Thursday, May 13, 2010


Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo. 2009. Written and directed by Jessica Oreck. Produced by Jessica Oreck, Maiko Endo, and Akito Kawahara. Cinematography by Sean Price Williams. Edited by Jessica Oreck and Theo Angell. Music by JC Morrison and Nate Shaw. Additional music by Masami Tsuchiya, Haroumi Hosono, Mishio Ogawa, Logic System, and Paul Grimstad. Sound by Nate Shaw.

Jessica Oreck’s film Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, now at Film Forum through May 18, is not, as its title would seem to indicate, a cult science-fiction film. Instead, it is an impressionistic, non-linear, and often visually stunning documentary exploring Japan’s fascination (indeed, obsession) with insects. This is illustrated by the initial scenes of the film, where we follow a beetle hunter as he stalks new specimens through a forest, and observe a boy hounding his father to help him buy a $47 beetle at a pet store. Later on, we meet a man who keeps boxes of crickets inside his apartment because he so loves their sound, and cruise along with the beetle hunter, driving the bright-red Ferrari he bought with his earnings from selling beetles. It quickly becomes apparent that Oreck is not depicting some bizarre subculture; to the contrary, the Japanese love for insects is something that is deeply engrained in their culture and illustrative of their unique approach to nature and their sense of aesthetic beauty. Interspersed between these scenes of insect enthusiasts (never identified by name) are narrated sequences explaining how insects symbolize art, history, and literature stretching back to Japan’s origins.

Oreck connects the brief lives of insects with the Japanese concept of mono no aware, which relates to the transcendent beauty of all things in nature, and the idea of existence as fleeting and temporary, putting a primacy on appreciating each moment of time as fully as possible. Haiku poetry is the literary form that perfectly embodies this philosophy; many of these three-line poems are dedicated to insects. This belief in life as ephemeral is also connected to Japan’s volatile environment; its history is filled with many natural disasters caused by floods and typhoons. One commentator in the film remarks that ten percent of the world’s recorded earthquakes have occurred in Japan. The hypnotic, sonorous narration which fills in this cultural background match well with the mesmerizing visuals which come courtesy of cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who brilliantly captures microscopic scenes of bugs in grass or on pavement, as well as the neon panorama of Tokyo’s cityscape. Avant-garde cinema deeply informs this documentary; such scenes as fireflies buzzing in grainy low-light and insects flying in blinding floodlights would not be at all out of place in a film by Stan Brakhage or Nathaniel Dorsky.

Jessica Oreck, currently an animal handler at the American Museum of Natural History, reinvents nature documentary with Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, transforming what could have been an unbearably dry lecture with visual poetry that makes it a beautiful work of art. Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is at Film Forum through May 18; Oreck will appear in person on May 14 at the 6:30 and 8:20 shows with live exotic insects. She will also be at the 4:40 show on Sunday, May 16 with Hugh Raffles, author of Insectopedia, available from Amazon. 

Click here to purchase tickets.

Update, May 17, 2011: Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is now available on DVD, with three deleted scenes of interviews with philosopher Dr. Takeshi Yoro, whose insights greatly inform Oreck's documentary. To purchase, visit Factory 25's website. The film also has its TV premiere on PBS's Independent Lens tonight at 10pm. For more information and TV listings, visit the Independent Lens website.

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