“Tokyo Waka,” a new documentary by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson, describes itself as a “city poem,” which is certainly accurate. The film is a short, nimble consideration of the collision between the wildness of nature and the orderly bustle of modern urban life. It is also an essay on ornithology, Japanese culture and the challenges of pest control.
Not that the crows that are the film’s subject — its heroes, villains and extras — are pests, exactly. They are too noble, too beautiful, to be dismissed in that way.
But the 20,000 black birds that cloud the skies and perch on the power lines of Tokyo certainly cause their share of problems. They tear open garbage bags with their beaks, snatch carp from decorative ponds and attack unsuspecting pedestrians who move too close to their nests. Some of those are intricate structures made from discarded clothes hangers.
Crows, whose brains are more than twice the size of those of ducks, are intelligent and resourceful creatures. They use their beaks to shape twigs into hooks that they use to fish grubs out of holes in trees. They communicate with one another through sound and movement and respond to the presence of humans in complicated ways.
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Haptas and Samuelson record their behavior and survey artists, priests, biologists and nonexpert Tokyo residents who share anecdotes, folklore and scientific data on the birds.