Layers intimate drama with an angry critique of the suffering wrought by Japan's role in WWII.

With: Shinobu Terajima, Shima Ohnishi, Ken Yoshizawa, Keigo Kasuya, Emi Masuda, Sabu Kawahara, Maki Ishikaw, Katsuyuki Shinohara. Japanese, Chinese dialogue.

When a soldier returns home with horrific injuries, his wife must care for him, forcing dormant resentments to surface in potent Japanese period-piece”Caterpillar.” Helmer Koji Wakamatsu (“United Red Army”), a maverick for so long he’s practically become a national treasure, layers intimate drama with an angry critique of the wasteful suffering wrought by Japan’s role in WWII. The result is not exactly subtle but it still packs a punch, abetted by outstanding turns by leads Shinobu Terajima and Shima Ohnishi. Helmer’s rep should provide a cocoon of safety domestically, while offshore, “Caterpillar” could inch its way around the fest circuit.

Opening sequence splices together archive material covering the Sino-Japanese War in 1940 with original footage shot in black-and-white, with lurid, superimposed flames in color, showing Lt. Kyuzo Kurokawa (Shima Ohnishi, “United Red Army”) raping and killing a Chinese woman.

When next seen (in color) after his discharge to his family in a rural village, Kyuzo has lost all four limbs, has grotesque burns on his head and can barely speak or hear. His wife, Shigeko (the excellent Shinobu Terajima, “Vibrator”), is horrified her husband is now “nothing but a pile of flesh.” Distraught, she starts to strangle him and then seconds later softens and desists when he manages to communicate his needs by mouthing a word, which summarizes the emotional pingpong at play between them throughout.

The zealously patriotic townspeople honor Kyuzo, calling him a “war god,” and his medals and a framed newspaper clipping about him are put in a place of pride on the wall, just below a portrait of the Emperor Hirohito and his wife. Shigeko soon settles into a routine of caring for Kyuzo, who needs help with the most basic bodily functions — including sex, on which he insists.

However, as the prologue made clear, this ain’t no “Coming Home” or “Born on the Fourth of July.” Kyuzo is not a nice guy, and if anything his injuries have deeply embittered him. He eats both his own and Shigeko’s meager rations of food and complains when there’s no more (all expressed through facial expressions and grunts in an astonishing display of thesping skill by Ohnishi). Completely immersed in a patriarchal culture that devalues women, at a time when everyone is being urged to make every sacrifice for the greater glory of Japan, Shigeko seemingly has no choice but to play the dutiful spouse. Plus, she starts to enjoy the perks of being the war god’s wife.

But when Kyuzo begins to resist being taken out for public display, Shigeko connects with her own anger, and the tables turn.

Unfortunately, the pic’s last act, with its heavy-handed flashbacks and thumping war-is-bad history lesson, squanders some of the regard accumulated via the delicately rendered chamber-piece dynamics between Kyuzo and Shigeko. Excessive cutaways to Kyuzo raping the Chinese woman recall Wakamatsu’s roots in exploitation cinema, but not in a good way.

The fact that the pic was shot on a very low budget in 12 days should be acknowledged, but taste and restraint don’t cost anything. All the same, on a purely technical level the pic makes the most of what it’s got financially, with well-composed lensing by Tomohiko Tsuji and Yoshihisa Toda using a just-adequate digital format. Sound design adds nuance, and visual and prosthetic effects (by Masaru Tateishi and Akiteru Nakada, respectively) deserve a shout-out.

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Production: A Wakamatsu Prod., Skhole Corp. production. (International sales: Dissidenz Intl., Paris.) Produced by Koji Wakamatsu. Co-producer, Noriko Ozaki. Directed by Koji Wakamatsu. Screenplay, Hisako Kurosawa, Deru Deguchi.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W, DV-to-35mm), Tomohiko Tsuji, Yoshihisa Toda; editor, Shuichi Kakesu; music, Sally Kubota, Yumi Okada; art director, Hiromi Nozawa; costume designer, Masae Miyamoto; sound (DTS), Yukio Kubota; visual effects supervisor, Masaru Tateishi; special makeup supervisor, Akiteru Nakada. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 14, 2010. Running time: 84 MIN.

Cast: With: Shinobu Terajima, Shima Ohnishi, Ken Yoshizawa, Keigo Kasuya, Emi Masuda, Sabu Kawahara, Maki Ishikaw, Katsuyuki Shinohara. Japanese, Chinese dialogue.

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