For the past two months, my column has been reprinting selected reviews of Streamline Pictures theatrical and video releases. Streamline was a company both Jerry Beck and I were heavily invested in during the 1990s.
The first five parts of this survey recapped the origins of the company and what it accomplished. I’ve been posting reviews, in alphabetic order, every since. Today’s post looks at one specific film, Twlight Of The Cockroaches, Streamline’s second theatrical release (after Laputa: Castle In The Sky) in 1989. It was also Streamline’s first subtitled release.
Twilight of the Cockroaches was also unusual as it was partially in live action with several combination live action/animation sequences. Here’s what the critics at the time had to say:
“Underneath a bike tire rim stands what seems to be a tiny animated Martian. Actually it’s a girl cockroach — like what Tinker Bell would look like if she had antennae and two pairs of arms — and the camera follows her under the floorboards of a kitchen, through grime and goo and old bits of food, until she very nearly meets her maker thanks to a folded newspaper. If that sounds odd, wait till you see the rest of Twilight of the Cockroaches.” “This film features a quirky combination of live action and animation […] that’s funny and visually engaging at the same time. What’s charming is the creation of a cockroach kingdom, in which animated cockroach characters […] cavort among real-life objects. A nightclub, for example, features groups of roaches standing and drinking underneath real bottles of vodka or sitting with their elbows on the rim of a bowl of spaghetti.” “The film offers a passel of delightful animated characters drawn in a variety of detail (many of the live-action sequences are equally wonderful), not to mention a glimpse of Wonderland from one inch off the floor.”
Robin Dougherty, The Boston Phoenix, September 15, 1989, pg. 19
“A strange little film that mixes live action with animation. The most unusual quality of the movie is that it’s told from the point of view of all-too-human looking cockroaches. […] Twilight of the Cockroaches has been called a cross between Kafka and Roger Rabbit, and that’s not a bad description.”
Richard Kadrey, Covert Culture Sourcebook 2.0 (St. Martin’s Press, 1994), pg. 153
“Director-writer Hiroaki Yoshida claims his cartoon/live-action mix is a cautionary exercise, a warning to his countrymen to curb their unfair trade practices lest the rest of the world view them as pests. But by focusing sympathy on his anthropomorphized insects, Yoshida implicitly advocates their attitudes, which include suicidal militarism and a master-race impulse to ‘improve the breed.’ Pretty disturbing undercurrents, especially in an occasionally clever comedy with low-rent ‘Roger Rabbit’ ambitions.”
Bob Strauss, (Los Angeles) Daily News, July 14, 1990, pg. 20
“Next to pit bulls, cockroaches aren’t on the top of anybody’s endangered species list. There isn’t a cockroach anti-defamation league or a civil liberties union to stand up for their rights, not even in celebrity circles. Japanese filmmaker Hiroaki Yoshida has taken up their stand, at least allegorically, in this animated social-think piece.” “…a thoughtful and somewhat insightful perspective slanted up from the viewpoint of a universally loathed species …”
Duane Byrge, Hollywood Reporter, July 12, 1990, pg. 10 & 94
“Reviews by the Underground Committee: [N.b.: The editor provides copies of videos to a 12-person committee, then writes a composite review combining their individual comments.] ‘In-your-face’ ‘dark and foreboding’ moralistic Japanese film combining animation and live action that drew extreme love-hate reactions. (‘The best animated movie I’ve ever seen — better than Roger Rabbit.’ ‘The slowest-moving piece of caca I’ve ever seen, aimed at about a 13-year-old’s level.’) Most agreed that ‘some subtlety would have greatly enhanced the flick,’ but using cockroaches as the stars of a story about genocide is at least a ‘fascinating exercise.’ A ‘cute’ but ‘whiny’ cockroach community has the run of a bachelor’s apartment — until he gets a new girlfriend, ‘babe’ Setsuko Karasumo, and she goes all out with gas, chemical and mayhem as civilization (roach civilization, that is) is almost, but not quite, wiped out. Meanwhile, a neighboring tribe of Nazi roaches comes over to help in the battle, while a roach love story (‘Yucko’) develops among the carnage.
