Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo: movie review

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

By , Film critic

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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.
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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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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.

Bugs are seen as little universes in miniature – living haikus. The bug lovers in this movie speak of their specimens – their butterflies and rainbow beetles and the rest – in fond, familial tones. "If you have eyes to see and ears to hear, they will tell you something," says one collector, and he goes on to recount how he felt when he caught a particularly prized butterfly. Another man says he has crickets for pets because he loves their soft whirring music.

Oreck gives us some marvelous close-ups of scampering beetles and butterflies emerging from their pupae, but the focus here is primarily on people, like the excited little boy who buys a beetle in a shop and then takes it home to show his equally goggle-eyed siblings and friends. (The No. 1 kids' video game in Japan is the buggy "MushiKing.") This film takes you back – at least it took me back, way back – to a time when rooting around for bugs was more of a passion than an icky nuisance. Oreck gets at our childlike fascination with the intricacy of insects, with the miniaturization of life that they represent.

For the Japanese, this miniaturization, whether it be bugs or haikus or bonsai, is essential to an apprehension of nature's wonder. A Lafcadio Hearn quote from the film could serve as its credo: "The people that could find delight, century after century, in watching the ways of insects, and in making verses about them, must have comprehended, better than we, the simple pleasures of existence." Grade: A- (Unrated.)

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