Battered Wife Spreads Her Wings (And Then Some) in Caterpillar


Legendary Japanese softcore auteur Kôji Wakamatsu channels Samuel Fuller for a twisted domestic-drama-cum-psychosexual-evisceration of Japan’s fascist past. Marshalling his powers of economy and pure sensation, Wakamatsu tells a story of war not situated on the battlefield but rather in the deceptively quiet fields and anxious towns of the home front. Injured during the Sino-Japanese war, Japanese soldier Tadashi (Keigo Kasuya) arrives home deaf, mute, and a quadruple amputee. Declared a “War God” by Emperor’s decree, he’s draped in medals and carted around as a mascot of courage and sacrifice. Yet the burden for caring for him is put entirely on his wife, Shigeko (a marvelous Shinobu Terajima).

Still obliged to till the fields, ration rice, and quietly champion her War God as combat rolls into World War II, Shigeko endures endless days of feeding, cleaning, and sexually gratifying what’s left of her husband. Out of pity and patriotism, she learns to accommodate his still-thriving desires, despite her physical revulsion and emotional reticence after years of domestic brutality. But what starts as subjection evolves into a more complex power struggle. Tadashi’s only remaining asset is his erection, a blunt consolidation of self, and he wants to exercise it continuously. Meanwhile, Shigeko realizes the power of denial, and the pleasures of choosing how and when. She’ll wheelbarrow him around town to bask in empathy and adulation, and then reward him for playing along. It takes turning her man into a silent dependent, a prone torso, for Shigeko to gain a measure of freedom. Wakamatsu fills the air with pungent sensory detail, from clacking cicadas to smacking flesh, unraveling an allegory of Japan’s doomed virility without sacrificing the integrity of the moment. He’s never delicate or subtle about his intentions—a wail rather than a cry, in-your-face rather than implied—but there’s complexity in the impact, like a breath-stealing blow that yields a spectrum of intense sensation. As with Fuller, it’s cinema that risks blunt silliness to achieve emotional and experiential seriousness.

What seems at first to be Shigeko’s tragedy comes to acknowledge Tadashi’s as well. Locked inside his mangled and diminished body, unable to even emote through burn scars on his face, he’s fully aware of his monstrosity—and of how it perversely rhymes with his guilt-ridden soul. He’s a Frankenstein of fascism, of war, of socially endorsed chauvinism. As his bride, Shigeko endures a Von Trier’s worth of degradation, but for once the future depends on his ultimate sacrifice, not hers.