“Insect behaviour has been abnormal all over the world. The damage they’re causing is spreading. Planes everywhere are flying into swarms and crashing. Genocide. The annihilation of mankind…”
[Original title: Konchû Daisensô (Insect War)]
Director: Nihonmatsu Kazui
Starring: Sonoi Keisuke, Kawazu Yusuke, Shindo Emi, Kathy Horan, Hitomi Reiko, Chico Roland, Ralph Jesser, Ichimura Toshiyuki, Ueda Tadayoshi, Aoyama Horoshi, Sono Eriko, Franz Gruber, Mike Daneen
Screenplay: Takaku Susumu, based upon a story by Amada Kingen
Synopsis: On an island in the Anan Archipelago, Akiyama Joji (Kawazu Yusuke) meets secretly with a woman named Annabelle (Kathy Horan). As they lie together, an American air-force jet passes overhead: it is carrying an atomic bomb… The presence of an insect in the body of the plane triggers a flashback to his traumatic war experiences for one of the American crew, Charly (Chico Roland). As two other crew members try to calm him, Charly struggles wildly, crying out not to be sent back into combat. Finally, he collapses, begging for drugs… Suddenly, the pilot shouts a warning as the jet is engulfed by a huge swarm of insects; an engine catches fire, triggering a series of explosions. As Joji and Annabelle watch from below, they see three of the crew parachute to safety as the plane burns and crashes; there is also a fourth parachute… At US Air Force Command, an operation is set in motion to recover the missing H-bomb, with Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon (Ralph Jesser) in command. On another island, Akiyama Yukari (Shindo Emi), Joji’s wife, must fight off the rough attentions of her employer, hotel owner Kudo (Ichimura Toshiyuki), while trying to ignore his suggestions about the real reason Joji is staying away so long. The air-force party arrives and liaises with the local military. The commanding officer of the Japanese contingent reports to Gordon that parachutes were observed landing on Kojima Island, and the two parties set out by boat. On the rocky shore of the island, they find Charly, unconscious with a head injury; the doctor suggests he may have fallen from a cliff. The search-party presses on, locating the cave in which the parachutists took shelter. There, they find the other two airmen dead, and covered with strange wounds. On his way back to the main island, Joji stops his small boat near a larger vessel and offers to sell one of the men onboard a watch. They recognise it as military issue and accuse him of selling stolen goods. When Joji has gone, the two exchange a significant look… Joji and Yukari are reunited, but she expresses her doubts about his absence. Joji insists he has simply been busy going from island to island, collecting rare insects for Dr Nagumo (Sonoi Keisuke). However, a jeering remark from Kudo about his “plump white butterfly” makes Joji fly into a violent rage. The arrival of the military men interrupts their confrontation: the men from the boat are with the officers, and one of them points Joji out as the possessor of the watch. Joji is arrested—and finds himself being interrogated over the deaths of the airmen. At the Tokyo Biological Research Centre, Dr Nagumo receives a telegram from Yukari, informing him that Joji has been charged with murder and begging for his help. Nagumo travels to the island and is allowed to see Joji, who protests his innocence and insists he found the watch under an abandoned parachute which was caught in a tree. When Nagumo presses him for a witness, Joji admits he was with Annabelle. Nagumo then asks to inspect the bodies, which are about to be sent to the air-force base for autopsy. He observes that the large, ugly wounds are insect bites. The doctor (Franz Gruber) insists, however, that the men died of blunt-force trauma. Nagumo meets Dr Komuro Junko (Hitomi Reiko), who is caring for the still-unconscious Charly; she tells him that, occasionally, Charly mutters deliriously about insects. Nagumo meets Yukari in the hotel’s bar and reports to her what he has learned, while a news broadcast describes devastation caused by insects across India…
Comments: I have a confession to make:
I laughed hysterically through the final ten minutes of War Of The Insects.
I believe this officially makes me a Terrible Person.
Then again, laughter may be the only sane response to this inarguably insane film, in which enough subplots for about eight movies – eight very different movies – ricochet around taking pieces out of one another, until finally collapsing together in what can only be described as a glorious mess. War Of The Insects marked the end of the brief career of director Nihonmatsu Kazui, and also of Shochiku Studio’s equally brief flirtation with horror and science fiction, and it ensured that both went out with a literal bang.
No genre fan need be told how prominent fantasy films were in Japanese cinema during the 50s and 60s, nor how popular the kaiju eiga in particular. Toho’s dominance in this area had been challenged by Daiei, and by the end of the 60s, most Japanese studios had in some way or other entered the fray.
It was still something of a shock, however, when the venerable Shochiku Company decided to dip its toes in the water. The oldest film studio in Japan, Shochiku was considered a prestige organisation, less commercial and more “arty” than most of its peers; one associated with highly respected directors including Mizoguchi Kenji, Ozu Yasujirō and Yamada Yōji, and with a reputation (which persists to this day) for fostering mavericks. All-in-all, it was the last studio you would expect to find dabbling in rubber suits—particularly at a time when Japanese genre films were beginning to show signs of “kiddification”.
Perhaps, then, it is not altogether surprising that the genre films that did emanate from Shochiku during its brief foray into fantasy were nothing at all like those being produced by the other studios. Oh, all the usual suspects were there—aliens, monsters, ghosts, nature striking back—but they were presented in a new and delightfully twisted way.
Director Nihonmatsu Kazui’s first effort for Shochiku – the studio’s very first fantasy film – was The X From Outer Space, notorious for its giant rampaging chicken-lizard: a creation which has topped more than one “goofiest monster” poll over the years. Similarly, prior to joining Shochiku, screenwriter Takaku Susume (today well-known for his anime) had penned the science-fiction actioner, Golden Bat, and the animated fantasy, Jack And The Witch, both intended for a younger audience.
