That is until my daughter and I decided to check out Tokyo Godfathers, the surprising new Christmas film owing a lot more to John Ford and Katsuhiro ďtomo than to Robert L. May and Charles M. Schultz. Tokyo Godfathers isn't quite the picturesque and Normal Rockwell Christmas we think we all relate to, in fact, it's downright dystopic sometimes. Our three wise men are replaced by three homeless denizens of Tokyo and our Christmas trees, sugar plumbs and decked halls are replaced by a much different Christmas Motif, and I think a much more spiritual one! The real spirit of Christmas is alive and well in this picture without a trace of Holiday Commercialism. Tokyo Godfathers is alternately hilarious and sad, action packed and subdued, realistic and outlandish. All the while there is a very heartening message and a tangible allegory that reminds us a little more of what Christmas really is!!!
Director Satoshi Kon (who also wrote the screenplay) gives us the well-animated (literally and figuratively) story of three homeless rejects from society who come across an abandoned infant in the garbage. Rather than turn the little girl straight over to the Police, our three Amigos follow a series of clues, hoping to determine who the baby belongs to. What follows is a set of twists and turns not seen since my last trip to the Wild Rivers water park Super Slide. Gin (pronounced more like "Ken" than "Jenn"; Voice of Toru Emori of T.V.'s Musashi fame) is an alcoholic derelict with a penchant for more tall tales than Ed Bloom. Hana (voice of Yoshiaki Umegaki) is a homeless drag queen with the maternal instinct of June Cleaver and the fashion sense of Steven Tyler (not to mention the devout belief that God his guiding his/ her life). Miyuki (voice of Aya Okamoto) is the teenage runaway daughter of a successful policeman. All three miss their families, all three bicker like Hans Blix with Don Rumsfeld and all three are touched greatly by this foundling nicknamed Kiyoko.
Along the way the vagabond adventurers face violence, duplicity, deception, new friends in need, tests and more surprises than a nude picture of Alfred E. Neuman! Make no mistake, this film is rated PG-13 for a reason. There is profanity, a little violence, a little nudity a car chase to rival Matrix Reloaded, and even a suicide attempt or two. While at times the three homeless heroes do seem to treat each other poorly (from harassing comments to out and out homophobic slurs) this doesn't hold much water as a complaint because at the heart of it all, these three constitute a family! They love and need each other and bicker almost good-naturedly! Most refreshingly this film is spiritual all the way through in such a new and irreverent way that it practically turns the more commercial holiday fare on its ear. There is a strong moral in this urban and post-modern fairy tale and there's also a slice of the subtlety and skill to pull this off without once being preachy!
It's hard to say how most audiences will react to the animation. At times this is almost photorealistic, at times it looks rotoscoped and at times the realism is sacrificed for an out and out caricature. While this might not be up to speed with Akira or The Lion King it's better than most animated features! From the choice of color to the varying degrees of realism, to the use of scenery to give the films credits (each credit appears on a billboard, a truck ad, a bench, or the like) the animation is purely Kon and purely great! Also, unless Kon employs the greatest background artists on the planet, Kon uses the occasional photograph of Tokyo to add ambience. To his credit most of the time this is barely noticeable. His work can be somewhat two dimensional (intentionally), but his care with light and shadow, attention to detail and character uniqueness make his animation truly something to see. This makes me eager to see Kon's other films Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress! (Of course the last Japanimation film I saw was Kill Bill!)
Aside from the profanity and slurs, this film's imperfections show themselves primarily in the use of shock value to get points across. There are a few crashes that wake the viewer up in ways that aren't always vital (though sometimes... whoa nelly). There are also a few meandering moments that add to an episodic and convoluted air one might not relate to well. Some of the violence and sub-plots seem almost tacked on until the glorious finish. However, for the most part the story drives the film and the script is great! Aside from its few flaws this is a notch above your standard Thanksgiving to New Years Cartoon Fare!
The film belongs to Kiyoko almost exclusively and it's her we root for and it's her that we're influenced by! Kiyoko touches and improves the lives of everyone she touches, and it's beautiful to unravel exactly how and how deeply this happens. Each character is memorable, each character is brought to life well, and each character is elevated by the presence of Kiyoko! In this Christmas Season, the sweetie reminds us more than a little of that other little baby who touched more than a few lives, I'd wager!
Four Stars out of five for Tokyo Godfathers! It's about the most story-driven and Spiritual Christmas Film to date (It's a Wonderful Life notwithstanding), and it makes up for its few flaws with a payoff that is as uplifting as it is unique. In Japanese with English subtitles from opening to closing (with a smidgen of English and Spanish dialogue thrown in) it might not be for every viewer, but if it's between this and Coca-Cola and Hostess Twinkies Present the Ninja Turtles and Care Bears Christmas Musical Special on ice starring Donnie Osmond, Carol Channing, Shania Twain and Eminem I think I'll choose Tokyo Godfathers if you don't mind!
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