Sign up for the Film Comment Letter today to get original film writing delivered to your inbox every week! >>

Short Takes: Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

(Jessica Oreck, U.S./Japan, 2009)

Some documentaries simulate the experience of a relaxed, thoughtful conversation with someone knowledgeable and interesting, and Jessica Oreck’s examination of the place insects occupy in the Japanese imagination qualifies. After initially pondering the basic fact that creepy-crawlies are not always viewed with affection elsewhere, the film delves into Japanese thought and culture rather than simply parading examples of bugmania sweeping the nation or close-ups of six-legged Lilliputian wonders, though there are also plenty of both.

Bug collecting is big in Japan, we learn, be it beetles whose armored hulks evoke car bodies or crickets that fill a room with chirrupy song. Departing from the standard they-sell-that-in-stores? treatment, Oreck fearlessly rolls out literary and philosophical underpinnings—though culturally and visually, bugs in Japanese cinema seem an untapped resource here. A hushed but enthusiastic female voiceover in Japanese talks of mono no aware, a way of relating to things in the world at large, valiantly making mention of the viewer’s objective and subjective perspective.

Beetle Queen maintains an intuitive and often lovely flow of images and ideas, contrary to the shopworn gonzo-Japanese flavor of the title (or the thumping dance track that opens the film). Admittedly, this reviewer has nothing against insects (except when they are eating his food), but Oreck finds insights and forges connections that transcend squeamishness.