Together, however, Nihonmatsu and Takaku created one of the bleakest and least commercial fantasy films imaginable.
It is significant that, although War Of The Insects has an unusual number of non-Japanese characters, it uses entirely Japanese language, with the foreigners being dubbed, rather than speaking their own language and subtitled, as was otherwise usually the case at this time: a sure sign that the film was not intended for overseas markets. (The reasons for that will shortly become clear.) Indeed, for many years War Of The Insects was very difficult to see outside of Japan; and, as far as it was written about, it tended to be described as being about an insect uprising – as a killer animal film, in effect – but that isn’t entirely true; or at least, that’s certainly not all it is.
In fact, what we have here is a killer-animal-meets-mad-science plot blended into an espionage drama, with a large serving of Cold War paranoia mixed into these already disparate elements and a final topping of general injustice—and with the results tied together (albeit loosely) with a pretty pink bow of nihilism.
Consequently, those misled by the title and/or that inaccurate synopsising, and coming to War Of The Insects looking for a bit of batty “nature’s revenge” fun, may be disappointed, even bored, by the dominant political content. But rest assured, there is a plethora of assorted battiness on display here, even aside from the killer insects. This is also (considering its subject matter) a perversely lovely film to look at, thanks to the combination of location shooting and psychedelic photographic effects. As a viewer, you need to check your expectations at the door, and just sit back and let the beauty and the insanity wash over you…
“This should be fun!” she said, settling back with her popcorn…
War Of The Insects opens with stock footage of an atomic blast—standard for a 50s film, but unexpected in one from 1968 and, in a Japanese film, more than usually jolting. The opening credits play over some rather beautifully shot images of insects, before we cut to the “Anan Archipelago”: a fictional island group acting as a stand-in for, presumably, the real Ryukyo Islands, the chain which stretches from the southern tip of Japan almost to Taiwan. The film’s main island, unnamed, may likewise be inferred as Okinawa, both due to that island’s role in WWII and its subsequent use as a US military base: details which cast a long shadow over this film’s narrative.
The action opens, however, on the smaller, uninhabited Kojima Island, where Akiyama Joji is supposed to be catching rare insects for the biologist Dr Nagumo, but instead seems intent on catching something else, as he is first seen canoodling with—well, I don’t know the Japanese for “blonde shiksa goddess”, but that term basically conveys what we need to know at this point about Joji’s bikini-wearing companion, known only as Annabelle.
A jet-plane passes over the island; we cut inside it, the camera showing us its crew of five, all US air-force personnel, and the plane’s cargo: an H-bomb. Sitting near to it is a black crewman who, as we watch, begins to fidget and sweat…
While it is easy to categorise War Of The Insects simply as “anti-American”, the truth is, this film hates everyone. Nevertheless, with its use of the atomic bomb and the US military occupation as a backdrop, and the contemporary arms race with its consequent threat of nuclear war as overt themes, certainly America gets the worst of it.
One of the film’s most uncomfortable expressions of hostility is the subplot of the airman, Charly, played by Chico Roland (real name: Arthur “Chico” Lourant), who had a remarkable career in Japanese films during the 1960s. The American Civil Rights Movement – and its opponents – the treatment of servicemen generally, and the specific fallout of the Vietnam War all collide in the character of Charly, which is an unreasonable load for any actor to have to carry; while the specifics of the role just keep adding to the burden, as Mad Science, The Dirty Commies and The Military all get together to kick poor Charly to the kerb.
Charly’s first action in the film, however, is to offer us a plot-hole. Already uncomfortable for reasons unspecified, when Charly catches sight of an insect that has stowed away in the bomber, it triggers a panic attack and a flashback to his combat experience, as he begins to scream and beg not to be sent back. Charly’s crew-mates, however, take this as a drug freak-out: evidently he has been self-medicating to deal with his PTSD.
All that becomes clear. What doesn’t is why an insect should have triggered Charly’s attack. Clearly he is phobic, but the screenplay offers no specific cause or incident, instead overlaying his hysterical struggles with superimposed (real) combat footage, the use of which will become a recurrent motif in the film.
Two of the crew, including their captain, finally wrestle Charly to the ground, although not before his flailing hands open the bomb-bay doors (!). As he collapses, sobbing, he begins begging for drugs…which prompts the captain to order the other airman, “Give him an injection.” Uh, of what, exactly?
(Never mind the insect. At this moment the question pressing most heavily on the viewer is, Why was Charly assigned to baby-sit an atomic bomb!?)
“Lemme out of this film! Lemme out, I say!”
But before anyone can do anything, there is a cry from the co-pilot. The captain rushes back to the cockpit and stares out in disbelief at the enormous swarm of insects about to surround the plane. Without time to take evasive action, the jet plows into the swarm: the insects splatter all over the windows (ew!) and clog the engines, one of which catches fire. This sets off a chain-reaction, and the jet is rocked by a series of explosions.
At which point we cut back to Joji, still watching from the island. Annabelle puts a suggestive hand on his shoulder, and he immediately turns away from the sight of a plane engulfed in flames for more canoodling! The plane blowing up does make Joji turn his eyes away from Annabelle, however, and thus he sees four parachutes descending to the island, three white, one red…
(In other words, two of the crew didn’t make it—and no-one will ever mention them again.)
News of the crash reaches US Airforce Command, where the C.O. sends out a search party—to look for the bomb. It is quickly evident that the search for any survivors is only a secondary concern.
