If "Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo" sounds like some retro Japanese creature feature, guess again. This is, in fact, a gentle docu-tribute to Japan's age-old connection to the insect world, a meditative piece that is by turns hypnotically beautiful and painfully slow. It's the kind of film perhaps best appreciated in smaller doses, in the same way bench rest can help sustain a tiring museum visit.
Written and directed by American filmmaker-botanist Jessica Oreck, "Beetle Queen" follows no firm structure as it mixes fascinating shots of Japan's most popular insects — dragonflies, fireflies, crickets, butterflies and, of course, beetles — with related (or not) visuals of local daily life and rituals. The point, taken with quiet matter-of-factness, is that nature has always been an inextricable part of Japanese culture, religion and philosophy, with insects being an ideal representation of the country's traditional attention to detail and harmony (they're also big business). Fair enough, but aside from their icky beauty, grace and often startling size, we never really learn enough, biologically speaking, about these intriguing creepy crawlies.
Punctuated by poetic narration and a single talking head interview with author-anatomist Takeshi Yoro, the movie works best whenever Oreck's cameras turn on a child's wonderment over their beloved insect friends. They are truly joyous moments to behold.
"Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo." MPAA Rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. In English and Japanese with English subtitles. At the Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.