Sometime in the 1980s, after Japan’s bubble economy burst, a weird thing happened: Japan became cool to the rest of the world. While Rivers Cuomo looked to Japanese girls (at least, half) for jerk-off material, most American artists who turned to Japan romanticized the culture itself, intrigued by its perceived combination of capitalist excess and tradition-bound reserve.
An American filmmaker-slash-biologist’s visual essay on the surprisingly integral role of insects in Japanese culture, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, the debut film from Jessica Oreck, could easily fit that mold. Oreck follows a professional bug chaser — a job so lucrative the guy drives a Ferrari — as he hunts beetles in the woods, tours a massive insect-selling convention, and otherwise captures the weirdness of the consumer culture for insects. But Japan’s obsession with buying insects — real ones for pets and mounted collections, and replicas and representations for nearly everything else — isn’t necessarily the point.
Snippets of interviews with Japanese professional insect experts, (subtitled) voiceovers in Japanese of nature haiku and other tidbits from the country’s history, and lingering shots on Japanese children and adults as they observe the insect world all subtly argue that consumerism is just the latest, most prominent manifestation of a uniquely Japanese appreciation of the constant change and quickly fading beauty of the natural world.
While documentaries are content to coast on the visual spectacle of their subjects, especially if those subjects are mother-of-pearl beetles with enormous horns and hand-sized translucent grubs, Beetle Queen instead mimics them. Its aesthetics rival the bugs’, both in beauty and weirdness: the colors pop, creative frame composition adds freshness to otherwise mundane shots, and the soundtrack makes sites like us seem like squares.
All of this raw footage is edited together into something resembling a music video turned essay: a barrage of gorgeous moments that, after an hour and a half, have formed a treatise on their own importance. It’s this perfect execution of aesthetic-as-argument that lets Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo escape the conventions of American artists romanticizing Japanese culture, giving us a new perspective on Japan, on our relationship with nature, and on documentary filmmaking.