‘It contains elements of Maus and Watership Down, but it’s also wildly original.’ ‘The social message is so strong that it registers on the Vomit Meter.’ ‘It doesn’t go far enough in fleshing out the cockroaches. They’re given foibles and weakness, but no lust, no passion.’ The movie uses scenes in ‘gopher-vision’ (as in Evil Dead), as well as other ‘weird stuff’ — ‘the view from inside a Roach Motel, a toy rabbit inhabited by the spirit of a wise cockroach, and a talking pile of excrement that gives directions to a lost roach.’ (The talking turd was very popular with everyone.) ‘The blend with live action is seamless and totally credible.’ The best line is ‘Oh, look, toilet roaches on the make! They come here every day looking for some young girl covered with shit.’ Cast: Kaoru Kobayashi (‘flawless’) […] Writer/Director: Hiroaki Yoshida (‘excellent’). Hundreds of dead bodies. Aerosol Fu. Rolled-up paper Fu. Foot-stomping Fu. BB-gun Fu. Overall rating: 82.”
Joe Bob Briggs, The Joe Bob Report, v.X no.2, January 24, 1994, pg. 7-8
“The film would be enjoyable escapism […] save for the obvious analogy to World War II. Despite the tsk-tsking about militarism, definite signs of resentment surface over being provoked and, as is often the case with Japanese satire, ironies are layered upon ironies, not all easy to translate.”
Henry Sheehan, Los Angeles Reader, v.16 #19, February 18, 1994, pg. 32
“Hiroaki Yoshida’s provocative and imaginative ‘Twilight of the Cock-roaches’ […] alternates between the sentimental and the tart as it combines animation and live action. In anthropomorphizing cockroaches, of all creatures, it creates a heroine, Naomi, so pretty as to seem a cross between Snow White and the youthful Elizabeth Taylor.” “Yoshida is adept at projecting an allegorical fantasy, which suggests how vulnerable all living creatures are and how we deceive ourselves with illusions of security. (You have to give the cockroaches credit, however, for rationalizing insecticide bombardments as God’s way of ensuring the survival of the fittest of their species, as immunity to the poison ever increases.) Yoshida steadfastly maintains the perspective of the cockroaches, which is often amusing in effect, especially as humans loom as tall as skyscrapers and, to the cockroaches’ acute hearing, their every action is so loud and thuddingly ominous that the working of a zipper sounds like a peal of thunder and lightning.”
Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1990, pg. F11
“Twilight of the Cockroaches is a bizarre little animated allegory that is reputedly a satire in the Orwellian Animal Farm sense; instead, the film really succeeds […] as a metaphor on the wanton greediness of today’s younger generation. The film takes place mostly in the apartment of Mr. Saito (played by live actor Kaoru Kobayashi), a divorced bachelor who nonchalantly allows the cockroaches which inhabit his pad freedom of his domain. Like yuppies with an unlimited credit line, the greedy little insects live the high life gorging themselves on Mr. Saito’s leftovers.” “The movie’s scenes of cockroach slaughter are harrowing. As in Disney films where cuddly animals are served up as sympathetic, almost human-like protagonists before the onslaught of mankind (the forest scene in Bambi comes to mind), Twilight presents its roaches as fully dimensional and, well, with humanity.
“Thus, their ugly demise is, if not moving, at least felt. Director/Writer Hiroaki Yoshida has reportedly based his film on the belief that Japan will be treated like cockroaches if they continue their selfish trade practices. Of course, the film is not restricted only to a Japanese interpretation. Any repressed minority group could easily be substituted for the roaches. Even a young generation of American teens could easily fit in this scheme. After all, with the film’s loose representation of generation gaps, Animal House-style partying and greediness on the part of the roaches, what adult could not see the resemblances? The film’s frequent use of American products as background drops for the roaches’ feast only adds to this possible scenario.”
David Dubos, L.A. Village View, July 13-19, 1990, pg. ?
“Only a grotesque sequence inside a corpse-encrusted Roach Motel has any real power — although the battle sequences are fun because they look like cheesy Godzilla footage, with humans as the big lizards.”
David Chute, L.A. Weekly, July 13-19, 1990, pg. ?
“…a nervy satire that looks at the world from the point of view of cock-roaches.” “The mixture of live action and animation is technically excellent, though the animated characters are not visually interesting. Naomi and her cockroach friends look like dim fireflies in an old Silly Symphony, but that turns out to be one of the movie’s many jokes within the joke: cockroaches are dopey idealizations and humans are gigantic, untrustworthy beasts.” “The ground-level cockroach point-of-view photography is cleverly done, as are the sound effects. The noise of an ordinary footfall is olympian thunder to a cockroach, while the closing of a zipper cracks the ear-drums. The film’s most comically subversive effect is the way it splits the loyalties of the ordinary city dweller who, outside the theater, spends far too much time attempting to outwit the dread, never-ending horde.”
