Upping the Animé

Satoshi Kon's 'Tokyo Godfathers': social commentary transposed onto a toonscape

Satoshi Kon
Satoshi Kon

At 40, and with just three feature films under his belt, Japanese animator Satoshi Kon is being hailed as the next big thing in animé, a possible successor to reigning pond jumper and Disney favorite Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke), and, more importantly, an artist worthy of serious critical attention in a Western arena that for the most part continues to define Japanese animated films in juvenile terms. This despite DreamWorks picking up the director's second feature -- the elegiac Millennium Actress -- for stateside distribution on the basis of its adult themes.

Kon began his career doing journeyman animation work for various companies before being given the opportunity to direct his first feature, Perfect Blue, in 1997. A gritty tale of a Japanese teen pop idol who on the eve of her retirement from the stage and entry into acting finds herself stalked by an obsessive fan, the film worked not only as a creepy, surrealistic thriller, but also as a wry commentary on the whole J-pop phenomenon and the cloying nature of celebrity. It was, to put it bluntly, as if someone had injected animé with a sudden dose of reality -- the absence of scary monsters and super freaks caught everyone but longtime animé fans (who have appreciated for ages the genre's boundary-jumping mutability) by surprise. The film was something of a minor hit, playing American arthouses and making a splash on DVD.

<i>Tokyo Godfathers</i>
Tokyo Godfathers

Millennium Actress took both Kon's storytelling and his media themes to new heights with a wildly ambitious tale of an aging actress recalling her life in Japanese film. Playing fast and loose with the notion of linear narratives, the film jumped from fantasy to reality and back again, and garnered raves not only for Kon's impressively dense story, but also for his nuanced animation, which perfectly complemented the film's time-tripping backstory.

And now there's Kon's Tokyo Godfathers, the story of three homeless people who discover an abandoned baby in a trash heap one Christmas Eve and strike out, with babe in tow, in search of the parents. Remarkably detailed in its depiction of Tokyo's gray back alleys (at one point a glowing, crimson Tokyo Tower arises from the blanketing snow like some weirdly beautiful industrial marker denoting the beginning of civilization) and involving themes of family, abandonment, and the city's little-discussed homeless issue, Tokyo Godfathers feels less like animé and more like a live-action feature that somehow got transposed onto a toonscape.

"I do not wish to make live-action feature films at all," Kon told the Chronicle via e-mail. "But it's great to hear that viewers in the Western world are accepting my films. Through drawing, however, I am able to express all my thoughts and ideas clearly and in detail."

<i>Tokyo Godfathers</i>
Tokyo Godfathers

Inspired, in part, by John Ford's Western 3 Godfathers, Kon's film is a dialogue-heavy mix of social commentary -- one of the homeless is an intensely maternal transvestite, one an alcoholic ex-family man and bicycle racer, and one a runaway girl -- that gives audiences the anti-Lost in Translation. The Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel of Sofia Coppola's film is like the myth of wealth to Kon's characters, although the ties that bind the trio of protagonists together here seem infinitely more traditional than those forged by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

"It is true that I was inspired by 1948's 3 Godfathers starring John Wayne, and I also took the title from that film as well," says Kon, "but at the same time, I noticed the increased number of homeless people in Tokyo, and that was the reason I wanted to focus on them this time as the main characters. As I am an animation writer/creator, I wanted to send my message to viewers throughout this feature, to make them feel relieved from their troubles, worries, and discontentment from everyday life by using the 'homeless' characters who are a socially disadvantaged people that are living their lives vitally and lively with warm and kind hearts."

And as for the film's unerring sense of reality, Kon credits less a youth spent immersed in Western films ("Of course I watched them, but I cannot tell you which") than in the vagaries of daily existence: "My influences in filmmaking/writing are based on my own experiences, thoughts, and ideas that came across in my head from everyday life, such as the issue of 'family,' which is a universal theme and runs throughout this film."

Kon's next project should be something of a break from that reality. "Mousou Dairinin is a psycho-thriller animated TV series, a field I have always wanted to try," he says, sounding suspiciously like he is returning to Perfect Blue territory. Either way, Studio Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki can rest assured the dapper Kon isn't likely to be appropriating his cuddly forest spirits anytime soon. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it's also taken considerably more seriously, a fact Kon clearly appreciates. end story

Tokyo Godfathers opens in Austin on Friday, Jan. 23. For a review and showtimes, see Film listings.

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Satoshi Kon, Tokyo Godfathers, anime, Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Mousou Dairinin

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