Beetlemania strikes Japan!

05/12/2010 4:00 AM |

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo
Directed by Jessica Oreck

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo might sound like a disaster movie of the giant-mutant-insect variety, but the conquering here has nothing to do with gigantism. Rather, filmmaker Jessica Oreck’s first feature-length documentary concerns the insect world in natural miniature, more particularly the strain of beetlemania unique to Japan. There, bugs are not merely a hobbyist niche but big business, and through a genial Japanese-language voiceover Oreck lucidly, if a little too formally, outlines the centrality of insects in the country’s culture.

In other words, beetles are small and so are haiku. Oreck convincingly draws on Japan’s literature and a wealth of historical anecdotes to buttress such associations. She also ably conveys the glee of hunting for unusual insects in several sylvan forays. But her attempts to visually link Tokyo street life with the diminutive natural world are a good deal less successful. Nature sounds often play over urban scenes, and the only explanation for frequent shots of trains seems to be that they kind of look like caterpillars. One roughly conceived extended sequence tries to imagine pedestrians’ umbrellas as so many protective beetle shells; another alternates shots of a partially glimpsed sleeping train passenger with a trembling cocoon. Oreck also has a fondness for turning everything before her camera into ring-around-the-rosy abstractness, grasping at a kind of jittery velocity, but her pat connections between urban and insect life slow Beetle Queen to a crawl.

Opens May 12 at Film Forum