More essay than documentary—and by no means a monster movie—Jessica Oreck’s Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo takes a closer look at the Japanese obsession with insect-collecting, and considers it as a partial explanation of the country’s national character. While other cultures find bugs creepy, in Japan, the little critters are sold in special pet stores, and even in vending machines. Oreck argues that Japan’s bug-love is in line with its affection for the economical and efficient, be it haiku poetry or bonsai trees. It’s all part of mono no aware, a philosophy of life and art professing that true beauty lies in that which does not last, and the gentle sadness as it fades. Throughout Beetle Queen, Oreck makes connections between scattered cultural traits and quirks, either through wordless studies of people going about their day, interviews with insect enthusiasts, or a voiceover narration with the academic tone of a museum employee—Oreck’s other profession.
It’s a risky gambit for an outsider to try to define an entire country, and some moments in Beetle Queen definitely come off as presumptuous. Whenever Oreck deviates from entomology and just shows ordinary Japanese citizens reading manga on a commuter train or crossing complicated Tokyo streets en masse, there’s a distinct element of “Look at these funny little people” that Oreck surely doesn’t intend. But Sean Price Williams’ videography is so lovely—and the film so meditatively paced—that even the questionable becomes seductive. And when Oreck does stay on-task, her movie is frequently remarkable. Beetle Queen features some stunningly gorgeous and eerie scenes of bug-harvesting and cultivation, including long shots of a nighttime hunt involving damp screens and floodlights, and a fascinating sequence where a man gently pulls apart a chunk of wood to find a tiny egg. That fascination with the miniature—and the understanding that the tiniest organism contains the seed for something larger—defines the curious tone that Oreck means to strike.