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Friday, Aug. 13, 2010

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Hollow victory: In Koji Wakamatsu's new film, "Caterpillar," Lt. Kyuzu Kurokawa (Shima Onishi) returns from World War II a highly decorated but physically and psychologically crippled "hero." © WAKAMATSU PRODUCTION


Radical director of porn and politics delivers yet again

Koji Wakamatsu talks about his acclaimed antiwar film 'Caterpillar'

Special to The Japan Times

Koji Wakamatsu is living proof that a lifelong rebel can thrive in Japan's go-along-to-get-along film industry. Today he is celebrated as not just another '60s survivor — he helped pioneer the pinku (pink, or soft porn) genre in that era, mixing in radical politics and experimental aesthetics with the sex — but a still-relevant director who has done some of his best work in his eighth decade.

Wakamatsu's epic 2007 docudrama "Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun: Asama Sanso e no Michi" (The Red Army) examined the violent apotheosis of the far-left United Red Army group that in the early 1970s tortured and murdered its "deviant" members and fought a pitched gun battle with police from a Karuizawa mountain lodge. Wakamatsu, who personally knew several Red Army members, put the brutal truth on the screen with no punch pulling and no special pleading. The film not only won awards and screened widely abroad but drew audiences, despite its three-hour running time.

His latest film, the World War II home-front drama "Caterpillar," has also earned acclaim, including a Best Actress prize for star Shinobu Terajima at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Though based on a story by Edogawa Rampo, a mid-20th-century writer of the kinky and bizarre, the film is closer in spirit to Dalton Trumbo's 1971 antiwar film "Johnny Got His Gun." Like Trumbo's wounded WWI soldier, Wakamatsu's hero, Lt. Kyuzu Kurokawa (Shima Onishi), returns to his rural village a decorated veteran but also a shell of a man, minus legs and arms, deafened and disfigured, tortured by memories of his war crimes. Instead of pity, Wakamatsu examines this hero — and his outwardly dutiful but inwardly resentful wife (Terajima) — with a cool, unrelenting gaze that strips away posturing and exposes inner lives.

Talking about the film in the office of Wakamatsu Production — a yellow two-story building near Shinjuku Gyoen — Wakamatsu looked grayer and smaller than I remembered from our last meeting two years ago, but his fires were still burning bright, especially when he explained why he had decided to film "Caterpillar."

"As much as possible, I wanted to make a film that ordinary people could understand," he said. "I wanted to say that war, when you come down to it, is murder. There is no good reason for war, no matter what. Do you know how many people died worldwide in (World War II)? Sixty million! With this film, I wanted make even one more person understand that."

Instead of simply looking back in anger at the human cost of Japan's militaristic past, Wakamatsu wants to warn about what he sees as dangerous tendencies in its present. "We've got Diet members who say that Japan has to rearm itself, that women are baby-making machines," he says. "We're going right back to where we were (prewar). We may go back to the old militarism again, to the days when women couldn't vote . . . We've got college kids now who don't know an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, students who don't even know we fought a war with America. I'm really fed up with that sort of thing. Now that such idiots are being born, I want young people to see this film, to make them understand, even a little, what Japan was once like."

As strong as Wakamatsu's political views may be, "Caterpillar" is anything but simplistic propaganda. One big reason is Terajima's nuanced, uncompromising performance as the wife, Shigeko, who does everything expected of her as the loyal spouse of a war hero, from proudly displaying her husbands medals to patiently tending to his sexual needs, but she cannot hide her real feelings, from disgust at his present condition to anger at his past abuses.

"While I was writing the script, I never thought she would agree to appear in the film," Wakamatsu confesses. "I thought of various people (for the role of the wife), but I kept coming back to Terajima."

He approached her manager, who rejected his offer, but when she read the script, she told Wakamatsu she wanted to work with him.

"The manager said no," admits Wakamatsu. "We were a poor production company, had no makeup (for her to wear), had few people, had no budget — but she said she would do it alone, manager or no. 'I'll do it without makeup,' she said. 'Oh, that's wonderful!' I thought. An ordinary actress would never say that sort of thing."

On the set, Wakamatsu didn't direct Terajima so much as allow her to unleash her natural talents, some of which she presumably inherited from her kabuki-actor father, Onoe Kikugoro VII, and actress mother, Sumiko Fuji; she has won many awards for her performances in films including "Vibrator" and "Akame 48 Waterfalls."

"What a great performance!" exclaims Wakamatsu. "It gives you goose bumps, right? That performance is not what an ordinary Japanese actress would give. Usually an actress is calculating, asking herself 'Will he let me act the way I want to?' 'Will I look strange if I make this face?' They calculate how to cry — that's the usual thing, right? With Terajima, there's no calculation. She acts with her feelings alone. She acts with her whole body."

Working with Terajima, he usually finished a cut in one take. "You can't give that kind of performance with two or three tests," he commented. "I'd tell her, 'Once I have the camera ready, act the way you want.' That's all I said to her about her role. You don't tell someone like her to act such-and-such a way or make such-and-such a face."

Just as he didn't want a typical performance from his lead actress, Wakamatsu knew from the start that he didn't want to make a typical Japanese war film. "A lot of Japanese war films are about the tokotai (the suicide or kamikaze units), saying how they made sacrifices for the good of the country. A lot of them have a victim's mentality. 'Oh, we lost, poor us!' But I think there's wrong on both sides in any war. In the last war, Japan was like America is now. We were supposedly fighting to free Asia from the colonialism of England and France and so on, just like America is fighting to free Iraq and Afghanistan today. But when things get rough, a lot of the dead are just ordinary people."

What's the solution, if any? Wakamatsu doesn't hold out much hope for Japanese politicians ("They're idiots — all they think about is their own election"). He also thinks they're deluding themselves if they believe that allowing American bases on Okinawa, over the protests of the Okinawans, will keep Japan safe. ("If China comes to the Japan Sea and starts drilling for oil in Japanese territory, America won't say a thing. They won't do anything even if Japanese land is invaded, like Takeshima.")

"Maybe they should fight wars like soccer matches," he says, only half jokingly. "If you fight a war with soccer, nobody dies. And when it ends, everyone becomes friends. It would be great if everyone opposed war, everyone opposed nuclear weapons. If everyone were to get excited about that sort of thing the way they do about soccer, war would disappear from the world. If Japan loses or wins to America in soccer, it doesn't matter; Japan won't hate America."

But the Dutch, I countered, weren't overjoyed by Spain's win in the World Cup. "The Dutch only feel that way — 'I hate Spain!' — for the moment. They aren't going to go out and kill Spanish people," he replied. "They're sorry they lost, but the next day they go out for a drink and forget about it. So let's fight wars with soccer. Let's stop people from killing each other."

"Caterpillar" opens Aug. 14 and is reviewed on today's Re:Film page

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