(Catch my previous Satoshi Kon film review here: Millennium Actress)
In 2003, Satoshi Kon released another one of his magnum opuses. This time a loose adaptation of a 1913 novel by Peter B. Kyne entitled 3 Godfathers that had previously been adapted for live-action cinema in the States on three different occassions (the most famous of which being John Ford’s 1948 version). Together with screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto (Macross Plus, Cowboy Bebop, Wolf’s Rain), Satoshi Kon adapted the screenplay into an equally cinematic work par excellence and modified its characters and settings to a world more familiar and close to home for himself. The three men became a group of homeless people who happen upon a child that has seemingly been abandoned. Their world: modern-day Japan’s Megalopolis and Capitol city.
The three godfathers are interesting figures in Kon’s film that all have very unique, distinct personalities and identities. There is Hana, a transgender woman who once lived a life of elegance and camp as a singer in a bar for queens. She found love in a conventional manner with her husband Ken who unfortunately died in an accident. Distraught, Hana took to the streets and stopped finding joy in life. Together with her two friends, however, she has created a lifestyle on the streets as a homeless person with some semblance of a family.
Her counterpart, steadfast friend, and would-be emotional lover is Gin. A gruff man who enjoys ribbing Hana for her queerness, but does so in good fun typically. He took to the streets supposedly after his daughter died and he lost his career as a professional bike racer for purposely losing a match to make more money through a gambler friend of his. We later learn that his reasoning for leaving behind his family was much more banal, and thereby Gin loses much of his tragic quality over the course of the film, finally becoming an absurd figure of sorts. Luckily, he manages to reconnect with his daughter, who actually never died, as well as strengthening the ties between himself and Hana through their fleeting foster parent status of the young Kiyoko (the abandoned baby found at the film’s beginning).
Finally, the third of the ‘godfathers’ is Miyuki, a young girl who has run away from home and become a delinquent. She used to be an obese young girl when she lived at home, but has since lost a ton of weight due to the oft-time difficulty finding food and the constant need to move around to find trash to recycle for money throughout the city. She thinks of herself as an adult, as an equal in the ‘family’ she has established with Gin and Hana. However, it is clear that the others see her as a daughter figure, and for Gin in particular as a proxy for his own daughter. When the three find a baby in a pile of trash, they take her in and try to find her real parents, which serves as the plotline for the majority of the film and leads the trio into many interesting scenarios. Gin decides to call her Kiyoko, the name of his own real daughter, and thereby this new child becomes the new proxy for that lost child and Miyuki’s status is lowered somewhat.
After acquiring the child, the three godfathers follow up every lead they can to track down the real parents of the child rather than merely turning her in to the police or to a local hospital. This goes directly against the wishes of Gin initially to rid themselves of the child quickly, but Hana wants to feel motherly for a time and as such, the group goes along with her plan. They search the trash near where the child was found and collect a photo with a picture of a young couple and a card to a fancy club downtown. The picture also features the front of a house wherein the young couple pictured therein most likely lived, and locals in the area directly surrounding that house give more vital details.
In every new lead, the group find themselves in some form of mortal danger but always manage to escape harm (except for when Gin is attacked by a group of teenagers looking to ‘clean up’ the city). When their leads begin to dry up, they always spectacularly find a new one to continue the search. And when all looks hopeless, the miraculous occurs. This theme of miraculous events in their search during the Christmas season for Kiyoko’s parents is ubiquitous throughout the picture and lends to it an artful veracity that helps to raise the film above the level of your typical anime film fare. Though the story is particular, it reaches toward the universal through its themes and toward the timeless through its relation to cinema history and to a Western tradition of filmmaking that links it to one of America’s greatest auteurs in John Ford. All of these features of the film as well as the compelling visual style common to Satoshi Kon’s works make Tokyo Godfathers another classic work in Kon’s oeuvre. An oeuvre of only five anime works that unarguably contains five classic, top-form works that will remain seminal in Japanese animation history for decades and generations to come.
This film, like all of Kon’s anime works, was created through funding by Studio Madhouse. Like most of his works at the Studio, it was produced by the legendary co-founder of the Studio Masuo Maruyama. And again, like all of his films, this one received many accolades upon its premiere including Best Animation Film at the Mainichi Film Festival and the Excellence Prize from the Japan Media Arts Festival. But most importantly, it has a reputation as a great film that transcends the medium of animation and should be counted amongst the greatest films in any medium, or at least the top 1000 you should watch at some point before you die, leave this earth, and return back to the void of nothingness from whence you arose.
[Next up: Paprika]