By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Director Jessica Oreck opens her made-in-Japan documentary, “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo,” with two Japanese insect hunters in a wooded area.
Over the course of the film, we see them several times, kicking trees to knock beetles to the ground, waving butterfly nets in the air, and explaining how to defeat angry hornets using their plastic specimen boxes as clubs.
Oreck, an animal keeper and docent at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, wants to study the Japanese fascination with insects, both as mythic and physical creatures. In her film, she’s determined — and rightly so — to emphasize images and ideas, not individuals.
Therefore, we don’t learn the hunters’ names. The movie’s end credits only distinguish two people from the film — the narrator, Haruku Shinozaki, and Dr. Takeshi Yoro, a professor emeritus at Tokyo University and famous philosopher. Yoro lectures on the deeper meanings of insect devotion.
The movie doesn’t have much of a plot, and it doesn’t need one. Oreck knows how to capture cinematic short stories, usually five to 10 minutes long, to effectively illustrate her points.
For instance, early on in the movie, we see a small boy shopping for a beetle in a pet store. The rainbow beetle that he wants costs 57 dollars (yen equivalent). The adult male with him carefully steers the boy toward a beetle that’s a little cheaper.
Oreck keeps her camera pointed straight or down at the boy’s face. We hear the adult’s warm voice, but never see him above the shoulders. Oreck is showing that this is the boy’s world, his playland.
Throughout “Beetle Queen,” footage showing insects, insect gatherers, and urban life in Tokyo contrasts with the narration’s emphasis on the importance of the insect in Japanese life throughout centuries of its history.
One issue with this is that the narration, written by Oreck, sometimes feels like a history lesson that should be aired on public television.
The visuals, however, never fail.
Cinematographer Sean Price Williams, working with Oreck, captures everything from small-scale shots (winged insects emerging from their cocoons) to large-scale shots (trains, highways, and busy Tokyo intersections). He uses special high-speed film to follow fireflies and firefly hunters.
The movie captures human and insect action in midair, on land, and on water, and even shows footage from Japanese bug-centric video games. “Mushiking: The King of Beetles,” a combination card/arcade video game that’s spawned more than 20,000 tournaments in Japan, takes up a few crucial minutes halfway through the film.
Comparisons between human and insect life also make the film memorable.
At one point, the narrator explains the importance of the dragonfly to the ancient Japanese warrior class, while we watch a contemporary man styling and spraying his receding hair into an Elvis Presley-like pompadour, every bit as stylized as the dress and rituals of those ancient warriors. We also see an imposing beetle with antennae resembling deer horns, wandering around Tokyo streets much like a human pedestrian.
From caterpillar-like trains and subways to the scrabbling-ant motion of pedestrians across avenues, “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo” reminds us of the uncanny insect-like aspects of humanity. The soundtrack gives us the history of this relationship. But the never-ending surprises on screen immortalize the breadth and scope of this relationship. ♦
“Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo” plays July 30 through Aug. 5 at the Grand Illusion Cinema, 1403 N.E. 50th Street in Seattle’s University District. For prices and show times, call 206-523-3935 or visit www.grandillusioncinema.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.