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Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

Distributed by Myriapod Productions<'a>, 152 West 77th St., New York, NY 10024; 646-825-1641
Produced by Myriapod Productions
Directed by Jessica Oreck
DVD, color, 90 min.
Jr. High - Adult
Asian Studies, Anthropology, Biology, Philosophy

Reviewed by Charles J. Greenberg, Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University

Date Entered: 8/18/2010

The title of this film, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, seems to be a clever marketing device for the English-speaking world. One might think of cinematic Japanese culture depicted in the Godzilla films, one of the few persistent populist touchstones depicting a confrontation between man and nature. Sure, you remember Godzilla’s winged companion Mothra, a representation of the insect human cooperative force, on the side of the Japanese people in Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964). Godzilla is intent on destroying Mothra’s egg, and the two fight a tough battle where Mothra is mortally injured. She dies with her wing resting on top of her egg. Later in the film, Mothra's egg hatches two Mothra larvae. The larvae follow Godzilla to Iwa Island and use their cocoon spray to defeat Godzilla.

As intriguing or nostalgic as Mothra or the title Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo might be to adult film viewers, the story that unfolds in this methodical documentary can appeal to younger audiences: a macro close-up view of the delicate capture, handling, commerce, and care of large insects, either at the wholesale, retail, or consumer customer levels. Beetles, dragon flies, butterflies, and moths draw the most attention, as we initially follow young men on a beetle gathering expedition which at first seems like a whimsical escape, and then realize that these young business men sit on a gold mine of beetle inventory that appeals to Japanese insect collectors from 4 to 84.

The film audience is introduced to domestic breeding of beetles, including how they are fed and how their microscopic eggs are harvested to maintain the breeding stock. Young children are particularly enamored of these large beetles, and children are mentored by older siblings and parents to take part in the hunt for more big bugs, often under the cover of darkness. Viewers also see Japanese housewives pondering and then buying beetle paraphernalia. Director Oreck is really interested in how people relate to insects, in particular the startling and obsessive ways that some Japanese people have closer relationships with insects, in comparison to relationships with neighbors or coworkers. The insects on display in Beetle Queen are carefully and patiently photographed, often with impressive time-lapse close-up photography.

The film director introduces many different scenes of modern Japanese society, sometimes related to insects and sometimes simple time lapse footage of busy Japanese streets where crowds scurry across intersections, a human imitation of an active ant colony. Some of the photography of large insects is mesmerizing, showing how prized these creatures are for their representation of unchanging nature, juxtaposed against contemporary, crowded urban Japanese culture.

The Beetle Queen film also interjects occasional Japanese narration accompanied by English subtitles, describing the persistent ancient Japanese customs and societal influences, including Buddhism and Shinto, shaped over centuries and continuing to exist in spite of the crowded digital landscape. Japanese cultural beliefs can be as resilient as the unchanging beetles, butterflies, and wasps prized as symbols of natural detail and breed-able uniformity. Dr. Takeshi Yoro, surrounded by display cases of beetle and butterfly examples, speaks on camera about his own belief that the insect role is secondary to the more significant internal human changes.

The film’s 90 minute feature length, combined with much slow and deliberate integration of natural settings and sounds, can potentially produce a somnambulant state. Holding the attention of a secondary school audience would be challenging indeed, and viewing might have to be split over two sessions. The promotional website details viewing opportunities in large screen cinema venues and the future availability of a $365 educational DVD set.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is a challenging and ultimately satisfying film to watch, appropriate for all audiences and classes that want to introduce unique facets of Japanese culture and behavior, together with dramatic close-ups of stylish beetles.

Editor's Note: The educational version of the film will include the 51 minute version which will air on PBS's Independent Lens series in 2011.