Saturday, December 28, 2013

Genocide (1968)

Humans have a strange tendency to think that everything in nature is out to get us. Perhaps it is an artifact of eons past when we were the equivalent of fast food for most predators--not especially good, but easy to procure. Even now, we can hide our soft squishy selves behind barriers few predators can penetrate and still find ourselves terrified of the inevitable time that they do get through.

On a seemingly unconnected note, we also tend to fear conspiracy. This no doubt started in the early days of tribal societies, when it was easy to imagine (and probably, likely) that your compatriots were actually eager to work together against you and only wanted you to think they were helping you out. It's possible we fear conspiracies--both real and imagined--even more these days, so apparently we, as a species, have never actually reached the point where trust falls are advisable.

But worse than everything in nature wanting us dead for its own individual reasons, what if everything nature decided to conspire against us? What hope would we have if, one day, every living around us just decided it had had enough of our shit?

It's hardly necessary for every species to turn against us, though. All that it would really take is for just a handful of insect species to conspire against us. Humans are hopelessly outnumbered by insects and just think of the destruction insects cause when they're just going about their routine--and then imagine they decide to do it on purpose.

Kojima Island, in the Anan Archipelago, was uninhabited by humans for most of the twenty years since World War II ended. However, people have begun filtering back to the island chain it belongs to gradually but have not, as yet, taken Kojima back. Said humans include Joji (Yusuke Kawazu) and his wife Yukari (Emi Shindo). Yukari works for an adjacent island's hotel and bar, but Joji doesn't seem to have much of any occupation. He seems content to do whatever odd task can bring in some money, regardless of how moral such work might be.

That includes helping Annabelle (Kathy Moran), an insect enthusiast who recently arrived, to collect the various unique species of insect that have flourished on Kojima island in the absence of human interference. Of course, it's hard to collect insects when you're busy studying each other's anatomy. Joji seems to think he's being slick, but just about everybody on the islands knows about his affair with Annabelle--except for poor Yukari. Though she'll find out soon enough, as the hotel's proprietor insinuates what Joji and Annabelle are up to before attempting to force himself on Yukari.

If you think it's clear this film has a rather cynical view of humanity now, you better hold on tight.

Whilst sunning themselves on the rocks of Kojima's shore, Joji and Annabelle are in a prime position to witness a B-52 crash into the island, with only three of its crew bailing out in time. Of course, they weren't privy to several facts--one, is that the B-52 is carrying an H-Bomb; the second is that the plane didn't crash due to mere mechanical failure. Minutes earlier, the plane's black bombardier, Charly (Chico Roland), was overcome with Vietnam flashbacks after a bee appeared outside the plane's window. He opened the bomb bay doors and was seconds away from dropping the bomb when his crew mates overpowered him.

And the crew barely caught their breath before an enormous swarm of bees took out the B-52's engines, which is not something that usually happens at 30,000 feet.

Lt. Colonel Gordon (Ralph Jesser) is ordered to go to the islands to oversee Operation Broken Arrow--now there's a movie that could have been improved with the addition of insects trying to overthrow humanity--and he quickly proves himself to be the sort of hardass who doesn't need any encouragement to play Bad Cop. When Gordon finds Charly barely alive, scant feet from the cave where the other two survivors lie dead, covered with what appear to be wounds from insect stings--he naturally assumes foul play. And when Joji is reported trying to hock an Air Force watch that belonged to one of the hapless airmen, he becomes Gordon's chief suspect.

Yukari reaches out to Dr. Nagumo (Keisuke Sonoi), an entomologist in Tokyo that Joji also has been collecting specimens for. Nagumo is in the midst of testing the effects of the venom from a new species of Japanese hornet that Joji sent him on a Guinea pig when he receives the news of Joji's arrest. It doesn't end well for the Guinea pig, in case you were wondering. Nagumo knows Joji well enough to know the guy's a bit of an opportunistic schmuck, but definitely not a murderer so he is happy to come to the islands to help bail him out.

Nagumo finds himself involved in the investigation of the downed B-52, as well. He quickly ascertains that the airmen were killed by Kojima island's hornets, but the Air Force coroner insists it was blunt force trauma. When Nagumo goes to see the currently comatose Charly, he asks Dr. Junko Komuro (Reiko Hitomi) about Charly's condition when he was brought to the hospital. Komuro advises him that when she was treating him, he briefly regained consciousness long enough to say, "Insects!" over and over. This gets Nagumo even more curious about this mystery and he goes to see Annabelle, as she just so happens to be Joji's alibi.

