Katrina van Grouw née Cook: Metal Plate Engraving

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Katrina van Grouw née Cook discusses metal-plate engraving, and its use for natural history illustration, for London’s Natural History Museum

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Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo: Jessica Oreck: Myriapod Productions


Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo: Jessica Oreck: Myriapod Productions

In this guest post, filmmaker Jessica Oreck answers a few questions about her documentary Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo. The film, which delves into the ineffable mystery of Japan's age-old love affair with insects, is currently playing in theaters around the world and will air on PBS's Independent Lens series in the U.S. in May 2011.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo Trailer from Myriapod Productions on Vimeo.

Where did the idea to make Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo come from?

I was helping out in a classroom where a guest speaker, a young Japanese woman, was talking about different elements of Japanese culture. She mentioned, in passing, that people in Japan love insects. I have loved insects since I was a little girl, so my interest was immediately piqued. I studied filmmaking, biology, and ecology in university, and I knew I wanted to make films about ethnobiology (the way human cultures interact with the natural world), so this was the perfect film with which to start.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

I raced to start my research but there was nothing about this phenomenon in English. Reluctantly, I set the idea aside. But only two days later, my sister is sitting in an airport in Baltimore, and she and the young man sitting next to her strike up a conversation. He is a bicultural Japanese American entomologist who travels around the US giving talks about Japanese love of insects. Um, providence? During our first phone call I told Akito Kawahara that I wanted to make this movie. He said something along the lines of, “Cool. We can stay at my parents house and I’ll introduce you to all of my beetle collecting friends.” It wasn’t quite as easy as that makes it sound, but it really feels like the stars aligned for this particular project.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

How did you produce this film, and what are some of the challenges you overcame in the process?

Thanks to Akito, most of our subjects were chosen far in advance. We were also a really small crew: myself (recording sound), my boyfriend, Sean Price Williams, as camera, and then my best friend Maiko Endo as translator. So the actual production was, well, a blast. But determining the structure of the narrative, that was a bit more complicated. I knew I didn’t want main characters – I was more interested in the movements of social masses. I also had no intention of a formal narrative arc. I had a mystery, and I wanted to solve it, but I wasn’t going to force it into the conventions of a ‘story.’ I wanted to move backwards through time, uncovering clues that would point to how this cultural phenomenon came into being. I started with that idea and eventually the form of a filmic spiral shaped itself in my head – one that would move three-dimensionally around the subject (insects in Japanese culture through time), while allowing the periphery (history, philosophy, religion) to inform the framing.
I did extensive research before traveling to Japan – I drafted a 20-page essay containing pieces of Japanese history and philosophy that I wanted to include in the film. As the editing process progressed I continued to refine the ‘essay,’ skimming off outer details. That shortened essay (at three and a half pages) was translated into Japanese and became the voice over. Between editing the footage and writing and editing the narration, it was a very organic process. Everything just seemed to fall into place.

In general, what kind of relationship do Japanese kids have with the insect world, and how does this compare with the relationship most American kids have?

A Japanese child’s relation to insects isn’t that different from an American’s child connection – if you catch them young enough. Most young children don’t have an innate fear of bugs (from my experience watching thousands of them pass through the butterfly vivarium at the American Museum of Natural History). It isn’t until they see the dad flinch or the mom scream that they learn disgust or fear. What’s different with Japanese children is that they are encouraged to explore the insect world.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

They keep them as pets, their dads take them on insect collecting trips, and they travel halfway across the country to watch the fireflies emerge at dusk. Of course I am really generalizing – but the phenomenon is generally quite widespread. I think that an individual’s understanding of the natural world is still mostly directly absorbed through the behavior of the people he or she admires, and that that is one of the reasons why this connection to insects continues to thrive in Japanese culture.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

Did the people you met think it was odd that you, an American filmmaker, were so interested in this particular aspect of Japanese culture?

Everyone seemed happy to have us, though they were often confused by why we were making this film. We got a lot of, “What? They don’t sell beetles in America?”

What can this film teach Westerners about Japanese culture and values? What do you hope will really resonate with your viewers?

Those are big questions. What I have learned from Japanese culture that I think about most often is the concept of mono no aware. Essentially, mono no aware is the appreciation of beauty that is transient. For instance, to the Japanese, cherry blossoms are the most beautiful when they are falling. But mono no aware has implications outside of this definition. It isn’t necessarily limited to beauty – it is also about focusing on each moment as it passes. It sounds hackneyed to say “appreciate the moment,” but making Beetle Queen has helped me do that (at least more often than I used to).

I hope this is something viewers take away from the film as well, but I don’t want to limit the potential influences it could have. I have seen many diverse reactions. Plenty of people have been surprised by the loss of their fear, or by newfound knowledge, or a novel appreciation of beauty in unanticipated facets of their lives. But my favorite story is of a World War II veteran who approached me after a screening of Beetle Queen. He said something to the effect of, “For fifty years I have thought of the Japanese as my enemy. And in the past hour and a half, you have changed that.”

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