Saturday 11 January 2014

Nippon Horrors:
Genocide / ‘War of the Insects’
(Kazui Nihonmatsu, 1968)

Even when writing a weblog that prides itself on plunging headfirst into discussion of some pretty crazy motion pictures, there are some films that just present so much of a WTF it’s difficult to know what to do with them, and here we have a case in point. Quite what was going through the minds of Shochiku studio’s short-lived sci-fi/horror division when they decided to follow up their fairly jaunty low budget kaiju picture ‘The X From Outer Space’ with the cheerily titled ‘Genocide’, I almost think I’m happier not knowing.(1)

So first off, two things I’m usually reluctant to do in the course of reviewing movies: (i) classifying these sort of sci-fi / ‘nature goes bad’ disaster movies as ‘horror’. (I know strictly speaking they kind of are, but y’know… in aesthetic terms, there’re way off from what constitutes ‘horror’ in my mind.) And, (ii), giving in to the school of thought that seeks to frame everything shocking or extreme in post-war Japanese culture as a response to the trauma created by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. (It seems some Western critics like to crow-bar that issue in wherever they possibly can, but much of the time I just don’t buy it, personally.)

Both of those rules, however, are going to be jettisoned whilst we look at ‘Genocide’, a frankly extraordinary venture that resembles a humble genre programmer that’s somehow lost its mind and gone completely insane, beginning in the detached, utilitarian mode common to ‘50s and ‘60s science-goes-bad disaster films, but gradually spiralling off into a kind of beserk, hysterical fatalism, conveying a sense of absurd, nihilistic cruelty that surpasses just about any contemporary horror film, and reflecting the unthinkable reality of an era in which pointless mass death seemed ever imminent.

So how the hell did that happen…? Well, let’s begin at the beginning, shall we.

The very first thing we see in ‘Genocide’ is stock footage of an atomic bomb explosion.“The moment mankind unleashed the power of the atom..”, reads a somewhat gnomic opening caption, “..he immediately began to fear it”. So that’s the second of my above-stated caveats out the window right from the outset, I guess. I also get the feeling that anyone who bought a ticket in the hope of seeing a fun movie about killer insects is already beginning to feel somewhat uneasy.

After a beautifully garish title sequence (rather reminiscent of the similarly insect-filled credits to Teruo Ishii’s equally unhinged Horrors of Malformed Men), we join an American bomber carrying a nuclear payload, flying over Kojima Island in the Anan Archipelago on a routine exercise. The pilot Charly, played by Japanese cinema’s go-to guy for black American roles, Chico Roland,(2)spots a wasp outside the window and inexplicably freaks the fuck out, suffering flashbacks to Vietnam as he thrashes around, assaulting his fellow crew members and trying to activate the release mechanism for the bomb. Temporarily distracted by their colleague’s outburst, the crew fail to notice that they’re flying headfirst into an inexplicably gigantic swarm of insects, whose combined mass burns out the plane’s engines, setting the vessel ablaze.

From a hideaway on the nearby cliffs, a blond Caucasian woman, Annabelle (Kathy Haran, who also did some first-class freaking out in ‘Genocide’s sister film, ‘Goke: Bodysnatcher From Hell’), and her Japanese lover Joji (Yûsuke Kawazu), watch as the plane and its cargo fall to earth.

This Joji, it quickly transpires, is a bit of a creep. We soon learn that he’s been frolicking with Annabelle on the pretext that he’s out hunting for rare insects, leaving his trusting Japanese wife, a hotel maid, at the mercy of her boss, a disagreeable oaf who seems to try to rape her every five minutes. The next time we see Joji furthermore, he’s sailing into harbour in his dinghy, trying to palm off a handful of suspiciously obtained US military watches on the local fishermen. Yes, he’s a bad ‘un alright.

When army personnel make it to the island to investigate the crash meanwhile, they find the plane’s crew dead, having apparently contracted some hideous, bubonic plague-like disease whilst sheltering in a cave. That’s with the exception of Charly, who is found unconscious on the beach, having apparently fallen off a cliff whilst fleeing from his comrades. The wreck of the plane itself, and the H-bomb onboard, remain unaccounted for. So until Charly wakes up, I think Uncle Sam might want to have a quick word with Joji...

Joji’s arrest on some slightly trumped up murder charges brings the whole mess to the attention of Dr. Nagumo of the the Tokyo Biological Research Centre (Keisuke Sonoi), who, with a sense of taste and restraint typical of this film, is introduced to us via a shot that sees him stabbing a large rodent with a syringe full of bright blue fluid, apparently for real. (What can I say, you’ve gotta learn to wince and shrug this stuff off in older movies sometimes..). According to the doc, Joji has recently sent him samples of a rare insect found of Kojima island, one whose poison “..attacks the nervous system, causing madness and death”. Things just keep looking up for our poor islanders, don’t they?

Meanwhile, a world news report on the radio in the hotel bar announces that food supplies in Egypt and India are under attack from unseasonable swarms of locusts, and by the time Charly finally awakens in a hospital bed, portents of both local and global doom are accumulating so thick and fast it’s not surprising folks are starting to get a bit twitchy.