Vincent Canby, New York Times, March 29, 1991, pg. C14
“Like the creatures of this video, Japanimation seems to be turning up everywhere. Once looked upon as curios, animated cartoons from the Far East now appeal to a broader market. The shelves of mainstream video stores are stocked with titles like Akira, Robot Carnival and Twilight of the Cockroaches, which combines live action with animation. By a strange coincidence, I first saw Cockroaches just after rewatching Bambi, which made for a surprisingly appropriate double bill. Both animated features deal with such weighty issues as life and death and survival of the fittest.” “Humans-as-roaches is a striking, original concept. Except for Art Spiegelman’s landmark Holocaust parable, Maus, in which Jews and Nazis are replaced by mice and cats, I can’t think of a story quite like Twilight of the Cockroaches. The film has the good sense to poke fun at its basic absurdity, while never abandoning its premise. There are lines about ‘toilet roaches on the make,’ and Ichiro plays a roach variation of tennis while slurping on a mammoth bottle of Gatorade.
“Some ideas, such as the roaches dancing to ’50s rock and roll and a send-up of morning talk shows, fall flat, but most are inventive. Naomi’s encounter with a talking turd (a stop-motion creation) is astonishing and outrageous. Perhaps the scariest moment comes when Naomi finds a tiny building on the floor and steps inside. It turns out to be a roach motel; the doomed victims inside save her life by lifting her through the trap. Although the mostly animated Cockroaches has a couple of wholly live action sequences, much of the film uses live backdrops rather than painted ones. The animation is only average, but the ingenious incorporation into the live action adds tremendously to the film’s tension. An animated foot trying to squish little Naomi wouldn’t have been half as effective. A cloudburst that turns into a flash flood is done with real water; a cartoon storm just wouldn’t have worked. The filmmakers were wise in telling the story from the roaches’ point of view, with the live action camera almost always at ground level. They also resisted the temptation to build larger-than-life sets that most likely would have had a ‘fakey’ look. Sound is handled with equal inventiveness. Footsteps become thunderclaps, and in one funny sequence, the simple act of gargling becomes the roar of a horrifying monster. Thanks to a startling opening sequence, we know that even as the roaches play their days are numbered, and the final assault is truly frightening. Though filled with exciting and funny moments, Twilight of the Cockroaches is, at its heart, an unnerving tale of horror.”
Stuart Galbraith IV, Outré, #2, Spring 1995, pg. 12
“Mavens call the technique ‘Japanimation,’ a startling overlay of cartoon imagery onto live-action sequences. Nothing quite prepares you for its effect in Twilight of the Cockroaches, a seriously funny cartoon saga about an impending roach holocaust in a Tokyo apartment complex — as told from the bugs’ point of view. You’ve heard of underground movies? Well, this one’s a ground-level epic. In this uniquely witty film, written and directed by Hiroaki Yoshida, the animated roaches are heroes and the live-action humans are villains, wielding bug bombs the way madmen deploy those of the nuclear variety. Slated for extermination are dainty Naomi, a comely roachling in a blue strapless sheath and go-go boots; her handsome fiance, Ichiro, and Hans, the mysterious stranger to whom Naomi finds herself powerfully drawn. Naomi and Ichiro live in what he calls ‘up-market’ bliss. That is, in the apartment of Mr. Saito (Kaoru Kobayashi), a sloppy bachelor whose dirty dishes and messy flat are cockroach heaven.” “All this is shown from the roach’s perspective, and Saito looks like a sullen grotesque the size of a redwood. When he walks, it seems to Naomi that the earth moves.
“However, he’s the perfect host for his insect houseguests, permitting them a Roman holiday without apparent end. Unaware of the plight of other roaches, Naomi’s people call Saito’s apartment ‘the Homeland.’ Intuitively, Naomi knows that she and Ichiro live in a fool’s paradise and that Hans’ world view is more realistic. Her intuitions are borne out when Saito and the Lady Neighbor become involved. Quicker than you can say ‘Raid,’ the fastidious woman turns Saito’s flat into a militarized zone. Boric-acid bombs burst where marinara sauce once dribbled. Roach motels replace the four-star digs formerly enjoyed by Saito’s itty-bitty guests. In order to save her species, must peace-loving Naomi become a kamikaze cockroach? The marvel of Yoshida’s movie is that it completely involves humans in identifying with our historical enemy, the roach. Yoshida achieves this in hilarious juxtapositions of scale: A fingernail seems as big as the Ritz, and a human proportionally more colossal. In Twilight, speck-sized cockroaches cower in the skyscraper shadows of humans, household fixtures are magnified. When toilet seats (where licentious roaches hang out) and soup bowls become the size of the Colosseum, Twilight has the spatial imagination of Claes Oldenburg. Yoshida’s movie succeeds in making roaches human-scaled and humanoid.” “Whether viewed as a diverting action film or as an allegory of genocide, Twilight of the Cockroaches is the most original picture of the year. With its subtle allusions to Hiroshima and Dachau, this comedy has unexpected resonance. You will think twice before getting out that can of Blockade.”
