Why are the Japanese so obsessed with insects? According to Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, a documentary that details the strange entomological-human interactions in Japan’s capital, it might have something to do with the nation’s cultural history. Or it might stem from nostalgia for a long-lost rural lifestyle in which man communed more freely with nature. Or it might be something less tangible altogether. But Jessica Oreck’s densely structured film, while abounding with images of bugs of all stripes and markings, is really concerned with the interplay between a Zen-based traditional way of life and the alienating demands of urban modernity, a questionable dichotomy that the film has predictable difficulty resolving.
Weaving together a rich array of imagery and incident, Oreck takes in footage of rare beetle hunters, children delighting over their insect pets, and a young boy playing a video game where he captures butterflies. In between these profiles of bug obsessives, whose eeriness takes on an additional charge from the off-kilter electronic score, Oreck inserts a running narration that meditates on Japan’s rich cultural tradition. Focusing on haiku, Zen gardens, and Shinto, the narration highlights those aspects of the culture that emphasize the concept of mono no aware—the evanescence of life—as well as man’s harmonious interaction with nature.
Put forth to explain a country’s easy relationship with insects, these traditional concepts seemingly form a striking contrast with the hustle and bustle of that contemporary Tokyo that forms the setting for Oreck’s film and whose crowded streets are often emphasized through overhead shots. Does this rampant urbanism represent a falling away from a rural ideal or is it just another form of evanescence? And in light of this urbanization, how are we to take Tokyo residents’ insect obsessions? Oreck’s response seems at least partially confused—or, more charitably put, ambivalent.
Repeatedly making wry visual comparisons between urbanites and insects, the director invites us to see night-lit construction workers as fireflies and the tops of people’s umbrellas as beetles. This light mocking suggests the subjects’ alienation from nature, but one that they strive to correct by bringing wild insects into their home or heading out to the countryside to see fireflies at night. And yet, for the majority of the subjects, their interaction with nature is at best a domestication, at worst a simulacrum or a means of profit, the latter illustrated most startlingly when we watch a man drive his Ferrari while explaining that the money for the car came entirely from his sale of rare beetles.
Still, as one collector insists, insects have much to teach us. Oreck does a good job spelling out the various uses that Tokyo residents make of insects, but she remains too noncommittal about where she stands on the questions of contemporary urbanization. There’s a definite, if lightly educed, sense of condemnation since the narration focuses solely on the more fetishisized aspects of “Japaneseness”—qualities which form an obvious contrast with 21st-century Tokyo life and whose propriety she never questions. But at the same time, Oreck seems sympathetic to the desire of the urbanite to re-embrace nature, approvingly citing Tokyo residents’ push to rejuvenate the former rice fields outside of the city. And she finds astonishing grace in scenes both rural (scratchy night footage of firefly-lit fields) and urban (traveling shots along the city’s highways). It’s just that she seems a little too judgmental of a culture for falling away from an imagined ideal (an outsider’s “Zen” conception of Japan) without being forthright enough to come out and fully commit to that position.