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Koji Wakamatsu challenges merits of war with ‘Caterpillar’

TOKYO (TR) – From his start in soft pornography in the 1960s through to “United Red Army,” the 2007 film that recounts Japan’s leftist student movements from four decades ago, director Koji Wakamatsu has never shied away from provocation. For his new war drama “Caterpillar,” he attacks the hypocrisy inherent in nationalism and the suffering of innocent civilians.

“More than anything, we must not be duped by figures of authority,” said the director following a screening of the film last month at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

The 74-year-old Wakamatsu grew up in a small farming village about 5 kilometers from Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture. He has childhood memories of the World War II air raids upon the metropolis and seeing it burning red.

“In my village, I regularly saw villagers sending off their youth and later welcoming them back dead, flags waving,” he said. “I wanted to make a film so that those memories would not be forgotten and provide an alternative to the sort of aesthetically pleasing visions of war that we now have, such as images of kamikaze or the noble idea of fighting a war for a nation.”

Adapted from a 1929 Edogawa Rampo 1929 short story that was banned from republication in 1939, “Caterpillar (see trailer below),” for which Shinobu Terajima (“Tokyo Tower”) won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, tells the story of lieutenant Kyuzo Kurokawa, played by Shima Ohnishi, who also starred in “United Red Army,” and his traumatic return to Japan as a limbless man during the second Sino-Japanese War in 1940. Kurokawa’s wife, Shigeko (Terajima), then endures extreme frustration and mixed emotions as she dutifully cares for him in honor of the Emperor.

Wakamatsu said he came up with the idea during the making of “United Red Army,” when he began thinking about the parents of the Japan’s revolutionaries from the 1960s and 70s. “I wondered what it would be like for this generation, one that fought in a war with few regrets, and convince the audience that there is no such thing as a just war and that there should not be a war for a national purpose,” he said.

For budgetary purposes, the shooting schedule was originally intended to extend for a scant two weeks but was completed two days early. “As I was filming, I was editing in my mind,” Wakamastu said. “We did this really quickly. Each take was the final take. There was a sense that as long as we could stitch the film together it would be done.”

Low budgets are nothing new to Wakamatsu. In 1963, he entered the industry with studio Nikkatsu and worked in pinku eiga, or pink films, a genre of quick-and-dirty erotic productions. His works often depicted sex and extreme violence. Most notably, “Kabe No Naka No Himegoto” (Secrets Behind the Wall), a deviant story about a 16-year-old boy who stalks and then seduces a married woman in his apartment complex, received a highly positive response upon its screening at the 1965 Berlin festival.

Lust and death have remained common elements all throughout his career, and “Caterpillar” is no exception. The film not only brutally depicts the harsh realities of the battlefield but also explores sadism in the highly combative sexual relationship between Shigeko and Kyuzo.

“In the scenes of war, you lose yourself — you are killing people, you are raping women,” Wakamatsu said. “But then when you return you are confronted with these extraordinary hallucinations. I really wanted to portray that.”

“Caterpillar” opens domestically in Naha (Okinawa Prefecture) on June 16, in Hiroshima on August 6, in Nagasaki on August 9 and in Tokyo, Yokohama and Chiba on August 14.