Monday, May 10, 2010

Bug Love: Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

Careful where you step, you might crush some serious money. Coveted as pets, rainbow beetles carry a market price of approximately $57 dollars in Tokyo, while more exotic species fetch proportionally higher prices. This Japanese cultural preoccupation with insects is examined in Jessica Oreck’s meditative documentary, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (trailer here), which opens Wednesday at Film Forum.

Probably all children love bugs, but for American kids it is often a function of their gross-out appeal, whereas in Japan, it reflects a fascination with their tiny worlds. Evidently, the traditional Japanese affection for all things entomological, particularly crickets and other “crying” insects, lasts well into adulthood, as Oreck illustrates with footage of various insect shows and festivals, drawing patrons of all ages.

Approaching her subject more as an essayist than a documentarian, Oreck quotes manifestations of insect love throughout Japanese literature and folklore, including the classic eleventh century novel The Tale of Genji, evocatively read in Japanese while accompanied by Philip Glass-inspired minimalist scores. Indeed, Oreck explicitly compares insect keeping to haiku poetry and Japanese “zen” rock gardens, as expressions of the Japanese aesthetic ideals of the miniature and the transient.

While it might sound odd, Queen’s juxtaposition of poetry and legend with scenes of wide-eyed children enthralled by their beetles is a surprisingly endearing love letter to insects. While it might be difficult for some viewers to embrace the creepy-crawly protagonists, the rich, warm look of Sean Price Williams’s cinematography and Oreck’s soothing tone prove almost seductive. She also has a keen visual sense, framing some cleverly ironic images. Yet, despite the deceptively sensational sounding title, Oreck never refers directly to Mothra or any other iconic rampaging Japanese movie monster, focusing instead on more refined and archetypal examples of Japan’s deep cultural fondness for insects.

Meticulously crafted, Queen’s off-kilter perspective on Japanese culture is strangely gentle and inviting. Whether originally intended for Nipponophiles or amateur entomologists, Oreck’s film should in fact be accessible to a broad audience, despite its unhurried pace and unusual subject matter. An elegant docu-essay, it opens Wednesday (5/12) in New York at Film Forum.