Tokyo Waka (Japan/USA, 2012)

On my first and, so far, sole visit to Japan, I had commented to my wife on how big the crows were.  My wife dismissed the comment, not seeing much of a difference from crows in the States.  While I let the topic slide, John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson kept on investigating after they too took note of something special about the crows constantly cawing outside the windows of their hotel.  Tokyo Waka is the result of following through on those curious crows, a documentary where Haptas and Samuelson gently glide from one nest of crow topics to another, sifting out along the way just what is special about the relationship crows have with the city and the inhabitants of Tokyo.

Haptas and Samuelson take us on quite the circuitous journey, which is part of the pleasure of the documentary.  Some topics, such as why we are talking with Japanese architects, didn’t make sense to me initially, but later after a second viewing, the conversation parts started to congeal into a satisfying, holistic whole.  This is not a linear documentary; it’s an essay, a poem.  (Waka is a Japanese word for ‘poem’ mostly for a type of poem developed during the Heian period of 794-1185.)  It’s as if Haptas and Samuelson are picking up various implements and materials to build their nest of a film.  We learn from on-the-street interviews that many Japanese see their lives as the crow flies.  As a homeless woman says to them, “I am with the crows every day.”  (This homeless woman is a very intriguing figure in the film.  In an interview I did with Haptas and Samuelson, they told me she is well known in homeless circles as an advocate and they had to meet with her quite a few times to gain her trust.)  We watch the crows demonstrate their intelligence in using tools, even beyond that fascinating viral video about crows in Japan ingeniously appropriating crosswalks in order to crack the shells of nuts.  We meet Japanese ornithologists and birders to learn specifics about Japanese crows, specifically that Tokyo crows are ‘jungle crows’, Corvus macrorhynchos, much larger than American Crows, Corvus brachyrhynchos.  As striking as their size are distinctive and prominent beaks they bear on their faces.

Part of what I appreciate about Tokyo Waka is how it doesn’t shy away from the conflicting feelings Tokyoites have about crows.  This film treats crows so respectfully that it begins with their murdering (if I were being cheeky, I’d call it a murder of crows murdering, but it’s not clear if more than one crow was involved).  It begins with death and includes explorations of the disruptions that result from crows making a living in what we think of as our habitat, the city.  Crows disrupting power lines, crows ripping garbage bags, each of these moments begs meditations on our modern lives, how we’ve outsourced previous domestic duties and how we’ve tossed aside attempts to satiate our perpetual desires and called the remains of failed fantasies ‘garbage’.

By not judging their interlocutors, Haptas and Samuelson let each Japanese citizen speak for themselves.  We learn that not everyone has the same impression of Tokyo crows.  One woman tells us they are gentle and then her comments are followed up by someone who has been ‘attacked’ by crows.  Haptas and Samuelson put that ‘attack’ in quotes in the film by having ornithologists share how it’s more likely the crows are warding off human intruders from their young chicks.  In this way, Haptas and Samuelson are also letting the crows speak for themselves in the observations of crows paced throughout the documentary.

It’s all about perspective.  And Tokyo Waka gives us as much from the crow’s viewpoint as it does the people of Tokyo.  Similar to Jessica Oreck’s documentary Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo about what the relationship between the Japanese and insects says about the nature/city dichotomy, Takyo Waka further demonstrates that the dichotomy is a false one.  Our city habitats are as much a part of nature as the crows’ nests are a part of our cities.  Nests of twigs in trees might turn into nests of colorful coat hangers on utility poles, but it’s still the nature of the city.


Tokyo Waka will be playing as part of the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival at the following days/times/venues:

Fri, Apr 20 @ 6:15 @ the Film Society Center theatre in New People in the Japantown district of San Francisco

Sun, Apr 22 @ 1:30 @ the Pacific Film Archives on the campus of University of California, Berkeley

Wed, May 2 @ 3:15 @ the Sundance Kabuki in the Japantown district of San Francisco

Visit the festival’s dedicated page for the film for more information and tickets.

Suggested links from this article:

My interview with Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo director Jessica Oreck in Kyoto Journal [PDF].