May 12th, 2009–
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2009) 90 min. Writer & director: Jessica Orek, cinematographer: Sean Price Williams, film editing: Theo Angell, Jessica Orek, Original music: J.C. Morrison, narration: Dr. Takeshi Yoro
Jessica Oreck’s new insecto-centric documentary couldn’t be more tonally different from its title if it tried. While Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo conjures images of giant rubber monsters eating cities, the actual film is a meditative, thought provoking mood piece centered around Japan’s fascination with insects. Oreck, whose full-time job is as an entomologist at New York’s Museum of Natural History, makes a spectacular film debut that focuses on the wonder and beauty of it’s minuscule animal world while also celebrating the human culture that reveres and adores it. Instead of flooding the movie with dry statistics and by the numbers scientific facts about insects, Beetle Queen embraces true Japanese aesthetics and gives us a languorous, patient, and at times poetic ode to beetles, fireflies, inch-worms and the intimate design of nature that they represent.
Beetle Queen opens with images of a young japanese boy wandering through a shop, trying to convince his father to buy him a beetle that costs nearly 60 dollars; the bug in question is an enormous thing, almost the size of an adult’shand. If you happen to have a phobia involving anything with more than four legs, the film might be difficult to stomach at first. The japanesechildren are entirely enamored with the beetles, and they collect them the same way an american child might collect baseball cards or comic books. If the picture Oreck paints is accurate, than the rest of Japan is obsessed as well. Consumers buy insects, trade them, play video games centered around them, and we see endless amounts of merchandise on the shelves that bear images of creepy crawlies.
In the film’s opening twenty minutes I was amused and intrigued by this cultural disconnect I was feeling; the Japanese seem to hold the bugs in high esteem, as if they personify the unity and interconnected facets of nature. Still, as I watched children play with beetles the size of a softball, I had a hard time relating to this unique past-time. To the credit of Oreck, and her cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, they manage to do the near impossible: they craft the film in such a way that it compels the viewer to adopt the mindset it’s documenting. Williams cinematography is breath-taking and it captures the natural beauty of the Japanese countryside and the picturesque loneliness of the night-time cityscape.
At the same time that Oreck hones in on the humans and their rituals, habits and behaviors, the insects themselves are observed in the kind of extreme detail that places the viewer inside of their world. All of these images are woven together so that they thematically intertwine, and reflect the film’s gentle narration by Dr. Takeshi Yoro, a Japanese entomologist and philosopher who believes that human interest in the insect world is edifying.
Yoro narrates in his native Japanese and the film provides subtitles. There is little scientific knowledge, and instead the film travels into Japanese history and shares poetry, anecdotes and folklore surrounding insects. An interesting, throbbing score by J.C.Morrison creates another layer to the film that sometimes helps in identifying the insect-like behaviors of bustling businessmen or the almost perceptably human attributes of the bugs.
For all the vast visual and aural information tossed about in Beetle Queen, the experience of watching the movie isn’t really an intellectual exercise. I found myself most intrigued by the scenes that took place out in dark fields, with children wandering through the mist hunting fireflies, or an interlude with a bug hunter who walks into the middle of a forest and kicks a nearby tree in order to stun the bugs he will then collect. It’s moments like this that capture the obvious wonder of these tiny creatures interacting with the humans in their natural habitats. On the soundtrack we hear the constant flapping of wings or droning of crickets, and it’s transporting.
By the end, I considered how amazing this microscopic community really is, and if we aren’t missing something by being less than fascinated by it. The beauty of nature and creation are encompassed in these diminutive beings and Beetle Queen actually celebrates that fact. I have fond memories of childhood that involve sitting in my backyard with a flashlight hunting for various bugs and spiders, and regarding each one with awe. The strength of a movie like this is that it inspires me to seek out those long forgotten activitesand familiarize myself once more with the compelling marvels of God’s creation.
But Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is as much about the people who see the bugs, as the bugs themselves. I’m a huge fan of Japanese film, and Oreck, an American, has created a picture that is intriguingly Japanese in its sensibilities. There are images of sublime and staggering beauty as the camera captures the air, the earth and the mountains of Japan. Each person who wanders in and out of the frame posesses a unique voice and without too much posturing on the part of the filmmakers these characters get the films’ main themes across; that a life lived close to nature offers more than one without it. Whether or not you agree with the sentiment, Beetle Queen makes a compelling argument for it.
Sometimes the movie can become too sedate for its own good, and the images lull us into an almost somnambulist state; once there, it’s hard to come back to the place Oreck wants you at, absorbing the information and artistry at hand. Still, it’s one of the more imaginative documentaries I’ve seen lately and as an experience it’s natural charms are often superior to big budget visuals and contrived drama. Here’s all the best to Oreck and her team. I’ll be awaiting Beetle Queen on Bluray.