In John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s hourlong documentary “Tokyo Waka: A City Poem,” the citizens of Japan talk a lot about crows: as a pestilence, a curiosity, a comforting presence, an essential force of nature, and a part of the urban landscape that’s inextricable from the skyscrapers and parks. They’re remarkably philosophical about the enormous scavengers who flock in and around Tokyo, acknowledging that even crows have a place in the universe, even if that means that occasionally a Buddhist temple’s koi pond gets raided, or a woman gets smacked square in the head by a bird attracted to a shiny barrette. It’s especially generous of them to be so forgiving of crows, given that—as one interviewee notes—the Japanese usually prefer “a kind of controlled nature.”
“Tokyo Waka” is mostly about crows, but it’s in no way a conventional nature doc, because Haptas and Samuelson use the relationship between these birds and their habitat to contemplate how animals adapt to the modern world, how humans attempt to bend nature to their will, and how the process of living on Earth requires constant adjustment. Sometimes “Tokyo Waka” makes these connections in an abstract manner, calmly observing the rain or the cherry blossoms, to show the ways city-dwellers deal with the inconveniences and blessings of nature. And sometimes Haptas and Samuelson are blunter, as when they talk to a homeless woman living in the park—grudgingly tolerated, just like the crows—or a tofu-cart vendor who admits that the lousy economy has allowed him to live a more relaxed, funky life rather than being forced into the pressure-packed business world. “Tokyo Waka” isn’t saying humans and crows are the same, only that both are animals, affected by their environment.
The filmmaking in “Tokyo Waka” could be a little more more daring. Though it’s dubbed “A City Poem,” poetic montages take a backseat to talking-head anecdotes. But the interviews are packed with amusing stories and tidbits, frequently illustrated by astonishing footage of crows doing exactly what these people are talking about: stealing clothes hangers to make nests on power lines, pushing nuts into traffic so passing cars can crack them, burying food to eat later, and generally living their lives as though all of Tokyo belongs to them. And who’s to say it doesn’t? Haptas and Samuelson have some fun comparing crows to the rabid Japanese anime fans known as “otaku,” and talking to a man who designed a spicy garbage bag that the crows won’t peck through. But those are just entertaining little digressions. The most telling sequence in the film is the one set at the city zoo, where a keeper wonders what right he has to protect his captive animals from attacks by the ones that are wild and free. Quietly, persuasively, “Tokyo Waka” asks whether cultures decline by pouring resources into propping up entities that can no longer support themselves.
Note: “Tokyo Waka” is screening with Seth Keal’s 16-minute short film “CatCam,” about a German couple who find a stray cat nosing around their home in the suburban U.S. and take it in, becoming fascinated by the private life of their “Mr. Lee.” They attach a camera to the cat’s collar and set it to take photos at regular intervals, seeing what Mr. Lee sees as he roams the neighborhood: mainly the undersides of cars and porches, along with other cats. “Catcam” complements “Tokyo Waka” in that it’s also about the human fascination with the inscrutability of some animals, but it’s also about the purpose of photography—whether it’s primarily journalistic or artistic—and about the ways people and animals both find a place to belong.