Best Films of 2011: United Red Army / Caterpillar


These two films by Koji Wakamatsu, conceived as companion pieces, and which both saw US release this year, if nothing else, prove that this firebrand and revolutionary 75 year-old pink film auteur has most definitely not mellowed in his old age. Both United Red Army and Caterpillar are merciless blunt instruments of devastating criticism of two especially bloody periods of Japanese history: respectively, the radical student-led movements of the 60’s and 70’s and the Sino-Japanese wars of the 1930’s. Wakamatsu takes a cinematic two-by-four to the most cherished ideological illusions of both left-wing and right-wing politics, coming to the conclusion that militarism of any kind is an irreducible and unjustified evil. United Red Army, over the course of its 190 minute running time, documents with both actual footage and dramatized scenes the devolution of the idealism of the young (who had justifiable grievances with US policies regarding the security treaty with Japan and the Vietnam War) to a murderously grotesque version of Maoist self-criticism which led to the deaths of the most extreme members of the titular splinter group at the hands of their own leaders. The few United Red Army members that survived this self-purging (depicted in a grueling, bloody sequence that is often difficult to watch) retreated to a mountain lodge, where they took a hostage and engaged in a 10-day standoff with police, their revolutionary ideologies tragically divorced from any real utility or purpose.
Caterpillar, as spare and concise (85 minutes) as United Red Army is expansive and overwhelming, is no less searing in its historical critiques. A loose adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s short story of the same name, Caterpillar’s greatest asset is the brilliant central performance by Shinobu Terajima (who won best actress at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival) as Shigeko, the wife of Kyuzo (Shima Onishi), a soldier who returns from killing civilians and raping women in China who is nevertheless celebrated as a “war god” in their rural home village. Before the war, Shigeko’s husband was a brutal abuser, but coming home, he is severely physically reduced: he returns from war as a limbless creature with a nearly limitless appetite for food and sex, which Shigeko must dutifully cater to. Eventually, however, Shigeko is able to turn the tables of the power relationship between her and her husband, while still outwardly adhering to the increasingly militaristic wartime cheerleading imposed by the emperor on the citizenry. Wakamatsu brilliantly conveys how thorny and complicated these issues are, and how militaristic ideology makes everyone victims of a sort, even unsympathetic characters such as Kyuzo, who was only in China because his government compelled him. There is precious little subtlety and nuance in either United Red Army or Caterpillar, but Wakamatsu makes the powerful case that such virtues, in some cases, serve to obscure the urgency and potency of the messages one wishes to convey, especially those involving politics that have been the source of the losses of many lives. These two films valiantly aim to ensure that reasons behind these deaths are not allowed to remain hidden.