Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

If you're looking for a B-movie monster mayhem adventure, I'm afraid you've come to the wrong place. There's no city-stomping here. In fact. Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is a film notable for its stillness, its gentleness, its contemplative mood. Yet its title is entirely apt, as its subject is an integral part of Japanese culture with its origins in the same place as those much-loved monster movies. This evocative documentary explores the island nation's fascination with insects and, through this, the Japanese character itself.

If you're squeamish about insects, you're likely to scream louder at this film than at any featuring Godzilla and his pals. Even though the audience I saw it with knew what they were letting themselves in for, there were a few unhappy noises at the sight of wriggling maggots. By throwing such attitudes into sharp relief and revealing just how culturally specific they are, this film also throws light on the peculiarities of Western culture.

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The film opens with a familiar sight - an excited child in a pet shop. But this is an insect-specific pet shop, and the boy has his heart set on buying a shiny rainbow beetle. It's too expensive. "If you have some money, perhaps we could combine it and buy him," he helpfully suggests to his accompanying parent. The deal doesn't pan out as he hoped, but he still leaves the shop excitedly clutching a bag with a new pet. Over the course of the film, we see lots of other children happily playing with theirs. Adults, too - one man keeps cicadas as a Westerner might keep a canary, besotted with their song. Families go on expeditions to designated firefly-spotting areas to watch brights sparks of light swarm across dusky skies.

Japan's love of insects, we are told, is partly rooted in the artistic notion of mono no aware, the appreciation of, or oneness with, nature that needs no intermediary, not even words. The film itself relates to this tradition and is often wordless, presenting us with moments of visual splendour, long passages of stillness in which we watch the way raindrops fall into a lake. We skip between places, styles, even types of film with little explanation, but it doesn't matter. There is no simple linear narrative. Beetle Queen is more like a poem, combining fragments of experience to show us something much more than the sum of its parts.

Extraordinarily beautiful and certainly very different from other films you're likely to see this year, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo captures a whole world in the buzz of crickets, in the beating of delicate wings.

Reviewed on: 25 Feb 2010
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A documentary exploring the Japanese fascination with insects, made by an entomologist from New York's Museum of Natural History.
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Director: Jessica Oreck

Year: 2009

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: US

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