When it’s Wood Spider vs. psychoactive drugs, the drugs win. When it’s attractive coed vs. praying mantis, even a Mantodea’s bird-killing forelegs are no match for a hungry college student’s mandibles.  When it’s insect vs. insect, any Aranea, Pedipali, Coleoptera, or Hymenoptera has got a shot.  But on Japanese Bug Fights, in the end there can be only one. 

Created by ex-expat Kyle Benzle (he grew up in Ohio, has lived in Yokohama, Japan for the past 23 years, and just two months ago moved to Seattle, Washington), JBF is similar to the Octagon, except it’s a clear glass cage with a surface area of mere inches, its entrants have exoskeletons, its announcers don’t speak English, and only one contender leaves alive. There are also fewer rules:

1. Two Bugs to a fight

2. Bug fights go on as long as they have to

3. No outside weapons in Bug Fights.

The tournament consists of 30 single-elimination rounds, with one nasty creature being crowned champion. Here’s a sampling of these fast and furious encounters.  In Round The 15th, a scared scorpion attempts to fend off an aggressive bee that looks like a caricature of the platonic ideal of a bee. The squeamish need not press play:

Though it’s just about a week old on the internet, Benzle informed me over e-mail that that he filmed the footage for JBF over three years ago, hoping to tap into Japan’s competitive live beetle wrestling market, made popular by Sega’s fake beetle wrestling market and collectible card and arcade game, Mushiking.

Benzle’s original idea was that he would differentiate himself by featuring inter-insect bouts instead of just beetles, and then sell DVDs to those Mushiking-crazed who craved variety. But in Japan it “never really took off.” So, like most new media content creators with a product that didn’t quite work somewhere else, Benzle brought his bug-on-bug action to the web at the suggestion of some friends.  The two to three minute videos have subsequently seen “a lot of interest.”

He’s not an “Insect Otaku (Insect Geek)” himself, so Benzle sought considerable help with the project from obscure small-pet expert Mino Tanaka, owner of the Reptile Zoo outside of Yokohama:

“He was really the one who told us who should fight who, and helped us with all the purchases, most he did not have but knew where to get… [he] has been in the business a very long time, there was one Mantis that belonged to him that he was a little said to see be in the fight (and lose unfortunately) but most came from ordering on-line, I was really surprised to find what you can buy out there. They would come in these black tubes, but we got one tarantula in just a small shoebox…Some of them are very expensive, I think we paid something like 150000 Yen [roughly $1,300] for one scorpion that we never even got to use for video.”

Naturally, Benzle has received his fair share of animal rights activist and concerned citizens calling the series “sick,” “offensive,” “brutal,” and a variety of other uncomplimentary adjectives.  He shoos away his detractors  like flies:

“I do get a few from people saying it is wrong, but I think these are the same people that swat flys, and step on spiders without thinking twice. Oddly, I am always very careful, even more careful after making the movies, of taking care around our insect friends. I never even kill an ant on purpose anymore….I think most of it is just people’s first reaction to seeing insects so close up, we are so used to seeing them as a pest, or just things to squish and throwaway. I think these videos make people feel very different towards our insect companions, I know it has made me see them in a new light.”

It’s definitely not any worse than the staged nature shows that pit similar creatures against one another for the sake of education, it certainly isn’t cockfighting, and Benzle definitely isn’t Michael Vick, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong.

My take? It’s not something I would create. It makes me feel icky, I writhe a little and intermittently close my eyes like I’m watching 2Girls1Cup, and I think I’ll be punished somehow for contributing to inhumanity, but I’m addicted. I don’t want to be. I can’t help it.

In part, I think it’s due to some unintended exploitation of cultural barriers.

I watch the original Iron Chef with an intense fascination of a Japanese culinary culture. The comically intense sound effects, emotive announcers, and extreme reverence paid towards the masters of Kitchen Stadium have conjured in my mind a past replete with venerated chefs, battling for supremacy.  The American version does not have the same effect.

When I see a beetle lunge its pinchers at a thrashing millipede after a barrage of cheesy graphics and introductions recited in a language I don’t know and with more inflections than the contenders have legs, it makes the spectacle seems like it was conceived centuries ago for some significant cultural purpose and not by an American living in Japan who had an idea on how to make extra cash.

Benzle doesn’t plan to shoot any more fights, but is thinking about releasing installments from a second 30-fight DVD soon. He hopes his efforts will help to create a insect-fighting-phile world: “I am just really glad that Insect Fighting is getting to be known outside of Japan, maybe even Beetle fighting will start to catch on too?”

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