The three survivors of the crash are Charly (how did he even get his parachute on?), the captain, and an unnamed third crewman. The captain is injured, and after cutting Charly down from the tree in which his ’chute is tangled, No Name carries the captain on his back until they find a cave in which to shelter. Inside are some long-abandoned supplies and two crumbling skeletons. The other two men turn on Charly, to the extent of refusing to share their water with him, blaming him for their situation.
“Ehhh, I’m sure they’ll be fine…”
Meanwhile, on the main island, the owner of the one hotel (and bar, more importantly), Kudo, sidles into a room where an attractive young woman, Yukari, is doing the cleaning. He starts questioning her about her husband’s absences, and we realise to our dismay that not only is Joji cheating on Yukami, they’ve only been married a few months! Kudo makes a hardly-veiled reference to Annabelle and then – perhaps assuming that he’s made Yukari sufficiently mad at her husband – tries to force himself on her.
Well— I did tell you that this film hates everyone; and you could certainly search high and low without finding one more thoroughly misanthropic. It barely even deigns to serve up a single likeable character to lighten the viewer’s depression. Yukari is obviously meant to be the focus of our sympathy, and to an extent she is; but the fact that she was dumb enough to marry Joji – and on an insect-collector’s salary! – makes that sympathy rather hard-won.
The sound of sirens distracts Kudo, and the young woman manages to struggle free. Officers from the local base are rushing to the docks to greet the American air-force contingent led by Colonel Gordon. The Japanese C.O. confirms that parachutes were seen to fall on Kojima Island, and offers to take the Americans there by water. This interchange is watched with interest by two men on a nearby boat.
(These two are called Matsunaga and Yokoi, but we won’t be finding that out for some considerable time to come.)
Landing on Kojima, the military men find Charly lying near the shore, unconscious and with a head injury. The search party presses on and finds the cave, where the other two airmen are now lying dead, their bodies marked by large, suppurating wounds.
“Try not to talk about it loudly in public places.”
Meanwhile, Joji is heading away from Kojima in his boat, although he stops for a chat to those same two men, whose own boat is now lurking in the vicinity. Joji offers to sell them a watch, but they reject it as stolen goods when they recognise it as military issue.
Back at the hotel, Joji and Yukari are happily reunited, but only briefly: possibly due to Kudo’s jeers, possibly to her own suspicions, she begins to question him about his long absence. And because Joji is up to his eyeballs in guilt, he immediately turns it around and makes Yukari feel that she’s the one in the wrong:
Joji: “What’s gotten into you? Don’t go getting suspicious. I’m tired from hiking all day, so stop getting on my nerves.”
Yukari: “I’m sorry!”
This is too much even for the sleazy Kudo, and he makes reference to a “a plump white butterfly”. Joji grabs him by the throat and tries to choke him, while Yukari tugs at his arm and begs him to stop; adding, “I’ve got something important to tell you!”
But the film immediately drops that potential subplot in favour of Joji being taken into custody for questioning. The two fishermen reported the stolen watch, it seems (we might wonder at this attitude of civic responsibility in these two obvious nogoodniks, but it will turn out there’s method in their madness), and Joji is now the prime suspect in the deaths of the airmen. He insists that he simply found the watch, but the Japanese C.O. doesn’t believe him any more than, at this point, we are inclined to do, and Joji is held pending transfer to Tokyo for trial.
Official diagnosis? Death by blunt-force trauma.
Joji hasn’t any friends on the island (I can’t think why), but he has one elsewhere: and Dr Nagumo of the Tokyo Biological Research Centre receives a telegram begging for his help.
We breathe a sigh of relief at the entrance of Dr Nagumo. Here, surely, is the film’s hero at last, someone we can actually like…and then the first thing we see Dr Nagumo doing is injecting a squeaking, struggling guinea-pig with something that makes it collapse, twitching.
It turns out that the guinea-pig was injected with venom from a new species of insect, caught and sent to Dr Nagumo by Joji: “[It] attacks the central nervous system, causing madness and death.”
So anyway—I’m demoting Dr Nagumo down to Designated Hero.
The insects in this film are confusingly presented. Most of the time we’re shown bees, making this an amusing forerunner to the overt killer bee movies of the 70s, and The Swarm in particular. However, the “new species of insect” is also more appropriately represented by footage of the Japanese giant hornet—including a few shots of actual flesh being bitten, guaranteed to freak out certain viewers. As we have seen, this new species is highly venomous (the subtitles of this film repeatedly say “poison” and “poisonous”, but they mean venom / venomous); while the fact that it lays its eggs in human tissue is a plot-point.
Never mind what they’re looking at. Just keep looking at the pretty, pretty SCIENCE!!…
Nagumo’s work is interrupted (thank God!) by the arrival of Joji’s telegram. He travels to the island and is greeted at the dock by a frantic Yukari. He promises her he will do everything he can to help her—and then walks off, leaving her to carry his travel-bag.
Nagumo is allowed to see Joji, and gets him to tell his story—including the fact that he has a witness, Annabelle. Nagumo then inspects the bodies, recognising the wounds as insect bites; although the air-force doctor continues to insist the men died from blunt-force trauma. Finally, he goes to the clinic where Charly lies unconscious, and learns that in his delirium, the airman occasionally mutters about insects…
This scene introduces Nagumo to Dr Komuro Junko, who is more or less set up as his love interest; but this film being what it is, nothing comes of it. (Actually, it’s kind of refreshing.)
For want of anywhere else to go, our cast gathers at the hotel, where it proves exceedingly difficult to speak without being overheard. We discover that in addition to being harassed and molested by her employer, Yukami’s duties include being pawed by drunks in the bar. (I guess Joji may have seemed like the lesser of various evils, at that.) Said drunks include our fishermen acquaintances, one of whom annoys Colonel Gordon with questions about the crash, but only succeeds in getting his head bitten off. In a moment of deliberately nasty irony, Kudo intercedes, pointing out soothingly that, “These guys are Japan’s allies!”
