I saw Twilight of the Cockroaches when I was six and thought about it on and off for the next 27 years. I still think about it. I can’t remember where I saw Hiroaki Yoshida’s beautiful, weird insect-human drama, and neither can my mother, who took me; a cursory Internet search revealed that in 1991 it was playing at the Roxie, but we know we didn’t see it there. The Roxie was small and dark and close; the place where we saw it was light and airy. (If you are reading this and know where it played, please reach out.) The movie is not light and airy. It is a film of close spaces, tunnels, the greasy, crumb-filled corner in a crinkling packet of chips.
I loved it, a lot, but it is not the best movie. It is good in the way cult classics are: something in them strikes a chord with viewers, again and again, but something about them keep them from being hits. They are often too much or too little, too slow or too fast, too intense or too bland, too pristine or too primitive; they are not for everyone and often imperfect, but they stick out. Life is like this too, or at least my life is: it happens in fits and starts, rarely at the speed or temperature I want. But like the cockroach, it persists. It is said that cockroaches will survive a nuclear apocalypse. I will not. But as long as I’m around, I continue to come back to this movie, and try to figure out why. Something about Twilight of the Cockroaches got in early and stayed, gathering new meaning and layers as I age and the world changes.
“Ichiro is honest. Hans is strong.” With these words, an elder roach attempts to counsel Naomi, the film’s gentle and lovely 19-year-old protagonist, on one of the film’s central plotlines: a young roach-woman forced to choose between two suitors, during a time of societal chaos and literal violent upheaval. At age six, I had only a nascent conception of romance, but I understood a love triangle when I saw one. Those words had parts moving beneath it – something I would later learn was called gravity. My stomach flipped, a pleasantly uncomfortable excitement, and my eyes focused a little harder. The stakes were fuzzy, but I had to know how it would play out. My attention span was already good – and I say this not to highlight any precociousness, just to note that I have always been predisposed to sit and watch for long periods of time – and this line carried me through the remaining 25 minutes of the movie, as themes of war and genocide crashed around bachelor Saito’s apartment; the setting for the cockroach-human wars that would kill Hans, Ichiro, and everyone else we’ve met through the course of the story, save for a litter of roachlettes in Naomi’s body.
Other parts stood out as well: Naomi’s pretty wings, which sat like a cape behind her (I was captivated by her beauty). The Crown Milk Chocolate wrapper where Ichiro bedded down for the night (sleeping in food packaging looked unbelievably, impossibly fun). The titular delight of Saito in his undershirt, his future girlfriend hang her lingerie outside to dry (I was watching something for adults, I was seeing something grown-ups were allowed to see, something I didn’t understand but was fascinating because it meant something, something unclear and private and personal). Saito and his girlfriend again, eating bagel sandwiches on the floor of their apartment, post-mass murder (we ate bagels a lot at home, they looked good). But I noticed that line about honest and strong the most; it immediately crystallized, forming a tight knot of memory that would unfurl more and more over the years.
In high school I hung out with guys who would become the nerd gatekeepers of tomorrow, which meant that I liked anime but didn’t talk about it much – I was afraid the real anime fans would tell me what I was getting wrong. In college, I grew a modest measure of self-esteem, enough to talk about my interests and quickly discover that no one had heard of Twilight of the Cockroaches. Literally, no one. This was the mid-2000s, AKA the early days of the Internet. At no point did I think to type the title into a search bar. Instead, I brought it up in conversation again and again, and was always met with blank stares. I didn’t think I was cool for knowing about something apparently relatively esoteric. I began to think I had made it up, that it was a peaceful hallucination from an at-times chaotic childhood. So I stopped talking about it. For awhile. But it never really went away.
It took a little girl goldfish to bring the bugs back. My first date with my then-boyfriend and eventual husband was a screening of Ponyo. After the movie we walked back to my apartment, talking about anime. He was nice, and didn’t talk over me or jab for facts: I felt comfortable enough to bring up the cockroach movie.
“It’s this movie and the cockroaches are fighting a war, and there’s a love triangle.”
“You mean Joe’s Apartment?”
“No. It’s called Twilight of the Cockroaches.”
“You mean Joe’s Apartment. You are describing the plot of Joe’s Apartment.”
His stubbornness only made me come back harder; a theme that would continue throughout the course of our relationship and persists to this day. We were, with respects to John Darnielle, twin high-maintenance machines, and that came out in our obsessions, those things we saw that rattled around in our head so loud that we had to open our mouths to let them out
But why does Twilight of the Cockroaches endure? I’ve watched it a couple of times over the past decades, and I still love it, although my context for it is quite different; I recently saw an exhibit at the Audubon Butterfly Garden And Insectarium of New Orleans featuring real cockroaches in fake domestic situations – literal bugs crawling around a to-scale kitchen. I gagged and had to walk away. I’m sorry, Ichiro and Hans and Naomi. It’s one thing to see you drawn cute, with big eyes and human expressions and emotions. There’s something fascinating about your bacchanalian feasts of Saito’s Italian leftovers, humor in how you pop a cork out of a bottle of wine and scale an aging plate of pasta. I can even find charm in the talking turd. And I couldn’t understand, as a first-grader time, Mr. Saito would kick you out – how he could be so cruel to these creatures just trying to live their lives in peace, and occasionally snack on his old spaghetti.
