Forgotten Anime: “Twilight of the Cockroaches”

cockroachesldDistributor: Lumivision/Streamline Pictures (USA)
Original Year of Release: 1987
English Video Release: 1992, Subtitled (also dubbed VHS version released)
Japanese Title: Gokiburi-tachi no Tasogare
Runtime: 105 minutes

In the general anime fan community, I guess there was a perception that Streamline only released what would be considered exploitation and genre fare. B-movie stuff in other words. Sure, most of the material they released was of a high standard compared to what was available in the Japanese market at the time, but a fair wack of what the company put out was slightly dodgy. Take two of their highest selling titles for example; “Wicked City” and “Fist of the North Star”. However there’s always an exception to the rule. In Streamline’s case, it was this film; “Twilight of the Cockroaches”. Hidden amongst all the blood soaked, testosterone filled titles in their catalogue was an art house film with a whimsical sense of humour. It was an animated feature about anthropomorphic cockroaches, with live action background footage and plates, plus two actual human actors who appear on screen. Without a doubt, it sticks out like a sore thumb in Streamline’s catalogue.

cockroaches1The film follows the life of Naomi and Ichiro, who are two young cockroaches living a large colony situated in a squalid flat owned by the depressed Saito (Kaoru Kobayashi). On the day Saito’s wife and child left him, the cockroaches began a new era of freedom without the fear of death or need to scrounge for food. This was because Saito never bothered to clean up the place or kill the roaches. Naomi and Ichiro are soon to be married, though Naomi seems to be having second thoughts. One night as they are sleeping, an exhausted and battle scared cockroach from a tribe in living in a set of units across the field, accidentally wakes them. The handsome and strong stranger is named Hans. Hans tells them of his clan’s war with the human living in the flat his tribe occupy. The young roaches who only know of the good times with Saito are confused as to why a human would want to hurt a cockroach.

The leader of tribe parades Hans as a hero during their “Armistice Day” celebrations (marking the day Saito’s family left), but Hans decides to head back to his clan to continue the battle. Naomi has fallen in love with Hans, and runs away to make the long journey to the next block of flats. After an arduous journey, she arrives at the flat and she meets the female human (Setsuko Karasumaru) living there. Unfortunately the human is not at all pleased to see Naomi, and she tries to kill her. Though terribly frightened and confused, Naomi manages to find Hans and the members of the clan who hiding out in the shadows. Unlike Saito’s flat, the cockroaches here are constantly forced to attack the woman living here to create a diversion so that they can steal food from her. Naomi is shocked at the massacre of her fellow roaches and the sacrifices they have to make.

cockroaches2Despite the horror of what she has seen, Naomi decides to live with Hans for the time being. A couple of weeks pass and whilst Hans goes off the battle, Naomi accidentally ends up in a “roach motel”. But thanks to the compassion and strength of the trapped cockroaches inside, she is thrown to safety. However just as she is freed, the human woman suddenly shows up and Naomi is forced to hide in her handbag. When she feels it’s safe to come out again, she is surprised to discover that she is back as Saito’s flat. Unbeknownst to the cockroaches, Saito has been seeing the woman from the flat across the road, and she has decided to live with him. Ichiro is overjoyed to find Naomi is back and makes plans to marry her. However the wedding day doesn’t quite go to plan. As the wedding takes place on the kitchen table, the human female sees them and starts killing the wedding guests. Though most of them escape, the tribe is absolutely shocked at this turn of events. They decide to fight back and are relegated back to the shadows and sneaking around to get food. Unfortunately what they don’t know is that Saito and his new girlfriend are planning a cockroach holocaust.

This a very odd and dark little film to say the least. It’s a mix of live action and animation like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” or “Dot and the Kangaroo” (most people who were kids during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s would remember that one). Unlike those films, this one is more for a mature audience. The cockroaches are the heroes of the story and are drawn in a human likeness and portrayed in a sympathetic light. The humans on the other hand are large and threatening like giant monsters. They only scream or shout in the film and neither of the human actors have any dialogue. The camera travels at cockroach height and sounds are scaled down (or is that up?) to cockroach size. Even normal sounds such as a human eating or gurgling become loud and terrifying. Unlike a lot of anime films of that period, the animation and character design are very different. Even though the animation was produced by Madhouse, the film really feels that was made by someone from outside the industry. This seems to be director Hiroaki Yoshida’s debut feature, a director that seems to have had no anime credits before this film. Surprisingly he only worked on one other film after this one, a Japanese/US co-production called “Iron Maze”, a rather obscure thriller from 1991. Yoshida now days seems to be fairly high up in TYO Productions, the company which produced this film. The other staff are pretty much unknowns except for Yoshitaka Amano (“Vampire Hunter D”), who is credited with art direction. The film has aged over the years with the animation and some of the camerawork looking rather worse for wear when compared with what can be done with modern day CG and cameras. A lot of the close up photography in is hindered by the technology of the time. The focal length of camera lens of the era leads to lot of the shots looking partly out of focus. But for me though the strength and strangeness of the story is what kept me interested and was the movie’s selling point.