A little something for the entomophobes…
Nagumo then reacts to a radio broadcast describing the devastation caused in India by locusts. When Gordon argues that this isn’t unusual, Nagumo points out that it’s the wrong time of the year for an outbreak. Another diversion is caused by the arrival of Annabelle: when Kudo speaks her name loudly, Nagumo’s head snaps around, and so does Yukari’s. Nagumo notices the latter, and realises that Joji’s “secret” is anything but.
The air-force doctor enters with the news that Charly has regained consciousness, but lost his memory; so there’s nothing he can tell them. “In that case it’ll be hard to continue with Operation Broken Arrow,” comments Gordon…while sitting in the middle of a crowded bar.
And as a punch-line to all this, Annabelle exits again—on her way out dropping a fat tip on Yukari’s tray without even looking at her. (But Yukari looks at her—oh my, yes…)
Nagumo tracks Annabelle to Kojima Island, where she admits to “knowing” Joji; although she explains that her main interest in him was that he collected insects for her, too. Nagumo is immediately intrigued. Annabelle denies being a professional biologist, but tells him she has a love of insects—and that Kojima, unoccupied for twenty years, is currently an insect’s paradise. However, she frets, the people will soon be coming back, and what will happen to the insects then? Conversely, Annabelle adds, she doesn’t like people—or trust them. When Nagumo expresses surprise at this, she reminds him brusquely of what happened on those very islands, some twenty years ago, and adds that she believes humanity is on the brink of repeating its most tragic mistakes. When Nagumo disputes this, expressing his faith in humanity, she scoffs at his naivety.
The scientific equivalent of, “Do you come here often?”
Meanwhile, Yukari visits Joji in prison, taking him a hearty meal of his favourites—and then the other shoe finally drops…
Joji is more dismayed than pleased at his impending fatherhood, and for a few brief seconds even manages to think of someone other than himself; but only for a few seconds. Soon he is blaming Yukari for not telling him sooner – so it’s her fault, you see, that he slept with Annabelle – and reacting angrily to her plea that he leave the insects alone in future (“They have babies too!”).
Yukari is left to pin her hopes on Nagumo, but he is getting nowhere with the military. Realising that Gordon has less than no interest in Joji’s guilt or innocence, Nagumo accuses him of being eager for Charly to regain his memory purely so that he and his men can find their missing H-bomb.
Gordon: “Are you a spy for the Eastern bloc!?”
Politically, War Of The Insects is interesting for its position outside of the mainstream of the Cold War. We’re used to films treating that form of conflict from one perspective or another, but this one is about what it is like to get caught in the crossfire. All Nagumo wants is to prove Joji’s innocence, but he can’t get anyone to help him because, under the prevailing circumstances, no-one else cares. In his role of Designated Hero, humanist Nagumo gets to deliver several angry lectures in response to Gordon’s narrowness of vision; but while the words may be stirring, we’re left with a sense of frustration and impotence, the fear that Annabelle’s prediction – that mankind is going to destroy itself, and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it – may well be coming true.
“And then there’s that whole, you know, ‘nuclear holocaust’ thing…”
Gordon eventually apologises for accusing Nagumo of being a spy, but asks how he knew about the H-bomb? Nagumo explains that – duhhh! – he heard Gordon himself use the expression “broken arrow” when they were both in the bar. (Apparently in 1968 civilians weren’t supposed to know what that expression meant!) Gordon dodges Nagumo’s questions about the bomb, simply pointing out that they both want Charly to regain his memory—and to that end, they agree to try shock treatment: showing film of insects to the terrified Charly.
We then get a flashback to the three airmen in the cave being confronted by a swarm of insects. The phobic Charly panics, runs, and staggers off a cliff; the other two are not so fortunate…
Nagumo believes the story of insects, but Gordon and the doctor have a simpler explanation: that addict Charly is having a drug-induced hallucination. An expression of sympathy for Charly from Nagumo is enough to send Gordon into another rant, but Nagumo cuts it short by announcing his intention of examining the cave. Dr Komuro offers to go with him.
No sooner have they departed than Gordon turns on Charly, trying to bully and then slap the whereabouts of the bomb out of him. Poor Charly can only reiterate that insects made the plane crash…
In the cave, Nagumo and Junko find no insects, but there are signs that someone has been there recently, including an abandoned collecting-jar. A person hidden nearby then takes a shot at them, grazing Nagumo’s hand and leaving him more convinced than ever that Joji is innocent, and Charly speaking the truth.
“…and all that sex we had, it was awful!”
Speaking of Joji, he’s on the verge of being loaded onto a boat for Tokyo when an hysterical Yukari turns up, pleading that he not be shipped out until Dr Nagumo gets back. Joji’s guards insist on proceeding, but – foolishly – they allow him a moment alone with Yukari, which he uses to stage a break, hurling himself off a low cliff and into the sea. Pursuing bullets miss him, and eventually he pops up again—right next to a small motor-boat in which Annabelle is sun-bathing. She pulls him in and agrees to hide him, carrying him away to her house.
And her bed.
Meanwhile, Nagumo and Junko see Charly being driven away. Nagumo protests that if Charly has regained his memory, he is needed as a witness to Joji’s innocence, but of course Gordon doesn’t care. However, on an isolated road, the jeep carrying Charly is ambushed by our “fisherman” friends, Matsunaga and Yokoi, who just happen to be—
—irony alert, Colonel Gordon!—
—Eastern bloc spies. And, moreover, Eastern bloc spies who were also in the bar while Gordon was mouthing off about “Operation Broken Arrow”. They shoot the two MPs and carry Charly away—
—to Annabelle’s house…where it has just occurred to Joji to wonder what Annabelle does with the insects he brings her…?