Carrie Rickey, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 31, 1990, pg. 5
“Not strictly anime, this innovative feature blends animation and live action.” “Full of clever, raunchy humor […], Cockroaches ends up strangely moving.”
Glenn Kenny, Pulse!, #107, August 1992, pg. 84
“Attending the midnight showing of Streamline Pictures’ ‘Twilight of the Cockroaches’ was reminiscent of showings of ‘Eraserhead’ and ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ where people geared up for brazen and shocking material. ‘Twilight’ is a unique experience even among cult films. While one can easily draw parallels to films like ‘Fantastic Planet’ (small, misunderstood creatures victimized by giants) and ‘Watership Down’ (warring clans in search of sanctuary), and comics like Fat Freddy’s Cat (comedy borne out of clashes with militant cockroaches) and Maus (Jews as mice and Nazis as cats, with weighty allegory), ‘Twilight’ offers the view a multi-leveled pastiche of genre conventions which is quite startling in its smooth synthesis. The only other film mixing genres as successfully is ‘Repo Man’. To its credit, however, ‘Twilight’ eschews ‘Repo Man’s studied crudity and eye-winking cynicism in favor of lyricism and poignancy.” “This film is greatly rewarding and has much to say about humanity — as seen, commented on and adjudged by roaches. Incidental humor abounds, but as in most European comedies, the tears of laughter are bittersweet. The animation ranges from above-average to very good, adding much to the film and never once detracting. The emotional range displayed in the anime far outstrips that of the live action characters, and the subtle vein of mysticism running throughout the film rounds out the playfully reflective package. ‘Twilight of the Cockroaches’ is a classic of sorts. Of just what sorts, I am uncertain.”
Steven Feldman, The Rose, v.4 #19, January 1990, pg. 8
“‘Twilight of the Cockroaches’ is a ‘Roger Rabbit’ style animation from Japan that has scenes of cartoon roaches interacting with live actors against realistic backgrounds. It’s the story of a happy roach kingdom and the tragedy that ensues when an apartment owner goes in for glue traps, roach bombs and bug spray. The picture […] tries to get us sympathizing with these humble, icky creatures by giving them pleasant human faces and showing them walking on two legs. Naomi, a pretty young roach, is the focus of the story.” “Everything is shot from the point of view of the roaches, so ketchup and mayonnaise bottles loom like skyscrapers. The sounds of a woman gargling with mouthwash is thunderous and menacing. There are cute touches throughout that manage to hold your interest, though not with two hands or a particularly strong grip.” “There’s something cloying anyhow in the presentation of the roaches as sweet souls and their world as a kind and gentle kingdom. Despite the element of parody — tinkling piano music for the romantic scenes — the studied innocence gets heavy-handed. After a while you get saccharined-out and just want ‘Old Yeller’ to get shot. Compared with ‘Roger Rabbit,’ the animation in ‘Twilight of the Cockroaches’; is a bit stilted, but the picture is undeniably sincere and is so off-the-wall and original that I’ll probably never for-get it. The crisis in the roach world comes in the form of a pretty girlfriend for Saito, who isn’t quite liberal enough to appreciate the 300 roaches on the kitchen table. Despite a desperate, all-out assault by the roaches to drive the humans from the apartment, the girlfriend holds her ground, at one point lighting roach bombs even as the roaches are climbing up her hands. My kind of woman.”
Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1990, pg. E3
“…my favorite – ‘Twilight of the Cockroaches,’ an alternately vulgar, touching, and funny blend of live action and animation with a scenario any bachelor can relate to. […] For fans and novices, this is must-see stuff.”
