Anime Reviews: Tokyo Godfathers
The third time's a charm for Satoshi Kon, as Tokyo Godfathers tells a gripping story with unlikely likable characters, though it relies too much on coincidence.
Title: Tokyo Godfathers
Production: Studio Madhouse
Film Length: 92 minutes
Air Dates: 8/30/2003
Age Rating: 13+ (brief mild violence, brief strong language, brief partial nudity)
Summary: Gin, a penniless drunk, Hana, a displaced drag queen, and Miyuki, a teenage runaway, are but a few of Tokyo's homeless residents trying to live as best they can on the streets. As Christmas approaches, Hana decides he wants to give Miyuki a present, and so drags the other two to a city dump, wherein he dives to look for the perfect gift. Suddenly, they hear a very unexpected noise: the sound of a baby crying, buried under a superficial layer of trash. After some debate, it's decided that they will care for the child until they locate the baby's parents. Hana especially wants to meet the baby's mother, and demand to know what kind of person would abandon their child. As they set out on their journey, their lives will be changed as they find more in the city streets than they expected.
The Good: Visual perfection; unusual, yet attaching main characters; great mix of comedy and drama
The Bad: Extremely contrived plot threads; comedic facial expressions can be distracting
The Ugly: Hana may have a beautiful soul, but if looks could kill...
With Christmas on the horizon, I figured it'd be best to jump the gun (like everyone else) and do a very Christmas-y review! Y'know, on a movie about homeless people! Because it takes place during Christmas! Now, while Christmas movies (that aren't romantic comedies) are commonplace to us United States folk, it's very strange over yonder in Japan.
The reason is that, to the Japanese, Christmas is more of a preamble to Valentine's Day than it is the major gift-giving holiday based on the Biblical passage where Jesus trains flying reindeer to win the big football game that it is to us. Thus, why non-romantic Christmas movies are rare in Japan. But Satoshi Kon decided to reach out to the worldwide market with Tokyo Godfathers and, because it's Satoshi freakin' Kon, it was a tremendous success.
Now while Kon's filmography started out a bit rough in the animation department (Perfect Blue was thrilling and dark, but yeah, quality animation it was not), he immediately improved upon it with Millennium Actress, and then stepped it up even further with Tokyo Godfathers here (and then hit it out of the ballpark with Paprika, but that's for another time).
The colors may be dark, dank, and ugly, but that's because we're seeing the world through the eyes of a group of bums, and their world is rarely beautiful, but don't misconstrue that to mean that the movie is not a visual marvel--it most certainly is--but it's only occasionally that you are able to escape the dirty back streets and venture into more colorful environments, and the contrast is often incredible to behold. The backgrounds are intricately detailed and almost lifelike, indicating that a tremendous amount of attention to detail was at work here. And then there's the character animations, which are always full of nuance and energy and make them look and feel alive and vibrant (though, in more comedic situations, a bit too cartoony). The short version is that a lot of effort went into the look of this film, and you can instantly tell.
Now, while the story is kind of a basic but well-done "return lost something to owner via journey with obstacles" plot, the same amount of attention to the visuals was apparently given to the character writing, because the core group of dirty, lousy bums are immediately memorable--not for being nasty or hateful, but for being incredibly fun and interesting and, sometimes, very deep. The connections they have to each other, their pasts, and the abandoned baby comprise the bulk of the film, and for my money, I wouldn't have it any other way. This is one of those cases where you wouldn't expect to like these people, but you're very quickly won over by them (kinda like The Devil's Rejects only, y'know, without the wanton murder). On a somewhat related note, I will mention that, alongside greats like Kamina and Grimmer, Hana is one of my favorite characters in anime. Take that for what you will.
Another great point about the film is that it knows how to balance the comedy and the drama to maintain a consistent tone. It seems like such an obvious thing, but a consistent tone to your story is often hard to come across (especially in anime, where comedy is often overtly goofy and drama overtly over-the-top) and even greats like Fullmetal Alchemist have trouble with it at times. In Tokyo Godfathers, however, the character writing is just so good that a comedic moment can instantly turn into a dramatic one, and it feels perfectly natural--hell, at times seriousness and comedy occur at the exact same time and both still work!
For example (slight spoiler warning, I guess?), the gang just happen to be around when a man is assassinated, and while Gin and Hana manage to get away, Miyuki is accosted by the Hispanic gunman who speaks at her in rapid, agitated Spanish, and Miyuki in her fear and panic (being your average Japanese girl and knowing little about foreign languages) can only muster up a broken and heavily-accented "Thank you very much?" in response. While the threat to her life is legitimate and tense, her flustered response is still very funny in its execution. And to do something like that right is a pretty monumental achievement, if you ask me.
But now, I have to rain on my own parade and explain where the film goes awry, and sadly, it often does. There are many occasions in the film where the plot is required to go a certain way, but the writers were too busy making the characters great that they forgot to think about making the story make sense. Oh no, they don't have toiletries for the baby and can't afford to buy any, but hey--someone left some at a grave in the cemetery! They're just walkin' down the road, but they miraculously come across a man who is stuck under his car (WHAT.) and invites them to his daughter's wedding as thanks for saving him! And that's only the tip of the iceberg. Tokyo Godfathers is just teeming with ridiculous coincidences, so much so that some have taken to calling it "Deus Ex Machina: The Movie." Good story writing, this is not. Sure, the general story is nice and all, but it's these out-of-nowhere plot threads that dampen everything for everyone.
Oh, and the comedic facial expressions can be a bit distracting. The film tries very hard to maintain a semi-realistic look, but that semi-reality is shattered when someone makes a face that wouldn't look out-of-place in a Chuck Jones cartoon. It's a pretty minor fault, but it's still there.
And that's Tokyo Godfathers. It's not quite perfect (like Millennium Actress was), but it's still an entertaining and heartfelt film that has joined my personal Christmas movie canon (alongside Junkers Come Here, which also is one of those rare non-romantic Japanese Christmas movies), and heck, it might join yours, as well. It's certainly uplifting enough to feel right at home, but just don't think too hard about the contrivances or you'll pop a blood vessel.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10. The extremely lazy deus ex machina moments may be irritating, but Tokyo Godfathers still manages to stand tall among its peers with impressive visuals and memorable characters.