Friday, April 16, 2004

DVD Review: Tokyo Godfathers

Animation director and writer Satoshi Kon has two previous movies: Perfect Blue and Millenium Actress. Both can be found locally and are well worth your time, especially the powerful, lyrical and startling Millenium Actress. Although animated, neither are kid's movies, but movies that could only have been told effectively through animation.

Kon's latest film, Tokyo Godfathers could have been made through normal film-making techniques, but I suspect it would have been a lesser movie as a result. And once again, just because it's animated doesn't make it a kid's film, though I think older children might love its magical tale.

Tokyo Godfathers is the story of three homeless people. Gin (pronounced with a hard "g" as GEEN) is a middle-aged bum, who claims a crooked bike-race fixer cost him his vocation, and his wife and daughter their lives. Hana is a gay transvestite, neither man nor woman, shunned by all. Miyuki is a teen-aged runaway, gruff and prickly. On Christmas Day in Tokyo, they find a newborn hidden in some trash. They adopt the child, whom they name Kiyoko (literally "pure child") and set off to find her mother.

I said above that the movie is magical, and that it is. But it's an explicitly Christian magic, as the story begins in a Christian service at a food line. Hana claims that God must be watching over Kiyoko and events seem to bear him out. One close shave after another, repeated lucky breaks, strange meetings, all seem to help our heros out.

That's another part of this movie's power. On the one hand, the three are unwashed, smelly, ill-mannered and impatient. The movie doesn't shy from the realities of homeless life in Tokyo, nor from the harsh reactions of the "regular" people around them. All three have secrets and shattered lives, bruised places they don't want touched. None have been cast out; they have all chosen to cut themselves loose from society.

But they are heroes, because they have set themselves a quest and stay with it. They somehow work together and stick up for each other. No matter how humiliated, scared, beaten, or lost they don't give up. Given a choice, they will make sacrifices for each other time and again.

When we first meet them, Gin, Hana and Miyuki all act as a family, if a really shabby and distorted one. It is Hana who starts them out, by taking the child's discovery as a gift from God to honor her desire to mother a child of her own. Gin finds himself in the protector role and Miyuki grumbles at being put out by the whole thing. As the movie progresses and the tension grows, the characters begin to stress out and we find revealed their true pasts and feelings for each other and those they left.

I'm not going to discuss the plot here -- hence no spoiler warning above -- because the course of their quest is definitely not worth spoiling. It's best to go in cold and let things slowly wrap you up, which this movie does quite well. As bleak and screwed up as our godfathers are, as we slowly see underneath their exteriors they are all revealed to be damaged but still-loving human beings, broken but not completely without hope. We learn their pasts and, through the quest, they come to redemptions of a sort.

I will say that the narrative keeps dropping clues and story lines for most of the first hour, only to skillfully retie them to the main story in the wrap-up. Only a couple of them are dropped, but none that matter to our heroes. The godfathers intersect with a lot of people, to meet them again later in surprising ways. Especially pay attention to the people you'll see in photos.

The animation in this film is probably the hard part, after the subtitles (no dubbing available, sorry) for non-Japanimation fans. While the backgrounds are beautiful and gorgeously detailed, and the characters' movements are subtle and realistic, their faces are animated in a Japanese style of exaggeration that may be off-putting to Americans not used to it. It's a technique used there at moments of great emotion, and a long-standing traditional one, but it can look silly to those not used to it. But that, and a certain staticness in backgrounds, are small annoyances indeed compared to the otherwise engrossing art.

Watching the "Making of" featurette (Be sure to watch it, but only after the film as it spoils some surprises.) I was amazed to learn the extent of CGI and computer assistance in the film. Some surfaces and "camera movements" are clearly computerised, but even background detail and still sections were done by computer. I suspect the snow, which is so lifelike and beautiful that it made me cold just watching it, was done by computer. The movie also makes effective use of the multi-plane filming technique, giving depth to long shots that make the city large, the environments real.

This is not the Tokyo of most American films -- gaudy Ginza and bustling crowds -- nor the Tokyo of Lost in Translation, which showed a sleek, wealthy side. This is a city of back alleys, train tracks, lonely streets, and always being on the edge of whatever group of people you meet, always being pushed away. There's a scene where the godfathers wander in a burnt-out home and you can see, in a resonant symbolic way, their own devastated lives. It's like the difference between "tourist Memphis" and Orange Mound.

Back to the animation. Some of the scenes have a bit too many static (i.e. non-animated) elements, and there are places where detail is conspicuously missing. But the characters' movements are a joy to watch. Pay attention to Hana's walk, the hip-sway, and to his hand and arm gestures, the way he runs. Tiny bits of business are taken care of and illuminate Hana wonderfully. His face is square and mannish, his hands too large, his voice awfully deep, his clothes shabby, but his movement speaks for the spirit within. We see young Miyuki at various points in the past six months since she left home and if you're careful you'll notice the change in her shape, telling us of both her bad diet and her maturation. Watching Gin stumble drunk, or after he is beaten up, you can sense the man's flickering, fighting spirit. All of them are distinct and living people. In the final section, with much running and leaping and climbing, it becomes easy to forget they are animated.

Be sure to watch the edges of scenes, some funny and telling bits of business happen there. Watch, too, for the number 1225, as it comes up many times in many guises. Lastly, very late in the movie something falls from a pocket. Look closely at it. There's a joyous joke there if you catch it: maybe God's reward and maybe the setup for a second film. It flashes by so quick it's easy to miss!

This is a movie of small details briefly noted -- an ad in a newspaper, a sigh, a building in a photo, an animal's telling name, pictures on a wall. Throwaway lines come back with deeper meaning. This movie rewards close watching and will easily hold up through repeated viewings.

Oh! Be sure to watch the credits for the loopiest version of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony you will ever hear.

One warning: some gay viewers may be displeased by how Hana is shown and treated. He's called "homo," "fag," and "queer" throughout the movie. This may be painful, but it's consistent with Japanese society, which is much less tolerant of homosexuality, and a reminder of the disgraced state our heroes are in. But, the movie explicitly shows Hana is a person of bruised dignity and the one with the deepest well of love.

At the movie's open, we tend to want to keep these three homeless people at arm's distance. They are smelly, unlikable and screwed up. But as they work their way to baby Kiyoko's mother, their better spirits awaken, begin to fight through the layers of defeat and abuse and pain. We come to side with them and to cheer them on. They become heroes and we root for them to win, to find their redemptions.

It's hard for a movie to begin with bleakness and unlikely protagonists, then slowly work through comedy and drama to a place of hope that isn't false or melodramatic. Three Godfathers succeeds in that task. Highly recommended.

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