Tokyo Godfathers (2004) is a Japanese animated film about three troubled homeless people who find an abandoned baby and try to track down its mother. Borrowing its basic premise from the John Ford western Three Godfathers, the story introduces teen runaway Miyuki, aging drag queen Hana, and alcoholic ex-bicyclist Gin. Together, they make up a kind of dysfunctional family, grumpily caring for one another. One Christmas, they find a baby abandoned in a snow-covered dumpster. Maternally inclined Hana persuades her companions to set out on an expedition to discover its rightful mother. Along the way, the three discover that this child may truly be a miracle in their lives.
Even in the quirky world of Japanese anime, this movie is pretty darn unique. Director Satoshi Kon continues to expand the narrative possibilities of film animation by looking beyond the fantastical. He doesn’t need masked assassins, car crashes, epic sword battles, and apocalyptic disasters to hold interest. His greatest accomplishment is finding the high drama inherent in the simple task of homeless people searching out their next meal. This modern-day fable has a big heart, reminding us that every human has value, fancy address or not.
The character studies are so rich, especially Hana, grotesque and yet ingratiating, perhaps the most unlikely cartoon hero ever created. Kon reveals Tokyo (and its complete social strata) in all its modern madness, including its gay drag bars, where this impromptu family find brief safe haven. (And how many cartoons have the guts to even mention AIDS, as this one does?) Confronting social realities and presenting sensitively observed characters, Kon proves that animation can truly have as much, perhaps even more, depth and soul as any live-action film. This touching movie, like the best anime, transcends the limitations of the genre. If you’ve never experienced Japanese animé, give it a try and you may just find yourself hooked for life.
- by Jonathan Lewis