Tokyo Godfathers
Three unlikely characters become Tokyo Godfathers
Amy Harlib · September 18, 2003 | One of the most outstanding highlights of the 2003 Big Apple Anime Festival was the privilege of seeing the world premiere of Tokyo Godfathers, director Satoshi Kon's third production. The film spectacularly fulfilled all expectations concerning what this remarkably talented creator would do next. Mr. Kon debuted with the bleakly grim Perfect Blue, which explored the darker aspects of a struggling actress's career. Then followed the brilliant Millennium Actress, a lighter, surreal, exhilarating and intricate portrait of a star actress's life. Now, Mr. Kon eschews the unconventional narrative structures of his first two efforts for a more linear approach with equally compelling results in his third anime feature, in which he seeks to bring a pure realism and character-driven storytelling rarely done in a cinematic art form that seems overwhelmingly science-fiction and fantasy-dominated.

Tokyo Godfathers, set in the contemporary titular Japanese capital city, begins on Christmas Eve and concerns three homeless people: Gin, a middle-aged man claiming that he used to be a professional bicycle racer; Hana, a.k.a. Uncle Bags, an aging transvestite; and Miyuki, a teenaged runaway girl. They live together in a makeshift, tent-like shelter from which they go scrounging in the scrap-heaps of the Shinjuku district. At this emotionally-charged time of year, the three protagonists, while scavenging in a garbage dump, find an abandoned baby girl. This astonishing discovery transforms the trio's lives while they struggle to take care of their newfound charge and, using a few clues left with the little one, they seek the infant's parents, all the while hoping to also learn why they would desert their child.

The baby's needs awaken the three surrogate caregivers' long-buried emotions and memories about their pasts, which they reveal to each other and which we see in flashbacks. Their quest propels them into exciting adventures and encounters all over Tokyo and with all sorts of folks from every stratum of society—some helpful, others threatening—all having transforming effects on the protagonists. These developments become more poignant when the plot's focus on the usually overlooked aspects of modern Japanese urban existence gets starkly and ironically contrasted with the all too often phony jollity of the Yuletide season.

Along the way to the breathtaking, riveting conclusion, Tokyo Godfathers epitomizes the full potential of anime to deliver complicated, emotionally fulfilling stories layered in meaning and subtexts. This film in particular utterly entertains while it explores all sorts of social issues: the meaning of family and relationships; the challenges and arbitrariness of gender stereotyping; the tragedy of economic and class inequalities; and the uplifting potential to maintain one's pride and find contentment in the midst of adversity—this last an admirable goal the three protagonists manage to attain in surprising ways. Tokyo Godfathers also succeeds in presenting delightfully believable characters in its three leads—all fully rounded individuals balancing virtues with grotesqueries, most notably in the portrait of the aging drag-queen, one of the most sympathetic, positive gay characters in all of anime and even in all of cinema for that matter, comparing favorably to those in the memorable classic La cage aux folles.

Tokyo Godfathers
Sony Pictures, 2003
Directed by Satoshi Kon
92 minutes

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In Tokyo Godfathers Satoshi Kon so deftly uses his craft that he makes the mundane magical with the exquisitely drawn animation detailing Tokyo's byways and back alleys alongside the bright lights and urban gloss of its cosmopolitan centers, all the while illustrating the diversity and vividness of the inhabitants. This production makes the quotidian struggle for survival dazzling, engrossing and thought-provoking—all through brilliant visuals and the supremely talented performers' voice acting, accompanied by a perfectly complementary, dynamic, part jazzy, part dramatic score. This film, a remarkable artistic triumph, ought to win the highest accolades, its director's talent on a level comparable to that of master Hayao Miyazaki but with a very distinct style of his own. Satoshi Kon, already risen to the top ranks of his chosen field by making us yearn to discover what he'll do in the future, deserves to add the title Godfather of Anime on to my personal designation of him as Millennium Director.
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