At age six, I did not maintain a home of my own, and my mom took care of the rare roach that made its way out of our apartment’s plumbing. I hadn’t yet realized that I didn’t like cockroaches. I do not want to see them crawling up my drain, I do not want to see them bursting out of a trash bag, and I definitely do not want to see them playing house in my home. They are welcome visitors on the screen, but not in my life.
I make an exception for Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches, whose size and appearance put them in a different category. I first encountered these working summers at the Science Museum of Minnesota. They are the giant pandas of the insect world: slow-moving and almost placid, they are rather attractive in an almost art deco way. They make good, low-maintenance pets. Most roaches lack this distinction. But most movies are not Twilight of the Cockroaches, which creates immediate empathy with something I would normally smash with a rolled-up magazine. That is the power of context and framing; although the movie cuts awkwardly back and forth between live-action and anime, you feel sense of community with the world that runs along baseboards, parties decadently in half-eaten cake, and slumbers on silky panties. Within roach society, generational and social turmoil abounds: The older generation worries about the younger generation, young women talk about their fears surrounding marriage, young men strive for stability at home or glory on the battlefield. These are human themes, thrown into sharp contrast by the actual humans who casually want them dead. It throws a curveball into the commonly accepted biological social order, raising potentially uncomfortable questions about how we treat those creatures at the bottom.
I want to emphasize the potentially – I have no problem breaking open a can of Raid. Although I remember vividly the scene of the roaches training for combat, felt my heart lift and drop as Ichiro jumped, tried to fly, and failed, like Mr. Saito’s girlfriend it does not cause me moral anxiety to send Naomi’s descendants into oblivion. More uncomfortable are the themes that flew far over my head as a child, but rang ugly on later viewings. I’m talking about genocide and racial purity. Mr. Saito’s girlfriend does not approve of his slobbish lifestyle, and embarks on an extermination campaign that would make any pest control company proud: they strap on what look like modified hospital scrubs and spray, squash, and trap away, bringing back the “crushings, charrings and senseless mutilations” the older roaches remember from the battles with the Hosono tribe, the young family that occupied the apartment pre-Saito. The allusions to the Holocaust and Hiroshima are not subtle, and at times paradoxical: there is the idea that humans ejected roaches from Eden and are intent on destroying them, coupled with a nationalistic pride in the continuing purity of the species. At one point, a general shouts, “…this murderous genocide will not go unanswered. For every 100 killed, we’ll breed 10,000 more!”
Quantity and false ideas of pure blood are one way to come back after you’ve been knocked down. Adaptation and evolution are another. I saw the first option in action while researching – a seemingly innocuous if lengthy review of the movie veered wildly into virulent anti-Semitism by the fourth sentence. For reasons of birth (I’m eligible for a Birthright trip) not being a racist, and someone who values critical thinking, I work to take the second option. This effort extends to the movies I love; I do not appreciate Twilight of the Cockroaches the same way I did when I was six, but neither do I reject it for themes that edge into nationalism and eugenics. It is said that director Hiroaki Yoshida may have been commenting on Japan’s trade practices, their modern decadence, the affluent nation’s complicated relationship to the West. The message is muddled, at least from my cultural perspective: on one hand, Yoshida champions the marginalized. On the other, the way to deal with this status is not an overcoming so much as a brutal persistence: is an acceptance of horrible death and uncompromising ideas about one’s people. There’s a lot to unpack, but what skitters between the layers makes it worth the effort. By acknowledging the context of a movie’s time, the context of your time, and what that means in relation to current values, movies can survive in consciousness and conversation. Twilight of the Cockroaches is no longer the best thing I’ve ever seen, but it has merit and texture and subversion, all in a slightly clunky live action/anime package.
My love for Twilight of the Cockroaches began in bursts of images and simple feelings. That love lasted because it developed. Real love doesn’t mean staying frozen in time, it grows with thoughts and analysis, is made strong informed by history and adult emotions; this is the kind of passion that can withstand misogynist dweebs, neo-Nazi bloggers, and the thousandth “Are you sure you don’t mean Joe’s Apartment?”. And it didn’t just survive negative forces: I’ve seen hundreds of movies, movies more amazing than Twilight of the Cockroaches, but it continues to stand out. I saw it when I was really young, but I believe it goes beyond nostalgia. It certainly goes beyond saturation (“Are you sure you don’t mean Joe’s Apartment?”). It keeps coming back because I am able to think about it clearly, affection and interest tempered and strengthened by a critical eye. At one point, Naomi’s grandmother comes to her in a dream, appearing in the form of a rabbit toy to tell her that, “In order to improve our breed…God gave humans deadly poison.” This Darwinian logic has some application, if not for me personally but in how to love a piece of entertainment: if it a movie cannot be appreciated differently, at different contexts and ages and with new information, maybe it was never meant to be loved forever. But if parts survive, through changing contexts and times, they can live forever in a way that is both honest and strong.
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