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Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/27/09 09:37:56

"Kokugakushu, not kaiju."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: "Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo" would be a fine name for a tacky kaiju sci-fi movie (heck, I wouldn't be surprised if it's been used). It's not that, not even a little. Instead of being another bizarre and fantastic piece of Japanese pop culture, it's a low-key documentary that does a nice job explaining an aspect or two of Japanese life and philosophy.

It starts with a boy pestering his father to buy him a pet beetle. The first one he sets his eyes on would cost his father fifty-seven dollars. The father convinces him to set his sights on one that's less expensive. That's still an eyebrow-raising purchase and amount to most westerners, but insects have an important place within Japanese culture. We are told of the kokugakushu, scholars of centuries ago who attempted to define what it meant to be Japanese, and the theory of mono no aware, finding beauty in that which does not last. Art forms like the haiku are prized for being precise and minuscule.

We are told this by Haruku Shizuku's soft-spoken, subtitled Japanese narration. That's an interesting choice, considering that director Jessica Oreck is American and the film is presumably being made for a non-Japanese audience. It works, though; we are being given quite a few facts, but her voice is friendly, closer to a parent explaining things to a child than a lecturing professor; her speaking in her native tongue makes her somewhat more trustworthy. People curious enough to seek this movie out are likely not going to be overly concerned about subtitles.

Oreck happily wanders where her curiosity leads her. We see the popular fascination with beetles, but also other insects, such as dragonflies, grasshoppers, and fireflies, and their places in Japanese culture. There's discussion of how, when Buddhism came to Japan, it and the traditional Shinto religion enhanced each other rather than coming into conflict, or how Japan's psyche has been influenced by being on the receiving end of forty times its share of the world's recorded natural disasters. She'll then wander back to insects, or let the subject stand as we watch some silent imagery on-screen, maybe filing it in our minds for later research.

Some of what we see is beautiful, whether it be cityscapes or country scenes. I can't say that I had come to enjoy the sight of beetles as large as a child's fist by the end of the film, although I had developed an odd fascination with the image of their juvenile stages. Oreck spends some time showing us the family of the beetle-mad kid from the start, as well as following a professional beetle hunter, who graciously explains about how you must kick a tree hard enough to stun the beetles so that they fall off rather than fly away, but you don't want to stir up a hornets' nest.

"Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo" is an oddly relaxing documentary. Tranquil, almost, in the middle of a festival. It's a sociological document with the pacing of a nature documentary, which is perhaps fitting considering the Japanese aesthetic of trying to achieve harmony with the natural world.

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