Thursday, March 25, 2004

Tokyo Godfathers

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

Satoshi Kon is an intriguing director. I've enjoyed all three of his films, but must admit that during all of them, I've have at some point wondered why he was working in animation rather than live action. It is, really, a tremendously unfair question to ask; I don't question David Lapham's decision to make "Murder Me Dead" a comic book rather than a prose novel. It's the man's chosen medium, and that's enough.

Besides, it becomes obvious soon enough - in jaw-dropping fashion for Perfect Blue, and upon reflection when you consider the number of period sets and actors who would have to be matched for Millennium Actress. A live-action Tokyo Godfathers wouldn't be quite the logistical nightmare as a live-action Millennium Actress, but it would still require extensive location shooting around Tokyo during Christmas with a heavy snowfall, including many hard-to-find locations.

In this Christmas story, a newborn baby is found by three homeless people who have formed something of a makeshift family - Gin is a middle-aged alcoholic, Hana a transvestite, Miyuki a teenaged runaway. Though Hana sees this as his/her only opportunity to be a mother, they soon decide that the baby must be returned to her mother, and set out to find her with no clues other than a key left in the girl's bassinet.

Tokyo Godfathers resists being pigeonholed into a genre. Many animated movies, especially in the United States, are children's stories or fantasies, since those are things animation does particularly well relative to live-action. This story is grounded in reality an pitched to adults. It's frequently funny, but also quite dark in tone. And though the plot has a somewhat linear quest structure, it's not primarily an adventure movie. Calling it an animated adult drama shortchanges the teenagers it may appeal to, as well, should they get a chance to see it.

Kon's designs for the characters are somewhat more cartoon-like than in his other movies, especially for Gin and Hana, but that makes them more expressive. It's also worth noting that, despite the somewhat deformed faces, the characters have a variety of realistic body types; rather than being cookie-cutter hotties, they carry extra weight or wear leg braces or the like.

The story may be aggravating to those who disdain coincidence and its twin brother, fate, in their movies. Characters the trio encounter along their way relate to their pasts, and multiple parallels and intersections between storylines appear in ways that might be too convenient. Credit the writer/director with not making things too neat, though - rather than ending with his characters' problems solved, they instead have things to think about and decisions to make. It's quite possible that they'll go back to screwing their lives up as opposed to living happily ever after.

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