The wintry cityscape backgrounds in Satoshi Kon’s new animated film “Tokyo Godfathers” are simply magnificent–works of art suitable for framing. Unfortunately, as a whole the film doesn’t match them, nor Kon’s previous picture, the structurally dense, strangely beautiful “Millennium Actress.” Here the narrative is much simpler and, unhappily, rather maudlin. Other viewers have described the picture as deeply moving, but in its own way it’s actually as cloying and obvious as the most calculated Disney flick.
The plot is reminiscent of the ancient tearjerker, “Three Godfathers,” filmed many times (most notably by John Ford in 1949, with John Wayne), about three cowpokes who adopt a baby in the desert. In Kon’s version, three Tokyo street people–a grizzled drunk, a high-strung gay cross-dresser, and a runaway teenager–find an abandoned infant and not only care for it but try desperately to return it to its parents. To add to the atmosphere, it just happens to be Christmas Eve. In protecting the child and searching for its mother and father, the trio get into a series of adventures, involving gangsters and chases; but the theme that’s raised over and over again, in varying ways, is the unbreakable bond between parents and children. Gin, the drunkard, makes contact with the daughter he abandoned many years ago; the runaway Kiyuki encounters her estranged father, a policeman whom she assaulted before going off on her own; and Hano, the transvestite, takes shelter at one point with his mother at a club where he used to work. And those are hardly the only familial references. The trio’s search comes to be centered on a couple that abandoned the baby under very complicated circumstances. It also introduces them to a Latin American family with strong ties. And, of course, the trio itself represents a sort of unconventional family–something that the scenes in their run-down shack clearly emphasize.
Kon keeps this tangle of plot threads fairly clear, and visually he surely shows himself a master stylist. But his script ultimately proves a curious combination of maudlin tearjerker and (especially in the last reel) oddball action movie. The real test for a picture like this is to imagine it as a live-action feature. After all, it’s not about singing animals or imaginary creatures–it concerns people, and what sets it apart from conventional films is the fact that the characters are drawn; they could just as well be flesh-and-blood. My feeling is that if “Tokyo Godfathers” unwent that transformation, most viewers would find it rankly sentimental, riddled with coicidences that would derail any narrative and, in the concluding stages, filled with absurdly overwrought stunts. Since it’s an animated film, one can overlook some of this, but surely not all. And in the final analysis, even in the present state the picture tugs at the heart more than it warms it.
What one’s left with are those magnificent backgrounds, and the glorious compositions in which snow falls lightly over the major characters as they go about their way. “Tokyo Godfathers” is a lovely-looking film, but hardly the emotional powerhouse some are suggesting.