Weekend Weirdness Review And Trailer: Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (Premiering This Week At Film Forum NYC)

It's a crazy, mixed up world and we are thankful for movies that offer proof. Slashfilm's Weekend Weirdness examines such flicks, whether in the form of a premiere for a provocative indie, a mini review, or...GAH, bugs!

When I learned of Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, a documentary on the profitable Japanese subculture and love of insect collecting, my inner capitalist gave a high five to my slouching indie purist. A press release for the film highlighted a $57 rainbow beetle, the film's website teased the recent $90,000 sale of a single specimen. Those nuts. I envisioned the film as an educational PBS special. Lots of well narrated close-ups on creepy-crawlies inside plastic containers, stacked high and labeled brightly, in bustling specialty shops. And the film begins like so.

At start, we see a young Japanese boy in a shop captivated by a "Kokasasu beetle!" and he shouts "Oh...I want it!" A hovering guardian suggests he's likely short on cash. He counts his change, eventually settling on a beetle $10 cheaper. Later we see a group of young Japanese bug enthusiasts at home, referring to their hefty pet horn beetles as "kids" and dropping them into a "cage" to battle. Satisfied for a moment, they quickly stomp upstairs to examine more "kids," and bypass the family dog. The dog looks bewildered. Outdated. But cute market-centric scenes like these make up only a small part of the film. Unexpectedly meditative and adorably hypnotic, Beetle Queen aspires to link the broad presence of bugs in Japanese culture from their role in popular video games to ancient religion; connecting fireflies to symbols of unrequited romance, dragonflies to symbols of the samurai.


Written and directed by newcomer Jessica Oreck—pictured above; she's the animal keeper at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC—at times the film seems less directed by a person than by unapologetic art house consciousness. Shots of larvae or cityscapes are interspersed almost at random, often complimented by the voice a subtitled quasi-narrator—a peppy Japanese female who implies that Japan's insectoid passion stems from urban spacial limitations, and the Japanese's spiritual relation to nature (Buddhism, Shinto).

In one segment, a 65-year-old cricket expert says Japan's bug market can be sourced back to one man, who domesticated and popularized the cricket for the purpose of an organic nighttime soundtrack. Another segment suggests modern city dwellers purchase and cherish insects as reminders of a simpler, rural past blanketed in rice fields.

Other scenes are kookier. A small group of Japanese rockabillies with hyperbolic Elvis hair styles converse in a city street, leaving the viewer to pondering this simultaneous voice-over...

"As a measure of their belief that all creatures exist on an equal plane of capacity and possibility, the Japanese often assigned traditionally human, emotion characteristics to insects. Because of the shrewdness with which it caught its prey, the dragonfly was a favorite emblem among the warrior class. The samurai warriors embroidered the dragonfly on their weaponary and armor as a symbols of strength and courage."

Too unpredictable and stoned-slash-odd to be boring, Beetle Queen avoids dipping into any green movement politics or environmental message. Taken as a whole, the doc is a flickering and comforting sensation—like entering a museum's dark room presentation minutes late, and sensing you haven't missed a thing (but sensing the lonely concentrators in attendance who certainly feel you have). And whenever the movie's Zen garden mantras begin to latch onto the minute hand, a professional bug dealer zips by the screen in a Ferrari, professing the pleasantries of deadly, stinger-spiked liquor. It's summer. Let's go with it.


For previous installments of Weekend Weirdness, here.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo premieres at Film Forum on Wednesday May 12 for a one-week engagement ending May 18. For more info on the NYC showings, here. For the film's official website, here.


Hunter Stephenson can be followed on Twitter. To send him a screener or an NYC screening invitation: h.attila/gmail.

Mother's Day Note: When I was growing up, I used to play the following song, "Insects Are All Around Us," by Beastie Boys cohort Money Mark on blast after school. Until, say, my 20th repeat listen, my mom was always cool with it. Watching Beetle Queen, I was reminded of the song, which shares the movie's informative yet goofy sensibility and theme of buggin' out.