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"Tokyo Godfathers": Homeless Where the Heart Is

If there were ever an indication that the Academy Awards voters are a few bricks short of a load, it was their decision to nominate Brother Bear but not Tokyo Godfathers for best animated picture in 2003. Disney’s amiably average tale comes nowhere close to the magnificent artistry of Satoshi Kon’s latest film. One must assume Academy voters were nonplused by a PG-13 animated film with no singing animals.

One of the great things about Kon’s work is its ability to make one feel as if they are actually in Japan through its depiction of people and settings so realistic and unmistakably Japanese. This has never been truer than with Godfathers, which seems as much a loving tribute to the city of Tokyo itself as to the John Ford film, The Three Godfathers, that inspired the story. It is a beautiful film, both visually and narratively.

We first find our protagonists carving out a meager, if spirited, existence on the streets of Tokyo, residing in an elaborate tent house in a park in the bustling Shinjuku area. Gin is the apparent leader of the group, a gruff but caring middle-aged man who has lost his family and is resigned to his grim fate. Hana, an excitable drag queen, is both mother and cheerleader to the group and always tries to look on the bright side. Miyuki is the trio’s newest addition, a petulant teenager who has run away from home and remains generally bitter about her predicament. This ersatz family unit spends a good bit of time squabbling, but beneath all the bluster their bonds run deep.

One night, while searching through a rubbish heap for potential Christmas gifts, they stumble upon an abandoned baby. After their initial revulsion at this turn of affairs, Hana takes on the role of surrogate mother with great glee, claiming the child to be a gift from God. Somewhat alarmed, Gin and Miyuki urge that they turn the baby in to the police. Hana agrees at first, but is ultimately unable to part with the child and manages, with difficulty, to convince the others that they themselves should find its parents. Using a key found with the baby, they open a train station coin locker and discover photos and other clues to the parents’ whereabouts. So begins a citywide quest that takes the trio from cemetery to wedding chapel to immigrant slum to gay bar and then some. As they come closer to finding the missing parents they uncover much about each other and their own losses.

Though the story is potent and packed with surprises, Godfathers is all about the characters. While it doesn’t shy from measured use of stereotypes, it creates in the principals what are surely three of the deepest and most engaging characters to appear in animation. They begin as relative enigmas apart from a brief sketch of their personalities. We know only that Gin is the grouch, Hana the sensitive one, and Miyuki the brat. Their backgrounds and motivations are only gradually revealed as the story progresses. Even after we believe we have a good grasp of their characters, further revelations force us to reconsider. We learn that Gin’s tortured and despairing nature results from the tragic loss of his wife and daughter, but it’s later revealed that Gin is really plagued by the fact that the tragedy is his own doing. Though not without a trace of ambiguity, by story’s end all three seem to have finally found their place in life.

As is to be expected with a Kon production, the art direction is impeccable. Tokyo truly comes alive as a teeming metropolis and the use of actual locations, such as Tokyo City Hall, grounds it firmly in reality. Anyone who’s spent much time in Japan will be familiar with many of the typical places on parade, including a cemetery, family restaurant, hospital, convenience store, and train station. CGI is occasionally blended into the cel environment for such things as speeding cars and the brilliant opening credits where the staff’s names are seen displayed in the background on all manner of street signs and billboards as the characters walk by. It is a seamless effect and an approach that one hopes Disney might consider before abandoning cel animation all together. As befits the often comic tone, the characters’ mannerisms tend to be a bit more cartoony than in other Kon productions. Miyuki has enormous, manic eyes, and Hana’s face is a nonstop medley of wild contortions.

Rare is the anime that can actually make me laugh aloud, and Godfathers succeeded several times. The trio has a great comic rapport and one can easily imagine them anchoring an all-out comedy. A highlight comes near the end when Gin, completely out of breath after a frantic chase, attempts to relay to his cohorts urgent news about the baby’s mother. As Hana and Miyuki watch in amazement, he dances about in a crazy pantomime that can only be described as Bugs Bunnyesque, using a flurry of semi-obscene gestures to indicate he’s referring to a woman.

On a more serious note, this is another Kon film that addresses a serious social issue in Japan. As Perfect Blue touched on stalking, Godfathers takes a look at the plight of the homeless community, an ever more visible presence in today’s Japan, and especially the Shinjuku area where the film is set (certain parts of which are home to massive cardboard box cities). I wouldn’t necessarily say it takes a hard look, for doubtless the average homeless person’s existence is harsher than the one depicted for our heroes. Nevertheless, it does little to glamorize or sugarcoat the situation, and in a country where many people just prefer to look the other way, this relatively frank presentation of homeless people as stars in a feature film is most admirable. Even though the film’s focus is on personal rather than societal causes, one hopes it will promote discussion of this much overlooked problem.

The soundtrack is a generally upbeat and highly enjoyable, folding modern takes on holiday classics into a jaunty score. The combination of Christmas tunes with the film’s themes of regret and redemption, not to mention a certain bridge scene, are evocative of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Special features are limited to a making-of documentary, which is of mixed quality. Much of it is promotional material consisting of glib appeals from the actors and footage of the film’s premieres. There is a completely fluff interview of director Kon conducted by Miyuki’s cute young voice actress — the sort of thing that seems to be nearly obligatory in recent anime films. As thoroughly pointless as it is, Kon does reveal with surprising frankness that he was convinced to cast that actress by leering at her pin-up in a bookstore. Hope the wife’s not watching.

There is also an all too brief look at the animation process in which they describe how computers were used to insert multiple layers of images into shots to enhance depth perception. Also on display are photos of some of the Tokyo sites that appeared in the film. Having been wowed by the superb animation, I was really hoping for a more detailed discussion of its creation.

Finally, there is a brief visit with the score’s composer and another interview with Kon, this time conducted by an interviewer who is more serious, but who rambles so that Kon can hardly get a word in edgewise. The interviewer rightly praises Kon for his ambition in undertaking a film about middle-aged homeless people that would seem to be virtually unmarketable. Kon also makes the excellent point that animation knows no boundaries but those imposed upon it by people in the industry itself.

Tokyo Godfathers is a fantastic film that truly transcends its genre and should have universal appeal. It is a beautiful, funny, and inspiring adventure that will move all but the hardiest souls. Though the DVD is modest, it’s still a must have since you’ll probably be compelled like me to watch this lovely tale many times over.

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