Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

Creepy, crawly and profound, this thought-provoking eco-doc wows with breathtaking imagery.



"If you have eyes to see and ears to hear, they will tell you something." —A Japanese bug collector, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

Next to the snake, insects are probably the least loved of the planet's creatures — especially if you're an adult. How else to explain the $4 billion a year Americans spend to eradicate them? Leave it to the nation that practices Shinto — with its belief that there are spirits in all creations — to put these tiny critters in perspective.

First-time documentarian Jessica Oreck (a docent at the American Museum of Natural History) does a better job of connecting and contrasting the natural world with modern human society than a dozen talking head eco-docs. Choosing breathtaking macro photography, colorful characters, discussions of poetry and philosophy over guilt-inducing narration and melodramatic orchestration, Oreck suggests that bugs are nature's version of the haiku — beautiful and short-lived, a gloriously simple reminder of our mortality. 

Insect vending machines, beetles purchased by kids for pets (and running north of $50), tourists gathering to watch fireflies, a Ferrari-driving hornet hunter, and prized specimens reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars, she provides an expansive and intimate portrait of cultural insectophilia. Drawing comparisons to bonsai tree pruning, cherry blossoms and Zen gardens, Oreck highlights the Japanese philosophy of mono no — that the most beautiful things in life are fleeting. It's a romantic but reductive notion that too neatly attempts to define the Japanese people. Still, Beetle Queen's essaylike presentation is infested with fantastic images of these unjustly maligned organisms and the extreme efforts some will go to acquire them. Furthermore, by juxtaposing their place in the natural world with the frantic buglike activities of mega-cities such as Tokyo, Oreck confronts modern urbanization, offering evidence of both disconnection and its own possible evanescence.

With its fascinated focus on the miniature, meditative pace and visually lyrical style, Beetle Queen gives audiences a compelling opportunity to view "pests" in a radically different light.

Whether you think they're alien, aesthetic or icky, Oreck makes it clear that we have much to learn from a bug's life.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 17, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 18. It also shows at 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, July 23-24, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 25.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to

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