Ah, poor Charly. Rarely have I seen a character who has such a persistently dreadful time in a film as he is subjected to here. From his very first appearance on screen, he’s practically losing his mind with fear, and the catalogue of torments he experiences through the rest of the film beggars belief. After suffering severe head injuries on the beach, he awakens in an insensible state, raving about his fear of insects. So naturally the doctors decide to try to revive his memory by sitting him in a dark room and playing reels of insect footage whilst he screams in abject terror, after which he immediately gets smacked around by the attending US Colonel, who accuses him of being a hallucinating drug addict.

On his way to a military prison, he narrowly avoids being torn apart by machine-gun fire as he is kidnapped by a gang of Communist agents temporarily in the employ of the film’s main villain (who will remain nameless here). Determined to use him to locate the missing h-bomb, they tie him up, beat him and torture him with a cigarette, before trying out a new technique, confining him in a descending tunnel of that kinda gauze-like fabric that bee-keeper’s hats are made of, and pumping in a swarm of those nervous system shattering wasps.

Completely unhinged by this point, Charly is dumped by his captors on the shore of the island; out of sheer malice, they throw him a pistol before they depart, hoping he’ll wreak some kind of carnage before the insects’ poison kills him. Next, we see him staggering toward the island’s hospital, letting off shots in the air and laughing like a loon as he prepares to menace the film’s two heroines, who are within. Suddenly transformed from a hapless victim to a psychopathic monster by the poison, he suffers a singularly inglorious death, shot down from behind as he sets about trying to rape the nurse.

So basically, the unfortunate fellow spends the entire duration of the film in a state of extreme pain, terror and confusion, culminating in a pointless death that leaves everyone assuming he was a violent maniac. And as his corpse leers up at us, we’re suddenly hit with one of the film’s most singularly unglued innovations, as a hideous, electronically filtered voice that we’re apparently supposed to interpret as the ‘chorus of the insects’ begins chanting (in English): “genocide…. genocide…”.

As with the aforementioned ‘Goke’, there is a kind of vicious misanthropy at work in ‘Genocide’. In spite of the massed threats the film lines up against humanity, most of the characters seem incapable of uniting with each other or acting rationally for even a few moments. Dr Nagumo and the Red Cross nurse (Reiko Hitomi) are presented as our standard issue trustworthy, heroic characters, but aside from their obligatory presence, the whole film seems to take place in some upside down moral universe in which people routinely say things like “thank you for the poisonous insects” and “thank heavens for that plane crash”.

Just about everyone in this film’s world, it seems, is motivated either by callous selfishness or horribly misguided ideological fervour… unless, that is, they’re one of the contingent who is actively welcoming and encouraging the forthcoming nuclear/insect/plague apocalypse. Amid layers of political, global, cultural distrust and despair, “kill ‘em all and let god sort it out” seems to ‘Genocide’s general message to the world, a sentiment that is only amplified by a truly jaw-dropping plot twist that occurs midway through the film. Totally crazy and utterly black-hearted, I won't spoil the surprise for you here, but… just you wait.

Strangely enough though, despite all this bleakness, ‘Genocide’ actually remains pretty fun to watch. As an example of formula genre picture that’s gone completely off the rails into uncharted territory, it is astoundingly entertaining, and the weird, sledgehammer ineptitude with which many of its more extreme situations are portrayed, together with the randomised hysterical energy of the whole thing, is a whole lot of “WTF is UP with this movie?!” style enjoyment.

Initially, the basic characterisation, impersonal medium-shots and functional, exposition-heavy dialogue of a more traditional sci-fi / disaster movie predominates, but when the film goes full-on ape-shit following Charly’s death, the situations that transpire swiftly become so twisted, it’s almost as if the two dimensional characters can barely comprehend what’s happening to their little world. Meanwhile, the dry cinematic syntax in turn becomes freakier and freakier, until it practically collapses into an orgy of solarised stock footage, shrieking close-ups, assaultive montages and utterly bizarre psychedelic visual effects (the latter an attempt to portray the ‘mindspace of the insects’, or somesuch, as experienced by victims of the poison before they die).

And so, what could, in a more orderly, less threatening world, have just remained a mildly diverting Japanese answer to ‘Them!’ instead becomes a celluloid equivalent of Colonel Kurtz, gazing deep into the abyss, cackling as flies buzz around the heads on spikes, reflecting on the mad, unending horror of it all. Christ almighty. But, you’ve gotta laugh, haven't you? Just ask Charly.

(1)The original Japanese title, 'Konchû Daisensô', translates roughly as ‘War of the Insects’, a title that was also used for at least one English language release (see the film’s IMDB page for a poster using that name). How in the hell it ended up being called ‘Genocide’ for it’s slightly more high profile US release, I can’t begin to imagine.

(2)Chico Roland is perhaps best known for his appearances in Seijun Suzuki’s ‘Gate of Flesh’ (1964) and Shigehiro Ozawa’s ‘The Streetfighter’ (1974), as well as for playing the rebellious black GI ‘Gill’ in Koreyoshi Kurahara’s pair of cinematic molotov cocktails, ‘The Warped Ones’ (1960) and ‘Black Sun’ (1964). He always seems to present a rather weird, gentle, child-like demeanour on screen, and his frequently bizarre line readings suggest that he wasn’t very fluent in either Japanese or English. Quite who this guy was, and how he ended up appearing in so many awesome Japanese movies, I would love to know.

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