Film

Little orphan animé

Innovative artwork can’t disguise Tokyo Godfathers’ mushy, clichéd story

It’s Christmastime in Tokyo and while lining up for a free meal after
watching a nativity play, Hana, a middle-aged homeless man wearing a turban,
announces how much he would like to feel like a mother, to care for a child
as a woman does. People laugh at him, dismissing him as a silly
“faggot.” Yet only moments later, he and his hobo companions, the
grizzled Gin and teenage runaway Miyuki, discover a newborn baby girl
abandoned in the street and, amazed at the astonishing manner in which fate
has answered Hana’s spoken desires, take her into their care, calling
her Koyoko. Writer/director Shatoshi Kon merrily describes Tokyo Godfathers
as being “full of miracles,” and he ain’t kidding:
I’d say the miracle rate in Tokyo Godfathers averages about one every
five minutes. You might imagine being a homeless person during a damp, snowy
winter in one of the world’s largest cities could be, well, sort of
miserable, but in the case of Hana, Gin and Miyuki, good things just
can’t stop happening. Hana says about 20 times or so how people need to
be with their families, and Tokyo Godfather shows us such an epidemic of
purely accidental reunions of estranged families, you’d think Tokyo had
a population of 12 instead of 12 million. You can’t turn around without
bumping into the loved ones you left years ago. Hana has to be taken to a
hospital at one point and who should turn out to be his nurse but Gin’s
long-lost daughter! Turns out she’s about to be married too—to
none other than the nice doctor who just treated Hana! Wow. Kon wanted to
make an animé that wasn’t just about cute girls, robots and
explosions, to prove that animé could be about anything you can
imagine, and indeed, when you take a look around at the sameness of a lot of
Japanese animated films (particularly the ones full of sexual violence, such
as Kon’s Perfect Blue) there’s something genuinely refreshing
about Tokyo Godfathers’ ragtag team of hobos, or the drag queens who at
one point take them in for a little holiday TLC. (The drag queens are old
friends of Hana, who used to do drag himself before a falling-out thrust him
into his life on the streets.) The film also has some of the most beautiful
backdrops I’ve ever seen in an animé, meticulously detailed
urban settings in soft, shadowy tones that slide past at different rates to
evoke a sense of movement and immensity. But really, in no other way could
you call Tokyo Godfathers innovative in the slightest. Once you get past the
novelty of the effeminate gay protagonist and his wacky friends, the plot
more closely resembles a “very special” holiday episode of a
standard sitcom than anything else (even though it’s actually a
contemporary spin on John Ford’s mushy 1948 western Three Godfathers).
It’s absurd to call Kon’s use of homeless heroes daring when the
film gives us no real sense of what their lifestyle is really about. And as
is usually the case with animé, the characters seem almost constantly
to be either screaming or crying like a bad clown act. Hana in particular
gets into so many manic, queeny tizzies, you almost wish that Kon decided
against walking on the wild side and plunging his quill into gay subculture,
given the clichéd mannerisms he employs over and over. (If you
happened to see Markova: Comfort Gay at the Metro last year, Hana’s
level of hysteria is comparable to Dolphy’s nearly unbearable
performance as Markova.) Tokyo Godfathers never played Edmonton theatrically,
but it has been on DVD for a couple of weeks now. The disc is accompanied by
a 22-minute “making of” doc that, in an odd, ridiculous sort of
way, I actually found more amusing than the film itself. A perky narrator
repeats the title of the film in a sing-songy voice about 80 times and keeps
asking questions like “What sort of movie is this?” In response,
the lead actors just describe their characters and relay plenty of other
redundant information. An incessant videogame music soundtrack plays over
every moment, even the interviews with Kon and his animators. But I liked the
way Yoshiaki Umegaki, the actor who plays Gin, says, “I want a lot of
people to see this movie because it is cheerful and energizing!” V
Tokyo Godfathers Directed by Shatoshi Kon and Shôgo Furuya •
Written by Kon and Keiko Nobumoto • Starring Toru Emori, Yoshiaki
Umegaki and Aya Okamoto • Now on video

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