Directed by Satoshi Kon. Voices by Toru Emori, Aya Okamoto, Yoshiaki Umegaki. (2004, PG-13, 90 min.)
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Jan. 23, 2004
This ain’t your little brother’s animé. Well, it could be, potentially: But for a few violent moments and some harsh language, Tokyo Godfathers is the kind of old-fashioned, all-ages entertainment Hollywood used to churn out in live-action form before the era of niche marketing, when a good story sold a film. (Indeed, it’s an homage to John Ford’s 3 Godfathers, a Western comedy about three grizzled old coots – John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz, and Harry Carey Jr. – who care for a foundling.) It’s so good-natured and affirmative that a perky J-pop rendition of "Ode to Joy" plays over the credits, with the buildings in a skyline dancing rapturously. Yet esteemed animation studio Madhouse (Vampire Hunter D) is behind the controls, and the setting is the Shinjuku slums, seen in starkly beautiful, photorealistic detail: moonlit exteriors of cardboard coffins and dilapidated alleyways where snow and broken syringes crunch under feet. The combination of high animé style and old-school heart gives the film a broad enough appeal to merit a wide release. Not that it isn’t quirky. Consider that the lead character is a homeless, self-described "old queer" in a voluminous caftan and a turban; desperate to experience the joys of motherhood, he plucks an abandoned baby from a dump, christens her Kiyoko, and totes her around Tokyo in a pink padded Moses basket. (The Village Voice exulted, "Ford-Inspired Anime Recasts John Wayne as Turbaned Trannie.") Hana (Umegaki) – or "Aunt Bag," as he’s also known – is one of those swoonily hysterical drag queen stereotypes, but he fits right into writer-director Satoshi’s loopy vision. Teamed with grizzled old drunk Gin (Emori) and scrappy teenage runaway Miyuki (Okamoto), Hana scours the city in search of the baby’s mother. The plot is farcical and broad, full of ironies and crossed paths and coincidences, not to mention intercontinental gangland wars and unexpected family reunions Dickensian in scale. If you can hold on to that, Tokyo Godfathers is well worth your while. It suggests that love is where you find it, and – as corny as it sounds on paper – magic happens. See "Upping the Animé" in this week's Screens section for an interview with Satoshi Kon.