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Tokyo Waka: A City Poem: Film Review

Tokyo Waka: A City Poem Still - H 2013

The Bottom Line

Modest but likable pic finds a new way to look at Japan's capital.

Opens

Wednesday, Aug. 28 (Film Forum)

Directors-directors of photography-editors

John Haptas, Kristine Samuelson

Tokyo's population of crows get their due in a charming doc.

A peculiar and often charming essay-film viewing Tokyo through an unfamiliar lens, John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson's Tokyo Waka suggests that much can be understood about its culture by studying its relationship to crows. Modest in scope and execution, its theatrical life will be limited to specialty bookings, but Japanophiles and armchair ornithologists who find it on video should be delighted.

Around 20,000 of the large black birds currently share Tokyo with humans, a number the city government has fought to keep in check. We see population-control strategies -- traps, attempts to limit food sources -- but the omnivorous birds are resourceful: An expert compares their use of twigs to dig up bugs to the first invention of tools by humans thousands of years ago. Their scavenging tendencies sometimes approach art -- as in intricate nests, made of stolen wire clothes hangers, that can short-circuit power transformers and cause train lines to shut down.

The filmmakers' interviews range from the purely scientific and informational to the profound: A young homeless woman, who lives among crows in a park, eloquently compares her life to theirs; a monk describing the trash crows need to live explains how garbage is "the ruins of desire."

Occasional diversions -- a riverboat tour recounting the city's history of earthquake and fire; a visit to a shop full of anime trinkets -- are interspersed with no obvious connection to the narrative or overall structure. But it's hard to mind such aimlessness given the frequent playfulness of the film's subjects -- especially when anecdotes (like one about locavore-inspired beekeeping in the fashionable Ginza district) so often take funny left-turns making them surprisingly relevant.

Directors-Directors of photography-Editors: John Haptas, Kristine Samuelson

Music: Todd Boekelheide

No rating, 63 minutes