Twilight of the Cockroaches

In 1946, Walt Disney released Song of the South, the first full-length film to feature a combination of animation and live action. Because the film has been unjustly condemned for its depiction of African-Americans in the post-Civil War south, the fact that this film was a major milestone has been all but forgotten. Many live-action/animation mixes have come since, most notably 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But the year before, Twilight Of The Cockroaches brought the style back to Japan in utterly bizarre fashion. A disappointment that goes on far too long, Cockroaches is too poorly animated to enthuse most fans, though a better director could possibly have made this a solid film.

A tribe of cockroaches lives in comfort under Saito-san's roof. After his marriage went south, Saito had a bit of a breakdown, and he found a strange comfort in having the little scavengers around. Now, the group regularly parties amongst the ketchup bottles and leftover meals with Saito casually looking on. In the midst of this is a young dreamer, Naomi. She's pledged to marry Ichiro, but she can't help but wonder if her life with him would be empty. When Hans, a warrior from another clan, shows up, Naomi is intrigued by his dark, quiet persona. She escapes to visit him only to find a world of horrors: bug traps, roach motels, and Raid. What world will she choose? The question becomes more difficult when Saito gets a girlfriend and goes from peaceful cockroach enabler to bug destroyer. Can any of the critters survive the upcoming holocaust?

Twilight Of The Cockroaches is actually a fascinating concept: how do you make the world's most despised insect lovable? Director Hiroaki Yoshida does manage to do the impossible by anthropomorphizing the pests into vaguely cute two-legged creatures that wear clothes and act not unlike humans. Yoshida also achieves a wonderful sense of scale throughout the picture. Everything happens six inches off the ground, and the everyday events of humans seem massive and scary by comparison. For these two things alone, credit is due.

However, Twilight is done well before the last frame flickers. Although the concept of darkness invades every segment of the film (even its title), the movie is too darkly lit. Several sequences are impossible to see, at least in the video incarnation available in the United States. Combined with a lack of soundtrack in many of these sections, the viewer can go twenty to thirty seconds with nothing to watch and nothing to hear. This is a calamitous choice that pulls the viewer completely out of the experience. In a film like this, it's vital--we must be kept in a state of believing that these disgusting foragers are actually sweet and naive. When the film acts this way, we get bored. Severely bored.

The animation itself isn't catchy, either. The cockroaches are reasonably created, but there's little sense of spark to them. There's no visual charm, and that makes me as a critic uncomfortable. If anything, most live-action/animation mix films are inspiring because of their juxtapositions, but Twilight just looks flat. Between the impenetrable darkness and the uninspiring designs, there is little to actually see. Even without those long pauses I previously mentioned, the pacing flows like a molasses and honey convention. It might have made a great 45-minute feature, but not a nearly two-hour film. Finally, the absurdness wanders into the disgusting when we not only meet roaches who gather around the underside of a toilet bowl but also are introduced to a pile of talking dung. All of it makes for an unpleasant if unique experience.

Watching The Animatrix recently reminded me of the highs of anime. Rewatching Twilight Of The Cockroaches reminded me, unfortunately, of its lows. I can give it props for its sense of creativity, but it just doesn't work as a movie. It's truly sad that you can't see Song of the South in the U.S. currently except as a bootleg while this is still on rental shelves...though it came forty years earlier, it's a far better show of what the best live-action/animation mixes can achieve.

Twilight of the Cockroaches -- violence, disturbing subject matter -- D+