Annabelle turns out to be a definite femme fatale, but she's also not one who sees any point in denying that she was with Joji when the supposed murders took place even though she has no real interest in testifying for him. She also muses with Nagumo about how fascinating the island is, one insect aficionado to another. Of course, Nagumo has a very optimistic view of humanity and Annabelle most certainly does not. In fact, when Nagumo suggests that the horrors of World War II need to be left in the past so humanity can move on, Annabelle disagrees on a highly visceral level. Of course, we shall find out soon enough that she has a very good reason to.

Charly wakes up screaming about insects when one of the island's hornets enters his hospital room, but Dr. Komuro drives it away and he calms down--except he doesn't understood why she calls him Charly. It seems he hit his head when fleeing whatever happened in the cave and has lost his memory. It all looks pretty bleak for Joji, so he is understandably upset instead of happy when Yukari announces to him that she is three months pregnant. Joji's outburst of self-pity causes Yukari to angrily chide him that insects have babies, too, and he should have listened to her when she told him not to go collecting insects. This may seem unrelated to the dilemma at hand, but naturally Yukari is being more prophetic than she realizes.

Gordon and Nagumo are both intensely interested in Charly regaining his memory, but while Nagumo wants to prove Joji's innocence Gordon just wants to know where the H-Bomb is. Gordon becomes instantly suspicious of Nagumo when the entomologist reveals that he knows what "Broken Arrow" is code for, but he agrees to let Nagumo help Charly regain his memory. Nagumo apparently thinks triggering Charly is the best way to do it, as he shows the poor amnesiac a reel of insects preying on each other. This does, however, allow Charly to flash back to when he and the other two airmen were ambushed in the cave by a swarm of bees or hornets. Charly escaped but then plunged off a cliff and was knocked out.

This doesn't prove a damn thing to Gordon. Charly was a known drug addict, who had turned to narcotics to try and self-medicate his PTSD. (Which begs the question of why he was still on duty, but never mind that) Clearly this was all a hallucination. Nagumo is convinced, however, and he and Dr. Komuro go to investigate the cave. Meanwhile, Gordon gets news that the plane was found--but the bomb is still missing. If that's not bad enough, after Nagumo and Komuro find a jar used for transporting insects inside the cave where the airmen, someone fires a shot at them and retreats. Perhaps Nagumo and Gordon are both right: it was insect.

Joji escapes from police custody as he is about to be transported to Tokyo to face trial and hides from the police in Annabelle's bed. He's going to wish he'd just been sent to Tokyo, as two armed thugs killed the MPs that were transporting Charly while Joji was playing hide the fugitive with Annabelle--and then said goons bring Charly to Annabelle's bungalow for questioning about what exactly the B-52 was carrying. Seems Joji's mistress is not just a misanthropic bug enthusiast after all. Annabelle decides that threatening Charly with a cigarette is not sufficient to get him to talk, so she puts him inside insect netting and releases the island's hornets into the netting. Faced with being stung by an insect whose venom will drive him mad before killing him, Charly reveals that the B-52 was carrying an H-Bomb.

Unfortunately for Charly, Annabelle doesn't actually give a shit about an H-Bomb. She reveals the number tattooed on her left breast to everyone in the room as a prelude to the explanation of what she's really after--I guess Joji either did not notice the tattoo before or didn't understand the significance of it, given that Annabelle is pretty damned Aryan in appearance, at least superficially. Yes, Annabelle and her family were sent to Auschwitz and only she survived. Having seen what humanity is capable of, she is determined to see that the species is wiped out and has been breeding Kojima's hornets with that goal in mind. So poor Charly will not be spared from her wrath.

It's actually rather a horribly believable touch that at no point does Annabelle realize that torturing and killing Charly--a black man and therefore a member of group not only innocent of any of the atrocities she endured but even less privileged and equally as persecuted--makes her just as awful as the Nazis who destroyed her family. Those who have known oppression and persecution have a tendency to gleefully oppress and persecute other even less privileged groups when they are given the opportunity. Just look at how gleefully Israel took to oppressing Palestinians and how they viciously they've taken to persecuting African immigrants who, essentially, are in the same position in Israeli society as the Jews were in Germany when Hitler first rose to power.

Now that I've used a killer insect movie to criticize Israel, let's get back to the movie: the goons let the now deranged Charly loose back on the nearby island with a gun and Charly proceeds to attempt to assault Yurika and Dr. Komuro. Gordon and Nagumo arrive just in time for Gordon to shoot Charly dead after he tears off Komuro's clothes. Nagumo notes that Charly has been stung repeatedly--and then the insects in the trees begin singing, "Genocide," over and over. Nagumo is momentarily puzzled by the meaning of the English word until Gordon advises it means, "The extermination of mankind."

