Film Review: Tokyo Waka: A City Poem

Small-scale yet thoroughly disarming documentary about some ubiquitous, troublesome and quite amazing age-old residents of Tokyo.

One lesser-known aspect of the bustling, fascinating, exorbitant city of Tokyo, with its sardine-packed millions of residents, is the ever-present, multitudinous flocks of crows forever circling overhead. They’ve been immortalized for centuries on exquisite scrolls and screens, and now take center stage in John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson's wonderfully diverting documentary Tokyo Waka: A City Poem.

What emerges is a richly varied portrait of a city, as numerous Tokyo residents from all walks of life—a handsome Buddhist priest, a tofu seller, gabby housewives and students—are interviewed about their feelings about these highly intelligent and undeniably aggressive birds who have woven themselves into the fabric of their everyday lives. There are about 20,000 of them and they can be pesky in the extreme, of course, making havoc of carefully wrapped garbage bags and even going on terrifying sudden attack (shades of Hitchcock!) when humans get too close to their (largely unseen) nests. By perching and nesting on important communication and transport wires, they create millions of yens’ worth of civic damage every year, but seem impervious to any serious attempts to limit their population.

At the same time, the crows are a traditionally beloved aspect of the city, from the schoolchildren’s song about them which generations of kids have been taught, to the universal acknowledgment of their resourcefulness and brain power. Like apes, they have learned to manipulate sticks as tools to ferret out foodstuffs and there’s also the example of the ultra-smart crows who carefully place nuts on a highway for cars to conveniently crack them open for them. They can also be inadvertent artists when making their nests, using harvested wire hangers which result in creations which could hang in any Chelsea gallery, commanding exorbitant prices.

Tokyo’s homeless population makes a rare appearance here, and one immaculate, sweetly demure itinerant woman seems worlds removed from our debased Western image of homelessness. New artists have continued to feature the iconography of this animal originated by those exquisite calligraphists; a renegade art group films one of their number holding aloft a stuffed crow from a speeding car as its live brethren inevitably follow and circle high above them.

Striding and flying through all this, the crow proves to be highly photogenic, with its über-chic, glistening black plumage, endearingly eccentric, staccato walk and contrastingly graceful, gliding flight patterns. Its behavior, at once completely instinctive and thoroughly unpredictable, is an immeasurable boon to the raptly appreciative filmmakers, joyously freed from the sometimes dreary strictures of human scripting.