Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Twilight of the Cockroaches (Gokiburi-tachi no tasogare)

1989 or 1987, 105 min., Not Rated - mild language, mass slaughter of animated cockroaches, one adult situation.

IMDB says... A colony of cockroaches lives peacefully in a messy bachelor's apartment until his new girlfriend moves in.

The 73rd Virgin says... Before Joe’s Apartment, before A Bugs Life, before Antz, before Honey, I Shrunk the Whatevers, there was this. Granted there have been plenty of tiny beings in film and literature, but not many movies have served the dual purpose of art and humor as well this “Japanimation”, combining rather simple two-dimensional animated cockroaches with live actors and real-world sets.

What is delightful to this film buff is the way this offers artistic touches familiar from other films, implying that it takes itself seriously, but then switches to broad funny cultural references on a moment’s notice. From across the Pacific and across the decades, it’s difficult to know how seriously director Hiroaki Yoshida took this. For instance:

It opens with one of those nice touches by beginning in the middle of the story, at first with complete silence, then with a voice over from 19 year-old roach Naomi (in strapless dress and go-go boots) as she completes a harrowing journey across an apartment courtyard to find the mysterious “Hans”. She is nearly killed by the tenant neat freak, “The Lady Neighbor”. Then come the opening credits with solo piano that set a doleful mood of doom and loss.

From there, we jump to the beginning where she lives a carefree peaceful life with her grandfather and her soft, sensitive fiancé Ichiro. Their roach tribe lives in “The Homeland”, that is, Mr. Saito’s apartment. He is a gourmand and not much of a housekeeper. Naomi and Ichiro sleep in his Nikes. It may be closer to the truth that his wife and child have left him and Mr. Saito is in a between-relationships dirty funk.

Naomi has a nagging suspicion that this existence is fleeting and fragile and she is haunted by stories her grandfather tells of her grandmother and of the “Hosano War”. One night the wounded Hans collapses into the apartment. He is stoic and militaristic with a thousand-yard stare and horrifying stories of how his people, sorry, roaches, survive across the courtyard. Here he is interviewed by relentlessly cheerful newscasters and we also learn of the Homeland roaches’ foundation myth - that their great leader achieved a mutually beneficial and friendly peace with Mr. Saito many years ago after the bitter Hosano War. Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” makes an appearance. Mr. Saito looks like General MacArthur.

Naomi discovers that Hans and her grandfather share sorrowful knowledge of life across the courtyard. Hans goes back and Grandfather tells Naomi of her ancestry. In any other movie, or even in this one with a better looking print, this would be a beautiful scene.

Grandfather also listens to his wife's voice coming through the oracle "Tora", which is a toy bunny left in the courtyard.

Needless to say Naomi resolves to follow Hans. Along the way she stumbles upon a talking dog turd that makes me wish I knew more about mythology in order to figure out what the hell THAT’s about. After nearly drowning and at the end of her strength - in one of those little flourishes that take a movie from odd to artistic - she hallucinates her grandmother’s voice and envisions a worn and tired female face. Whose face is it? Hers? Her grandmother's?

Now with Hans, she sees how awful a roach’s life can be among humans.

As you might guess, Mr. Saito and The Lady Neighbor become romantically linked – we get a roach’s eye view of a seduction complete with giggling roach peeping Toms. Caught out in the open one day, Naomi hides in The Lady's purse and winds up back at Mr. Saito's with her old fiance.

Han's tribe hears of the easy life at Saito's and decides to invade. But by then The Lady has discovered the extent of Saito's roach infestation and the holocaust is on. According to your own taste, this may be the best part of the movie. It loses some of its irony and artifice and turns into an entertaining special effects extravaganza with creative use of animated roaches scurrying through real world sets and doing battle with human actors and their deadly fogs, dusts, sprays and even a little air pistol that shoots ballistic charges of insecticide that will blow a roach’s wings and legs off.

Unfortunately some of the low-light scenes are almost completely blacked out on my copy. The transfer was apparently done with no help from the gamma slider. Be that as it may, the slaughter progresses and the movie returns to an elegiac tone. Grandpa does a kamikaze run in order to drop a final poop on Mr. Saito, Ichiro (Icarus?) finds his inner Hans and learns to fly, but nearly all is lost.

I am jealous of game and anime blogger kidfenris’s superior, spoiler-free review of the conclusion.
The roaches’ world crashes down all around them, the humans show no compunction, and there’s an uplifting little epilogue. Naomi’s affections for Ichiro and Hans are resolved, albeit in a strange way that wouldn’t work with human characters—or any vertebrates, for that matter. Still, the scenes of roach genocide have an undeniable impact, and the film has at least one genuinely unnerving moment when Naomi wanders into a roach motel. She’s stuck on a glue floor among slowly dying bugs, who thrash and starve in a shadowy grave. Nothing deserves to die like that.”
Eventually, the stuck roaches pass Naomi from leg to leg like a mosh pit diver and toss her out the other side into the light (a symbolic rebirth? - discuss amongst yourselves). But later, Director Yoshida anticipates - by about 4 years - Spielberg's "little girl in the red coat" from "Schindler's List" by showing a cute child roach run toward another roach motel and disappear - all in deathly silence.

But these are roaches. Life will go on.
I dare to dream that those sitting around preparing the Secret World of Arrietty (below) might have given a thought to renewing this oddity. It is apparently out of print and the only legitimate version is an old Streamline Pictures VHS occasionally offered for sale at Amazon. Obviously, it's not streaming on Netflix or Amazon. So write your congressman, kids.

My DVD copy came from a shady Amazon link claiming to have been “remastered”. The lack of artwork - or even printing - on the disk and the dark fuzzy transfer make me think it is just a bootlegged VHS transfer or maybe laserdisc. If you watch the DVD on a computer with VLC you can probably mess with the gamma slider in the dark scenes and have a better experience. It’s anamorphic widescreen and has a Japanese soundtrack and English subtitles so I’m hardly in a position to complain.

Reportedly, this showed many times on Cartoon Network in the 90s but I don’t remember it. If they showed it again, I would be double Tivo'd and ready. Instead I learned of it in the invaluable “Foreign Affairs” from the National Society of Film Critics and rented it on VHS years ago at Houston’s beloved Audio/Video Plus on Waugh. If you don’t already know the Area Code, you’re not cool enough to go there.

In the misty days of yore there was no Netflix and I used a service called “Video Library” - now closed - out of Phildelphia, that would rent and ship VHS tapes. They never could figure out that I had two shipping addresses, my house, and sometimes my mother’s house. Once I noticed that a particular VHS was very slow in getting to me. When I made my weekly call to Mom I learned that she had received a movie and invited a friend over to watch the movie “her son had sent her”. It was Twilight of the Cockroaches. Oops.

Richard Harrington, Vincent Canby, and Carrie Rickey have all reviewed it and somehow resisted the urge to elevate it to great filmic art. I can’t resist. I just love it. Almost every review on the web ends with something like, "you'll think twice before reaching for that can of ...... spray." No, ... no you won't. They're roaches. This movie is about humans in little bug bodies. I’m in no danger of anthropomorphizing roaches. I used to kill them for a living.

I heard no piano music or screams.

Actually Rickey was pretty excited.
“Whether viewed as a diverting action film or as an allegory of genocide, Twilight of the Cockroaches is the most original picture of the year. With its subtle allusions to Hiroshima and Dachau, this comedy has unexpected resonance."
So there. I’m not crazy.

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