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Movie review: 'Tokyo Godfathers'

Chicago Tribune Movie Critic

3-1/2 stars (out of 4)

Set at Christmastime in Tokyo, in a strange, seductive lower-depths world of homeless wanderers and broken families under delicately etched snowfalls, "Tokyo Godfathers" is a spellbinding piece of Japanese anime from one of the form's new masters, director-writer Satoshi Kon.

Kon has already made two highly popular works - 1998's "Perfect Blue" and last year's "Millennium Actress" - and he has some of the virtuosity and storytelling knack of Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away") if not quite Miyazaki's effortless graphic imagination. But like Miyazaki, he's adept at creating self-contained worlds. Here he pulls us into an alternate urban zone of the Tokyo homeless, with hills of trash, cardboard domiciles and rooftop hideaways.

The three homeless wanderers of "Tokyo Godfathers" are an unusually foulmouthed, scruffy lot for a feature cartoon: scowling old tramp and ex-racer Gin (voiced by Toru Emori), nervous threadbare drag queen Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) and pugnacious teen runaway Miyuki (Aya Okamoto). The flood of profanity and insult they fling at each other is unusual even by live-action standards. But when they find an abandoned baby, it prompts Hana's maternal instincts and inspires Gin and Miyuki to face their own pasts.

Saving the baby - in a danger-laden Shinjuku district world of yakuza and gangsters - they have a chance to redeem themselves.

The story itself comes from John Ford's classically sentimental 1949 Western "Three Godfathers," in which John Wayne, Harry Carey Jr. and Pedro Armendariz played the three bad men in the desert who rescue an orphaned baby in Christmastime.

"Three Godfathers" was originally a Peter Kyne magazine story in that bastion of middlebrow taste, The Saturday Evening Post. It has been filmed many times before - first by Ford in 1919 as "Marked Men," later in the '30s by William Wyler and Richard Boleslawski - and it usually works despite its heavy symbolism and near-syrupy convention. This is its most charming incarnation.

The film wisely has been kept in its original Japanese, and the Tokyo that Kon and co-director Shogo Furuya create is as detailed and evocative as an Escher drawing, full of towering skyscrapers, a jungle of neon and dozens of scurrying figures rushing over snow-mantled sidewalks and streets. More linear than Kon's previous two films, it also moves back and forth between recollections, dreams and dreamlike adventures. In one marvelous shot, the three pass a woman on a bridge about to jump, and our hearts jump as well. In a street race as blood-chilling as the one in "The Triplets of Belleville," the trio battle a high-speed kidnapper.

Kon is one of the most adept of modern feature cartoonists at character animation, and he's also brilliant at creating rich textures of time and space. "Godfathers," a tribute to Ford and to classical cartoon storytelling as well, is his richest yet.

"Tokyo Godfathers"
Directed by Satoshi Kon; co-directed by Shogo Furuya; written by Kon, Keiko Nobumotu; photographed by Katsutoshi Sugai; edited by Takeshi Seyama; art direction by Nobutaka Ike; character design by Kenichi Konishi; music by Keiichi Suzuki; produced by Masao Maruyama. In Japanese, with English subtitles. A Samuel Goldwyn/Destination Films release of a Tokyo Godfathers Committee production; opens Friday. Running time: 1:30. MPAA rating: PG-13 (language).
Gin - Toru Emori
Hana - Yoshiaki Umegaki
Miyuki - Aya Okamoto

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