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Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo: movie review

'Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo' documents Japan's fascination with insects.

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A scene from ‘Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo’ hints at the film’s title-to-credits approach: Get viewers to connect with a Japanese affinity for bugs.

Argot Pictures/Myriad Productions

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How could I resist reviewing a movie called "Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo"? No, it's not a "Godzilla"-style sci-fi film. It's something far stranger – a poetic documentary about the Japanese fascination with bugs. The director, Jessica Oreck, is a first-time filmmaker and longtime animal keeper at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. She knows her horned beetles and dragonflies, which I dare say is more than can be said for most filmmakers.

Except for the occasional stilted voice-over narration, spoken by a Japanese woman in tones soothing enough to lull you into beddy-bye, "Beetle Queen" is blessedly free of bioethnological cant. Watching this film, I never felt as though I was going to be graded afterward. Oreck's lack of experience as a filmmaker turns out to be a plus. She approaches her subject in a intuitively haphazard manner, and if this sometimes results in digressions going nowhere, her nowheres are still more interesting than most directors' somewheres. (She visually contrasts, for example, pedestrians' multicolored umbrellas with beetles' protective shells.)

The Japanese love affair with insects takes many forms, but most of them are, by Western standards, exotic. To Oreck's credit, she doesn't attempt to play down the exoticism by pretending to go native. She shows us how insects, popular house pets, are routinely sold live in vending machines, department stores, and street fairs. We go on bug hunts in the countryside – prize beetles can sometimes sell for as much as $90,000. In one especially magical scene, we watch families mass outdoors at night to watch fireflies.

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