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Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2003

The ideal Xmas present?

Tokyo Godfathers

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Satoshi Kon
Running time: 91 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Satoshi Kon has spent much of his career apparently trying to disprove the image Japanese animation has acquired abroad.

News photo
Gin, Miyuki and Hana in "Tokyo Godfathers"

None of the three films Kon has directed -- "Perfect Blue" (1997), "Millennium Actress" (2002) or "Tokyo Godfathers" (2003) -- features robots or spaceships or babes with huge batting eyes and melonlike breasts. "Perfect Blue" was a horror film, the first ever in the animated genre; while "Millennium Actress" was framed as a documentary. His latest, "Tokyo Godfathers," may sound like a gangster film, but rather it's Kon's attempt to Japanize a Western tradition that goes back to Charles Dickens and beyond: the heartwarming holiday story.

Set in the Tokyo of today, its heroes are three homeless folk who find a baby in the trash and have to decide what to do with it. If you are already cringing, I can't blame you -- I would have rather seen "Bad Santa," too. But like Kon's previous work, "Tokyo Godfathers" undercuts expectations, this time to mostly comic effect. Its portrait of Tokyo, from the faceless office towers to the blue tents of the homeless, is richly detailed, without being boringly literal, and gives the feeling that Kon and his animators spent time on the streets themselves, not just sketching, but getting to know the lives lived there.

"Realistic," however, is not the adjective to describe the action, which is as incredible as anything in "A Christmas Carol" or, given the way coincidence piles on coincidence, "Oliver Twist." Also, the film is blatant with its emotions, somewhat like an enka song, but without the lugubrious self-pity. If you like your holiday movies dry and snarky, this one is probably not for you. Finally, one of the homeless trio is a tall, hulking okama (transvestite homosexual) who spews abuse one moment, collapses into tears the next. If your tolerance for this sort of cliche is low (or nonexistent), again, stay away.

But like Dickens, whose books are full of stereotyping, sentimentality and creaky plot devices, Kon has a visual and storytelling talent that compensates for his faults. His characters are likable sorts, but ones who don't beg for love or approval. His story may depend on people running into each other in outlandish circumstances, but it clips along entertainingly, while gingerly avoiding the usual melodramatic traps. It also broadens beyond the quest to find the kid's mother to its three principals' rediscovery of the lives they left for the streets -- and the way they become bigger than their old squabbling selves in the process. It has no grand, cathartic Dickensian gestures, but I wanted to continue watching.

The story begins with Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki), the okama, trying to stop yet another quarrel between Gin (Toru Emori), a grizzled drunk down on his luck, and Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), a feisty teenage runaway. Then, amid the plastic trash bags, they hear a baby crying. They find it in a cardboard box, together with a note -- and a key to a coin locker.

Gin, a practical sort, is in favor of taking the kid to the nearest police box, while Hana, her maternal instincts aroused, demands that they first find the mother and suss out her motives. Otherwise, she says, they would just be abandoning the child to fate. Hana names it Kiyoko -- and their odd "family" has a new member.

The coin locker offers clues, including business cards and photos of the mother and father looking happy, but there's no address or phone number. Their long journey has begun.

Soon after, while riding a train, Miyuki spies her father in another car and beats a shocked retreat through a window, followed by a flustered Gin and Hana. After a brief stop in a cemetery to partake of offerings for the dead (including a bottle of sake for Gin), the trio encounters a fat yakuza boss, trapped underneath his own car. When they rescue him he invites them to his daughter's wedding. At the reception, they find a snack-bar owner they have been seeking -- then shots ring out. A hit man makes his escape, using Miyuki and the baby as shields, and Gin and Hana speed off in hot pursuit. Then they start to quarrel and end up going their separate ways.

This, of course, is not the end of the journey. Along the way, the trio begins to puzzle out the meaning of the photos and to form a bond beyond sharing the same warm tent at night. Also, like Miyuki, Gin and Hana encounter figures from their past, and repent of old mistakes. Will the approaching new year bring renewal, or more of the scuffling same?

Dickens would have opted for the former choice, in the thunderous affirmative, tying everything up with a flurry of happy reunions, though I wonder what he would do with Hana. Kon, who prefers a low-key and lighter tone, closes with a cute flourish rather than a bang.

Perhaps as he should, since his original inspiration was not Dickens, but "Three Godfathers," a 1948 John Ford western in which a gang of three bank robbers, led by John Wayne, find a baby in the desert, keep it, and continue their criminal careers. The film itself was a remake of a 1916 silent starring Harry Carey.

I think Kon was right to change, not only the time and setting, but also the occupation of his three heroes (if you can call being homeless an "occupation"). Gangs of bank robbers are rather thin on the ground in today's Tokyo. Three yakuza are a possibility, but what on earth would they do with a baby? Can you imagine gangsters prowling Shinjuku in a Benz -- with a kid in a car seat? On second thoughts, maybe I'd better haul out that scriptwriting software -- I've got an idea.

Note: In last week's review of "Kofuku no Kane" (The Blessing Bell), an editing error had the hero knifing an unsuspecting yakuza. The yakuza stabbed himself.

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