Oh sure, being a geek culture site, we could have used this space to gas about the latest trendy anime series or gush over a beautiful Studio Ghibli title. But where’s the fun in that? Sometimes in life, you need a surprise. Your Present Author thrives on things that stun us out of our comfort zones, and since last week’s anime post was a comfortable nosh on a popular mainstream series, this week it’s time to get mine.
There are exactly two movies I know of that feature cockroaches as the main attraction and cast. One of them is Joe’s Apartment (1996), a grossout fratboy comedy which was produced by MTV and so forgettable that this is the only context you will ever hear it mentioned anywhere. The other one is the present movie, Twilight of the Cockroaches (1987), a fascinating anime experiment which has slipped through so many cracks in history that it might as well be Twilight Zone. (RightStuff DVD here)
Mind-blowing things about Twilight of the Cockroaches
This was written, directed, and produced by Hiroaki Yoshida, whose IMDB page lists… THIS movie, plus it mentions that his spirit apparently drifted through the set of something called Ghost Hound in 2007. From there, his fate is mostly unknown. Anime News Network’s database digs up a few more resume entries, but mostly peripheral involvement. How would you like this movie to be your only writing / directing / producing credit?
No known interviews exist for Hiroaki Yoshida that we could find, but there are several with an electronic musician with the same name. If they’re the same person, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge his former life.
This movie combines anime and live action, a rarity in Japanese media even today and nearly a revolution in 1987. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) came out the following year, note. Sure, Disney had its share of live-action / animation blends, most notably Mary Poppins (1964), but on the technical effects end, Twilight of the Cockroaches makes Disney’s earlier canon look downright primitive.
Now as if this wasn’t short-circuiting your expectations enough already, Twilight of the Cockroaches is far from a kid-friendly comedy. It’s a political movie about the horrors of war, told with a maturity level and darkness of theme matched in works like Watership Down (1978), The Secret of NIMH (1982), and Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel magnum opus Maus.
The English dub hit the American market relatively early in the 1990s, and was shown in rotation on the likes of Cartoon Network and Turner Broadcasting channels. Thus, a generation of kids caught this flick playing on an odd Saturday and before they could say “What the hell did I just watch?”, it vanished again leaving them to grow up wondering if they’d dreamed the damn thing.
Alright, so it’s a movie about cockroaches! What’s going on?
Naomi is a teenage cockroach girl who lives a peaceful life in the utopia of a safe cockroach kingdom in a slob’s apartment. Saito is a human bachelor and owner of that apartment, apparently content to live in filth, sloth, and gluttony surrounded by the nation of cockroaches thriving on his grossness, watching him shuffle past on his way to the fridge at 2AM. Naomi’s tribe party and feast on Saito’s table scraps, never once threatened.
The roaches have nothing but praise for their benevolent human. They have a full society with a leader, Sage, who produces documentaries about their great society and how roachkind wasn’t always so lucky. Meanwhile Naomi is engaged to a sweet but boring suitor, Ichiro, but her roving eye lands on Hans, a warrior cockroach from another tribe on the other side of the apartment complex. Hans brings tales of the horrifying cockroach holocausts that humans normally carry out against bugs.
Naomi is shocked by these tales of horror and fascinated by Hans, since she’s known nothing but peace, so she sets off on a quest to visit Hans at his own pad and discover the world along the way. But it turns out their two lives were on a collision course anyway, because Saito somehow gets a girlfriend, Momoko, who moves in. Before you can say “RAAAAIIID!”, Momoko is spraying down the apartment and otherwise carrying out a full-scale war to eradicate Naomi’s tribe, while smug soldiers in Hans’ ranks get to say “Told you so!” It’s up to the warrior cockroach tribe to show the way foreward.
The entire story takes place from the bugs’ point of view. There’s rare splashes of humor allowed as long as it doesn’t break the mood, but otherwise this is one relentlessly grim yarn with some scenes even being a little disturbing. At one point in her adventures, Naomi becomes stuck in a “roach motel” trap, surrounded by dying roaches who work together to free her even though they remain trapped and doomed themselves. Creepy!
So, is it any good?
There’s a mixture of pros and cons to Twilight of the Cockroaches.
To get some of the cons out of the way, this is a passion project with a low budget. It’s not only dark in tone, but often physically dark on the screen, with lots of night scenes and interiors as roaches do tend to hang out in shadows under cover a lot. The English dub, while competent, is grating. Every print you’re likely to find is a blocky, damaged blur which is crying out for a digital remaster. The occasional beautiful frame does leak through which just makes you sadder for the muddled video quality.
Despite its 105 minute runtime, Twilight of the Cockroaches often drags with somber piano music punctuating poignant moments between bugs. The roach characters are all one-dimensional. There’s not a lot to root for in this movie no matter whose side you’re on.
That, perhaps, is an inevitable consequence of being a heavy-handed political allegory. Word of Washington Post review has it that this movie was supposed to be a metaphor for Hiroshima, but any large-scale genocide from Hebrew to Armenian is a drop-in replacement. I can’t imagine that the Japanese people are all that thrilled being compared to cockroaches to begin with. The script is filled with windy political speeches and metaphors for our own society’s wartime climate, complete with a generation gap where older veteran roaches shame the younger ones for becoming so complacent. There’s even a curfew which some roaches are reluctant to observe.
Hey, but the bugs mobilize and fight back! This is only after an appeasement ploy in which Sage, the great leader, vows to meet personally bug-to-person with Saito and negotiate a peace treaty – this does not end well. You can just scoop up the political symbolism by the handful here and cherry-pick your favorite ideology while you’re at it.
But on the whole, this is a movie worth watching, just because it’s one of the most off-beat anime experiments even attempted. Clever technical shots make garbage bags and toilet bowls into cities and swimming pools for the roaches. The humans never speak and have no focus except as a foot coming down to end a couple more roach lives – to the bugs, we humans get to be the Godzilla this time.
But most of all, this is an experience in jerking you around by your frame of reference. Just when you’re getting drawn into the drama and anxious to see who will survive, you snap out of it realizing that you’ve been tricked into empathizing with a bunch of cockroaches. Did I leave anything out? Yes, but surprises ought to be in store for the intrepid anime completionist.
Like I say, there’s nothing I love to chainsaw more than a comfort zone. If you want a funny experience while still confronted with a cast of insects, may I recommend the equally overlooked webcomic Bug Martini?