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Tokyo Godfathers
voice cast: Toru Emori, Aya Okamoto, and Yoshiaki Umegaki

director: Satoshi Kon

88 minutes (n/r) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Sony DVD NTSC Region 1 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Amy Harlib
A superb example of sophisticated animation that transcends the 'kiddie stuff' ghetto is Tokyo Godfathers, director Satoshi Kon's third production, which spectacularly fulfilled all eager expectations concerning what this remarkably talented creator would do next. Mr Kon debuted with the bleakly grim Perfect Blue, complexly and believably exploring the darker aspects of a struggling actress' career. Then followed the brilliant Millennium Actress, a lighter-in-tone, surreal, exhilarating and intricate portrait of a star actress' life. Now, Kon eschews the unconventional narrative structures of his first two efforts for a more linear approach with equally compelling results nevertheless in his third anime feature in which he seeks to bring pure realism and character-driven storytelling rarely done in a cinematic art form overwhelmingly dominated by SF and fantasy.

Tokyo Godfathers, set in the contemporary titular Japanese capital city, begins on Christmas eve and concerns three homeless people: Gin, a middle-aged man claiming that he used to be a professional bicycle racer; Hana - alias Uncle Bags, an aging transvestite; and Miyuki, a teenaged runaway girl. They live together in a makeshift, tent-like shelter from which they go scrounging in the scrap heaps of the Shinjoku district. At this highly emotionally charged time of year, the three protagonists, while scavenging in a garbage dump, find an abandoned baby girl. This astonishing discovery transforms the trio's lives while they struggle to take care of their newfound charge and, using a few clues left with the little one, they seek the infant's parents, all the while hoping to also learn why they would desert their child.

The baby's needs awaken the three surrogate caregivers' long-buried emotions and memories about their pasts which they reveal to each other and which we see in flashbacks. Their quest propels them into exciting adventures and encounters all over Tokyo and with all sorts of folks from every strata of society - some helpful, others threatening - all having transforming effects on the protagonists. These developments become more poignant when the plot's focus on the usually overlooked aspects of modern Japanese urban existence gets starkly and ironically contrasted with the all too often phoney jollity of the yuletide season.

Along the way to the breathtaking, riveting conclusion, Tokyo Godfathers epitomises the full potential of anime to deliver complicated, emotionally fulfilling stories layered in meaning and subtexts. This film in particular utterly entertains while it explores all sorts of social issues: the meaning of family and relationships; the challenges and arbitrariness of gender stereotyping; the tragedy of economic and class inequalities; and the uplifting potential to maintain one's pride and find contentment in the midst of adversity - this last admirable goal the protagonists manage to accomplish in surprising ways. Tokyo Godfathers also succeeds in presenting delightfully believable characters in its three leads - all fully rounded individuals balancing virtues with grotesqueries, most notably in the portrait of the aging drag-queen, one of the most sympathetic, positive gay characters in all of anime and even in all of cinema for that matter, comparing favourably to the memorable classic, La Cage Aux Follies.

Satoshi Kon, in Tokyo Godfathers, so deftly uses his craft, that he makes the mundane magical with the exquisitely drawn animation detailing Tokyo's byways and back alleys alongside the bright lights and urban gloss of its cosmopolitan centres, not to mention illustrating the diversity and vividness of the inhabitants. This production makes the quotidian struggle for survival dazzling, engrossing and thought-provoking - all through brilliant visuals and the supremely talented performers' voice acting accompanied by a perfectly complementary, dynamic, part jazzy, part dramatic score. This film, a remarkable artistic triumph, ought to have won the highest accolades, its director's talent comparable to that of master Hayao Miyazaki but with a very distinct style of his own. Satoshi Kon, already raised to the top ranks of his chosen field making us all yearn to discover what he'll do in the future, deserves the title 'godfather' of anime!

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