The Eternal Question.
He’s about to find out.
Like Chico Roland, Kathy Horan ended up having an interesting if brief career in Japanese movies and television during the 1960s, with her most significant appearances being in War Of The Insects and its Shochiku partner-in-crime, Goke, Body-Snatcher From Hell. Her character is this film’s real surprise-packet, as the chameleon-like Annabelle appears consecutively as a home-wrecking sun-bunny, a passionate nature-lover, a war-scarred loner and an enemy agent, before dropping all her masks and revealing her true face:
An amateur one, it’s true; but a scientist all the same, and mad beyond any doubt.
So! – long story short – Annabelle is being funded by “the Eastern bloc”, who want her to develop a strain of insects that can be used as a weapon; but far from being a sympathiser, Annabelle is simply using her apparent bosses—taking their money but spending it on a little plan of her own, one that makes theirs look petty in comparison…
The stunned Joji finds himself in the middle of Matsunaga and Yokoi’s efforts to torture Charly into confirming the existence of a “broken arrow”. Annabelle intervenes—not to help, however, but on the grounds that she has a better and faster method than their lit cigarette. Charly is left bound to a chair, while a net drops around him; and then Annabelle releases into it some of her special insects…
That’s my girl!
(The little smile that Kathy Horan produces when Joji asks Annabelle what she’s doing may well be my favourite moment in this film, confirming in an instant the “mad” part of Annabelle’s qualifications. It even comes accessorised by thunder on the soundtrack!)
Of course, Annabelle isn’t really interested in making Charly talk. She just wants another test subject:
Annabelle: “When these insects bite, within minutes your cranial nerves are paralysed, and you go crazy and then die!”
Joji’s cries of frantic disbelief provoke Annabelle to reveal her motivation. Turning on him furiously, she tugs down the front of her wrap to expose the tattoo across her left breast, and tells of the horrors of the camps, where the rest of her family was tortured and killed, and she used brutally by the soldiers before being “marked for death”…
(Ahem. Joji must have seen that tattoo before. Did he not understand its significance? Or did he just not care?)
Charly does finally confirm that there is a bomb, and Yokoi rushes off to report to “the boss”—who is none other than Kudo. The behaviour of the two arouses the suspicions of Nagumo, who sends a warning note to Gordon (was the wording Nagumo’s little joke?): There are Eastern bloc spies on the island. Meanwhile, the goons complete the other half of their mission, dumping Charly – who has been left completely psychotic by Annabelle’s “experiment” – back on the island, and giving him a gun…
(The gun is a revolver, which doesn’t stop Charly firing into the air a total of thirteen times over the following few scenes.)
As a hatter. As a March hare. As a cut snake.
Charly’s first act is to break up a startling conversation between Yukari and Junko, which finds the former – obliquely, it’s true, but she’s doing it – wondering if it wouldn’t be better under the circumstances if she had an abortion.
What follows makes us debate the relative rankings of Charly and Yukari as this film’s chew-toy, as Yukari is now seized and mauled around by Charly—who only lets her go when Junko bites him on the arm. Junko bravely encourages Yukari to run, while she tries to talk Charly down, hoping he will remember her as a friend from her care of him at the clinic. But Charly is beyond her reach and, with Yukari out of reach, he turns his attentions to her. He pursues her through the surrounding jungle, laughing wildly and firing his gun, until she trips, allowing him to grab her and start tearing her clothes off…
But fortunately for Junko – unfortunately, but inevitably, for Charly – the shots have brought both Nagumo and Gordon to the scene, and the latter pumps two bullets into him.
As Charly dies, we get one of the film’s battiest moments – all the more so for being so casually presented – as the insects in the surrounding jungle sing, Genocide! Genocide!, which Gordon translates for Nagumo as, “The extermination of mankind…”
Nagumo’s examination of Charly’s body reveals that he has been bitten, and has wounds similar to those borne by the dead airmen. Furthermore, the insects that bit him also laid their eggs in him – and they’re already hatching. This discovery makes the air-force doctor blench, as the bodies of the dead airmen have already been shipped home…
Junko speaks for all of us.
Arrangements are made for Charly’s rapid and no-frills burial (it turns out that “Charly” was his surname), while the doctor shows Nagumo the analysis of the toxin found in his body, which Nagumo recognises as the venom of the newly-discovered insect species. The doctor also mentions Charly’s claim that insects brought down the bomber, but adds that this is impossible, as insects cannot fly at such heights. Nagumo isn’t so sure…
Despite everything, it seems that Joji has been out collecting insects!?—but he gets back to Annabelle’s house just in time to overhear a confrontation between her and the three, ahem, “Eastern bloc spies”, who are insisting she fulfil her part of the bargain and deliver her new strain of venomous insects. Annabelle starts out by saying she won’t until she’s sure the insects are perfect…but then admits she has no intention of handing them over anyway. Rather, not only is she using doses of the venom from the new species to produce strains of other insects that are also venomous, but once done she has a little plan of her own for them…
The movement of a shadow then alerts the conspirators to the fact they have been overheard, while a dropped butterfly net lets them know by whom. Kudo sends the other two after Joji, to stop him talking about his discovery.
Joji, typically, can think of nothing better to do than go home—thus leading his pursuers straight to Yukari. Sigh. So distracted is he that when she questions him frantically about where he has been, he replies simply, “At Annabelle’s house.” But it’s okay, he adds hurriedly, because he now hates Annabelle. He then blurts out Annabelle’s Mad Plan (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for once, and allow he isn’t just saying this stuff to divert Yukari), and reveals that it’s Nagumo he wants to talk to, not Gordon.
