Film Review: Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

This poetic documentary about the Japanese fascination for smaller worlds and their arthropod inhabitants is also an introduction to all things Japanese.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is not a new horror flick about the invasion of that city by giant beetles, but its stars are that mostly unattractive order of insects Aristotle named coleoptera (sheath-winged). In an engaging and poetic documentary, writer-director Jessica Oreck ponders the Japanese preoccupation with beetles and other arthropods, including dragonflies, butterflies and fireflies.

Oreck, a docent and “animal keeper” at New York City’s Museum of Natural History, explains the role of Shintoism in Japan’s cultural history, and how its animistic philosophy predisposes the Japanese to their distinctive relationship with the natural world. The documentary’s narration, in Japanese, consisting of snippets of Japanese philosophy and folklore, illustrates that a current craze for pet beetles is actually an expression of Japan’s ancient tradition of contemplation, of perceiving the sweeping forces of nature in the habits of smaller, nearly invisible living things.

Moving from father and son beetle foraging, to bug supermarkets and auctions, Oreck brings an educator’s curiosity to this unfamiliar world, immersing her Western audiences in Japan, rather than conducting them on a pedantic tour for outsiders. Beetle Queen begins in an insect market where a Japanese boy is shopping for a pet beetle. It’s a clever preamble that engages adult viewers and young people alike, perhaps because it inspires visions of that smaller, childhood world of wonder populated by birds, bugs, toads and furry things. Later, we see the boy conducting beetle contests with other beetle-crazed boys—girls looking on uncertainly—as well as playing a videogame that features beetle heroes. In 2007, Science magazine reported that such Japanese videogames inspired a craze for exotic beetle species costing $400 or more, and that the sale and export of beetles to Japan was actually endangering one species indigenous only to the Amanos Mountains of Turkey.

Oreck intersperses sequences of beetle and beetle larvae foraging with a few talking heads, and lingering Tokyo street scenes. The latter are her one mistake. The montages are too lengthy to provide a relaxing respite from the narration, and if they are intended to point out why the denizens of a densely populated city flee to quiet forests to observe bugs, a few shots of Tokyo at rush hour would have sufficed.

Beetle Queen’s swiftly moving subtitles will limit the audience for younger children who might otherwise enjoy Oreck’s sense of wonder, although the writer-director’s choice of language seems appropriate for that cultural immersion she strives for and achieves. Two magical sequences in the film are worth the requisite contemplation of black things with giant mandibles; one is the sight of Japanese families venturing out at dusk to watch fireflies, and the other is a nighttime father-son excursion involving klieg lights.