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SFIFF Review: ‘Tokyo Waka: A City Poem’

SFIFF Review: 'Tokyo Waka: A City Poem'

Would someone please summon Alfred Hitchcock? “Tokyo Waka; A City Poem” is, among other things,  an ode to the crows that seem everywhere in that Japanese city. They attack people, they eat anything available, and they raid the city’s zoo to steal baby prairie dogs and other small animals that they can carry away.  They pull hair off animals in the zoo to make nests. Bay Are filmmakers John Hapas and Kristine Samuelson get it all on film.

“They’re not attacking. They’re warding off,” says a biologist. Small comfort. Even the few foreigners who visited Tokyo during the Edo period (1600-1868) complained that crows were everywhere. They certainly are all over the art in woodblock prints that depict the city from that time.

“Tokyo Waka” is elegiac. At the same time, it is plain-spoken, as locals talk of the hardy animals as a part of the urban ecosystem. The audience gets a serene tour of Tokyo in the process —  a city contoured according to the tastes of Japanese for nature that has been tamed – except, that is, for the crows. It is strange that they are tolerated in a city that rarely tolerates crime, or immigrants.

We see crows that know how to turn on a water fountain, and that use twigs as tools to dig for worms.  One bird puts walnuts on the road so that cars will crush them.

Why not just get rid of them? Some are killed with poison gas, but doing so in huge numbers would clash with the deep-rooted Japanese belief in animism, the notion that God is in all things. (Why didn’t this apply to dolphins in “The Cove”?)

So the crows stay – more or less under control for now, as we see in this rich meditation with as much sensitivity to sound as to the image. Remember that Hitchcock showed you how things could get worse, without warning. “The Birds” was filmed at Pelican Bay, right up the coast from San Francisco.  How much human interference will the Tokyo crows tolerate?

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