Tokyo, Japan, and the surrounding cities in this year of 2012 truly have to be seen to be believed.

It is a futuristic lightning bolt, a city of glass and light, colors, real and imagined, sounds and smells that seem to be a Ray Bradbury sweet dream. It is at once a crystal ball that shows the future and a complex city that embraces and honors the past — and prepares to take it and package it up for a flight to outer space.

Tokyo is the epitome of cool.

I lived there in the early ’50s when it was still digging out from the horrendous firebombing of the war. It was disfigured but is now healed and complete.

Writers/directors/cinematographers John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson have put together the splendid, mesmerizing documentary, “Tokya Waka: A City Poem,” a visual poem in which an entire new world has been revealed, one the city folk have known for centuries, but one that I did not see, and I don’t how I missed it.

Prepare yourself to visit the crows.


Yes, crows. Millions of them. In the passing of time we spend here, we meet and talk to street people, university professors, zoo keepers, walk-a-day citizens and a young scholarly homeless woman.

The film starts with an hypnotic winter’s day view of the snow coating the bonsai, cherry blossom and pine trees in downtown parks. The camera moves through the streets, the glass corridors and smoky cafes, where students and the elderly shuffle along and jam into spotless subway trains. All the while, winter and summer, the crows are there, millions of them. They coexist with the population who, since ancient times, actually back to the Edo period (Edo was Tokyo’s original name) of 1603-1867 simply accepted them.

Gorgeous wood block prints and paintings of crows can be found in the art museums.

But these aren’t like our Maine crows, which flock to our garden water bowls and screech in our ears. Well, maybe they are — maybe they’re just waiting. We just haven’t studied them like the Japanese have.

One curator shows us how small the pigeon brain is and how large the brain of the crow. Here’s where it starts getting weird. The birds, it seems, think like us.

Another professor speaks poetically of finding his goldfish missing from his garden pond, and a crow feather left behind like a calling card or thank you note.


“I regret the loss of the goldfish,” he says. “But I understand that to the crow, it’s simply a matter of survival.”

The homeless woman, young and pretty, clearly educated and living in a tent in the park, speaks of the ubiquitous crows. “I love the ambiance of seeing them stroll through our city of tents.”

She leaves water bowls for them, draws pictures of them just like the ancient artists did.

Another scholar explains, “They are like the jungle crows of Southeast Asian tropical forests. Here, they seem to thrive among the three-dimensional structures in the concrete jungle. They have adapted.”

“Tokyo Waka” is not your every day documentary. It’s a movie starring crows with humans as extras. It reveals the mysterious phenomenon of the Tokyo crow. When we see the crows, in thick black clusters on the wires and in trees, along the walls that line the parks, we get back that old creepy feeling we had when we watched Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

“They live very well here in the city,” one guide tells us. “They’ll eat anything: meat, blobs of mayonnaise, yakisoba noodles, bread.”


In big screen color and hypnotic beauty, we watch the crows in their daily lives, hovering, soaring, strolling on sidewalks as hipster students share sidewalk space with the elderly under the colorful umbrellas. It’s a moving art scene populated with the ever present crow.

A zookeeper explains, “I think they’re watching us, observing, learning our ways. They’re incredibly smart. They pluck hair from the animals in the cages to make nests. Sometimes they carry off baby animals, tiny guinea pigs, prairie dogs; they just swoop down and snatch them.” We are shown how the families of crows steal discarded wire clothes hangers and build what appear to be fences.

An elderly woman talks to us about her daily walk with her dog and husband: “Sometimes, they follow us, side by side, just behind us, in pairs, like man and wife.”

Three women fanning themselves in front of a shop describe some of the strange work of the crow.

“Leave a bowl of eggs outside the door,” one explains. “After awhile the insides will be gone; the egg shells remain intact.”

We’re shown videos of the firebombing of Tokyo, paintings of the ancient earthquakes, floods and fires. Always there — like in a Van Gogh painting — will be the crows.


We see close-up shots of crows performing the most amazing, human acts. We watch a crow chip away at a piece of wood, making a spear out of it, then digging into a rotten log and withdrawing a morsel of food.

The crows seem to move in different patterns, some in what appear to be gangs, while others are in pairs, like couples.

They find pieces of wire and fashion hooks out of them to fish a morsel out of a bottle or jar.

And then, in the most incredible and humorous scene, we watch crows along the sidewalks, picking up walnuts offered by viewers. They take them to the street and drop them in front of passing cars. They wait until the cars pass over and crack them and then snatch up the meat. Some of the viewers will help them out by smashing the nuts for them. The crows watch and wait with real Asian patience.

“TOYKO WAKA” is, of course, essentially about the wonder of the Japanese crow, but we suffer not one boring moment. While we learn about these amazing creatures, we’re stunned with the beauty of this great city, this urban landscape of neon and hi-tech wonder that still holds close to its heart, the magic and mysticism of its past. It seems that we can paraphrase an old song here.

“In time the Rockies will crumble, Gilbraltar will tumble, but our crows are here to stay.”

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

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