Judge Joel Pearce once found a baby in a dumpster, but it was plastic and smelled like spoiled goat milk.
Meet the ultimate dysfunctional family.
Tokyo Godfathers is a difficult movie to describe, because it is always interesting, often hilarious, usually thought provoking, sometimes touching, and occasionally downright strange. This is director Satoshi Kon's third feature film, and while it does not have the jarring impact of Perfect Blue or the cultural significance of Millennium Actress, it is a fun ride of a movie that leaves you with things to think about afterward.
Facts of the Case
The film opens with an introduction to three homeless people living in Tokyo who together have formed something of a family. This "family" started with Gin, an alcoholic ex-bicycle racer, and Hana, a cross-dressing gay man who cares more for Gin than he would ever admit. Miyuki, a teenage runaway who never wants to go home, has recently joined the two.
This oddly matched trio doesn't get along very well, but when they find an abandoned child (whom they name Kiyoko) in a garbage heap around Christmas, all three are forced to deal with their own pasts as they decide what to do with the child. Hana sees the child as a gift from God, a chance to fully play the role of a woman and mother. The others quite reasonably realize that they are homeless, though, and convince Hana that the best thing to do would be to track down the child's parents using a few items discovered with the baby, and find out why they would abandon it this way.
The journey is complicated by a series of bizarre encounters and freak occurrences that force our unlikely heroes to come to grips with the problems in their own lives.
I might as well just say it up front. I really like Tokyo Godfathers a lot. Satoshi Kon has crammed more into this film's 90-minute running time than I have seen in much longer films, but each element is perfectly balanced and offset by other things that are going on at the same time. Like Kon's other films, there are developments in Tokyo Godfathers that twist your head around, but they all come together and make sense in the end, without ever feeling contrived.
All three of the "godfathers" are richly developed characters. Gin (voice by Toru Emori) appears at first to be a gruff old bum, but as things about his past are uncovered, each new discovery cuts deeper into the mistakes in his own past. For Gin, the search for Kiyoko's parents is one of redemption and restitution. Gin fits many of the stereotypes of the homeless person, but as the film progresses, it makes sense that he has chosen his life. When he helps an old drunk who is on his deathbed, Gin sees his own future in the pathetic old man, and the result is chilling.
Hana (voice by Yoshiaki Umegaki) is so well written and performed that I find myself thinking of him as a woman. This is odd, because Hana does not even try to disguise his voice and doesn't look particularly feminine. This dichotomy makes his character very funny, but also quite sad. Whole movies have tried to deal with men who feel they were meant to be women, and Tokyo Godfathers does about as capably as I have ever seen. Hana also faces personal problems and memories when they find Kiyoko. He had been an orphan as well, and he does not want to see Kiyoko living the life that he had. Hana also wishes that he could be a mother, and sees this baby as a chance to fill that role, if only for a little while.
Miyuki (voice by Aya Okamoto) is an interesting character as well. She has run away from her own family, but the one that she finds with Hana and Gin isn't much different. She also has secrets and regrets from her past, and the search for Kiyoko's parents are a chance for her to redeem herself as well.
The banter between these three characters is fast and funny, but it has a sharp edge to it that cements their bond as a family. Nobody knows what will hurt another quite like a family member, and as a result, the insults that the trio tosses back and forth are as sad as they are funny. The voice work of each character is fantastic, highly animated without being obnoxious or shrill.
The problems of all three characters and their relationships with each other are resolved during the quest to find Kiyoko's birth parents. This mystery and the strange coincidences that follow this baby everywhere it goes joins all of these stories together. The mystery is compelling, but is balanced perfectly with the focus on the characters. The miracles and strange coincidences would seem bizarre were it not for the way this mystery is handled. By the end, it almost seems like a mystical quest, and it is funny and exciting and touching and deep…all at the same time.
The combination of all these elements makes Tokyo Godfathers a great holiday movie. With Christmas being a time to focus on family, and the New Year an opportunity to reflect on the past and get a new start on the future, this film could nearly be considered the It's a Wonderful Life of animated feature films. Before you rush out and rent it for your whole family, though, be aware that it's a good deal edgier than most classic Christmas movies. It also doesn't feel the need to hit you over the head with the fact that it's Christmas every two minutes like North American holiday films often do.
The animation is top-notch. The characters are all perfect representations of their personalities, and they are wonderfully detailed and stylized, with some of the best and most entertaining facial expressions I have ever seen. The backgrounds are also excellent, demonstrating a lot of detail and variety.
The technical quality of the disc treats Tokyo Godfathers the way it deserves. The 1.85:1 anamorphic video transfer has remarkable detail, with accurate colors and a pretty good black level considering it is hand-drawn animation. There is some grain, but none of the haloing or edge enhancement that is so common on digital transfers of animated films.
The sound quality on the disc is even better. The dialogue comes through perfectly on the Japanese 5.1 surround track, and the film makes great use of the surrounds. It's a highly active track, without ever becoming overpowering. The soundtrack is great too, a slick jazzy score that perfectly captures the fast yet laid back pace of the movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, the disc is pretty light on extras. Considering it's so soon after Tokyo Godfathers was first released, and we have it on a DVD with a good transfer in its original language, I am not going to complain too much.
The featurette starts out with the usual corporate fluff (except in Japanese), then wastes a number of great opportunities to be an interesting look at the making of the film. Most of the running time consists of two interviews with Satoshi Kon, one by voice actress Aya Okamoto, the other by an unnamed man. Unfortunately, instead of discussions about the film, they decide to talk about how Satoshi Kon spends his Christmases, and about how it felt to be on set…more focused on the interviewers than Kon or Tokyo Godfathers. When Kon does speak, he seems very humble and coherent, and I would have loved to hear more from him about the film.
The only other extras are a smattering of trailers for other anime titles from Columbia.
If you are a fan of animation, do not rest until you have seen this awesome film. If you aren't a fan of animation, watch it anyway. In the featurette, Satoshi Kon talks about the way anime has come to be equated with "cute girls, robots, and explosions." His own films challenge that notion. Kon uses animation as a tool to make great movies that deserve to be enjoyed by as wide an audience as possible.
Not guilty. Columbia should have been a little more liberal with the extras, but the excellent transfer more than makes up for it.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
• Production Featurette
Review content copyright © 2004 Joel Pearce; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.