LIST CANDIDATE: TWILIGHT OF THE COCKROACHES (1989)

Gokiburi-tachi no Tasogare

DIRECTED BY: Hiroaki Yoshida

FEATURING:  Kaoru Kobayashi, Setsuko Karasuma, Kanako Fujiwara

PLOT: A colony of cockroaches lives in happy comfort in the apartment of a lonely slob, but that all changes the day a girlfriend moves in and takes over cleaning the place and eradicating the pests.

Still from Twilight of the Cockroaches (1989)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As noted elsewhere on this site, the bar for weirdness in Japanese anime is set pretty high, because the genre itself is such a wild frontier. Twilight of the Cockroaches sets itself apart by being half-animated and half-live-action, and by being about the politics of cockroach tribes. If that in itself isn’t compelling enough, any film whose IMDB page’s plot keywords list includes the phrase “talking turd” pretty much demands our consideration.

COMMENTS: The present author is aware of exactly two commercial films in which cockroaches make up the majority of the cast. One of them is Joe’s Apartment, and I’m reveiwing other one now. Of the two, Twilight of the Cockroaches wins easily for “weirdest cockroach movie.” The comparison has to stop there, because the two movies are entirely opposite in tone. A critter’s eye view of a society of anthropomorphic non-humans, Cockroaches has more in common with Watership Down or The Secret of Nimh than an MTV-sponsored slacker comedy. It pounds in a heavy political message, possibly related to Hiroshima or Auschwitz, though the director declared it to be about Japan; fan bases debate it to this day. Fill in your own country and political philosophy here.

But for those of you without too much book-learnin’, this is a movie about cockroaches. Naomi is a cockroach waif—“19 in cockroach years”—who serves as our narrator and has “never experienced terror.” She and the rest of her vermin society reside in the apartment of Saito, a human bachelor whose deadly sins include sloth and gluttony, allowing the cockroaches to live in fat contentment. The roaches worship Saito as a god, giving thanks for his sloppy leftovers as they mistake his neglect for benevolence. Sage, the “great leader” of this society, is a reassuring father to his people, ringing with praise for their benevolent human. Naomi is engaged to the stable suitor Ichiro, but she pines for Hans, a warrior cockroach from another tribe. Hans brings grim stories of other apartments where cockroaches fight for survival against humans determined to annihilate them, which is shocking news to Naomi in her peaceful utopia.

Hans returns to his side of the apartment complex, while Naomi contracts wanderlust, exploring the outside world in her quest for the truth. She sets across the vacant lot next to the apartment to find Hans, braving all kinds of hazards—and meeting a helpful turd—along the way. The elders of Naomi’s tribe lament how entitled and shiftless the modern generation is, as the young ones scoff at the warnings that the good times could abruptly end. That foreshadowing comes to pass when Saito, somehow, gets a girlfriend, who moves in with him and brings with her a holocaust of housecleaning and bug-killing. This forces the roaches to confront the error of their complacency. It will be up to Hans’ militarized comrades to show the way forward for roachkind.

The slow, lethargic pace of this film, scored to soulful, lonely piano solos, makes it a chore to sit through. And yet, just when you’re ready to take the film on the serious terms it so obviously desires, it throws talking poop at you. Scenes like a pie-eating party that turns into a pie-throwing party are slapstick; while when Naomi is trapped in a roach motel with other bugs, themselves dying, working together to lift her out, are creepy. The tone is all over the place, and on top of that the visuals flash from blaring daylight reality to shadowy animation. Moments of drama are punctuated by the realization that you’re being compelled to sympathize with a bunch of cockroaches. At the very least, it’s a unique effort in all kinds of ways, with some imaginative technical shots, but it’s also a shoestring budget with blockbuster ambitions. Furthermore, the lack of a DVD release means you’re stuck watching VHS tapes with very phoned-in English dubbing. The choppy result is a hard film to know how to take, but one thing is certain: a bug’s life ain’t always easy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Somebody please get that rolled-up newspaper and smack Japanese writer-director Hiroaki Yoshida in the head with it. COCKROACHES doesn’t even qualify as a camp classic. Besides being thoroughly deranged, it’s also slow, dull, and numbingly mediocre.”–TV Guide

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