In a surprise move away from exploring pop-iconography through the creative intertexuality available when using animation, anime auteur Satoshi Kon has unexpectedly followed up last year’s terrific homage-to-cinema Millennium Actress
with Tokyo Godfathers
, a quaint, heartfelt holiday movie.
The film’s narrative concept may not be as high-falutin as Kon’s previous film, but it is never the less pretty unique, and a terrific setup for delivering universal humanitarian messages. On Christmas day three homeless people, Gin (Toru Emori), an old drunk, Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki), a drag-queen, and Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), a teenage runaway, accidentally stumble upon an abandoned baby in a garbage heap. Depite the three homeless acting like a surrogate family amongst themselves, the child causes much argument. Hana wants to keep it, seeing the baby, temporarily named Kiyoko, as a gift from God and an apology for making him a woman in a man’s body; but soon the other two talk him out of the idea and they embark across Tokyo in the dead of winter to track down the child’s parents. They also intend to give the parents a firm lecture in parenthood, as each of the trio has, in some way or another, attributed their current lifestyle to parents. As they make their way back and forth across the city simple pieces of each member’s life is revealed and their individual affections for Kiyoko, and their strong motivations to not only get the baby real parents but teach the parents a lesson, are explained.
Though Millennium Actress
utilized animation to fantastically weave between past and present, reality and film, Kon meticulously used mise-en-scene and an unusual color palette to firmly ground the film, and Tokyo Godfathers
is no different. The cheer that this pink little baby brings the depressed bums must be read only from their extravagant emotions and radical reactions to each turn of the story, as the Tokyo of the film is drab, painted in dulled grays, greens and browns. Kon cleverly fills the story with what at first appear as monstrous coincidences (characters pop up from the past, lives are saved by luck, hints of the baby’s strange story appear haphazardly), but they eventually dawn on on Hana, Gin, and Miyuki that these are holiday miracles which seem to follow the baby around. These narrative surprises are also part of Tokyo Godfather’s warmhearted center, and the gradual delight these coincidences bring to the story help lighten up the purposefully bleak setting.
In keeping with the film’s themes of parenthood and childhood Kon fortunately avoids bringing up social themes tied to homelessness; all he does, and all he needs to do, is show the warm humanist, compassionate, and sorrowful hearts of the protagonists. In Tokyo Godfathers
homelessness is less a social issue than a simple allegory for self-wrought destruction of one’s family and one’s home. Kon easily declares the film’s themes through dialog and action (and occasionally, charmingly, through haiku), for though adults can appreciate the film’s messages and humor Kon’s film is operating on the simplism of a holiday movie intended for the family. Inadvertently this is also a problem, for the down-to-earth realism of Kon’s concept would do little to capture the imagination of a child (Miyazaki obviously went to the extreme opposite of the scale with Spirited Away
, employing fantastic, grotesque, magical animation to cloak his child’s story), and while the messages of the film should be heard by both adults and children, only the former would be able to appreciate a smartly directed and lovingly animated story about hobos. Hopefully the kindness, humor, and easily distinct (and amusing) personalities of the three bums and the near-zany turns of events that occur later in the film will keep children moderately interested in what is a particularly intelligent family film.