Over the last 25 to 30 years, we in the United States have become increasingly aware and fascinated with Japanese pop culture. Anime, manga, Pokémon, Dragonballs, Airbenders and all manner of odd, what-the-hell-is-that-all-about imports from the land of hara-kiri and used-panty vending machines have been introduced to Americans, with varying success: Sometimes, they’re embraced and adopted; sometimes, they’re greeted with puzzlement and forgotten.
That being said, “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo” isn’t very shocking, but it does chronicle an off-kilter Japanese obsession with insects that is essentially harmless, although it’s as inexplicable as dried-squid snacks.
The film screens Friday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
Writer/director Jessica Oreck starts by introducing us to an unnamed man who collects insects for a living. He wanders the forest with a net and a plastic cage, kicking trees and avoiding hornets as he hunts his chitinous quarry. Japan has a seemingly endless variety of beetles and other crawlies.
Some have large, oddly shaped horns; some have only wide pincers; some have golden, iridescent armored sections; some are rainbow-colored. All are part and parcel of the collector’s stock-in-trade, which is lucrative enough for him to travel the countryside in a cherry-red Ferrari. In the insect shops of Tokyo, he can charge as much as $60 for a single beetle.
As we’re introduced to the commercial infrastructure of insect collection and study ” which includes roadside stands to PetSmart-style superstores ” a narrator gives us the lowdown on the philosophical background of Japanese insect worship.
To put it in simplistic terms, revering insects is a component of the larger romanticizing of nature, which is itself a byproduct of the country’s industrialization. Starting in the late-17th and early-18th centuries, scholars began searching for the essence of Japanese values and identity.
This happened when trade was opened with the West, allowing outside influences to infiltrate the islands. The insect world became emblematic of the “countryside,” and the Japanese who could afford it began taking seasonal trips away from cities to hear the crickets, hunt for moths and butterflies, and generally geek out over bugs.
In the U.S., we had a similar cultural reaction to industrialization in the late-19th century. But while most Americans just started taking more camping trips and stopped chopping down every tree we saw, the Japanese evolved a sophisticated and convoluted metaphorical understanding of man’s relationship to the natural world.
This is, in part, due to the presence of Shinto and Buddhism in Japanese culture, each of which emphasizes humanity’s integration with the natural world rather than man’s obligation to subdue it. Over the centuries this attitude has been refined and codified, eventually solidifying into a widespread, recursive nostalgia centered on the natural world.
To put it another way, the insect obsession is the product of a culture that views “nature” as something pure and wholesome, connected to a way of life now buried under cities, bullet trains and gigantic video screens.
Knowing that past world can never be recovered, the people satisfy their pastoral fantasy by keeping crickets and other insects in the house or collecting mounted specimens for display.
The thing that’s generally interesting to Americans about Japanese cultural phenomena is that it’s like looking into a warped mirror image of our own culture. Since it opened itself to outside influence, Japan has absorbed and repurposed the West in several unpredictable ways.
Recent examples are video games, which were invented in the U.S., but have been adopted and consistently improved by the Japanese, and modern cinematic animation, which has been recreated by its filmmakers into something nearly unique.
That being said, the Japanese insect industry isn’t the most exciting subject in the world. It may not be interesting enough to warrant a feature-length documentary. Even at 90 minutes, “Beetle Queen” feels like Oreck is padding things with scenes of people walking around with umbrellas, customers examining insect-care products, children making their beetles fight, and the like.
Still, the slow scenes and overall lack of narrative trajectory lend themselves to the contemplative nature of the film’s subject, making it not so much a documentary but one person’s impressionistic view of a Japanese pastime. “Mike Robertson