Well, it’s better than using a guinea-pig as a guinea-pig, now, isn’t it??
But Matsunaga and Yokoi turn up before he can do anything, and poor Yukari takes another verbal and physical beating before Joji manages to slip away—but then slips away herself, thwarting a scheme to take her hostage. She goes straight to Nagumo and tells him everything, adding that she thinks Joji will hide in one of the huts he uses when collecting insects. Nagumo decides that they will collect Junko, in case he has been injured, and go out to find him once dawn breaks.
They carry out this plan successfully, and as Junko treats a bad scrape on his leg, Joji describes Charly’s torture at Annabelle’s hands—including his hysterical cries of, Genocide! Genocide!…
Nagumo concludes that Charly’s “hallucinations” were anything but, and that he needs to put himself through the same experience to learn what the insects are doing. When the others cry out against his plan to let one of the venomous insects bite him, Nagumo explains that he has developed an antidote to the venom, which Junko can use to bring him back.
(And since there wasn’t time for more experiments before he left Tokyo, I’m taking this as permission to believe that Nagumo knows the antidote works because that guinea-pig was injected with it and recovered.)
(That’s right: humanity is on the verge of being wiped out, and I’m worried about a guinea-pig. So sue me.)
Nagumo makes the others tie him down, while Joji, using forceps, places one of the insects on his chest and encourages it to bite. (Nice, gruesome close-up here.) And within seconds, Nagumo is writhing in agony and shrieking about the insects wriggling between his bones, as the venom – somehow – connects him with the hive-mind…
Insect venom: not even once…
This psychedelic sequence is the visual highlight of War Of The Insects, with Nagumo’s distorted face blended with swirling overlays of butterflies, in a riot of colour and abstract imagery.
On the other hand, this subplot never entirely hangs together (for instance, Nagumo earlier remarks on the things Charly said before he died, when he didn’t say anything; only the insects [!] did), but it seems that what we have here is—well, I can’t exactly say “serendipity”, but its opposite: Annabelle’s Mad Plan to unleash her newly derived venomous insects just happens to coincide with the insects themselves getting equally fed up and concocting a plan of their own to wipe out mankind—basically using the same line of argument as Klaatu!—namely, that mankind can wipe itself out with their blessing, but the insects are not going to sit still and be wiped out too. And if that means destroying humanity before nuclear war can happen, so be it.
As Nagumo is reporting his experiences, explaining that the downing of the bomber was the insects’ first attack, and the airmen their first victims, Joji comments that there may be a fourth victim out there. Discussion clarifies that he saw a fourth parachute, but of a different colour—and Nagumo realises what that must have been.
Nagumo tells Junko to contact his lab in Tokyo, and order the mass production of the antidote; while he, Joji and Yukari head out to report to Gordon.
However, unknown to the others, Kudo has been an interested witness / eavesdropper to the entire evening’s events; so that during their boat journey back to the main island, the three are headed off and captured by Matsunaga and Yokoi, and taken to Annabelle’s house.
“Actually, sir, I understand they prefer not to be called ‘The Swarm’…”
Joji and Yukari are forced into a search for the downed bomb, while Nagumo is left to the tender mercies of a gun-wielding Annabelle. She was very interested to hear Kudo’s report of Nagumo’s self-experimentation, and tells him that he’ll have the chance to do it all again—only without the antidote.
As Annabelle reveals her plans, Nagumo makes a move. She responds by firing a warning shot—into the floor. In fact, through the floor. Down into the basement, where Annabelle keeps her insects…and through the glass of the tank in which she keeps them…
The entrance to Annabelle’s secret lab is hidden under her bed (paging Dr Freud!), and she forces Nagumo to slide the bed out of the way to expose the trapdoor. While he obeys, she confirms that it was she who shot at him in the cave—and also that the airmen were her first experimental subjects; only, she complains, the venom was too strong and their suffering too brief…
(Which begs the question of why the air-force doctor diagnosed cerebral haemorrhage due to blunt-force trauma as the cause of death. Possibly in their agonies the two men critically injured themselves, but given Joji’s situation, it’s a worry.)
Still at gunpoint, Nagumo lifts the trapdoor—and the freed insects stream into the room. Annabelle’s shocked reaction gives Nagumo his chance: he grabs her, and pushes her roughly down the stairs, then turns and runs…leaving the trapdoor open.
Meanwhile, Joji and Yukari’s forced march through the jungle has indeed located the H-bomb—which is covered with—bees? the venomous insects?—to which Yokoi reacts by shooting at them.
She was killed by her own creations!? Boy, I didn’t see THAT coming…
Anyway, this deeply stupid interlude gives Joji and Yukari the chance to escape.
Nagumo returns to Annabelle’s house, bringing Gordon and the others along; he is surprised to discover that the insects have all gone (!?). He shows Annabelle’s body to Gordon as proof of all he has asserted, and we get the film’s most gruesome detail, a close-up of two larvae-infested wounds on Annabelle’s chest, one of them just above her tattoo…
“I don’t care about insects!” retorts the myopic Gordon, prompting another lecture from Nagumo.
Joji and Yukari have taken refuge in another hut, but by this time the term “refuge” is an empty joke. Sure enough, the insects are able to penetrate the crudely built structure. In a last, desperate effort at redemption, Joji tries to create a shelter to Yukari: he rips up some floorboards, forcing her down underneath them and, when there is still a gap once the boards have been replaced, plugging it with his own body…
On the other hand, the insects have also caught up with Matsunaga and Yokoi. So there’s that.
