Perhaps John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson shouldn’t have subtitled Tokyo Waka “a city poem,” as “poetic” may not be the first adjective one will think of while watching the film. Though there’s a certain solemn beauty to Todd Boekelhide’s moody electronic store that occasionally buttresses the film’s oblique evocation of the classic Japanese mono no aware mindset, this is basically a standard talking-heads doc, albeit one with a more discursive structure than most.
Less poem than an examination of poetic concepts, Tokyo Waka will be stimulating and thought-provoking especially for those unaware of Japan’s sizable population of crows (over 20,000 reside in Tokyo alone), a fact that’s the film’s starting point. But the doc isn’t content to simply be about Japan’s crow “problem,” such as it is. Haptas and Samuelson are interested not only in the crows themselves on biological and anthropological levels, but also what they suggest about the city of Tokyo itself and, on an even broader level, what they signify in Japanese culture at large.
At one point, an interview subjects describes Tokyo as a “patchwork city,” and to a considerable extent, “patchwork” is an apt description for the film’s digressive approach. Thus, in Tokyo Waka, a scene in which a Buddhist priest ruminates on human nature and the transience of life itself will be immediately followed by a sequence revolving around an artists’ collective that uses crows in an art project to “show people what the sky looks like.” Lengthy stretches of the film seem to forget about crows entirely, focusing more on Tokyo itself both in its troubled past—especially the devastation wrought both by a massive 1923 earthquake and the country’s atomic bombing during World War II—and its still-urbanizing present. Even when the film gets back to the crows, however, the nature of the observations its interview subjects offer vary wildly. Scientists explain the wily, resourceful, and even overly protective nature of these creatures; academics explore the various, often thematically dark, representations of crows in art and literature throughout Japanese history; and city officials recount Tokyo’s previous attempts to stem the growing crow population and how, at this point, they’ve essentially given up on trying to control the birds.
As frustrating as the deliberate messiness of Tokyo Waka might occasionally be, its discursiveness does have the intriguing effect of leaving behind a myriad of impressions about its subjects rather than settling on pat interpretations. Haptas and Samuelson’s vision of Tokyo is ultimately that of an urban environment that perhaps still bears the scars of a death-haunted history, a past that the ongoing proliferation of crows can’t help but evoke. Instead of trying to fight this history, though, Tokyo dwellers have learned to, as one resident puts it, “coexist” with these creatures/symbolic markers. But the filmmakers don’t just pin crows down to a simple “crows = death” interpretation. A gardener sees the crows’ survival amid Tokyo’s urbanization as a sign of nature’s persistence, and an academic discusses the ways photographer Masahisa Fukase fused his own tortured inner life with that of the crows he later focused on his work. As one homeless woman says at the end of the film, crows “can mean whatever you want it to mean,” whether one sees them as symbols of life or death. Tokyo Waka, thankfully, is intelligent and open enough to allow its viewers the mental space to make such connections for themselves.