John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s lyrically meditative docu “Tokyo Waka” focuses on the titular city and its 20,000 crows. The result seems somewhat scattershot at first; no overarching throughline determines the sequence of human and/or avian activity filmed and commented upon by various residents, ornithologists, city officials and artists. But the patterns of movement that sweep through, horizontally and vertically, effectively capture the city’s rhythms: Snow and cherry blossoms fall, pedestrians stream through intersections, crows wheel in the sky or perch on rooftops in Hitchcockian numbers. Playing at New York’s Film Forum, “Waka” offers a rewarding ride for viewers who can go with the flow.
Tokyo boasts an especially large species of crow, and on the most basic narrative level, the film recounts the centuries-long interaction between these black birds and the Japanese capital. Filmmakers generously sample Japanese art in which crows figure prominently, from classical paintings and woodcuts to Masahisa Fukase’s melancholy “Raven” photographs and contempo performance art featuring the birds painted yellow.
But crows also pose municipal problems. They are seen swooping down and pecking the heads of several hapless Japanese pedestrians; 600 such attacks are reported yearly. Omnivorous, they scatter the city’s garbage far and wide, locked in perpetual combat with the sanitation department as each side invents methods of outwitting the other.
Haptas and Samuelson alternate mass human movement — umbrella-toting crowds ascending staircases or gaggles of pedestrians navigating forests of sign-filled streets — with more individualized human specimens. These include a smiling, articulate young homeless woman who lives in a tent city in the middle of a park, advocating for an alternative definition of “home.”
Similarly, interspersed with the murders of crows ominously gathering on overhead wires or gliding in circles above the city, ingenious individual birds are shown adapting to an urban environment they have co-opted for centuries. One bird rolls walnuts into the street to be crushed by cars, and then waits patiently for a green light to allow it time to hop over and consume them. Another fashions a wooden hook to get at inaccessible goodies. Crow couples build complicated nests out of intertwined wire hangers or hair they methodically pluck from the manes of zoo animals.
High- and low-angle shots seldom specifically represent birds’-eye or people’s-eye views, but rather reveal an interactive exchange whereby each species watches and interprets the other. “Waka” refers to an ancient form of poetry still widely popular today, and helmers Haptas and Samuelson, through their serene lensing and fluid editing, propose a visual thread linking the past to the present “as the crow flies.”