Nagumo is desperately trying to locate Joji and Yukari – using information our humanist beat out of Kudo – when Junko breaks the news that the antidote hasn’t been ordered, because the people in Tokyo didn’t believe her story. “Humanity’s facing extinction, and now this!” responds Nagumo crossly—and that, for some reason – the lameness of the rider, perhaps – or the fact that there’s a rider at all – proved to be the trigger of my hysterical laughing fit.
Yeah, doesn’t it grind your gears?
Anyway— By the time Nagumo and Junko get back over to the island, the insects have done their work very thoroughly, leaving behind them a scene of devastation—and a single, hidden survivor.
The searchers locate the hut, and there they find Yukari, saved from the insects by her husband’s dead body—which Nagumo and Junko move swiftly to prevent her looking at.
The three return to the main island and immediately fall into Gordon’s clutches. Gordon orders Nagumo to come with him and, when the scientist replies angrily that he has work to do, evacuating the islanders and defeating the insects, pulls a gun on him. Left with no choice, Nagumo tells Junko to start the evacuation.
During this distraction, Yukari has taken matters into her own hands. Joji’s last words to her were to insist she survive no matter what – she and their baby – and now Yukari sets out to sea alone in a motor-boat:
Junko: “Yukari, where are you going?”
Yukari: “To have my baby somewhere without any insects!”
I think we’re supposed to see Yakuri as Humanity’s Hope, but…
And you call yourself an American!?
Nagumo, meanwhile, has been forced onto a plane with the Americans. Once safely in flight, Gordon reveals that they want his antidote. Nagumo responds angrily that they’re not the only ones who need it—the islanders do too.
Gordon: “Not anymore.”
To Nagumo’s horror, Gordon explains coolly that the H-bomb has been set to detonate—a last resort to stop the enemy getting it. Its detonation should also take care of the insects; and, oh yeah, cover up that embarrassing “broken arrow” situation. Too bad about the Japanese, but hey! – they should be used to that sort of thing, right…?
Nagumo fights desperately to prevent the H-bomb being detonated—getting shot for his trouble—but also getting some unexpected help from one of the American airmen, who clearly didn’t know what sort of mission he was on. But will it be enough to prevent a nuclear holocaust?
What do you think?
This review is part of the Nature’s Fury Blogathon, hosted by Cinematic Catharsis!
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So, the Blonde Bikini Babe was the mad scientist? I like that.
I used to intern at an anime store, and be a member of several clubs that did conventions and showings (back in the dim past before you could buy anime at Walmart). I got used to a strain of Anti-American feelings running through some Japanese film. (I’ve shown people that grew up watching “Star Blazers” the theatrical release of “Uuchu Senkan Yamato”, they were shocked). This film sounds so nihilist though, without any sympathetic characters, that one wonders whom the intended audience even was?
I think the nihilism of this film seems more a sign of the times. This was, after all, the same year as Night of the Living Dead, after all.
I might feel differently if I get a chance to watch this one, but it just seems over-the-top with unsympathetic characters. For contrast, I have the movie “Rica”, about a Japanese/American woman caught up in a life of crime a deceit. It’s exploitative, sleazy, and all that, but still seems to have more sympathetic characters than this.
So, the Blonde Bikini Babe was the mad scientist? I like that.
Yes, and it’s brilliantly set up so that it’s the last thing you expect.
This is an angry, depressed film made by and for angry, depressed people. It exists to pull the rug out from under you again and again, so that the only vaguely likeable characters are completely ineffectual, and it works hard to stop you enjoying it—most notably the Annabelle subplot: just as we’re just cheering the revelation and her Mad Plan, they whip out the concentration camp back-story and make us feel bad.
The levels of battiness are amazing, but they exist in a powerfully negative framework, so you need to consider whether this is a film for you. It’s certainly not for everyone.
Yes, at one point I was thinking, “This would make a great double-bill with Night Of The Living Dead!” But that’s the point of this film to me: we’re used to thinking of that era from the American point of view – using NOTLD as our nihilistic touchstone – so the strength of War Of The Insects is that it shows us that same period in history from a different (and even more pessimistic) perspective.
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I’m becoming intrigued by this, more and more. I can handle nihilism. I was afraid it was a pointless mess, but with what you and Gavin are saying, I will give the film a try when I can. 🙂
It’s certainly nihilistic, but it isn’t pointless.
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Why do you want to breed vast numbers of insects that drive people mad and scatter them all over the world?
Because it’s SCIENCE!
Always the best answer.
The Guinea Pig (and your relief) reminds me of the goat in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the real one, not that abomination which shall not be named). In the summary at the end, where he’s listed the fate of all the people (mostly dead), the goat is reported to be fine.
To paraphrase Homer Simpson:
“Science: the cause of, and the answer to, all of life’s problems.”
Yeah, you can wipe out humanity with my blessing, but show me an animal and There Will Be Fretting…
I knew how you felt when I watched The Beast with 10,000 eyes, where a COW supposedly goes wild and tries to kill someone. We spent 2 weeks every summer on my Uncle Glenn’s dairy farm, and to my eyes, the only thing the cow was trying to do was chew its cud. Then they killed it!
We loved going to see Uncle Glenn and his cows. I was 13-14 years old when I first realized that you weren’t really supposed to like That Smell. (always smelled like vacation to me)
The close-ups of the biting insects are clearly Japanese giant hornets, a truly horrifying breed, but the swarms are all clearly bees which makes for a very confusing menace. Meanwhile, I want to know how they got the biting footage since it appears to be actual human skin: did someone actually volunteer for that?
