â I cannot guarantee that you will like it at all. All I know is that I liked it a lot.
Next Time: Sparrow (Hong Kong: 2008, approx. 85 minutes)
Time After Next: Saving My Hubby (South Korea: 2003, approx. 95 minutes)