Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

It would be unfair of anyone who knows me to suggest that I suffer from entomophobia (fear of insects), or, more accurately, arachnophobia (fear of spiders or scorpions), but I do tend to have a visceral response when I encounter any sort of long-tongued, many-eyed, fluttering creature. To speak plainly, I find them revolting. I can even pinpoint a cinematic moment in my childhood when any latent feelings towards bugs I might have held inside, suddenly became manifest.

During the summer of 1977, somebody's parents dropped off a group of us neighborhood kids at the movies. I was eight years old. Despite my opposition, my best friend chose Empire of the Ants to test our mettle. Empire stars a bitchy, fetching Joan Collins (a pre-Dynasty warm-up role), who is stranded on an island populated by giant ants. The scene that sent me out of the theatre and into Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, featured a close-up of the queen ant and her point of view -- the camera lens multiplying into a hundred tiny, octagonal eyes. It still makes me shudder.

During the intervening years, images in books and movies have, more often than not, reinforced my fear of insects, and the accompanying sense of disgust. From Patricia Highsmith's short story The Quest for Blank Claveringi, which supplies man-eating snails, to E.G. Marshall's mouthful of cockroaches in Creepshow (1982), my mind is populated with negative images of our friends the arthropods. (The good feelings imparted by a reading of The Cricket in Times Square are easily overwhelmed by the sight of Jeff Goldblum's botched transformation in The Fly (1986)).

In Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo though, a corrective has finally been made to quell some of my ignorance and bias against insects. This poetic documentary takes in the history of the Japanese people's obsession with all manner of insect life, especially fireflies, beetles, butterflies and dragonflies. Each one of these insects holds a place in their collective, mythic imagination, handed down over the centuries through literature and religion. The film offers many intriguing insights about the evolution of a culture, but does so by meandering into strangely allusive territory.

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Several passages are left untranslated, and the voiceover, while translated, is in Japanese, as if this American filmmaker doesn't want to reveal everything. The director also carefully chooses imagery in order to make associations between the human and animal worlds. This Buddhist point of view easily finds connections between the two: a long white train slides through a cityscape like an inchworm; an aerial view of a city street is filled with varicolored umbrellas like the shiny carapaces of beetles; the white robes of festival dancers undulate like moth wings. Teachers and parents encourage their children to keep insects as pets, to study and interact with them. There are at least four different scenes of nocturnal school field trips, the loveliest of which settles on the glow of fireflies circling in flight.

Beetle Queen, however, isn't exactly a reproach to our Western ways of thought. At one point, a man starts his red Ferrari, smiles at the camera and says, "I bought this with the money I've earned from selling beetles." There are video games featuring warring beetles, and insect food chain stores. But the narrative is peppered throughout with quotations from Buddhist philosophy, at one point reminding us that we could be reincarnated as any kind of animal, including an insect. Hence the notion that one ought not to smack a bloodsucking mosquito because it might be your beloved, late uncle Charlie. (If you recently saw The Cove, though, you might come to the unhappy conclusion that Japanese dolphins are exempt from this cycle of reincarnation.) In any event, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is more like a series of haiku stitched together than a formally persuasive documentary. If you're like me, you won't love insects any more after watching the film, but you will better appreciate the idea of them: grass's leaf / fall then fly / firefly! --Basho.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo opens July 9, 2010.