cockroaches3Watching the film again, it’s sometimes a little hard to see what the director was aiming for. During the opening scenes I wondered if it was meant to be a satire on modern day (1980’s) Japanese society. Yoshida himself apparently said the film was about how Japan’s focus on racial and cultural purity and how he thought this was perceived by the outside world. However during the latter half of the film, you can’t help drawing parallels between the holocaust in World War II or ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe during the 1990’s, even though this wasn’t really the director’s intention. The film explicitly shows humans and cockroaches at war with toy tanks and guns featuring occasionally in the film. One of the saddest scenes in the film is a sequence showing cockroach children playing on tin toys as if they were in a human playground, just before the humans massacre them. But as you can imagine with a film like this there are a lot of odd moments too. For example as Naomi travels across the field to the other flat, she has a brief conversation with a claymation dog turd! This is perhaps one of the oddest sequences I’ve ever seen in a film. The other element I found to be a bit strange was the wardrobe of the human woman played by Setsuko Karasumaru. When I first watched the film, I thought she was a prostitute. For whatever reason, she wears a lot of tight fitting clothes in a number of scenes. Not sure what the director was thinking there. Still this doesn’t detract from the story being told.

Streamline’s adaptation is pretty good. Somehow I’ve managed to miss out on seeing the English dubbed version of this film which was released on VHS in the US in 1992 and Australia in 1995 (by Kiseki Films). Anime Projects in the UK did have the film classified by the BBFC in the mid 1990’s, but it failed to make an appearance in the video market or cinemas there. I originally saw the film on Australian multicultural station SBS in a subtitled format back in 1993. Unbelievable as it sounds, Streamline actually released the film (through Lumivision) as a subtitled laserdisc in 1992 which is the version I have. Carl Macek is credited with the subtitles (originally produced for the May 1989 US theatrical release) and has done a decent job. There is one exception; the sequence when Hans accidentally wakes Ichiro and Naomi and they all first meet. Macek has stuffed up the timing of the subtitles and it looks as if Ichiro is asking Hans not to call off the wedding. It’s humorous to say the least. There are also a number of mistimed and missing lines. Even though it’s presented in its original aspect ratio, the print used for this edition has a fair bit of damage, and reel dots can be seen every 15 minutes or so in the top left hand corner. The film is really dark too (well cockroaches don’t laze about in the open do they?) and would probably look better in the theatre or on BD or DVD. Sensibly the picture has been moved up on the LD edition, so the subtitles appear on the “black bar” rather than on the picture. However this isn’t so good for modern 16:9 TVs. There is no way to zoom in so the picture fills the screen. The laserdisc version includes Japanese distributor Kitty Film’s English language promotional trailer at the end of the film as a bonus. While watching it, you realise the marketing strategies between the US and Japan are poles apart. The quality of the trailer is pretty shocking. It looks like they dragged the film on the ground a bit before they decided to master it for the laserdisc.

cockroaches4This film is a bit of a rarity. It’s clearly an experimental film, yet it’s extremely entertaining and fascinating. For me it didn’t change my view on cockroaches (still not very fond of them), but that’s not the point of the film or why it was created. Unfortunately this film is one of the few Streamline titles that didn’t get picked up by another company after they folded. It’s really a damned shame. I guess many anime fans wouldn’t like the film. It’s very un-anime like in just about every aspect. I highly doubt this film will make an appearance in any commercial English language market ever again. The film still hasn’t been re-issued on DVD or BD in Japan and I doubt it ever will be. The quite rare laserdisc and the far more common rental VHS versions are the only versions you’ll find. It’s pretty much the same for the English versions; the subbed laserdisc and dubbed VHS versions are surprisingly easy to find and relatively cheap. If you really like experimental animation or are bored with the current state of anime, this is a great title to seek out.

This entry was posted in Anime Oddities, Anime Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s