I apparently missed out by not seeing “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo” on the big screen, or so I am led to believe because it’s one of those rare documentaries that is “gorgeous” and “cinematic.” Honestly, though, I think it’s mainly a good-looking film because of its locations. Not to slight cinematographer Sean Price Williams (“Kati with an I”), who really does do a wonderful job making beetles and other insects look like stunning little movie stars — he’s to bugs what Ernest Haller was to Joan Crawford (yes, I just compared the ‘Queen Bee’ to insects) — but the rural scenery of Japan looks no better here than it does in another new doc, “Make Believe” (in which it also looks great) And that should really be appropriate to the film, which celebrates the natural world and Japan’s relationship to it.
The feature debut of by Jessica Oreck, otherwise an “animal keeper” at NYC’s Museum of Natural History, “Beetle Queen” is kind of better seen on a small screen where the doc’s themes of boxing in creatures and cultures fit with the confines of what may be considered a filmic terrarium. Much of the film deals in Japan’s insect trade and shows us beautiful/scary creatures netted in forests and brought into the city and sold in small enclosures to kids and collectors. Oreck does the very same thing with the nation as a whole, showcasing strange, exotic yet magnificent elements of the Japanese culture, mainly as it relates to historical and folkloric interests in insects, in a neat package for Western viewers.
Not that “Beetle Queen” is a very conventional Western film nor is it necessarily of an Orientalist perspective. But the filmmakers are not Japanese, and that’s quite apparent in the peculiar-izing going on with the film, despite the voice-over narration in Japanese spoken by a Japanese woman and the content filled-in by Japanese philosopher Takeshi Yoro. Oreck’s fascination becomes our fascination, as she ties together Shinto, sake, haiku, Zen gardens, mythology and other naturally inspired aesthetics of the culture without making it completely feel like she’s generalizing an entire people and place. It does give the Japanese a distance, though, to where I came away almost feeling like they’re from another world, at least as much as many of the scarabs and dragonflies and other creatures do.
The relevance of the film to recent tragedies is considerable, partly for Yoro’s direct address of natural disasters, which seem to him a positive force because of their link to the unpredictability of life and nature. A lot of the wonder of “Beetle Queen” is how it communicates and displays the complicated relationship between the rural and the urban. And how cities like Tokyo are man’s attempt at constructing his own world, yet nature will always rule. People need nature and add parks, trees and gardens to urban areas, yes, but also nature rains down on us in a relatively random manner. Shots of hundreds in Tokyo buried under umbrellas reminds us of our humble powerlessness in the great and spectacular context of nature. The amusing dichotomy of altar and alter kept creeping into my head, as nature is shown to be both worshiped and mastered.
Of course, we trap creatures and put them in little cages, fence in small gardens, shape bonzai trees, build architecture to reflect and relate to its natural surroundings. And we point a camera at and record both nature and human nature and pin it all down like a beetle in a collector’s display case (is Oreck the title’s conqueror?). And yes, Yoro talks about cinema, too, as part of the “fixed” world of information that we “keep” and must manually change if we wish for it to change, whereas a tree and a person is not able to be “kept” and can not be confined or ordered in the same way a city and a language and the Internet can be. Yoro would not likely see Oreck’s doc as a total enclosure or capture of Japanese culture. It’s merely a record of information about it. But the film will capture you for 90 minutes or so, guaranteed.
“Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo” is now on DVD, held inside a disc, inside a little cardboard box.
Recommended If You Life: “Microcosmos”; “Satayoma”; Studio Ghibli’s more nature-centric animated films