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Movie Review: Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

Hands holding two black beetles

(This film was screened at the 2009 AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles on Oct. 31.)

What if the lowly beetle were to miraculously gain the ability of comprehension and began to fully understand the Japanese culture’s obsession with its tiny black form? Would the beetle be flattered? Baffled? Or would it feel the sting of oppression and exploitation?

According to Jessica Oreck‘s stunningly beautiful documentary Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, the Japanese are absolutely mad about insects and, in particular, the beetle. Beetles are everywhere. They are sold in pet shops the way hamsters are sold in the U.S. And when one is done admiring live beetles bought at the pet shop, one can play a video game and catch digital ones.

There are beetle conventions in Japan that look like American comic book conventions, but instead of pawing through cardboard boxes stuffed with old comics, attendees can pick out live beetles out of mountains of clear plastic containers. And, instead of fawning over aging movie and TV stars from the ’80s and ’90s, one can meet a unique kind of Japanese superstar: Men who star in DVDs about beetle hunting in the forest.

Beetles are huge business, too. Not only are there beetles to buy, but special beetle food to eat, grass to burrow into and various aquarium-style knickknacks to adorn their cages. And, once one’s beetle kicks the bucket, one can buy a special shadow box and pins and cellophane to display the corpse in. The beetle inspires such a huge business, one young man is seen proudly driving a Ferrari, which he bought from money earned selling beetles. The man drives his Ferrari¬† out into the woods so he can kick trees and snatch up new, dazed and confused beetles to sell.

Oreck shows all of this in equal measures of history lesson, science lesson and through sheer artistry. The cinematography by Sean Price Williams is exquisite, capturing the diminutive beetle and blowing it up to gargantuan proportions so we can study its every detail — not easy given how slickly black the beetle’s outer armor is. We can partially grow to understand Japan’s obsession just by admiring how unique and unusual a creature it really is.

At the same time, human subjects are also placed under the camera’s microscopic lens as if to form a connection between admirer and source of admiration. Most of the people we see in detail in the film are children, particularly one young boy who is as crazy for beetles as other boys might be crazy about power rangers or ninja turtles. He’s so in love with beetles he looks like he’s about to burst in every scene he’s in. It’s an enthusiasm that’s infectious that carries throughout the film.

The film also alternates between verit√© scenes of the modern day love affair with beetles with narrated segments detailing the origins of that affair back through the centuries. There are many tales about emperors and other noblemen demanding poems to be written about beautiful insects they’ve crossed paths with. Despite the particular attention heaped on the beetle, the Japanese insect craze also extends to crickets, lightning bugs, cicadas and others. One modern man keeps a house full of chirping crickets that is music to his ears, but may drive most sane men mad.

All of this, including the narration, is in Japanese. It’s difficult to explain an entire culture, but Oreck does a masterful job of immersing us into the science, history and philosophy of Japan. Oreck is especially deft in how she ties together several Japanese traditions that Westerners may already be familiar with to explain why they’re so fascinated by what we might consider creepy-crawlies. The tradition of the haiku, the religious beliefs in Buddhism and Shintoism all tie into the concept of “mono no aware,” which is the ability to see the beauty in the transient.

Also, as Tokyo grows ever higher up into the sky and wider out into the earth, keeping beetles is but one way urban dwellers can stay connected to the nature they can’t otherwise see. On the one hand, beetles look like little alien entities. And on the other, they really are completely alien to the inner city of Tokyo. There are many shots of crowded, busy Tokyo streets. Grey buildings wrapped in neon seem to stretch into the landscape into forever. People and cars bustling everywhere. But, in the homes, there are beetles to be admired, adored and loved — a brief, natural respite from the man-made, manufactured chaos outside.

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