Glenn Kenny, TV Guide, v.42 #53, #2179, Dec. 31, 1994 – Jan. 6, 1995, pg. 35
“This 1987 subtitled fantasy entry mixes animation with live action, but any similarities to ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ end there. Rather than family audiences, pic is geared to grown-ups with predilection for serious fantasy, a genre with unproven appeal Stateside.” “Audiences may be hardpressed to side with roaches against the humans, but they are asked to suspend disbelief and sympathize with peaceful vermin who simply wish to feast on our leftovers and live in peace.” “Mixture of live-action humans and animated cockroaches is done well, with anthropomorphized bugs dying valiantly amid clouds of bug spray and the occasionally well-placed shoe. Sound is especially effective in playing up how the world is perceived by roaches. Bulk of film is fully animated, with most bizarre sequence featuring a femme roach getting directions from a talking pile of dog droppings.”
Kimm., (Weekly) Variety, September 20, 1989, pg. 34
“Sort of a Watership Down of the cockroach kingdom, Twilight of the Cockroaches combines live actors with animated insects and relates its strange narrative mostly from the latter’s inch-high POV.” “While Yoshida’s premise is clearly satiric, he plays his story fairly straight, ‘humanizing’ the embattled insects to serve as stand-ins for the ‘Other’ of the viewer’s choice.” “Twilight is most effective in its roach-eye view of humans as noisy, capricious, ultimately vicious giants armed with an insurmountable arsenal of chemical weapons. Yoshida manages the Herculean task of placing audience sympathy squarely with the endangered insects.”
unsigned, The Phantom of the Movies’ VideoScope, v.1 #2, March-April 1993, pg. 14
“As the funny and sweet allegory Twilight of the Cockroaches proves, Japanese animation is not all adolescent fetishes and techno violence.” “Yoshida blends the animated cockroaches with actual humans and sumptuous live-action footage, but Twilight’s exploratory points of view and imaginative use of backgrounds and brand-name objects blows away Roger Rabbit. From- the-floorboards shots and magnificent sound effects transform the humans into terrifying Godzillas wielding spray cans of death. Though clearly touched by the cryogenic spirit of Disney, the cute cockroaches are drawn with a softness and subtlely that breaks free of the Archie/Astro Boy look that’s still stamped on so many Japanese animated figures. Though a remarkable, visually provocative big kids’ adventure story, Twilight’s allegory seems more paranoid than self-critical, and I’d prefer to resist decoding the exact identity of the humans, statements like ‘God chose the roach to inherit the earth,’ or the tribe’s obsession with race.” “One message I did groove with was the film’s final call to a new mutation, as it becomes clear that the only roaches who will survive the new war will be those who can physically withstand the poison. In a sense, all Japanese fantasy animation is a kind of homeopathic remedy for future shock, and maybe it’s only by boning up on this stuff now that we’ll be able to survive the onslaught of the 21st century.
Erik Davis, (New York) Village Voice, March 19, 1991, pg. 60
“‘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.” “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 to-ward 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.”
Richard Harrington, The Washington Post, October 6, 1989, pg. C7
“Heralded as ‘Franz Kafka meets Roger Rabbit,’ this witty combination of animation and live action traces the rise and fall of a posh cockroach kingdom…” “Director Hiroaki Yoshida based this allegorical tale on his fear that the world will regard Japan as loathsome cockroaches if it continues to aggravate its competitors with selfish trade practices. Even if you don’t see the film’s deeper meaning, you may come away with new respect for these kitchen creatures. At the very least, you’ll think twice before bombing them.”
Jamie Painter, Wild Cartoon Kingdom, #1, 1993, pg. 49
And lastly, from me – shortly before I joined up with Streamline as a full time employee:
“This satiric parable is original and clever. A cockroach community lives in ease and plenty within the walls and floors of a suburban house. Its members are vaguely aware that not all cockroaches are as fortunate, but they smugly attribute this to the fact that other roaches have not been prudent enough to stay on friendly terms with their human hosts.” “The audience is aware that ‘Twilight of the Cockroaches’ is a story on two levels, and that the roaches have been pathetically naive all along. Mr. Saito is not their conscious friend; he is merely a sloppy bachelor who never cleans his kitchen. […] Mr. Saito has not turned against the roaches for anything that they have done; he has found a girl friend who is a normal, roach-hating human and who scolds him to clean up his house. The humans are completely unaware of the roaches’ attempt to communicate with them. In fact, the more the roaches attract the humans’ attention, the more fatal the result is. Moral: we should not become too complacent about our understanding of the gods, or of our ability to influence their attitudes towards us.” “Many scenes mix animated roaches over live footage of the humans; the live footage is a bit grainy, but the super-imposition of the animated and live characters is well registered. ‘Twilight of the Cockroaches’ is not a children’s film, but it will amuse a cynical intelligentsia.”
Frederick Patten, WittyWorld, #9, Winter/Spring 1990, pg. 87