Drawn That Way: Tokyo Godfathers
By Kim Hollis
May 4, 2004

Glass throughout the city breaks

Just months after Millennium Actress, Satoshi Kon's glorious celebration of Japanese cinema, captured the fancy of animation fans and cinephiles, the director returned with a follow-up centered around the ideas of family, providence and hope.

Drawing heavily from the classic John Ford film 3 Godfathers, Kon's update transports the three heroes of the story from the bleak Western desert country to the streets of modern-day Tokyo. The rugged outlaws played by a live-action John Wayne, Harry Carey Jr., and Pedro Armendàriz are replaced by three homeless souls who are impressively complex and intriguing.

The trio is comprised of Gin, a late-middle-aged gentlemen whose gruffness belies an air of sadness and compassion; Miyuki, a teenage runaway with the sass that is typical for a girl her age; and Hana, a cross-dressing homosexual with mother issues and maternal instincts. The three cohabitate in a cardboard shack that they have made cozy with their own personal touches, but their somewhat comfortable existence is thrown into turmoil when they discover an abandoned infant left underneath some garbage. Because Hana never knew his own natural mother, he is insistent that rather than take the baby to the police and a potential future of foster home after foster home, they should instead try to find the baby's mother and convince her to take the child back. Gin and Miyuki know that they've lost the battle as soon as Hana shows her attachment by naming the girl Kiyoko.

So the trio uses a locker key left with Kiyoko to open a door leading to numerous clues about the child's past. These clues lead the heroes on a journey filled with chance reunions, danger, personal discovery and redemption. With more coincidences than Charles Dickens could shake a stick at, the tale has the potential to veer into the manipulative or predictable but the screenplay, written by Kon and Keiko Nobumoto, is so warm and character-driven that all of the machinations feel natural.

The characters themselves are rendered full of personality both by virtue of their dialogue and design. Their faces are expressive and colorful, and their clothing is representative of certain unique aspects specific to each individual character. Gin, who wears a heavy hat and beefy coat, looks brutish and crude, which is the impression he hopes to give to the outside world despite his tender emotions toward daughter-figure Miyuki and best friend Hana. Similarly, Miyuki hides herself under layers and layers of bulky winter outerwear. Though admittedly much of that clothing is for warmth, it is significant that in a critical scene she sheds this shell to reveal the delicate, expressive being that she is. Naturally, Hana’s flamboyance is emphasized to a large extent, which is perfectly in keeping with the fact that he wears his heart solidly on his sleeve and is a big fan of being up front and honest.

Along with outstanding character development and dialogue, Tokyo Godfathers is infused with humor, both subtle and overt. Kon never goes for the cheap shot, though, and the real reward is watching the film with a close eye to detail. Even as the plot progresses, something fascinating always seems to be happening in the background, making it almost a necessity to rewind and watch what was missed.

As in both Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress, one of director Kon’s biggest successes comes from his exquisitely designed landscapes. The wintry Tokyo setting allows some excellent opportunities to create some nearly real-looking scenes. One back alley in particular is so natural that it almost could have come straight out of a live-action Matrix film.

Also adding to the atmosphere is an excellent score by Keiichi Suzuki, who also has credits on the horror film Uzumaki and Beat Takeshi’s Zatoichi (which will receive a North American release in June unless Miramax mucks up another foreign language film). There are times when one bops right along with the three “godfathers,” and there are poignant times when the music highlights a touching scene or two.

Perhaps one of the more surprising things about Tokyo Godfathers is the fact that it is, in essence, a Christmas movie. The holiday is celebrated differently in Japan than it is in more predominantly Christian countries (only 1% of the Japanese population is Christian). The holiday is very commercial, with Christmas lights galore, a traditional Christmas Eve cake, and the exchanging of gifts. It’s also known as a time for miracles, which certainly figures significantly into the story. Even more importantly, though, is the strong emphasis on being with family during the holiday, as all three characters remember Christmases past that impacted them in some way.

In his short career as a director in animation, director/screenwriter Satoshi Kon has created three truly seminal and gorgeous films for the anime genre. With Tokyo Godfathers, his growth takes him beyond a primarily adult audience to a film that is appropriate for a slightly wider age group (though the jokes and openness with reference to Hana’s homosexuality are a bit too touchy for youngsters). While Kon is currently working on his Twin Peaks-esque television series called Paranoid Agent, I’ll be anxiously awaiting his next foray into the realm of feature film.