Animation is a medium, not a genre, and the most creative animation projects have found new ways to bring that insight home. Hiroaki Yoshida's Twilight of the Cockroaches uses an old animation trick: overlaying animation (provided by Studio MADHOUSE) atop live action to set animated and live-action characters interacting freely with each other. But the movie's not aiming for the kind of cutesy self-conscious interplay of something like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?; it has something more ambitious and darkly clever in mind.
Life under the floorboards
Twilight is set inside an apartment rented by a young man, who seems to spend most of his time drinking and oversleeping. He has a cockroach infestation, but he's made a kind of peace with the roaches: he leaves out things for them to eat and play with, and as long as they don't get in the way he's fine with it.
What's immediately striking is the framing and point of view for the action. The movie is not told from the human's perspective, but from that of the roaches. All live-action photography of the man and his apartment is performed using macro lenses, so that a plate of food seems the size of a whole dining room, and the bathroom sink becomes an Olympic swimming pool. The roaches are the animated characters, anthropomorphized in a way that brings to mind Osamu Tezuka's work, always in the foreground. They're cute and relatable, while the human characters — photographed using slight slow-motion, with grotesque and exaggerated foley effects — are distant monsters.
All of this is a strategy designed to enlist our sympathies with the roaches right from the git-go. They don't want to do anything except eat and party and raise litters. It's the humans who are the bad guys, as we see right in the opening scene when one roach tries to ask a simple question and almost gets a shoe heel smashed down on her for her trouble. But since this particular roach tribe has managed to broker a kind of peace with the apartment's owner, their situation doesn't feel as urgent.
A soldier of the great war
One day the balance of things shifts. A new roach shows up, Hans, a refugee from a war zone in "another land" (that is, another apartment across the way). He's stoic and guarded, and his military bearing leaves an impression on roach girl Naomi. She remembers all too well her grandmother's words about the legacy of war in her time, and she is moved to follow Hans when he decides to return to the war zone he left behind to continue aiding his comrades.
All of this is baffling to Naomi's betrothed, Ichiro, a nice fellow who has no real idea of what such things are like. His entire world has been one of relative comfort and safety, and the leaders of their roach tribe are determined to keep the peace with their human masters. (Ichiro can't even fly, but most of the rest of his compatriots can't either. No evolutionary pressure.) Nobody wants a reversion back to the bad old days, and they're prepared to make whatever concessions are needed to humankind to get it. Naomi, by contrast, braves the terrifying and hazardous journey to the other apartment to follow Hans, and witnesses for herself the way they fight and die there for even the smallest scrap of nourishment.
By the time Naomi returns to Ichiro and the rest of his tribe, she's an emotional husk. She's also pregnant, and not necessarily with Ichiro's brood. Worse, the tables have turned in the apartment: their host has been asked to choose between his roach buddies and a potential new human partner, and he's not about to pick another species over his. And beyond whether or not the roaches can survive an onslaught of flyswatters and bug bombs is the even bigger question of what survival will cost for the few who do make it.
The toughest thing about describing a project like this is how the peculiar look and feel of it — the integration of animation over close-focus live-action — also helps create a certain tone that is best experienced rather than described. In theory what's going on is a laugh riot; after all, it's hard not to laugh when you see a shoe the size of a 767 descending atop a whole cluster of cartoon roaches. But because of the emotional investments we have in the characters, and the way their plight winds tighter around them with each passing reel, any laughter we have is smothered by a growing lump in the throat.
One thing I picked up quickly on with anime and manga, as well as Japanese and Hong Kong live-action film, was how freely it can switch moods on you. This is not something that comes automatically with the territory; it's a skill that has to be honed, and some properties in these spaces try to do it and fail miserably. But others do it very well, in part because they have a large pool of prior examples for inspiration. Twilight has more than Asian film history to draw on for this kind of emotional reversal, though; it's also in the vein of social satire from Rabelais and Swift through Orwell, where things that at first seem innocent and amusing turn out to have horrific implications.
A common trap for a movie this visually inventive is to assume the visuals are the movie. That's not the worst thing, but it's not automatically a win, either. The first twenty or so minutes are loaded with cutesy examples of how the roaches make use of the apartment-- e.g., "borrowing" a TV and a video camera for the sake of making a celebratory anniversary broadcast, or partying at the breakfast table. Other shots are sheer visual invention, as when the roaches fly through a beaded curtain in a shot that's reminiscent of the X-Wing fighters plunging into the trenches in Star Wars. All that is amusing enough. But once the film sets up its story in earnest, those gimmicks recede into the background, or become repurposed to different ends. In one scene that's both creative and horrific, Naomi accidentally stumbles into a roach trap, and the other half-dead roaches perform a kind of bucket brigade with whatever few limbs each has left moving to propel her back out.
The real ambition in Twilight is not just in how it capitalizes on the mechanics of its premise, but also on its allegorical dimensions. One reading that came to mind for the roaches' plight was for Japan's role in World War II. It was once an aggressor, but was beaten back so badly, and lost so much in the process, that allowing its occupiers to set the rules became the only workable strategy. But with enough time, and enough generations, self-determination — and self-defense, and the right to strike first, and so on — come back into vogue. Those who have never known war can be seduced by even a taste of it; those who have known nothing but war are hard-pressed to offer anything other than it. Out of the wreckage from the collision of those two insights comes the movie's conclusion, a pointed mix of sentimentality and pitilessness that goes further than I expected.
Discotek Media, reissuers of a great many vintage Asian films and anime titles, has a reputation for painstaking care with their restoration efforts. But its staff are not magicians, and they can only do so much with what they are given. Their DVD (misbilled on Amazon as a Blu-ray) of Twilight Of The Cockroaches is sourced from a wretched-looking master, with many of the darker shots disappearing into a telecine murk. But better that we are able to see the movie legitimately, if poorly, than not at all. I hope this spurs interest in having a proper restoration job performed on a title that's as idiosyncratic in anime as it is anywhere else.