(2009) director Jessica Oreck
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is a funky-sounding title for a very interesting and thought-provoking documentary about Japanese culture and the Japanese “obsession”/relationship/appreciation for insects. The film, while produced and directed by an American, is narrated in Japanese, instructing and giving some background, historically and culturally, about a long-standing relationship with the insect world. Though the film has this instructive voice-over, it also tends to flit around across various aspects of the ways that insects are absorbed in Japanese culture.
The film begins with the large beetles that are collected in the forests and sold in the cities as pets, revered and well-cared for by children and adults. But the film doesn’t merely focus on beetles. We are told how dragonflies came to symbolize strength and became symbols for the Samurai class. There are festivals in which people travel to watch fireflies swarm in the night. There are also some less-appealing creatures like silkworms and another that looks like an enormous maggot.
Writer/director Jessica Oreck traces these connections to Japanese aesthetics reaching back to Shinto animism, belief that spirits embody every living thing. Thus all creatures are honored, even some of the most lowly. She also connects other Japanese cultural motifs such as Mono no aware, which bears an appreciation for the transience of life, the short-lived transitional world, the impermanence of things. She also draws on the form of haiku and how it’s simple concision represents the aspect of impossibility of communicating some concepts in words.
What also comes to the fore is the contrast between the urban world where these insects are sold, where most of present day Japanese people live, and the woods and mountains and countryside that from which these insects are collected. The insects represent a connection to nature, something from which the modern day Japanese (or modern day anywhere city dweller) has detachment. The deeper connections to aesthetics and beliefs systems that honor and revere the natural world, reflect a culture that was once much more in tune with.
I actually found this film quite interesting, probably one of the most interesting I’ve seen this year. It is, of course, an outsider’s perspective on Japanese culture, while it does try to document and reveal information accurately. It is what it is, and to my mind, it was very contemplative, and something that I have been recommending a lot to anyone who will listen.