Animated Word

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Parenting and Pride with "Tokyo Godfathers"

The famed Charlie Chaplin character "The Tramp" was a bum with the dignity of an aristocrat. Despite his dirtied suit and semi-destroyed shoes, he strolled as if he had complete command over all he surveyed. Some of that sensibility has found its way into Satoshi Kon's Tokyo Godfathers, a story about three homeless people who find a baby and vow to return her to her mother. In Kon's film, though, it is compounded with regret and sacrifice, in a package that is both sad and insightful, but also strangely silly.

We begin by meeting the three main characters, whom have already come together to form a sort of rudimentary family on their own. There's Gin, a middle-aged man who drinks as a way of forgetting his past; Hana, an aging drag queen whose faith in God lets him find the positive aspects in everything; and Miyuki, a teenage girl who ran away from home six months ago and refuses to go back. While I will not divulge the specific information behind each of their stories, it can be said that they all suffer from a similar sin of pride. Pride, in various forms, has put them on the streets and kept them from going back to the ones they love. I was reminded of Grave of the Fireflies (a highly beloved film by seemingly everyone but me), where Seita's pride kept him and his sister from going back to a place where they could survive. The difference here, though, is that while Seita's film regards his choice as correct and works to make him sympathetic, Gin, Hana, and Miyuki are all sorry to varying degrees about their choices. They know that they're on the streets by their own volition, but they can't go back because they just don't know what to say. In fact, the nature of their family unit seems based on each of them pointing out the faults of the other two.

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By this, I haven't quite figured out whether Kon has a harsh or sympathetic view of the lives of homeless people. His leads made their lives what they are, but there's also a reason that they remain that way. It's interestingly ambiguous in its approach to the theme of homelessness; I suspect two people from opposing sides of the debate on the topic would find support for either position in this film.

Of course, it doesn't take long for the film to get started on its real plot, which is the detective work of these three unlikely foster parents for finding the real mother. The baby, named by Hana as "Kiyoko", forces them to each come out of their shells and little by little recover their sense of responsibility. Their pride, after all, means little in the face of the prospect of taking care of a small child. The film uses the father-daughter relationship as a motif in various places, as we see versions of that emotional model all throughout the plot. None of them are especially exemplary relationships, but the film takes care not to levy any unwarranted blame. Ultimately, the best parents in the film become the three of the leads combined, sharing a devotion to a single baby's welfare that is remarkable in the cynical world around them.

But as sincere as all this is (and it truly is, in the best way), the film has a very odd tone. It switches between screwball ludicrousness and heartfelt sadness in quick flashes at times. This is especially due to the wildly flamboyant Hana. While the film has Kon's typically realistic form of acting, it will at times drop that and adopt animation suiting the most abstract and cartoony of expressions. I'm not sure what Kon was trying to accomplish with that, but I felt it deflated some of the strong emotional work that he'd been doing with the film. One sustained tone would've suited this film very nicely. Also, there are a couple of plot points here and there that either get dropped or not explained very well, especially the situation of the Latin Americans. If the film was one of those slice-of-life works, it might have been more excusable, but since the film is so dependent on coincidence for driving the plot (which makes it more classically written), such threads cannot go overlooked.

Despite that, this is still an enjoyable and occasionally insightful film. A little more tightness in the construction might have made the effect and the breadth of its insight stronger, and the journey the characters take more consistently entertaining. But despite it all, Kon's a fine director and he's got some interesting things to say. It's not quite the masterpiece that Millenium Actress was, but it's still a worthy entry into his collection.

Three (***) stars out of four (****)

A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on July 5, 2004

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