'Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo' documents Japan's fascination with insects.
Argot Pictures/Myriad Productions
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.
Oreck has an almost pantheistic visual sense, and this is somewhat in keeping with the spiritual roots of bug love in Japan, which derives from Shintoism and Buddhism. The thesis of the movie is that everything in nature is cohesive and worthy of veneration. Because Japan is so densely populated, and subject to so many natural disasters, from tidal waves to earthquakes, a respect for the fundamental origins of life is inherent in bug worship.