Tokyo Godfathers

Film Review


Reviewed by Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02)

(Spring 2004 Issue of the JETAA NY Newsletter)

Since the release of Akira in 1988, Japanese anime has gained respectability in the United States by tackling more and more ambitious themes.  The genre reached something of a pinnacle last year when Hiyao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away won the Academy Award for Best Animated Film and was picked up for domestic distribution by Disney.   Satoshi Kon’s film Tokyo Godfathers was released on the heels of that success.  Unlike Miyazaki’s film, however, Tokyo Godfathers is a step backward and does little to advance the cause of anime as a serious art form.  Satoshi Kon’s film lacks the strength of character and command of narrative
necessary to make its case.

The basic plot of Tokyo Godfathers offers a promising premise.  Three homeless people discover an abandoned baby and seek to find its home.  In the process, the audience learns much about the three characters and their own troubled pasts.  If this plot sounds familiar, it is because it is based on the old John Ford film Three Godfathers, starring John Wayne.   Kon has transplanted the story from the American Wild West to modern day Tokyo and has replaced Ford’s overly sentimental style with a more reserved approach.  While downplaying the melodramatic elements of the story may have been an initially wise decision, Kon’s film ultimately fails to engage the audience and leaves one feeling emotionally uninvolved.

This story is a character-driven one and, as such, needs compelling characters to succeed.  But Kon has supplied three clichéd characters lacking any psychological or emotional depth.  Middle-aged Gin, for instance, is down on his luck ever since he lost his wife and daughter after throwing a bicycle race years earlier.  One cannot help but think of Marlon Brando’s character in On the Waterfront yet the comparison falls short.  It is difficult for an animated character to display the same level of pathos that Brando
brought to the role of someone living with regret and sorrow.  Similarly, Hana is a transvestite who is temporarily allowed to become the mother he has always wanted to be.  What’s tragic about Hana’s story is that he feels like a woman trapped in a man’s body.  This would have been an emotional backdrop worth exploring but Kon neglects to do this.  The character that comes closest to engaging the audience’s sympathies is the teenage runaway Miyuki.  The one touching scene in the film occurs when Miyuki and her father accidentally cross each other on opposing trains during rush hour.  The father wants to reach out for forgiveness and reconciliation but cannot in the madness and congestion of modern Tokyo.

The conclusion won’t be spoiled in this review, except to say that it is unconvincing and contrived.  Not that the audience should care by that point.  Nothing much happens in terms of plot and a series of episodes, such as a subplot involving gangsters and an immigrant family, is simply filler and serves no useful end.  One imagines what could have been if Kon had explored the immigrant family’s past – they have also left their home in search of something – and woven it into his plot in order to give it a dramatic thrust.

On the positive side, Tokyo Godfathers offers some visually appealing backdrops.  Tokyo is both a menacing and comforting presence in the film.  The city’s ugly modernism, including railroad tracks, telephone wires and cemented river banks are contrasted with the white falling snow and Christmas-like neon lights of Shinjuku.  Even the warm orange glow of Tokyo Tower takes on an inviting look.  Overall, one wishes that Satoshi Kon had found more suitable subject matter and a stronger narrative for his visual sensibilities.

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