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‘Twilight of the Cockroaches’ (NR)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 06, 1989

"Twilight of the Cockroaches" could do for cockroaches what "The Secret of NIMH" did for rats: humanize them in ways you'd never have thought possible. Like "NIMH," "Twilight" operates on two levels: as simple adventure and as complex social allegory. That lets you enjoy it as either a clever live/animation feature or as a provocative fable, though you'll have to work a little harder at the latter.

On its surface, Hiroaki Yoshida's film is "Roger Rabbit"-like, with cockroaches, softened and personalized by animation, superimposed on real sets. They also interact with the film's only two human beings -- Seito, the slovenly and benevolent owner of the apartment the roaches cohabit, and his girlfriend.

What Yoshida imagines is a world where cockroaches have learned to coexist with at least one human. They call it the Homeland and celebrate an armistice day to mark detente with Seito. There's even a TV special in which the wizened roach leader recounts pre-detente history of the "bitter hatred" between man and roach, a time of "crushings, charrings and careless mutilations."

Things are very different now. Although some old-timers remain wary, a new generation of roaches enjoys the good life -- they don't have to scrape for food, and their world is full of discos, pools, "Tom Jones"-style feasts and "Animal House" parties ("Look! Toilet roaches on the make!").

With the passive Seito supplying the leftovers and bemusedly observing without interfering, it's a carefree life. Naomi, a young roachette exploring romance with the poetic Ichiro, confesses, "I've yet to experience fear and cruelty." She will.

Seito's roaches have become oblivious to other colonies, but the outside world intrudes in the form of Hans, a soldier roach from an apartment across the yard. There, antagonism rules and the cockroaches live under a rigid militaristic system. They torment the woman who lives there, planning and executing complex invasions, suffering great losses.

When the woman and Seito begin a relationship, matters come to a head. Naomi crosses over to Hans's world and falls in love with him (later, when she's pregnant, she tells an elder, "I don't think the litter's Ichiro's"). She ends up back at Seito's apartment in time for the final showdown between man and cockroach, with her species's future in her belly.

Yoshida has said that "Twilight" is about Japan, that the concept of a "hated" species is not unlike the racial and cultural enmity with which Japan is perceived. With that in mind, "Twilight" itself becomes richer, and somewhat troubling. It's all there to dig out: militarism, purity of the species, survival of the fittest, genetic adaptation, cultural accommodation, social conformity, moral repression, and even the generation gap. Later, just to unsettle things even more, the idea that "we cockroaches will prevail" and "God chose the roach to inherit the earth" is offered several times.

Because Yoshida has crammed a lot of ideas into "Twilight's" 105 minutes, it moves slowly, deliberately. There's plenty of humor and pathos, as well as moments of great intensity, particularly toward the end when the humans are waging all-out chemical war on the roaches. By that time you won't be thinking of the roaches as pests, and you may substitute thoughts of genocide for pesticide.

The animation is very clever, not the least because Yoshida maintains the roaches' physical point of view. "Twilight" is told from ground level up: Things loom large, so that a messy kitchen table crowded with bottles, cans and boxes looks like Las Vegas -- all glitz and free choice. This is a story told from under, from inside, and from angles that intrigue and surprise. It's adult animation with an innocent edge and an underpinning of conscience.

"Twilight of the Cockroaches" is in Japanese with English subtitles.

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