An entomologist's delight, Jessica Oreck's movie about Japan's insect mania is worth watching even if you're repulsed by creepy-crawlers. A stimulating, impressionistic take on the country's long love affair with bugs, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo delivers rich insights into the Japanese character that in other contexts, and absent more detail, might be seen as negatively stereotypical. Yet to unspool in Japan, the doc's U.S. theatrical premiere at Film Forum provides the best opportunity to gauge how culturally sensitive audiences will react.
Without relying on statistics or any other typical non-fiction storytelling devices, Oreck, an animal keeper and docent at New York City's American Museum of Natural History, illustrates a national obsession that will likely come as news to most viewers. It so happens the Japanese are avid bug collectors-with a particular fondness for beetles, crickets and dragonflies-and the fascination can be traced far back into their history. For instance, the dragonfly is the emblem of the empire and a symbol of bravery favored by samurai.
As Oreck plausibly maintains (and this could serve as her thesis), "the ergonomic lives of insects has been a model for the Japanese for millennia." The 4th century introduction of rice paddies created the ideal habitat for bugs, and as urban sprawl and other factors have encroached on this waterlogged environment, the fixation on insects has been fed by cultural nostalgia and pride, as well as by ecological impulses and the conservation movement.
Oreck starts by following one beetle purveyor into the forest as he hunts for various specimens. Kicking trees and seeing what falls out is one of his more fruitful gathering methods. We see eager children shopping for beetles in a pet store and, later, fawning over their new pals at home. Collecting bugs is an avocation that appears to bring adults and kids together, although it does seem to be a predominantly male pastime. Oreck visits various insect-related festivals and we learn of urbanites who keep crickets in order to be serenaded by their song.
Interspersed throughout is close-up footage of hatching larvae and insects at various stages of development, plus numerous snippets that demonstrate the ubiquity of bugs in pop culture. Sequences revealing the paraphernalia involved in bug collecting-cabinets, pins, kits, satchels-indicate it's a serious and lucrative business. Lest there be any doubt about that, insects play a significant role in the economy; the collector Oreck follows into the forest is seen driving his red Ferrari, bought with proceeds from selling beetles.
Meanwhile, a female narrator traces the origins of the phenomenon in poetry and history, linking the fascination with bugs to the animism of the Shinto religion, Buddhism's belief in reincarnation, as well as to haiku poetry and the popularity of Zen gardens and bonsai trees. These lofty segments contain tantalizing references to ideas such as miniaturization, aesthetic minimalism and the transience of life. One interviewee, author and anatomist Dr. Takeshi Yoro, eloquently and enigmatically opines on "what insects can teach us and how they can change us," without ever really specifying what or how.
While many of the arising themes aren't spelled out verbally, their visual representation is stunning and exact, supplemented by pulsing electronic music. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams (a protégé of filmmaker Albert Maysles) demonstrates that insects are woven into the urban rural landscape. Overhead shots of swarming pedestrians and blurry, bugs-eye-point-of-view images flash across the screen full of portent. The editing also provocatively implies that Japanese society is somehow comparable to an insect community.
All this suggests there might be a dark side to the national fascination. Many questions linger, not least whether Oreck's idealization of Japanese bug worship isn't a tad patronizing. If she had addressed certain topics less obliquely Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo would come off less like an exercise in Orientalism, but it might also have failed to capture the mystery and beauty of Japanese bugophilia. In any event, as one eager little boy squeals while beetle hunting, "Catch it! Catch it!"
Distributor: Argot Pictures
Director/Producer: Jessica Oreck
Genre: Documentary; Japanese-language, with English subtitles
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: May 12 NY, May 28 LA