Is Jessica Oreck, the writer-director of Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, trying to make a point about how modern life has alienated us from nature? Or did she and her editor just choose the wrong images to document her story? Either way, I’ve never seen a documentary with a bigger disconnect between voiceover and visuals.
Oreck’s poetry-laced voiceover copy (it’s read in Japanese and translated in subtitles) outlines traditional Japanese beliefs regarding the sanctity of all living things. The narrator reads with girlish glee, undercutting the seriousness of Oreck’s attempt to equate those traditions with a longstanding Japanese craze for capturing and keeping insects. The laugh in the narrator’s voice is about the only hint of humor in this movie other than the incongruous title, which feels like a leftover from a very different early cut.
Beetle Queen is an intermittently interesting primer on Japanese culture for those of us who don’t know much about it. It provides a gloss on Shinto, “the belief that everything in nature—trees, mountains, animals—all have spirits,” and mano no aware, the philosophy that beauty is found in the transience of life and “the gentle sadness felt as it fades.” It also draws thoughtful parallels between the traditional practices of haiku, bonsai, and creating Zen gardens, noting that all three involve the creations of miniature worlds that function as “representations of the universe, scaled down for everyday contemplation.”
Philosopher Takeshi Yoro, a sage and likeable presence, also provides context, first in voiceover and then as a talking head. His observations about the role of insects in Japanese life tend to be more oblique than Oreck’s, but they often go deeper. Insects aren’t teachers, he notes, so they won’t teach you anything unless you pay attention. But if you look and listen closely and keep an open mind, you can learn a lot from them.
I suspect he’s right, but you’d never know from watching this movie. Virtually everything Oreck shows us about the relationship between Japanese people and insects, from videos games to coin-operated dispensing machines and stores devoted to selling devices to capture and preserve insects, reveals how people treat insects like things to be acquired, not living beings to be respected. The narrators’ statements about reverence for nature play over footage of things like a little boy chunking several big-horned beetles into a small plastic box and laughing happily when they start to fight, or a man who hauls out a shadow box full of dead butterflies only to talk about how each reminds him of the moment when he caught it. We hear about how Japanese people identify certain types of insects with certain human traits.
Interspersed with these scenes are shots of life in the big city, many of them aerial views to emphasize the masses of people moving across vast public spaces. Seemingly taken at random, these fleeting scenes generally lack subtitles, title cards, or any other explanation of what we are seeing, which makes it hard to figure out their purpose and easy to watch them purely as exotic window dressing. It’s particularly frustrating to watch traditional ceremonies without being told what, if anything, they have to do with insects.
Capricious editing confuses things further. I get that the sock-clad foot an unseen passenger keeps jiggling on a train is moving kind of like a butterfly that’s about to start fighting its way out of a chrysalis, but what purpose is served by cross-cutting so many times between the two? And what was the purpose of a handful of near-psychedelic montages of lights and such, some of which are so abstracted you don’t know what you’re looking at, let alone why? My guess is that they were intended to show that manmade environments can be as beautiful as nature, but whatever the intent, they did nothing for me.
There are a few fascinating close-ups of captive insects, including that butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, but we rarely get to see the bugs in their natural habitats, so we’re limited to admiring their shapes and colors as they perch on someone’s hand or scrabble about, trapped in Plexiglass. The filmmakers’ attempts to capture the natural beauty that is so often discussed mostly fall flat, aside from a beautiful shot of a waterfall and the artfully landscaped, fog-shrouded field at its base.
The voiceover never stops trying to convince us that the people anthropomorphizing and chloroforming these insects are doing it out of love and respect, but I remain unconvinced. Maybe Oreck, who’s a docent at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, has more tolerance for this sort of thing than I do because the animals at the museum where she works are mostly dead, hunted down years ago so we humans could admire them in their lifelike tableaux. Personally, I just felt sorry for the poor six-legged suckers in Beetle Queen, who seem so defenseless against us even if they have fierce-looking pincers and horns.
If only one of the insect-obsessed people in this movie would create a miniature camera insects could wear as they get captured and held hostage. Now that would be a documentary I’d like to see.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.