Under the Floorboards: The Dark Allegory of Twilight of the Cockroaches (1987)



Twilight of the Cockroaches (1987) was in high rotation on American cable networks in the early '90s and as such is remember fondly by otaku of a certain age. Its mixture of cel animation and live action gives it a quirky feel, but the subject matter of the film itself is quite dark compared to the whimsical concept of animated cockroaches.

The film begins by exploring a society of roaches who have flourished in the apartment of a man known as Mr. Saito (Kaoru Kobayashi). Saito and the roaches have a truce where he doesn't try to kill them and they only eat the leftovers of his food. These roaches live in the lap of luxury, not unlike an insect version of Rome right before the fall, and they are hedonistic and lazy. The narrative focuses in on two younger members of the population, Ichiro and Naomi, who are a couple. Ichiro is full of naive optimism, but Naomi is melancholy and plagued with ennui. Due to the lack of danger for years, the roaches have lost their edge and survival instincts. Their peaceful existence is shattered when Hans, a soldier-style roach from the apartment across the street, scurries into their abode telling chilling tales of his society that lives in constant fear.



Each household represents a country, if you will, and the owner of the house is the government that rules it. Saito is indifferent to the roaches and so they live in a sort of harmony, but the house where Hans comes from is lorded over by Momoko (Setsuko Karasuma) who despises bugs and tries to exterminate them any chance she gets. The roaches in her place cower under the floorboards barely scraping by and many of them are killed each day. 

The live action humans in Twilight of the Cockroaches are portrayed as gargantuan entities stomping around--it feels like a reverse kaiju film with humans taking the place of the giant monsters and the roaches taking on the role of the scared people. There is a great sense of scale with the cinematography and they blend the animation with the live action seamlessly. Madhouse did the animation for this film and, as per usual, their work was exemplary. The sound design is excellent too, with the amplified noises that the humans make imparting a feeling of terror to the atmosphere. Thankfully, the cockroaches are designed in such a way (by Yoshitaka Amano) that makes them feel less alien--they have human style faces with insect bodies and for the most part they walk around upright.



This film can be read in a number of ways--as an antiwar story and a warning for nations not to forget their past. It could be seen as somewhat prescient as it was made in 1987, just a few years before the bubble economy burst in Japan. These roaches were living high off of a temporary prosperity that was bound to fail and they didn't heed the warning signs both from their environment and from elder roaches who remembered how times were before. There is a distinct disdain towards militaristic actions and it shows again and again that going to war won't save anyone. No punches are pulled during the story, and there is one incredibly chilling scene involving the inside of a "roach motel" that is horrifying and nightmare inducing. The ending is apocalyptic and sad but serves as a cautionary tale about trusting authority blindly and not preparing for disasters.

--Michelle Kisner