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Mothra of all heroes stars in Japanese-themed Insect Fear Film Festival

Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor

Released 2/6/2007

T-shirt design for Insect Fear Film Festival
Click to enlarge
The 24th annual Insect Fear Film Festival on Feb. 24 will feature Japanese insect movies. T-shirts commemorating the festival, above, will be on sale.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Japanese have a unique relationship with bugs. Many keep crickets or rhinoceros beetles as pets. Stir-fried or marinated silkworm pupae, wasp larvae and rice hoppers are popular treats in some regions, and there are firefly festivals throughout the country every summer.

What most attracts University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum to Japanese culture, however, is its cinematic insects. Berenbaum, the head of the entomology department at the Urbana campus, will showcase Japanese insect movies at the 24th annual Insect Fear Film Festival on Feb. 24.

“We all see insects through a cultural lens – in this case a 35 mm lens,” Berenbaum says. “In general, insects are not regarded with as much knee-jerk fear and revulsion in Japan as they are here.”

Take Mothra, the giant silkworm caterpillar – and later, moth – who actually pupates on screen and then tears up Tokyo with her wings. An American filmmaker might have given her an evil intent, but Japanese film director Ishiro Honda presents Mothra as heroic. She is trying to save two girls abducted from their – and her – island home in the Pacific.

“She’s never been bent on the destruction of humans. She doesn’t set out to destroy Tokyo,” Berenbaum said. “She does so only as a consequence of being the size of a Boeing 747.”

Another example of the heroic insect can be found in “The Ultimate Teacher,” a 1988 anime adventure directed by Toyoo Ashida. Chabane Ganpachi, the main character, is half-human and half-cockroach.

“He is the only one who can handle the kids at the toughest high school in Tokyo,” Berenbaum said.

Of course there also are the mean bugs, including the monstrous insect-like creatures that threaten humanity in “Blue Gender,” an animated series from 1999 created by Ryousuke Takahashi.

And there are occasional evil entomologists in Japanese anime. In “Read or Die,” the late 19th century entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre is reconstituted from his DNA and recruited into an evil scheme. He commands the insects to do his bidding. This series began as illustrated novels by Hideyuki Kurata.

The Insect Fear Film Festival, as always, will be an educational as well as entertaining event. It will include thematically relevant exhibits as well as an insect petting zoo with giant cockroaches and perhaps a (non-insect) tarantula or two. In honor of the films featuring Mothra, the event will showcase Bombyx mori, the Japanese silkworm, in all its life stages. Audience members will have a chance to unreel the half-mile long thread that makes a cocoon.

As a caterpillar, Mothra looks like a true silkworm, Berenbaum said. But her adult appearance is more like that of the giant silkmoths in the family Saturniidae, which are more colorful than silkworm adults.

In the original movie, Mothra uses her insect attributes to great advantage.

“The caterpillar uses silk as a weapon,” Berenbaum said. “In reality it’s an amazing fiber, which for its dimensions, is highly elastic yet stronger than steel.” The defensive use of silk, although far-fetched, is nonetheless closer to reality than when, in “The Rebirth of Mothra,” adult Mothra shoots electrical flames out of her antennae. “I don’t know what that’s about,” she said.

After Mothra’s first appearance in the 1961 movie, she is called on again and again to protect her friends in Japan – or all of humankind – from imminent destruction. In “Rebirth of Mothra,” also to be shown at the festival, she is summoned back to fight Desghidorah, a three-headed monster “capable of turning earth’s green landscape into a barren desert.”

The festival – to be held in Foellinger Auditorium – is free. Doors open at 6 p.m.; exhibits and T-shirt sales will be in the foyer. Remarks begin at 7 p.m., with cartoons at 7:15 p.m.

Editor’s note: To reach May Berenbaum, call 217-333-7784; e-mail: