out of Five stars
Running time: 91
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is a bizarre, fascinating and frequently beautiful documentary but it's also let down by a frustrating lack of structure.
What's it all about?
Written, directed and edited by American naturalist and filmmaker Jessica Oreck, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is not, in fact, a creature feature about a giant beetle destroying Tokyo but an offbeat documentary that explores Japan's fascination with beetles and other insects. There's a huge market for insects in Japan (a single beetle recently sold for $90,000), to the point where they are even sold live in vending machines, while children collect them with the obsessive fervour you might associate with Pokemon toys (Gotta catch 'em all), though the fascination is equally prevalent amongst adults.
The film randomly introduces us to insect collectors (both young and old), insect vendors, insect breeders and insect catchers (a lovely example of a childhood hobby turned into a lucrative day job), interspersed with voiceover observations about the history of Japan's insect obsession and their influence on poetry (the haiku, in particular), art and popular culture (cartoon characters, comics, video games and so on).
The film is beautifully shot, courtesy of some stunning photography by Sean Price Williams, who manages to make creepy crawlies of all kinds look genuinely beautiful (though, that said, the insect-averse are probably advised to steer clear). The various beetle-related subjects are fascinating too, particularly the young children and the man who keeps crickets in his apartment, while the details of how deeply insects have penetrated Japanese popular culture are simultaneously jaw-dropping, intriguing and laugh-out-loud funny.
The main problem with the film is that it has a frustrating lack of structure – there's no authoritative voiceover, for example, while the historical details pop up at random rather than chronologically. It's also a shame that we don't get to spend more time with some of the film's more interesting subjects, while some of the pop cultural aspects are brushed over too quickly.
In short, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is a well made, unconventional and thought-provoking documentary that's definitely worth seeing, even if you're unlikely to rush out and buy a beetle afterwards.
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (U)