Tokyo Waka: A City Poem

Tokyo Waka: A City Poem


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Tokyo Waka: A City Poem (2013)

Opened: 08/28/2013 Limited

Film Forum/NYC08/28/2013 - 09/03/20137 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home, Facebook

Genre: Documentary

Rated: Unrated

A poem about a city, its people, and 20,000 crows.


Tokyo is a digital metropolis and wellspring of spectacular pop culture, its commercial crossroads carpeted with people day and night. Above them, watching from perches on buildings and power lines, are more than 20,000 crows. As their numbers soared in recent years, Tokyo fought back: trapping them, destroying nests, and securing trash. The crows adapted; they are among the smartest of animals. The 13 million people of Tokyo now live alongside them in a stalemate.

TOKYO WAKA tells this story, and a larger one as well. A Buddhist priest comments on garbage as the remnants of desire; a gardener considers the relentless persistence of nature amidst urban grit; a homeless woman talks about forging community in her tent village deep in the corner of a city park. TOKYO WAKA gives these smart, opportunistic crows their due, but the film is ultimately an episodic and discursive poem about the life and culture of Tokyo, one of the great cities of the world.

Director's Statement

Tokyo, the largest city on earth, is overrun with crows. We first spent time there a few years ago, and every morning they woke us a dawn with their raucous clamor. A little research told us that they thrive on urban leftovers, with little to fear from predators or the ineffectual efforts humans make at controlling them. Tokyo is indeed a crow paradise.

We were immediately drawn to this story, but not because we wanted to make a wildlife film. We realized that we could follow the crows throughout the city, digressing into its history, culture, and art, gradually assembling a portrait of Tokyo and its people.

We studied Japanese for 18 months and returned to Japan to shoot for ten days, the two of us traversing the city with our gear. After cutting a funding clip, we received a five-month artists' residency from the NEA/US-Japan Friendship Commission, which enabled us to immerse ourselves in Tokyo. We discovered a city of villages and rivers and profound thinkers-- a tofu vendor, a Buddhist priest, a homeless woman, an architect--who reflect on nature, mortality, urban life, garbage. And crows. These big, highly intelligent, and opportunistic birds get their due in TOKYO WAKA, but the film is ultimately an episodic and discursive poem about the life and culture of Tokyo, a great world city.

Production Notes

We lived in a fourth-floor studio walkup in Nakameguro, and ventured out every day with two backpacks and a tripod case-- all we could carry, but all we needed to shoot HD with high quality sound. Tokyo is huge, but we could get around easily with an atlas, compass, and the incomparable train system.

The Meguro River, lined with cherry trees, wound through our neighborhood. We had the great joy of living there long enough to see the bare branches bud and then blossom, drawing residents for strolls and meals beneath the trees, and then shed flurries of petals which carpeted the river. In summer, dense foliage followed, with tropical humidity and the ambience of locusts.

Our Japanese was rudimentary, despite 18 months of language study, and so we had the assistance of bilingual fixers. Scheduled interviews were preceded by the uchiawase, a traditional meeting to get acquainted. We would bring a small gift, such as wrapped rice crackers or sweets, and there would be a formal exchange of business cards, followed by small talk and a discussion of the scope of the interview. Whether we were meeting an ornithologist or a Shinto priest, we were often asking large questions--their concept of nature, the force of tradition--and so the uchiawase was more than perfunctory. As a result, we feel we were able to forge relationships that enabled us to film unguarded and thoughtful answers it would have been impossible to obtain otherwise.