Viewers rightfully marvel at the colorful computer-generated seascapes of Finding Nemo and the unique drawing style of The Triplets of Belleville, but when it comes to the actual stories told in contemporary animated films, no one's pushing the boundaries quite like anime auteur Satoshi Kon. Having taken a page from the Polanski playbook in the psychological thriller Perfect Blue and depicted almost the entire civilized history of Japan in the overly ambitious and muddled Millennium Actress, Kon now delivers Tokyo Godfathers, a movie about the capital city's homeless, in which people die (sometimes brutally), mothers abandon their babies, poverty is omnipresent -- and, oh yeah, it's a comedy.
At heart, Tokyo Godfathers is also a Christmas movie, though it may be the first in that subgenre to prominently feature aging drag queens and explicit scenes of breastfeeding. Those who find fault with the film may take issue with the "Christmas miracles" that often save the day and the plot's near-total dependence upon coincidence -- apparently, the same handful of people in Tokyo run into each other all the time and usually at the most opportune moments. Commercially, the movie's prospects aren't the best in the United States, with the harsh depiction of homelessness ruling out the family audience and the heartwarming miraculous events possibly raising the hackles of more cynical types. That those latter elements are generally credited to God by the main homosexual character should confuse the hell out of religious nutball "film critics" like Dr. Ted Baehr or Michael Medved.
Still, to this reviewer, Satoshi's tonal mix works perfectly, and his visual humor is often inspired. Take the movie's opening: Anyone who's seen the poster or trailer knows the story involves a baby, yet the baby that the film opens on isn't real. As our field of vision gradually expands, we see that it's a Baby Jesus in a Nativity play being put on by children. Then our perspective is widened some more, and we see that the audience watching is composed entirely of the homeless, at a soup kitchen -- this is the seasonal sermon for their supper.
Gin (Toru Emori), a middle-aged drunken bum who resembles Popeye's nemesis Bluto, is less than impressed at the preaching he must endure to get the food, but to his drag-queen friend Miss Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki), it's an inspiration. After all, if a virgin can get pregnant, why not a transvestite?
Rounding out our dysfunctional "family" of protagonists is Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), a teenage runaway whose father is a high-ranking policeman. Together, our three homeless heroes serve as vague surrogates to one another for the families and loves they've either lost or abandoned, but there's a level of denial and dishonesty at work -- not one of them has told the whole truth about themselves.
That truth will slowly come to the fore during the course of the next couple of days, catalyzed by the finding of an abandoned baby. Miss Hana, having been a foundling, wants very much to give love to a child, while Gin was a father once and aches over the loss. Miyuki possibly sees a little of herself in the lost infant girl they name Kiyoko, from the Japanese word kiyoshi, meaning pure. As they proceed on a journey to find the child's parents -- a key found beside Kiyoko in the garbage is their only clue -- the hidden past will return to confront them, making Gin, Hana and Miyuki face up to who they really are and why they ended up living on the street in the first place.
Doesn't sound much like a comedy, perhaps. Try pitching a project as "sorta like Three Men and a Baby, only the three men are homeless and one nearly gets beaten to death and another one is a flamboyantly gay transvestite who might be in love with the first guy, but he's also a Christian...." Trust me, though, there's humor, zaniness and even a big slam-bang action chase sequence at the end. Though the animation is mostly realistic, save for some exaggerated facial expressions, the diversity of personalities encountered is on par with The Triplets of Belleville, from benevolent obese mobsters to drunken 7-Eleven customers to Latino kidnappers (whose Spanish goes unsubtitled, an interesting touch that puts us in the shoes of the monolingual Miyuki).
It's too bad the film just missed a holiday release date here -- for anime fans, Tokyo Godfathers just might be the equivalent of It's a Wonderful Life or, to be hip and new-millennium about it, Elf. Heck, it's a baby movie without diaper jokes, if you can believe that. If it goes too over-the-top with the deus ex machina devices, it's only as a useful counterbalance to having wallowed so low in the grime early on.