That the insects are singing about exterminating humanity is alarming enough, but upon examining Charly's body Nagumo discovers that the insects who stung him also laid hundreds of eggs inside his flesh.* That would be bad enough, but the Air Force coroner informs Nagumo that the bodies of the other two airmen have already been shipped home. So not only does Kojima have a population of insects determined to eradicate us, now they're spreading.

[* This is a common trope in killer insect/arachnid films, but I don't find it too silly in this instance. After all, wasps and hornets are related, and wasps are the insect that is famous for having a life cycle that inspired that of the xenomorphs in Alien]

It can actually get worse, unfortunately. Nagumo deliberately allows a hornet to sting him, allowing the venom to work its hallucinatory effects before being injected with an antidote. The effects of the venom somehow allow Nagumo to tap into the hive mind intelligence of the insects and he discovers that it's not just the insects of Kojima that are in revolt against humanity. Insects all over the world have decided that they aren't going to sit back and let humanity wreck the biosphere with radioactive weapons. The attack on the B-52 was a preemptive strike and they are determined to wipe out humanity before we can destroy the world. Of course, if humanity continues on its current course, the insects are going to be too late to stop us.

1968 seems to have been a banner year for films whose central theme is, "Well, we're all fucked." Night of the Living Dead and Shochiku's (the studio that produced Genocide) own Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell are just two examples I can think of off the top of my head. I'm not entirely sure why 1968 was when all these films with bleak opinions on the future of mankind came out, but I'm sure I could easily speculate for a paragraph or two.

Genocide was released in the US under the slightly less depressing-sounding title, War of the Insects. This is technically an accurate title, except it implies something rather more overblown than this film. You may have gleaned from my plot description that this is a film largely built on low-key dread than out and out spectacle. It's no surprise that most people who go into the film claim it is boring. I think those people need to get off my damn lawn.

This is an almost relentlessly nihilistic film. The film is book-ended by nuclear explosions, which sums it up pretty well--and indeed the implication at the end is that it is far too late. Of the characters we meet, only Yukari, Dr. Nagumo, and Dr. Komuro come the closest to being decent human beings. (I can't judge Charly as the poor bastard is never really given a scene where he isn't unconscious or being driven mad) Joji, while he eventually does the right thing, is kind of a selfish prick--and most everyone else we meet are sort of the worst examples of humanity you can imagine.

That doesn't mean we spend the whole film waiting for these horrible people to become insect fodder, however. The story is low-key and rather deliberately paced, but I honestly cannot conceive of how so many people can find this boring. There is a genuine buildup to the reveal that the insects are going to kill us all and we are already too late to stop it. And as unconvincing as most of the effects for the swarms of bees/hornets (the film mainly uses bees, but their behavior suggests hornets) are, the attacks are realized through some tremendously brutal means. In between the poorly super-imposed animated dots or bee footage, there are insert shots of Japanese giant hornets biting human skin and twisting the flesh. It certainly appears to be actual human skin, and it is absolutely horrifying on a visceral level.

It's also fascinating the way this film seems to be well ahead of its time. The idea of nature rising up against humanity for its sins was not a truly new idea, certainly this film owes at least a little of its genesis to The Birds, but the "nature strikes back" genre wouldn't truly take off until the early-to-mid 1970s. And it's astounding how many similarities to Irwin Allen's The Swarm are present in the film. You have the skeptical US military being called in after a swarm of bees takes out a crucial asset, and even a character testing out the effects of the bee venom on himself to see if his antidote works and experiencing a vivid hallucination. (Although, in this case the antidote does work)

The film is hardly perfect, though. For one thing, it can't quite decide if it wants to be a story about insects rising up against mankind, or a mad scientist breeding killer insects to destroy the world--so it goes for both. We have early hints that the insects are turning against us--a background news report on the radio about locusts destroying crops in India out of season, for instance--plus the scene where Nagumo channels the insect hive mind and is told that they are rising up against us to stop nuclear annihilation, yet the film also wants us to see this as all a result of Annabelle's tampering in God's domain. It doesn't quite mesh.

That said, this is an unfairly overlooked film and I am so happy that Criterion's Eclipse series gave me the chance to see it. I was especially inclined to like the film after the sequence of the insects (Cicadas? Crickets?) in the trees singing "Genocide"--I love little atmospheric touches like that.

This review is part of the TEOTWAWKI roundtable; for the end of 2013 we're reviewing movies about the end of the world and for the beginning of 2014 we'll be taking a look at what happens after that. The links below are for reviews from other participants. Check 'em out; they're good people and they write well about movies.

Checkpoint Telstar -- Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World
Cinemasochist Apocalypse -- Phase IV
Micro-Brewed Reviews -- Invisible Invaders

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