Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tokyo Waka: Crows and the Great Cycle of Life

They love their kaiju monster movies in Japan.  Perhaps that has prepared Tokyo to live with the aggressive, non-indigenous Jungle Crows that have made themselves at home there amongst the tall buildings in recent years.  Japan’s Buddhist and Shinto traditions also help residents find a balance with their winged neighbors.  The mega-city’s people and crows inspire John Haptas & Kristine Samuelson’s docu-essay Tokyo Waka (trailer here), which opens today at New York’s Film Forum.

Crows have long played a role in Japanese culture.  Evidently, loud speakers still broadcast a time-honored tune at 5:00, warning children at play it is time to go home with the crows.  A recurring figure in art and legend, a crow is even the mascot of the national football (soccer) team.  However, these transplants are a crow of a different order.  Known to whisk away small mammals, they have forced Tokyo zookeepers to erect protective barriers for their prairie dogs (seriously).  They have even been known to take a peck at humans whom they don’t like the looks of.

Although Waka is generally meditative in tone, some of the crow footage is kind of creepy.  Haptas and Samuelson speak to residents of all walks of life, who are forced to interact with the black birds.  Not surprisingly, some of the most insightful comments come from a Buddhist priest, whose temple goldfish fell victim to one of the brazen crows.  He never begrudges them for following their nature.  After all, it is all part of the great cycle of life. 

We also hear from zoologists, city bureaucrats charged with crow population control, and students who have survived crow attacks.  Together they piece together a mosaic of Tokyo.  Even with the risk of angry crows, it is an attractively cinematic picture (lovely shot by Haptas and Samuelson), incorporating Shinto shrines and the giant commercial neon signs.  The homeless woman representing tent dwellers in the park is a good case in point.  While surely there are unfortunate economic reasons for her situation, she seems to have partly embraced the Bohemian aspects of it.  Indeed, making the most of a difficult situation is arguably quite compatible with Buddhist and Japanese values.

Quiet and thoughtful, Tokyo Waka is still rather peppier than one might expect.  Co-directors-producers-cinematographers-editors Haptas and Samuelson capture some striking images of the city and its crows.  Stylistically, it is not unlike Jessica Oreck’s Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, though it does not have quite the same charm.  Running just a tad over an hour, it is certainly easy to digest.  Recommended for students of Japanese culture and bird watchers, Tokyo Waka opens today (8/28) at Film Forum, programmed with the bonus short film, Catcam.