Springtime has arrived in California and do you know what that means? BUGS! During the past week I’ve battled a couple of spiders in my kitchen, wrangled with a beetle that invaded my bathroom and took up arms against a small army of moths raiding my closet. These creepy critters seem to be everywhere so it seemed like a good time to revisit one of my favorite bug invasion movies, Kazui Nihonmatsu’s GENOCIDE (aka WAR OF THE INSECTS; 1969) GENOCIDE chronicles an attack on a small island community by a large mass of aggressive flying insects. It’s been made the butt of bad jokes by the folks behind Cinematic Titanic and Mystery Science Theater 3000 but this creative low-budget film is no B-movie bomb. Along with its strong antiwar message, GENOCIDE boasts some impressive visual touches and packs an emotional wallop during its explosive final moments that compassionate viewers won’t soon forget.
The film opens with the mysterious crash of a B-52 on a suspicious mission to transport a hydrogen bomb over some remote Japanese islands. Soon afterward the U.S. military arrives on the scene to try and locate their missing H-bomb and search for aircrew members who parachuted out of the wreckage but the only survivor is Charlie (Arthur “Chico Roland” Lourant), a strung out Vietnam War veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress and a bad case of entomophobia (aka insectphobia). When the other crew members turn up dead the Americans suspect foul play and blame a local insect collector and womanizer named Joji (Yusuke Kawazu) for their deaths but the actual perpetrator is Joji’s curvy blond lover Annabelle (Kathy Horan). Annabelle is a renegade entomologist who has been breeding a massive swarm of killer insects capable of obliterating all life on earth. She wants revenge for the childhood trauma she suffered as a young girl at the hands of the Nazis during WW2 and she uses the drug addicted Charlie as an unwilling guinea pig in her diabolical scheme. Toss a couple of hapless communist sympathizers eager to get a hold of the elusive H-bomb into this crazy mix and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Thankfully a investigating doctor (Keisuke Sonoi) gets wise to Annabelle’s buggy plan but will he be able to stop the encroaching insects from destroying the world? And will the U.S. military be able to recover the AWOL bomb before it falls into the wrong hands? You’ll have to watch to find out!
The film is an unusual sci-fi mash-up that combines various elements of eco-thrillers and bug invasion epics (The BIRDS; 1953, THEM!; 1954, NAKED JUNGLE; 1954, TARANTULA; 1955, etc.) along with typical Japanese monster movies. Many of the films that followed in the wake of GODZILLA (1954) contained strong anti-war messages but GENOCIDE makes no attempt to hide its agenda and takes a a surprisingly adult approach to the material. Director Kazui Nihonmatsu (THE X FROM OUTER SPACE; 1967) melds historic footage from WW2 and Vietnam into the film to illustrate this point and the script by Susumu Takaku (GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FEOM HELL; 1968) and Kingen Amada is a strong condemnation of man’s propensity towards violence and destruction. The only truly sympathetic characters in the film are the women, including Joji’s long suffering wife (Emi Shindo) and a kindly nurse who desperately wants to help Charlie. Even Annabelle’s destructive behavior and bleak outlook can be somewhat forgiven or at least understood.
And what to make of the American solider called Charlie? Some critics have expressed concern over the fact that the drug addicted Vietnam War veteran was played by the black actor Arthur “Chico Roland” Lourant (THE WARPED ONES; 1960, BLACK SUN; 1963, GATE OF FLESH; 1964, etc.) who had a successful career in Japan for nearly two decades (fondly known as Chico-san there) suggesting it was a thankless role with possible racist undertones but I think that’s a very narrow and much too simplistic interpretation. I see Charlie as a broad stand-in for all American soldiers. His name suggests the derogatory slain term “Charlie” (aka “Victor Charlie”) used by the U.S. military to describe the Viet Cong at the time the film was made and Charlie’s excessive drug use and erratic behavior were sadly all too common among young Vietnam War veterans who were returning home from Southeast Asia with serious psychological problems and a heroin addiction. GENOCIDE hammer’s home its antiwar message by pitting bungling Japanese communist sympathizers up against some ruthless American military commanders but Charlie is only an ill-fated foot soldier in their perpetual war game.
GENOCIDE was made by Shochiku studios, mostly rembered today for its art-house dramas directed by some of Japan’s foremost cinema luminaries including Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Nagisa Oshima. In an effort to make money and appeal to changing tastes as well as the growing youth market, Shochiku attempted to compete with studios such as Toho, which was having great success with their GODZILLA franchise. GENOCIDE is just one example of Shochiku’s attempt to cash-in on Toho’s business model but if you’d like to see more examples you can find them all in a terrific DVD box set released by Criterion’s Eclipse label called When Horror Came to Shochiku.
The unexpected blend of film genres makes GENOCIDE a unique viewing experience that benefits from some impressive psychedelic inspired visuals. Director Kazui Nihonmatsu uses a number of imaginative film techniques including superimposition and slow dissolves to express the fractured state of mind of his tormented cast as well as the apocalyptic nature of their plight. And the relentless close-ups of actual insects munching on human flesh gives this low-budget production an uncomfortable documentary-like ambiance. Fans of Toho’s more atypical outings such as THE H-MAN (1958), THE HUMAN VAPOR (1960) and MATANGO (1965) will appreciate GENOCIDE and if you enjoy a good bug invasion movie as much as I do you should find this interesting little low-budget gem worthy of your time.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written in 2014 and published at TCM.com