Sunday, August 31, 2014

Caterpillar (Wakamatsu / 2010)

Caterpillar (Kôji Wakamatsu / 2010)

It's as if Kôji Wakamatsu doesn't care that filmmaking techniques have changed in the decades since the 1960s. His approach to staging, camera placement, and visual effect are untouched by the sensibilities that shifted in the transformation of 16mm to digital production (although my understanding is that Caterpillar was shot on 35mm). The result is a film comprised of uncomfortable aesthetic dissonance that has been received as lazy or lacking a requisite amount of subtly in order to be taken seriously.

At times Caterpillar has the freshness of the radical techniques he pioneered in the late 60s and at other times it feels the strain of amateur filmmaking; of someone trying hard to make their low-rent drama look like the big leagues. I found myself imaging how I would receive the sequences of the villagers sending Tadashi off to war if they were shot with grainy 16mm. The sequences are disarmingly simple without the artifacts of old film stocks to give a comfortable materiality. It often feels like staged reenactments filmed with a spectator's video camera. This simplicity, for me, shares  the affective qualities of a recorded live performance, particularly the distant sex scenes inside the house. But Wakamatsu's combination of visually unappealing newsreel footage with plain straightforward dramatic filmmaking pushes back against the aesthetics of nostalgia that have come to dominate so much of contemporary world filmmaking regarding the World War II period. To add, Wakamatsu includes flashbacks of Tadeshi's brutal rape of a Chinese woman, which combine simple visual effects such as layering color flames over black and white footage and a digital grain filter to create what looks like abstract video art.

While so much of the narrative is uncomfortably forthright (one could say embarrassingly so in some cases), the film is anchored in a rather sly series of shifting subject positions. Amid the yelling and smashing of eggs the wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima) and the paraplegic 'War God' Tadashi (Keigo Kasuya) re-position themselves in relation to the national ideologies of patriotism that forcibly give their experiences meaning. At various points they are at odds with or embracing the roles that have been thrust upon them by the villagers and the radio (who speak the same language). Caterpillar is at once an underhanded contemplation of the machinations of power within ideological structures while at the same time being a rather blunt, unambiguous dramatization of individual emotional responses to these social structures.

note: these thoughts are shaped by 1. not having seen Wakamatsu's other late period works United Red Army (2008), Petrel Hotel Blue (2012), or 11 - 25 jiketsu no hi: Mishima Yukio to wakamono-tach (2012) and 2. having watched Caterpillar on Netflix instant streaming, the transfer of which seems to be of low quality.