The sweet new movie Tokyo Godfathers confounds all common expectation about Japanese anime as the preserve of pop-techno-action pimply youth. Directed by Satoshi Kon, who also made Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue, the film is as lively as a cricket and often very funny, but it's not for the cyberpunk crowd. The only fantasy sequences are the dreams, half-remembered experiences and fables that live in the protagonists' heads, and though Kon tips his hat drolly to genre conventions in a climactic chase sequence, high tech sits quietly on the margins, emblematic of a Tokyo that's indifferent to the drama of human suffering, regret and loss playing out beneath its gleaming surfaces. For all its ultramodern setting, the movie owes more to the hyperrealist pathos and gentle, zany comedy of Dickens than to most animation traditions.
Like every Christmas movie worth its schmaltz, Tokyo Godfathers is about the righting of domestic wrongs, though its resolution supports far more ambiguity than any animated feature I've seen this side of the Pacific. Amid the cold beauty of Kon's Tokyo, with its snowy streets and glowing high-rises, the very air reeks of loneliness and failure. The film's unlikely heroes are three homeless drifters who have largely given up on life but survive, just barely, as a tight, if quarrelsome, de facto family. Gin is a gruff, craggy alcoholic who keeps telling different versions of how he lost his wife and daughter; Hana is a tall, self-aggrandizing former drag queen with unfulfilled maternal instincts, a gift for Hallmark haiku and an unspoken crush on Gin; and Miyuki is a truculent teenage runaway from her own unpromising family, and the only one who's drawn with the huge round eyes characteristic of contemporary Japanese anime. For the rest, the animation is resolutely, gorgeously old school. Kon creates a whole world, detailed down to the last pile of garbage and yesterday's newspapers, with exquisitely drawn characters, earth-toned and full of definition. Together Gin, Hana and Miyuki provide a warm, if ratty, haven from the sleek, chilly culture of the city, whose upstanding citizens frantically teletext in the subway, or stand silent on escalators, listening intently to their cell phones.
Lost souls that they are, our reluctant heroes have ample reason to wish a happy ending on the abandoned baby they find in a trash can while dumpster-diving for Christmas bounty. Against their better judgment, they set out, armed with a key, some photos, and bottled milk pilfered from a cemetery, to find the baby's mother. Brazenly riddled with serendipity, Tokyo Godfathers' endless plotting has these bizarre surrogate parents doggedly hurdling one obstacle after another as they zigzag through the city's murky underworld. They tangle with the mob; rescue an old drunk who dies several times over, only to wake up and ask for one more final slug from Gin's bottle; succumb to brutal punks wielding baseball bats; and find a kindly Latina wet nurse who suckles the baby and comforts Miyuki, who's not nearly as bloody-minded as her tough-guy image projects.
Inevitably, the search for the infant's mother is also a journey of self-discovery, in which the bedraggled bums keep stumbling across the truths of their own painful pasts. "We're not action heroes," the perennially depressed Gin keeps insisting as they pull off one brave stunt after another. Despair and self-pity give way to hope and pride, and the meek inherit the earth merely by finding something useful to do. Tokyo Godfathers is pure Dickens by way of pure Capra. It's a wonderful life.
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Tokyo Godfathers was directed by Satoshi Kon; written by Kon and Keiko Nobumoto. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.