Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
Directed by Satoshi Kon

Artistic Value: * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * ½

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On a cold and snowy Christmas Eve, three homeless persons, Gin, a middle-aged alcoholic, Hana, an unconvincing transvestite, and Miyuki, a teenaged girl who has run away from her parents' home, find a baby abandoned in a pile of garbage. When Hana, who wants a child of his own, refuses to take the infant to a police station, the three decide to find the baby's mother and wander through Tokyo searching for her.

I truly do not understand Satoshi Kon. The director's animated Tokyo Godfathers could have been a great movie. Here and in his earlier Perfect Blue Kon displays considerable skill and insight, but, in both films, he squanders all he has achieved with those abilities by including various hackneyed and clumsy elements.

The characterizations of the three protagonists are all well done and engaging. Each has been reduced to homelessness by different circumstances, and their stories are all brought out, in greater or lesser detail, through the course of the film. Gin tells of how he had once been a bicycle racer with a wife and daughter but then lost everything when those two died. The viewer is, however, eventually made aware that there is far more to Gin's tale than what he has told, and, when further details about the man's past are revealed, his motives for telling that tale are also made clear. What is more, the uncovering of Gin's motives illumines his character as much as do any of the actual details revealed about his past. Hana's hopeless dreams and sudden changes of fortune are also skilfully presented so that the viewer is able to experience the sadness of a person who has always been an outsider, and who, it would seem, is doomed never to realize any of his desires. Even Miyuki, whose past is the least tragic of the three, is developed in such a way that not only does the viewer sympathize with her, despite her having brought her troubles on herself, but fears for her as well, seeing how she could as easily have a happy life as a miserable one. Kon thus shows how her existence had once been that of a very ordinary teenaged girl, but how, after she had a fight with her father, she ran away from her home, and, being afraid to go back, has been reduced to her present state. The sorrows of all three are well developed and each of the group emerges as a fascinating, appealing individual.

Kon could have made a truly great film with these three characters, but, unfortunately, he has included such a variety of absolutely dreadful elements that both the artistic worth and enjoyableness of the movie are seriously compromised. For example, the number of coincidences that occur through the course of Tokyo Godfathers is astonishing. The protagonists encounter long lost family members and acquaintances at almost every place they visit. Perhaps one or two such chance occurrences would not have been bothersome, but they just keep happening one after another. Still, given the number of plot twists that occur towards the film's conclusion, perhaps they were needed to distract the viewer from the frankly arbitrary nature of these developments. Sadly, even had the director successfully incorporated such occurrences into the narrative, his efforts would still have been undermined by the absolutely pointless and inordinately extended chase sequence with which the movie ends. It is completely out of keeping with the rest of the film's impetus and undoes much of the emotive impact of what has come before it.

Even the animation used in Tokyo Godfathers is a mixture of brilliance and dreadfulness. It is of a consistently high quality technically but is not always as accomplished stylistically. The backgrounds are elaborately drawn and evoke a squalid, cold, but still lovely Tokyo. The character designs are invariably ugly but are not without some charm. Male characters are generally more successfully rendered than are female characters, although they are, almost certainly, more misshapen. Their faces are extreme caricatures and are reminiscent stylistically of the ways in which male faces are rendered in Ukiyo-e prints. The effect the director achieves with this approach is generally appealing and does contribute to the film's aesthetic worth. Somehow, Kon is able to remind the viewer that the characters' distinctiveness, their very ugliness, has a beauty of its own. His female characters, unfortunately, while just as ugly, are far less interesting. Their bulging, lumpish, toadlike faces are all very similar to one another and are never engaging. Despite this weakness, the appealing qualities of the male characters and the gorgeous backgrounds do make the film, on the whole, visually interesting and distinctive.

Kon could easily have created a masterpiece. He has a fascinating and unique vision. Unfortunately, the faults of Tokyo Godfathers are so distracting that they do greatly detract from the movie's worth. The director has, however, created such an original film that, whatever its flaws, it is well worth seeing.

Review by Keith Allen

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