In a scene reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, a lone crow angrily dive bombs a man casually walking down some outdoors stairs. Purposefully swooping, it mercilessly strikes its target’s head before flying off, leaving the man to puzzle over what prompted such a vicious attack.
Welcome to Tokyo and the precarious relationship it shares with the 20,000 crows that inhabit it. The world’s largest city teems with some 13 million people who are forced to divvy up their work and play space with these striking, but, sometimes, unpleasant creatures.
The question posed by Tokyo Waka‘s directors John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson is this: Are Tokyo’s crows a part of its cultural landscape as some suggest, or are they merely a nuisance as others claim? In their documentary, the answer is inconclusive because, according to dozens of interviewees, these grand, wide-winged birds are both necessary and vile.
To understand the Japanese connection to crows, the filmmakers trot out Edo-era paintings, literature and even modern photos demonstrating the birds’ long-time and constant presence in Japan. For centuries, Japanese have noted the crows’ existence in their environment. The case is also made on the birds’ behalf by those believing that in a metropolis like Tokyo, nature, whether artificial or real, is imperative for human survival. As much as so many complain about the crows, others recognize that they inject a breath of life to the urban landscape of omnipresent trains, skyscrapers, and unyielding concrete pavement.
Interspersing conversations with various artists, municipal workers, Buddhist monks and Shinto priests, avian experts, and even a homeless woman living in a park, the filmmakers aim for a poetic understanding of Tokyoites and the black birds some love to hate and others find inspiring. Although several discussions focus on methods of elimination including beekeeping, the argument that it’s not cruel to kill the crows is backed up by the fact that some 600 calls each year are made reporting attacks by them on humans.
Yet, these sleek birds have lived among people for so long, they’re used to eating their food, like the remnants of sushi and ramen. But they also pluck hairs for their nests from animals housed at a zoo, and destroy ponds by plunging down and snatching the fish from them. Further, they cause hazardous unhygienic conditions because they’ve learned to tear open garbage bags and spread the contents about. A priest even grumbles about the crows’ dirtying the sacred water of the shrine where he officiates. Amazingly, they have learned to work the faucets there. Tokyo crows are not only fearless; they’re also slick. Witness how they roll whole walnuts into the middle of the street to have them crushed by passing cars. Besides using vehicles as their nutcrackers, they also possess the smarts to fashion hooks from twigs with their beaks; using them to fish for insects from trees.
Beautifully photographed with consummate care and attention, Tokyo Waka, which translates to Tokyo Poem, is visually entrancing backed by moody music. The incessant cawing, the flapping of spread wings creates a rhythmic cadence. But as a poem, the film feels more like a freestyle slam—with some verses in praise of crows and others wishing they’d fly away for good.
Tokyo Waka screens at the Grand Illusion Cinema (1403 NE 50th St., Seattle, WA 98105) from January 24–30. For more information, visit grandillusioncinema.org or call (206) 523-3925.