Satoshi Kon is not a name that rings off of American tongues too often when they think of anime. Sure, they might have heard of Hayao Miyazaki, since Disney's releases of his films in the US have brought him a little name recognition. More knowledgeable folks might recognize Osamu Tezuka as the "god of manga", or perhaps Katsuhiro Otomo from his groundbreaking Akira. But Satoshi Kon deserves just as much recognition, in my opinion, as a world-class director. Before his 40th birthday, he directed three films: Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Tokyo Godfathers. Each one is an amazing work in and of itself. Take a look at all three and you'll be stunned by his fantastic consistency in telling wildly different stories with quality and insight. Tokyo Godfathers is the most approachable of the three, telling a straightforward narrative without the mind-bending challenges of his previous two films. And although I liked the creativity of both of his earlier works, Tokyo Godfathers is a human story: goofy, likable, touching. The only thing, in fact, that keeps me from giving it my highest recommendation are a couple of maudlin touches that go too far in attempting to pull our heart strings.
Did you hear the joke about the runaway, the hobo, and the transvestite? This is the essence of Tokyo Godfathers, but it's much more than that. The three vagabonds Gin, Hana, and Miyuki have made a strange, argumentative family unit, scavenging for supplies and attending religious services in order to get the free meals afterward. Gin's ever the grumpy old man, who believes in nothing and no one any more. But Hana, the drama queen in more ways than one, thinks that the winter holiday season will bring them something special this year. Fifteen-year-old Miyuki doesn't really care what goes on as long as she can avoid the cops, since her father's one of them.
One night as the band is rummaging through a garbage heap, they hear the sound of crying. To their surprise, an abandoned baby awaits them. Gin just wants to call the police and be done with it, but Hana's dreamed of being a mother, and since he/she doesn't exactly have the equipment for it, the little girl might just be a godsend. But how can a few homeless people possibly care for an infant? And what if the mother is out there worried about her newborn? The trio winds up on a comedic misadventure as they attempt to find little Kiyoko's parents and solve the riddle behind her abandonment...and as they do, they reveal more of themselves than they ever expected.
As with all his films, Tokyo Godfathers looks magnificent. It's so rare to see theatrical-quality animation any more, so when we do, it's a real treat. Since Disney has all but abandoned hand-drawn animation--and that which it does release looks pretty bad visually--this is the place to go to see modern animation at its best.
In his previous films, Satoshi Kon went all out, weaving his stories through the viewpoints of psychosis (in the case of Perfect Blue) and memory (with Millennium Actress). Brilliantly conceived and executed, each one rewards the active viewer but could easily confuse others. Tokyo Godfathers drops the artistic pretensions of Kon's first two films. At first, I missed the ingenuity. However, as Tokyo Godfathers continues, I was drawn into the character's world. I felt for them and their plight. It took these folks on the very edges of society and made them human. In many films, the gay character exists as the token comic relief; in Tokyo Godfathers, not only is Hana hysterical, Hana is the character with whom we most identify. I could have spent another hour with these characters. And though the plot takes some unexpected twists, the characters are the point.
Satoshi Kon also does a great job working in religion as a motif. The characters themselves aren't of any particular belief; they happily eat grub from a Christian mission, steal offerings from a Buddhist cemetery, and pray at a Shinto shrine. However, the story of the film is wrapped up in the concept that God is somehow watching over the characters and is in fact the unseen hero of the piece. Kon isn't trying to make any overt statement here, but because it's so rare in anime to see the concept of God taken seriously in any form, I was impressed. (It's also quite interesting that it's the transvestite, the one looked down upon in most religious systems, who's the one most drawn to belief.)
The only area that bugs me about Tokyo Godfathers is that the sentimentality of the piece becomes too obvious a couple of times. It is a sentimental piece, to be sure, but there's a bit too much pathos in a few spots. Now Asian culture has a unique cinematic habit of placing action, comedy, and melodrama right next to each other and expecting them to work. (One Hong Kong movie that does this surprisingly well is the Chow Yun Fat thriller The Killer.) In Tokyo Godfathers, Kon almost pulls it off...but not quite. It doesn't ruin or wreck the movie, but those of us who are very conscious to feeling manipulated by any kind of emotional drawstring will feel that Kon goes too far.
Although I believe that Tokyo Godfathers is, due to its over-romanticizing, my least favorite picture by Satoshi Kon, his least is better than 99% of the rest of the anime canon's best. It's a fabulous film filled with wonder and fun that should be on your shelf.
Tokyo Godfathers -- rated PG-13 by the MPAA for "thematic elements, violent images, language and some sexual material" -- A