The insects are buzzing. They’re saying genocide over and over again. The genocide of the human race.
The Japanese studio Shochiku was better known for artistically driven movies directed by the likes of Yasujiro Ozu, who helped create the studio. Later they would tap directors like Takashi Miike and Akira Kurasawa. However after the success of Godzilla, which definitely warped space and time around it, especially in the Japanese film scene, they made a short-lived effort to cater to this new demand. Even other kaiju films, like Rodan, Mothra, maybe even Gamera, were making money, so why couldn’t they give it a try? These films are collected by Criterion on the set “When Horror Came to Shochiku.” One of these films, not the one I watched, is apparently a favourite of Tarantino (Goke, The Body Snatcher From Hell for those wondering). The movie I watched was described as being bleak and nihilistic so I figured it might make a better Halloween watch. The movie was Genocide, also known as The War of the Insects.
It was directed by Kazui Nihonmatsu, who had previously directed one other film during Shochiku’s horror period. His previous entry, The X From Outer Space (the back of my Criterion DVD promises “you’ll never look at poultry the same way”) was known to be crippling silly and off-the-cuff in nature, regardless of how fun that can be Genocide saw him trying something completely different. Genocide, which on paper, and even a little in reality, seems a lot like Japan’s answer to Them!, was deathly serious and dreary. Much like Them! the movie tries to tackle real world themes. Past war atrocities and hydrogen bombs and long-embedded spies.
Susumu Takaku and Kazui Nihonmatsu worked together to write the film. Susumu Takaku went on to work on a number of live action and animated films afterwards. He also worked on Goke, The Body Snatcher From Hell.
The movie opens with a US military plane easily reminiscent of the look of Dr. Strangelove, flying near Japan. One of the crew members hears the sounds of buzzing insects and goes insane, trying to drop the plane’s hydrogen bomb. The crew overwhelms him, but not before they are beset by a swarm of insects. These bugs mess up the plane’s engines the same way a flock of birds will, and the plane catches fire and crashes. This whole scene is surprisingly convincing. The crew escapes via parachute, as does their payload. An insect collector and his blonde mistress watch the soldiers land. This launches a series of paranoid machinations and insect attacks that last the rest of the movie.
The insect collector, Joji, is arrested for stealing one of the soldier’s watches and involves the scientist he collects bugs for. The scientist starts to work with the insect collectors wife, trying to free the cheating bug-head from prison. At first it’s a lot of thriller-type paranoia and a mystery. Who might be a spy? Why is the Military so intent on the situation (the bomb isn’t common knowledge)? And perhaps most importantly what killed the soldiers? There’s little to no camp to be found here. Instead it’s paranoid and tense, more so than it is horrific.
It’s also deeply political. Lots of war footage cut in. Which is a pretty bold visual reference to make in your nasty bug movie. Sure Them! is tinged with atomic paranoia too, but that’s different from just straight fading in World War Two footage. Reference to cold war separations and spies. The US military is presented as frightening and Machiavellian. Reference to war crimes and secret new weapons. It gets described as complex and borderline confusing at times by plenty of reviewers. There are a lot of double-crosses and secrets. And bugs. Swarms of bugs. Close ups of bugs nibbling human skin. Horrible oozing wounds caused by bugs. Normal sized bugs too. None of this giant insect stuff you might expect.
The biggest and most interesting portion of these machinations comes in the form of Annabelle, the western mistress Joji has been cheating with and collecting insects for. She turns out to be a scientist invested in the study of insects. She trusts insects to be more compassionate than humans. She reveals she was hired by Communists to create biological weapons from the insects, which is why these little critters have ben so ferocious. She also explains her motivations: as a child she was confined to a concentration camp and since then has lost all faith in the human race. She plans to use her insects to wipe humans from the earth. Again, a bold line to draw in your attack of the killer bugs film.
Which makes it a little sad that Kazui Nihonmatsu never directed another film. Of course the ending of Genocide is so wonderful it serves as a terrific send off to his career. Joji’s pregnant wife floats out to sea away from her home on a tiny boat while the stolen hydrogen bomb detonates behind her, casting insects up into the air and presumably killing most of the people she knows. Cut to a white sun against a red sky, a striking inversion of the Japanese flag and a devastating mic-drop.
Genocide was a pretty delightful little movie. Definitely more of a cynical science fiction thriller than it is a horror film, the movie is well crafted and pretty gripping. The effects and cinematography are cool, and the ideas behind the whole affair are strong and fascinating. Not much of a Halloween watch in all honesty, despite the killer insects and dreariness. However it’s an easy film to appreciate, as it’s striking on both a visual and thematic level. The thriller stretch could’ve have been a bit more gripping; some of the tension starts to slacken after a while. But it certainly picks up again, getting us to scenes like the one where Joji uses his body to shield his pregnant wife from insects and gets eaten alive and poisoned!
Up next: zombies!