Judge Jake Ware once thought the only good bug is a dead bug. Now he's ready to make peace with the little critters.
"Insects, in their miniscule being, represent the entire history of a culture. They are inscribed with all the impenetrable mysteries of nature and all the varying philosphies of the human mind."
If the above quote is news to you, then you should definitely watch Jessica Oreck's moving and beautifully executed study of Japanese traditions, history and culture via the examination of its people's relationship with and love of insects.
Despite its catchy title which brings to mind Godzilla and other monsters destroying Japan's cities, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is a film that eschews the typical documentary format of talking heads followed by an explanatory clip for a more lyrical and poetic approach. The effect is thoughtful and meditative. As its central theme, Beetle Queen uses the Japanese fascination with insects and then weaves elements of zoology, history, philosophy, and culture around it. We are introduced to a wholly different way of seeing and interacting with insects than the one dominant in the West where we learn from an early age to dismiss, brush aside and stomp on any creepy-crawly that comes within striking distance. The Japanese not only show an interest in insects, they keep them as pets, go on outings to view them or catch them, collect living and dead samples, and study their behavior. The insects, it would seem, have a great deal to teach us, if only we are willing to learn.
Along the way the film shows us many elements of Japanese culture, both insect related and otherwise. We encounter the vast insect markets that are not unlike our own pet shops, supplying every kind of accessory an insect collector could dream of. We meet a man who has a collection of living crickets in his home as he enjoys their song and likens his passion for it to a love for music. We meet a man who has bought a Ferrari from the money he has made catching and selling insects. We meet a man who keeps a vast collection of butterfly and moth specimens that he likens to a diary as it reminds him of where he was and how he felt on the day that he captured each insect.
As our guide, we hear an eloquently written narration that informs us of a variety of Japanese traditions, culture and philosophy. We are introduced to the role of Shinto and Buddhism in Japan, the deep respect for nature and its cycles that the Japanese have, and their attempts at interacting with nature in practices such as Zen gardening and Bonsai cultivation. Haiku poetry is described as containing the universal within the miniscule, and that pretty much sums up the Japanese respect for the insect, a creature they see as containing the greater truths of the world within its small body and life cycle.
Director Jessica Oreck uses images that are sometimes visual metaphors of the narration, and at other times seem to have nothing to do with what we are hearing. These images are accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack that combines some Japanese techno pop with a playful and charming electronic score. The overall effect is meditative and rather mesmerizing. And yet, the film makes perfect sense at the end, and after seeing it I feel that I have learned something about the Japanese way of life. Perhaps it's not statistical knowledge that I have gained, but it's a deeper understanding of the Japanese as a people with a long history and an old culture that still plays a significant role in their lives today.
It must be said that the lack of any clear narrative structure or key characters will put some viewers off. Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo should not be approached as an ordered primer on either Japan or insects. It is rather an impressionistic view of Japan and its traditions from the point of view of an outsider distanced enough from what they are seeing to isolate specifics and idiosyncrasies.
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo comes to DVD with a decent transfer that complements its beautiful imagery. The 2.0 Stereo soundtrack does a good job with the film's sound mix. Mention must be made of the DVD package created by distributor Factory 25. The design is beautiful and the paper packaging lends itself to the film. Included is a small booklet containing images form the film as well as an interview with the director that acts in lieu of a commentary. It's a short, but welcome extra. Also included on the DVD are a three additional interview clips with philosopher and bug lover Dr. Takeshi Yoro, who is featured in the film.
I loved Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo. It is not a film that I will return to very often as, like a dream, if one examines it too closely one runs the risk of unraveling its magic and mystery. But seeing it was a hypnotic and deeply satisfying experience, one that has left me with a newly revitalized interest in Japanese culture and the insect world.
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