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DVD Review: Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

The spirit of Godzilla is conjured by the title of this charming documentary. But Jessica Oreck’s Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is more in the spirit of filmmaker Chris Marker’s essay-documentary Sans Soleil, which also focuses on Japanese culture. For this study of a national fascination with insects goes beyond the ordinary (yet also strange) facts of the matter, but looks to the symbolism, poetry, and philosophy of the relationship between man and beetle.

Prized beetle species are captured in the wild for categorization and accessorization in busy Tokyo pet shops. Children are delighted by shiny horned creatures that can cost $60 a head. Collectors who preserve deceased specimens visit specialist shops that give them myriad ways to display their trophies. And in the middle of this is the humble and majestic beetle, some of which metamorphose from otherworldly caterpillars to become gorgeous black and white butterflies.

The film opens with a brief unsubtitled sequence of beetle hunters searching the woods for specimens to sell. What seems like a pastoral form of captialism is shorn of romanticism when the film revisits this entrepreneur – behind the wheel of a Ferrari that he bought with the proceeds of his business.

But commerce does rise above mere exploitation, and the film is peppered with scenes along Japanese roadways amid thousands of lights peering from high-rises. Are these not the human equivalent of firefly colonies lighting up the night, a sight that draws tourists to countryside areas, far from light pollution, famed for their fireflies? Traffic signals in particular resonate in this context – as fireflies use their light to communicate with each other, and as myriad insects are drawn to hot lights that may doom them, does not man also follow literal and symbolic lights?

That footage of insect growth and metamorphosis is juxtaposed with busy scenes of human enterprise may seem like a critique of the latter. There is indeed conflict between man and bug, fought despite a Japanese tradition of acceptance and harmony with nature. But as often as not man seems to take a lesson from the lowly beetle, as we don our own shells and transform ourselves via insect-like accoutrements: lighted traffic-guard vests, heavily-sprayed coiffures that jut out like black pincers, colorful umbrellas that sprawl across busy intersections on a rainy day. Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is not your father’s nature documentary, but finds poetry in bug and man alike.

About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.