All in all, I actually kind of love this bizarre, horribly nihilistic film–as my rather rough review can attest: http://deinonychusreviews.blogspot.com/2013/12/genocide-1968.html
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That is certainly footage of a real bite—I think only one bite, edited differently in the different scenes. Probably they obtained it using the same approach as Junko did with Charly (“What, you afraid of an insect, you wimp?”).
Yes, I kind of love it too. 😀
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Terrific review, Lyz! Very funny too! You deserve accolades just for attempting to make sense of this hodge-podge of multiple plot threads, unrelated characters and conflicting stories. I’m glad you mentioned the somewhat more coherent (but no les nihilistic) Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, which would make an excellent companion piece on a double bill.
Thanks so much for participating in the Nature’s Fury Blogathon!
Thank you, Barry!
Thanks too for arranging and hosting the Blogathon, it’s been great fun. 🙂
Aye Lyz, I don’t know how to get in contact with you through e-mail or anything so I thought I’d just try responding to you through your latest blog post. First off I wanted to say I’m a big fan of your writing. I found out about your site through 1000misspenthours (and El Santo’s a really cool, smart guy, love his reviews and have talked to him a few times through e-mail) links page and I really liked your reviews. I thought you were too harsh on some of my favorite bad movies like the Friday the 13th films but I really liked your reviews, especially when you went into the actual science vs the film’s science. Some of my favorites from you were Jurassic Park, Jason X, Amityville Horror, Freddy vs Jason, I pretty much dig your writing in general and I’m glad that I was able to find your latest site as before this I was still reading the older one (I think you stopped posting on that around 2007).
Anyway there was one movie that I just watched that I think would be perfect for your style of reviewing, 2009/10’s Splice. The movie seems right down your alley as its focused a lot on science and is just a weird assed kind of David Cronenberg flick. I honestly don’t think the film is particularly good (the characters are never formed that well and it seems to try to do things to distrub the viewer more for the sake of doing it than any importance to the plot) buts its not like you’ve ever shyed away from reviewing bad or gross out films.
Anyway, keep up the good work. It is pretty cool that there’s an intelligent, nerdy chick who is into a lot of the same things I am and can write as well as knowledgeable scientifically. Out of the entire B Masters Cabal I’m fairly sure you’re the only woman and its nice to get a woman’s viewpoint on some of these things.
If you want it, the old email is still up at the old site…which, by the way, I was updating until December of last year; although, granted, the combination of work pressures, health issues and technical problems meant I wasn’t updating very often. 🙂
Anyway, thanks for sticking by me in spite of everything! I very much appreciate your visits. Yup, the only girl in the clubhouse, that’s me.
A couple of people have mentioned Splice to me (it’s currently on my endless Stuff I Missed While Watching The Other Stuff list), so I will keep it in mind. It does sound a bit shocking-for-the-sake-of-shocking, but on the other hand I gather there’s no shortage of SCIENCE!! to
“That’s my girl!”
It strikes me that this could be called a mad-science film noir. That’s a genre in which it’s not uncommon for all the characters to be rotten and for the hottie to turn out to be the villain.
Hi. In case you didn’t know that Cinematic Titanic has riffed this film, well, now you do. 🙂
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Hi – yes, I did find that out on the way through.
“Yeah, you can wipe out humanity with my blessing, but show me an animal and There Will Be Fretting…” Yeah, that’s how I react too. One of the things I liked best about Fury Road is that for a change Max didn’t lose a dog! I thank George Miller for at least keeping some of the violence offscreen in the first two movies. With The Road Warrior I have to console myself with the thought that, if there is a dog Valhalla in the film’s universe his dog surely went to it.
This film sounds fascinating. I’ve not heard of it before and must now find a copy of it to watch. One thing I’m curious about – the mention of Annabelle being marked with a tattoo first made me think of Nazi concentration camps but then I wondered if the film makers meant her character to be one of the “comfort women” taken by the Imperial Japanese Army. There were a number of European women subjected to that fate too. It would be a truly remarkable thing if a Japanese studio were to include such a thing in a movie.
As for Charly being put in charge of the H-bomb, yes it seems crazy but I’ve made a study of how many careless, crazy and downright terrifying things have happened over the years relating to the world’s nuclear arsenal and I’m amazed we haven’t vaporized ourselves yet. I wouldn’t recommend reading up on the subject unless you’re willing to give yourself retroactive insomnia and lose every hour of good sleep you’ve ever had.
Aw, man, I hate those films where you just know something awful’s going to happen to an animal from the first time you see it! (Though at least in those examples it wasn’t supposed to be funny, which isn’t awlways the case.)
No, Annabelle is explicitly European and we have another grim interlude of war stock footage to back up her story. It is interesting that a Japanese film would go in that direction, while continuing to ignore its own country’s past.
Truth is stranger than fiction—but conversely, films are supposed to be more logical than reality! And yes, you would prefer that dumb luck didn’t play quite so large a role in our continued existence…
I think you breath a sigh of relief on the guinea pig. I was inspired to run out and add this movie to my Kajiu and all things weird Japanese collection by this review. When the Doctor was telling them the antidote would work, he said he tested it on guinea pigs so I think you are right in your assumption that he saved the guinea pig from the start of the film.
Hi! – welcome. 🙂
This certainly fits the description “weird things Japanese”! Yup, I’m going to go on thinking that guinea-pig is just fine…
So hey, I was strolling through YouTube the other day and found the Cinematic Titanic, Live episode of this movie! It is on the MST3K Episodes Channel. It was pretty fun watching it again with the MST3K cast doing their trademark treatment of it.
I still haven’t watched that; I deliberately avoided doing so before reviewing the film, because that sort of thing does colour your reaction.