War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things
The weekend after a Pearl Harbor remembrance obliterated in the John Lennon assassination anniversary, Japan Society ran Shadows of the Rising Sun: Cinema & Empire, four prize-winning takes on Japan in the Second Sino-Japanese and Second World Wars. The last two, back-to-back on Sunday, are celebrated: Jiang Wen’s 2000 Cannes Grand Prize Devils on the Doorstep and Nagisa Oshima’s first (partly) English-language Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Less known, the other, first two days’ offerings deserve the wider Western audience given Letters from Iwo Jima and Johnny Got His Gun and other considerations of physically and/or emotionally maimed veterans.
Ill-chosen misleading title to the contrary, in its New York première, 2010 Caterpillar/Kyatapirâ continues Kôji Wakamatsu’s career of political and sexual confrontation that has gotten him banned “in American, Russian and Chinese territories.” A former yakuza and convict who progressed, or regressed, into erodakushon soft-core pink, the director works cheap and fast, reportedly shooting this $120,000 newest in twelve days and editing the whole in four hours. From a 1929 short story and, in keeping with Lieutenant Kyuzo Kurokawa’s (Shima Ohnishi) horrific, all-limiting wounds, taking place in a village and one interior room framed through double doorways, the simple story hinges on enormous performances by two lead actors. It’s a story that the public anywhere knows but refuses to admit to consciousness and yet is so appalling before our eyes that only a single cough over the eighty-five minutes gave indication of a living, breathing theater audience.
The opening involves a 1940 wartime rape and killing in China, red foreground flames against the dark action which result in the lieutenant’s head-burn scars, deafness, inability to speak clearly, and loss of both arms and legs. Closing red-tinted archival 1945 footage, with printed numbers of casualties “according to the record” at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, in World War II and of Class B and C war criminals executed, would extend the shock carnage but, while morally justified, seems finger-pointing outside that weakens the personal, individual argument within.
The village continues to shout bonsai! and wave flags to send its young men off for the greater good of Empire and divine Emperor whose “utmost concern has always been the welfare of my people.” One of Kyuzo’s brothers has already been killed, another is medically unfit for service, and in uniform and cap he is brought back with pomp and deposited in the house, where father and sister are overcome but brave, and Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima) stiff-upper-lips it as the self-sacrificing wife of a “living War God” whose three medals are hung alongside his framed newspaper exploits and photos of the imperial couple.
Without special green- or blue-screen effects, the quadruple amputee is uncomfortably convincing, and Ohnishi is marvelous in a rôle in which only his eyes can speak. Deservedly receiving Berlin’s Best Actress Silver Bear this year, and the daughter of a Kabuki actor and an actress, Terajima is staunch, dutiful and patriotic; the women’s association chants and does ritual war exercises, while she works in rice paddies, cooks, cleans and cares for the “lump of flesh” who eats, sleeps and demands sex from her.
For years she is the role-model war wife, wheeling the uniformed living god around in a wicker contrivance so that neighbors can pay homage and be inspired. Only human, she comes close to breaking under the burden of the husband who had beaten her before the shooting war. A blend of pride and duty, resentment and retribution, she soldiers on and cannot understand why his sex drive dries up, the reasons for which are his condition and the flashback-nightmares to the rape and civilian murder that caused it.
This film is as searing as any Western narrative or nonfiction on post-hostilities trauma. On combat itself, winner of numerous prizes fifty years earlier, Fires on the Plain/Nobi is director Kon Ichikawa and screenwriter wife Natto Wada’s visual equivalent of Goya’s outraged Disasters of War etchings on Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. Deliberately confrontational, the story of the final February 1945 days of a Japanese battalion in Leyte, Philippines, is told through images more than the dialogue, nearly nonexistent at first and spare throughout the hundred-four minutes.
Defeated, doomed, despairing Imperial troops reduced to the survival level of animals, tubercular Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) is turned away both by both the overcrowded thatch-and-bamboo hospital and his own unit. In the jungle and barren hills, the private wanders, Setsuo Kobayashi’s black-and-white photography capturing what he sees and the audience-viewer remembers: boots taken from the dead to replace even more sole-less ones of the half-living; a severed arm pointing upwards and a head lifted momentarily from mud-water; soldier-zombies rising to trudge on without a glance at strafed comrades, and others’ corpses contorted on a bluff or in river slime.
Deleting the 1952 source novel’s Christian references, the film offers no religious consolation, no Red Badge of Courage Jim Conklin Christ-figure in the tall gaunt Tamura nor any Eastern religion or philosophy. Those who retreat together, like manipulative Yasuda and time-serving Nagamatsu (Osamu Takizawa, Mickey Curtis), do so for protection, fear, tobacco, monkey meat or salt, and turn on each other in primal survival instinct like an ant that travels Tamura’s leg.
Horror of horrors, present though of necessity toned down, is the hovering ghost of cannibalism, as some offer their dying flesh to Tamura, who recoils even as he offers his own, only to be rejected because he is diseased.
The eating of human flesh is only one of the atrocities in these two films, and at that not the worst, which says nearly all there needs to be said or seen about war, the oldest and most widely practiced activity of Homo sapiens.
(Caterpillar is released by Blaq Out; not rated by MPAA.)