Years ago, I was the local video shop (which at the time was a bit of a quest to get to), choosing this week’s entertainment, when I came across something I had never heard of before: a Japanese, half animated / half live action film called Twilight of Cockroaches. The movie promised an apocalyptic allegory after which I would never look at cockroaches in the same way again. I picked it up and the resulting viewing experience turned out to be one of the strangest ones I’d ever had. From memory, it drove away more than one friend who started it with me (including the woman who later became my wife), and though I have never seen it since it has left an indelible mark in my memory.
So, going off of that indelible mark only, and absolutely no further research whatsoever, I’m going to try to recount the movie’s story. To be clear, I’m not exactly recommending this movie, nor am I “dis-recommending it.” I’m not really going to try to comment on whether I liked it or not since I’m not really sure. I just want to tell you about it. If you ever choose to watch it yourself, than the weight of responsibility for that choice must remain entirely with you.
Incidentally, when I tell people about this film some wonder if it’s the same story as Joe’s Apartment, which I have never seen. Someone else can let me know if sounds like it is, but I can not imagine seeing a mainstream American comedy, as I am under the impression Joe’s Apartment was meant to be, which is this strange or this brutal.
The story begins in media res with a young, female cockroach named Naomi creeping through an unfamiliar room, and approaching a human woman and asking her for help or directions. Yes, that’s right, I said a cockroach. And yes, that’s right – this movie is really about cockroaches. To be clear, the cockroaches in this film are all animated, where as the humans and all the backgrounds (if I recall properly) are all live action. Also, the humans never speak. Anyway, this woman freaks out at the sight of Naomi and immediately attempts to kill her, I think with a shoe. Naomi runs away, confused and terrified.
Then the story jumps back to earlier, where we learn that Naomi lives in a cockroach paradise. It’s a house where the roaches enjoy peace, freedom, and abundance. They live under the protection of a guardian – I don’t remember his name – but he’s a human being whom the roach legends say drove away the oppressive and cruel rulers that came before him. Naomi is engaged to a sort of sissy-cockroach that we will call Fiance-Guy (I don’t remember his name either – other than Naomi, I can’t remember any of their names) who has not yet learned to fly.
One day, this cockroach haven is visited by another roach from a neighboring land. This visitor is a battle-scarred and wounded soldier – big, hunky, masculine, and certainly capable of flying. We will call him Butch. He comes from a land that is the opposite of Naomi’s – the cockroaches there live in a constant state of battle and always under the threat of extinction. I’m not sure, it may even be that he has come to Naomi’s land in an attempt to find help for his people. Naomi helps to nurse him to health (I think) and inevitably falls in love with him. Later, she will discover that she is pregnant. She will lament to her father (-figure), “I don’t even know if it’s from Fiance-Guy or Butch!” The father-figure will casually say back to her, “Don’t worry, it’s probably a bit of both.”
Seriously. Only in my dreams could I make this stuff up.
Anyway, Butch eventually recovers and seeing that Naomi’s people are going to be of no help, returns to his land. This leads Naomi to decide to make the journey to Butch’s land to see how things are for herself.
If we weren’t already certain, it’s her journey that really tells us how strange this film is going to be. On her way – which is really just going across a lawn to the next house over – she encounters a series of mysterious figures who seem to have nothing to do but to speak to her in riddles and odd prophetic messages. These figures include a flat plastic ladybug stuck into a garden, and a talking turd! (That one made one of my friends actually scream out loud). Amongst the other enigmas, these beings tell Naomi that she is destined to be the savior of her people.
Naomi reaches the other house and that’s where we see again the sequence that the movie started with. She manages to escape the incensed human and reconnect with Butch and his battle-scarred people. The woman is their enemy. She hates cockroaches and does everything she can to wipe them out. And she is winning. Seeing that this is not the place for her, Naomi returns home.
And then, fatefully, the human woman looks out her window one day, and sees the Man (the Human Guardian) who lives in Naomi’s house. And the two of them begin to get to know each other…
Back at home, Naomi resigns herself to her life that she had known before, and goes through with her wedding to Fiance-Guy. It’s a big celebration, with everyone there and full of rejoicing. It takes place in the kitchen sink. And it also takes place in the morning after the Woman from next door has for the first time spent the night at the Man’s house. She wakes up in the morning, and walks to the kitchen to get a glass of water, and is horrified to look into the sink to see the roaches all gathered there. And she reacts as many of us would – in a frenzy of death and violence. And so the twilight begins….
Roaches flee for their lives, but many are crushed and killed. Naomi and Fiance-Guy both escape, and the survivors gather together, wondering what to do. Some are scared, some are outraged at this egregious violation of their rights, and some know that things are far worse than they appear. The Village Elder volunteers to go and see their Human Guardian and talk things through. (It’s an odd but unexplained thing that the Roaches seem to think they can have conversations with the people, but the humans have no such perception. Maybe it’s a strange comment on religion).
Later, we will see the Human Guardian sitting listlessly in his living room, lazily throwing a dart. And still later, we will see that that dart hit and killed the Village Elder, pinning him to the wall.
It’s around here that Naomi learns the truth about her people’s history. The legend of the Human Guardian is a lie. He never drove out a cruel and oppressive family that was in their house before him. Instead, it was his family, but one day, they left him. And when they did, he stopped caring. Instead of trying to keep his house clean and roach-free, he became listless and depressed, and allowed the roaches to run rampant. But now, this Man is in a new relationship. And so now, things are never going to be the same.
Butch and the last of the other survivors from his land come to Naomi’s land for refuge, and seeing the threat they are under, both houses agree to team up and work together to defeat their common enemy. The next morning, when the Man and Woman wake up together, they see that the walls and ceiling of their house are covered with roaches. And as soon as they start moving, the roaches start dive bombing them. Understandably, the couple are horrified and begin to panic. One of them (the Woman, I think) even falls and hits her head. But in spite of this and in spite of their vastly superior numbers the Roaches are driven back.
The humans arm themselves. They go out and buy every roach killing device and poison that they can find. And so they begin their final assault, devastating and destroying the Roach population. Butch is crushed and killed with a book. Fiance-Guy is chased into the corner of the roof before he falls…only to finally discover his power of flight! He soars through the air, rejoicing in his new-found ability…before being pelted in his wings and his body by some sort of air-gun, and falling to his doom.
Out of all the roaches, only one escapes…Naomi. She flees into the wilderness that she had previously explored, the lone survivor of her people.
But of course, she is pregnant.
And as the still images that flash at the end show us, she not only survives, but it’s through her and her pregnancy that her people survive, just as was prophesied. She gives birth to innumerable offspring, and the roaches live, thrive, and multiply…even in the wake of the Armageddon they have experienced. Because they are survivors.
And that’s the movie. Go find it, if you dare. I can’t say that it’s really changed my view of cockroaches – I still kill them, pretty readily if I see one in my house. But I have never forgotten this film.
I’ve done some quick research now, and see that The Twilight of the Cockroaches was released originally in 1987, and was directed by Hiroaki Yoshida, is a bit challenging to find on DVD. Apparently, the publicity material at the time it came out described it as an allegory of the fate in store for modern Japan if it failed to meet its international responsibilities.
Watch the equally strange trailer here: