A correction was made to this review on Dec. 8, 2003.
With its masterful grasp of comedy, pathos, social commentary and mystical weirdness, “Tokyo Godfathers” takes anime to a whole new level. U.S. distribber Goldwyn will give this Nippon cartoon a brief, Oscar-qualifying opening in New York and Los Angeles just before year’s end, with a national rollout planned for Jan. 16. Subtitled pic may not have the marketing appeal of “Spirited Away,” but it could also grab auds that don’t normally go to kidpics.
The film is a huge step up for Kon, who started as a Manga artist and made his breakthrough in the “Magnetic Rose” segment of 1992 cartoon compendium “Memories.” That seg, set in a nostalgia-filled future in which hard technology meets soft emotions, set the tone for his first two features: artful but ultimately baffling.
“Perfect Blue” has become one of the top-selling anime discs of all time (it was also used as background material on a Madonna tour). It was followed by the even more opaque “Millennium Actress.”
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Neither film predicted the solid storytelling nor the well-considered philosophical underpinnings of the new one. Cribbing his basic tale from John Ford’s silent-era “Three Godfathers” (often remade, even by Ford himself), Kon turns that pic’s wandering bandits, who adopt a foundling left in the desert, into three homeless bums who stumble on a dumpster baby.
The trio, an even grouchier, more ragtag “family” than before, includes the bearded Gin (Toru Emari), an alcoholic ex-bicycle racer; tall, middle-aged transvestite Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki), who doesn’t even bother to raise the pitch of “her” voice (and is given to alternate fits of tears and profanity); and feisty, pre-adolescent Kiyuki (Aya Okamoto), who does most of the stealing to keep them afloat.
Doing their usual rounds of “recycling” in Tokyo’s funky Shinjuku district, the trio finds a baby girl in the garbage, and there’s a three-way tug as to how to deal with her. Hana is adamant that they keep and nurture the child, whom they call Kiyoko, but she agrees to look for the parents first.
Their search leads them to some poor Latin Americans who have a vendetta against the same Yakuza that, it turns out, Gin blames for his own downfall as a gambler and guilt-ridden race-thrower. Fascinating clues, making beautiful use of Tokyo topography (both literal and psychological) draw them ever closer to the couple that, under very confusing circumstances, abandoned the baby.
The pic’s mood is buoyed by a jazzy, tartly quacking music score and surprising tilts into visual poetry, complete with elegant calligraphy — Hana occasionally stops to invent haikus that comment on the action. And it is given increasing substance by the search itself, which forces each of the threesome to confront uncomfortable parallels with his or her own family history.
Connections double back and overlap, reaching almost metaphysical proportions, but helmer keeps all these elements well within realm of human possibility and narrative satisfaction. Despite Gin’s protests that, “We’re homeless bums, not action-movie heroes,” there is a significant amount of excitingly heroic business in the final third of “Godfathers,” which is timed just right at a packed 90 minutes. Color palette of dark violet-blues, drab olives, and dusty golds and pinks is memorable, as well.
Pic could easily be dubbed, of course, but distinctly Japanese qualities of the voices — particularly Emari’s guttural, embittered-Samurai growlings as the hard-drinking Gin — would be sorely missed.