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Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

A Culture Beyond Sushi

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Many tourists visiting Japan leave with vivid images of weird fish, enigmatic geisha, speeding bullet trains, futuristic cell phones, and ancient temples dancing in their heads. But you really can't visit Japan in summer without hearing a particularly incessant, oscillating buzzing in the trees. Cicadas are everywhere, even in densely packed Tokyo.

So too, it appears, is the Japanese affection for crawling critters, according to Jessica Oreck's Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, a documentary that traces the country's love affair with bugs across the country and through the centuries.

Kids play with beetles in school, expertly pinning them down on boards and learning their names in class. They also plead with their parents to buy them bigger and better crawling things for their bedroom terrariums, the better to pet and play with them.

Grown men collect these same bugs and sell them to others with deep pockets. Beetles, especially, can command a fortune one recently sold for $90,000. A collector's revving red sports car is proof of how much money selling bugs can bring in. Japanese bug fairs must look as foreign to us as American gun 'n' doll shows look to them.

Oreck depicts this national passion as more than just a passing fancy; she finds the fascination deeply embedded in Japanese culture, going back to Buddhism's entry 1,500 years ago into this animistic, Shinto-steeped country. Samurai once decorated their armor with dragonflies; now insects star in video games.

Although this topic sounds like something better suited for public television, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is not your typical PBS fare. Oreck's unconventional travelogue of the Japanese bug hunter's mindset is as artistic as it is educational. Hers is visual poetry, essentially, with only one person talking on camera, Dr. Takeshi Yoro, a philosopher, anatomist, and best-selling Japanese author, although he is unidentified in the movie.

Cohesive narration is missing, so you have to view the images and interpret them later. In the end, the film is more about one's view of life, and the relationship between man and insects, than it is about bugs.

For someone who works as an animal keeper and docent at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Oreck has a subtle, artistic sensibility that translates well onto the screen. Pedestrians crossing the streets of Tokyo resemble so many ants. Close-ups of colorful umbrellas passing by are reminiscent of butterflies. Macro shots of metamorphosing caterpillars are riveting. There's a lot of art in this science.

From the way that random sequences are skillfully joined to make visual sense, it's clear that Oreck is a good editor, but cinematographer Sean Price Williams deserves much of the credit for the film's look. His photography of urban Japan is especially reminiscent of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo raises many questions, and might frustrate theatergoers by its deliberate withholding of information. Some clarification would go a long way toward informing the viewer without sacrificing the film's qualities. Is bug hunting primarily a father-son outdoor activity, as depicted, or are girls equally interested and encouraged? What do the mothers think of all the bugs in the house, and of having to shop for their food?

Director Oreck will be present at the 7:10 pm shows at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas on July 9th and July 10th