“Franz Kafka Meets Roger Rabbit,” proclaims the cover of Twilight of the Cockroaches. It almost fits. Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? this odd half-anime film from 1987 has live actors next to cartoon characters. And like Kafka’s "The Metamorphosis," it’s…uh, it has roaches. Well, humanoid roaches. Even though Kafka’s story wasn’t necessarily about a roach. Oh well. I sympathize with whoever had to describe Twilight of the Cockroaches in a short tagline, and the Kafka one has a sharper ring than “Watership Down With Roaches” or “A Bleak Anime Version of Joe’s Apartment.”
Life is pleasant for the roaches in the bachelor pad of one Mr. Seito. They frolic amid dirty dishes, they swim in the toilet, and they fly where they please, all without Seito caring a whit. They have roach politicians, roach nightlife, roach class prejudices, and a roach holiday that commemorates a tragic loss of roach life. And if this isn’t an obvious enough allegory for the Japan of the 1980s, there’s even a meretricious morning-news show run by roaches. But the bugs aren't accurately insectile blattella asahinai. These roaches are largely humanized anime characters with antennae, an extra set of arms, and glovelike flippers where their hands should be. Fables about mice or rabbits get semi-realistic animal heroes, but biologically accurate roaches don't appeal to viewers so much.
All of this glorious roach opulence isn’t enough for Naomi, a 19-year-old (insect years, I assume) roach girl. She’s bored with her milquetoast fiancé Ichiro and generally discontented with the roach lifestyle. So she’s quite intrigued when a strange roach named Hans arrives at the Seito pad.
Hans brings the placid Seito roaches stories of his home, where roaches are systematically hunted and exterminated by humans. And no one’s more fascinated by it than Naomi, who likes Hans for his grim demeanor as much as his square-jawed German manliness. So when Hans departs for his native land like the dutiful soldier he is, Naomi follows. And she finds the adventure she so vaguely pined for. Hans and his fellow roaches live an apartment where a fastidious woman hauls out bug spray and shoes to rain death upon her unwanted tenants each night. She’s also lonely, and so, it seems, is Seito. And they’re neighbors. And so destruction is sown for the hedonistic roaches who in no way represent 1980s society.
Director Hiroaki Yoshida meant Twilight of the Cockroaches as a message for modern Japan, and it's a pretty simple one. Yet another tale of creatures undone by materialism and ignorance, it veers into muddled, cautionary terrain without much in the way of solutions. The film’s at its most enjoyable when parodying the relationship between humans and ancient pests: the roaches of Hans’ army are militant in their defense of roach life, right down to a marching anthem about roach birth rates. Yoshida's mixture of live-action and animation is hardly as smooth as Roger Rabbit (or even Cool World), but there's a much greater thematic divide between the silent, towering live-action actors and the scurrying, babbling cartoon critters. Yoshida also adds a brief stop-motion interlude in an attempt to make the film even stranger.
Aside from the talking feces, Twilight of the Cockroaches goes exactly where one expects. 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.
Twilight of the Cockroaches received its U.S. theatrical release and dub courtesy of Streamline Pictures, and it has the usual round of competent actors reading occasionally bizarre lines. Rebecca “Reba West” Forstadt plays Naomi, and she considers it “my most bizarre role.” It’s a fair dub, though there's always the Streamline-fueled suspicion that the script's been needlessly altered.
DOES IT DESERVE A PROPER DVD RELEASE? Yes. Twilight of the Cockroaches may be routine beneath its partly animated surface, but that surface is something unique. What other films wring pathos from a roach shitting on a human’s face? What other films have bizarre, pseudo-fascist songs about the enduring roach race? What other films try to make you happy that a single roach can spawn an entire colony? Not very many, that's for sure.