Tokyo. Christmastime. Dozens of homeless line up for a pageant, a sermon, and a free meal. Hearing the priest gabble on about the plight of the homeless, they groan and roll their eyes. Words don’t fill an empty stomach; they want to eat. The two at the head of the line are Gin, a grizzled forty-something, and Hana, a homosexual cross-dresser, who have spent who knows how many Christmases and holidays in soup lines like this.
They trudge back to their tent in the park with more food for a third, Miyuki, a teenaged girl who ran away from home after a fight with her parents. Together they form a kind of a family, even if they are perpetually at each other’s throats. Then they hear screaming from another part of the dump they’re scavenging through, and discover an infant abandoned in the trash.
This is the setup for Tokyo Godfathers, an animated production by Satoshi Kon, one of Japan’s brightest new directors of animated productions. He’s been responsible for two other feature-length movies before — the bizarre Perfect Blue and the dreamy Millennium Actress — and this is a step in a completely different direction from the two. Tokyo Godfathers is a combination of whimsy and social realism — not always the best mixture, but in this movie it manages to work by dint of coming from new directions.
After the discovery, the three take the baby back to their tent that passes for a home. Hana’s convinced the baby is “a Christmas present from God,” and wants to bring her up with them. For Hana, this is a dream come true: she can have the baby she would never have otherwise had. For Gin, it’s a painful reminder of the family he allowed to slip through his fingers. For Miyuki, it’s a pain in the ass, and an object of envy. But deep down they all want to do right, they all have a core of decency that hasn't been killed yet, and the movie is about how the baby becomes a catalyst for redemption on each of their parts.
Eventually they decide to find the baby’s mother and convince her to take her back. They also discover a coin locker key in the baby’s swaddling, leading to a cache of personal possessions. Were they running away? Committing group suicide and sparing the child? This gets them caught up in a larger plot involving a gang war, a wedding, an unexpected reunion with a grown daughter — and many other things that will test some viewers’ appetites for magical realism, especially at the very end.
Other people have written, not very fondly, about the movie’s use of melodrama and coincidence. At one point the gang is narrowly missed by an ambulance that plows into a convenience store, and the resulting trip to the hospital reunites one of them with long-lost family. What are the odds, right? But these moments work on the emotional level the movie demands, and at the end I felt both cheered and amused, the two emotions Tokyo Godfathers wants most to produce in its audience.
And as fairy-tale as the film can be, it hits on some basic truths. Even in the most technologically advanced and prosperous countries in the world, homelessness is a fact of life, and the homeless in Japan receive much the same treatment as any other stigmatic social problem in that country — everyone simply pretends it doesn't exist. That or outright contempt: Gin is at one point cornered by a gang of thugs whose pastime seems to be clobbering on homeless people (and one of them chats nonchalantly on his cell while the beating takes place: “We’re just doing a little cleaning up.”)
Kon’s earlier Perfect Blue was a psychological suspense thriller of sorts, and while Tokyo Godfathers is a totally different kind of movie, there are a few moments that harken back to Blue’s way of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) audience manipulation. There’s a scene in a subway car where the three of them are trying desperately to shush the baby (while everyone around them grouses about the smell and the noise) — and Miyuki’s father, in an adjacent car, spots his daughter and frantically tries to get her attention.
There are also many moments of droll-bordering-on-dark humor (like the aforementioned gang beating). I liked a scene where they sneak into a cemetery and raid the offerings for the dead for food, and another part where Gin takes pity on another, older derelict and takes him somewhere to die peacefully…except that he doesn’t die that quickly. At one point Miyuki is abducted at gunpoint with the baby and is terrified she’s going to be sold into slavery, but ends up watching wide-eyed as the (Brazilian?) wife of her kidnapper cheerfully nurses the baby side-by-side along with her own. They eventually manage to communicate in a hash of broken English and Japanese, and laugh over family photos. (And we find out that Hana is homeless because her patron died — not from AIDS, but from slipping on the soap in the shower.)
A great many people who are not familiar with Japanese animated productions have asked a very good question: Why film this story as animation in the first place, when it could have probably been done just as easily in live-action? Probably for the same reason a movie like Schindler’s List was shot in black-and-white and not color: as an aesthetic decision which grants the movie a certain flavor. If this had been live-action, it would probably have seen campy and grotesque, but as animation — even heavily realistic animation — it’s lent a charm reminiscent of a fable. Kon keeps a lot of the art direction sharply realistic, but exaggerates his character’s faces and postures to give them added emotional weight, and the effect is distinct and enjoyable.
The climax of the movie is something of a misstep. It’s a long, grueling chase with taxis and bicycles and stolen trucks that owes more to movies like Akira than the Kurosawa-esque humanism (or maybe Juzo Itami-esque, come to think of it) that informed the rest of the film. That said, it’s superbly animated and assembled, and it also reinforces the feeling that if this were live action (with real people and a real baby in danger, etc.), it wouldn’t be anywhere nearly as palatable. Also, most movies only seem to have one mood, but Tokyo Godfathers spans quite a bit of territory without falling apart: there’s slapstick comedy, gritty social commentary, moon-eyed romanticism, and, yes, the eternal Japanese sentiment of always soldiering on in the face of adversity.