Monday 28 February 2011

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2009)

Director: Jessica Oreck

The best things about Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo have nothing to do with the film itself. For one thing it served as our introduction to a new venue, the Film Bar in Phoenix, which is exactly what the name suggests. We're far more interested in the film than the bar, with programming courtesy of Steve Weiss of No Festival Required, a valued asset of long standing in the Phoenix metropolitan area. It's early days and a tough time to be opening, but we hope this venture goes a long way indeed. For another, reading up on the film led me to photos of the office of director Jessica Oreck, which is a true gem compact enough to have been situated in Japan rather than New York. She's an animal keeper at the American Museum of Natural History there and some of the curiosities in her cabinets were sourced from Obscura, the shop featured in a documentary series on Discovery called Oddities, the only such show I record religiously.

But what about the film itself, Oreck's debut feature? What does it have beyond a magnetic title? The good news is that it has quite a lot. The bad news is that what it has really isn't what it says it has. Watch it from the perspective of a beetle fetishist and you're going to find about half of it really interesting and the other half a complete waste of time. From what I'd read about the film beforehand, it seemed to aim at being a documentary exploration of the timeless love affair that the Japanese have with bugs. It does pose a lot of questions but it never finds an answer, at least not that I could determine. It isn't even about bugs at all, though we do see many of them over about half the film. What it really tries to do is to understand Japanese culture on a much wider scale, from two real starting points and working backwards into history at least a millennia and a half. How far exactly I can't say, because of the narrator's hypnotic voice.

One has to do with the kokugakushu, founders of a cultural movement in the nineteenth century that tried to delineate between genuine Japanese culture and foreign, primarily Chinese, culture that had pervaded it for a thousand years. The other ties to the eighteenth century concept of mono no aware, coined by cultural scholar Motoori Norinaga as a way to describe beauty as the transience of things. Combining the two leaves the Japanese culture inextricably tied to nature and the subsequent shifts back through the centuries highlight that those two movements were merely definitions that were entirely compatible with what went before. This is fascinating stuff, to my Japanophile eyes and ears, and I learned a good deal, but while all the chosen quotations and references tied to bugs, they were obviously carefully selected and there was nothing that seemed to speak specifically to beetles over any other facet of nature.

The closest was a comment about scale, suggesting that insects fit alongside zen gardens and bonsai trees, which is fair enough, but there are reasons that so much in Japan is small and that was never addressed. There's so much that's big too, not least sumo wrestlers and giant robots, but there's no mention of anything that doesn't gel with the ideas proclaimed in the narration. That's one downside, but the biggest for me was the inclusion of a vast quantity of material that seemed to have very little reason to be there. I'd call it filler but that's unfair given how beautiful much of it is. Shots of water in rain, blossoms in a wood or churning water under a waterfall may reflect the transience that the narrator references but they seem out of place. Shots of Tokyo from above may make the people look like insects but that doesn't add any value. Much of this would have fit wonderfully into a Japanese version of Koyaanisqatsi but not here.
Much of the time I found myself listening to the narrator to glean nuggets of wisdom until the next bug related sequence arrived, almost like waiting for the commercials to be over so a show could start up again. There are plenty of bug related sequences but I could only wish there had been more. There was time enough for double what we got. I was fascinated watching the folk who run bug shops, harvesting the critters from wood in larva form, culturing them into grown grubs then selling them on. Other stores cater to 'insect catching and rearing supplies,' just like pet stores for bugs, or to display cases and mounting pins. The example we see of the latter is truly gorgeous, thoroughly organised, like an OCD sufferer's dream. There are even bug stands on the roadsides, next to more expected fruit stands, and bug fairs with insane variety, where you can buy outlandish 'fantastic heroes'.

On a human level, we see many people who are involved with bugs in some way or another, from young men with butterfly nets who prowl the forest, kicking trees and scrabbling through undergrowth to find bugs, to kids who set up their new kuwagata beetle tanks while composing anthropomorphic stories or watching huge stag beetles lock horns. At one end it's big business, as exemplified by the entrepreneur whose bug sales added up to a Ferrari, at the other it's fun for kids who seem to see the creatures as dolls as much as pets. There's time given to the 180 species of singing crickets, or 'crying insects' as one 68 year old fan calls them. He hears their sound as music and shows as much joy as the young kid trying to buy a $57 rainbow beetle with a mere $13. Their happiness is contagious. Perhaps all that seemingly extraneous footage was an attempt to provide a harmonious balance between screen time given to man and to nature.

As is hardly surprising for a fan of glorious ephemera, Oreck finds some fascinating moments to capture and these became my favourite parts of the film. Two species of firefly are named for the two warring clans of the Heian era, the Genji and the Heike. Given that fireflies often hang out on willow trees, traditionally the tree of the dead, the reincarnation concept sparks the idea that they could be ancestors. One man sells sake containing hornets. Another explains the occupational hazards of bug hunting in the woods: kicking trees to knock down kabuto beetles that hold on tightly often results in sore feet, like a sort of Japanese RSI. There are even arcade games built around insects, fighting games like Mortal Kombat with stag beetles or games where you wield a butterfly net and presumably try to catch 'em all, just like Pokémon. I loved these scenes but perhaps they turn the film into a grab bag that slips away from the underlying point.

If this review sounds schizophrenic, it's because that's how the film played to me. Half of it is fascinating stuff, material full of quirky joy and discovery, that opens a new door onto an exotic culture that we aren't likely to have walked through before. It provides us with detail but leaves many scenes open to interpretation, like the firefly viewings that remind me of meteor shower parties in more ways than one. The other half is confusing, seemingly extraneous footage that may or may not have anything to do with the ideas that Oreck is trying to get across. It's often gorgeous footage though I was underwhelmed by the light play of Tokyo at night and shots of people driving around the city. The camerawork is sometimes shaky but there's often an astute composition of frame. Often it feels somewhat like two 45 minute films stapled together, each worthy in their own right but only as separate entities. I'd prefer to see them that way.

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