In his relatively short career, Satoshi Kon has blazed upon the scene as one of Japan's most creative animators. With only three movies to his name, he has become a renowned animator, the director of intricate and detailed movies. His first movie, Perfect Blue, was a psychological thriller based on of the comic book of the same name. It was critically acclaimed on its release in 1997 and won several film awards. His next project, 2001's Millennium Actress, a nonlinear trip through the life of an actress, was also very well received. His latest movie, Tokyo Godfathers, has just made its way to DVD and is his best work yet.
The movie starts on a cold Christmas night in Tokyo. Three homeless people are trying to stay fed and keep warm. There is Gin, an alcoholic; Hana, a cross dressing homosexual; and Miyuki, a teenage runaway. The trio are digging through some refuse in an alley when they are startled by the sound of a baby crying. Peering into a pile of garbage, they find a small baby girl.
After the shock of seeing an abandoned newborn wears off, Miyuki and Gin want to take the girl to the police. But Hana sees things differently. He wants to keep the baby. As he puts it, "This is a Christmas present from God. She's our baby!" He names her Kiyoko, from the word 'kiyo' meaning pure.
Three homeless people in the dead of winter are hard pressed to care for an infant though. Hana soon realizes that it is not practical for them to keep the child. But he doesn't want to turn it over to the police. Hana was a ward of the state, and doesn't want Kiyoko being handed off from foster home to foster home like he was. He wants Kiyoko to know that someone loves her. So the three set out to find the mother who abandoned her child. They want to ask her why she threw her girl away, and hopefully to make her see the error of her ways.
Finding one person in all of Japan is an impossible task, of course. But with some amazing luck, they find some clues and slowly start to track Kiyoko's mother down. Of course it is possible that all their good fortunes aren't just coincidence. Maybe Hana is right; that Kiyoko is really is a present from God, and that He has taken a special interest in her welfare.
This movie may sound like it has all the makings of an after-school special or made-for-TV movie, but it is much more than that. Writer/director Satoshi Kon deftly weaves drama, tragedy and comedy together in this story without it ever letting it get sappy or maudlin. He crafts a very charming movie filled with unique characters that will stay with you long after you view it.
The main theme of the movie is how Kiyoko affects all three of the homeless people taking care of her. During the journey to find her mother, each of them has to face up to the past they were trying to run away from. This examination of their history changes them, and the people around them. The character's evolutions are very natural and realistic. Something that is all too rare in movies today.
But the movie is not all tear-jerking sentiment. It is actually very funny. You normally don't associate homeless people and an abandoned infant with comedy, but Kon has made a very funny film. The humor is subtle at times, like when Hana is telling Miyuki, as they cross a bridge, that he'd climb over the railing and jump into the river if he thought they'd never find Kiyoko's mother. In the background, as they walk by, a lady climbs onto the railing and prepares to jump, unnoticed by the pair. There are many moments of broad comedy also, but my favorite bit in the whole movie is when a piece of good new is discovered. A television in the background starts playing Beethoven's Ode to Joy, but it is not a powerful, thunderous version of the song, as it is almost always used in movies, but a quiet tinny version from a small TV speaker.
Another thing that really endeared me to this film is the way it does not go down the paths that you think it will. It ends up being quite a different film from what I was expecting at the beginning. It starts off as a quiet drama, but it finishes with a climactic ending that would have worked well in any big-budget action film.
Not only was the script and direction excellent, the animation was very good too. This is a beautiful movie, with a very artful look. There was a wide color pallet used in the creation of this film, with many subtle differences in hues and tones that helped create a life-like feel. Many of the scenes looked like they were paintings, finely detailed and full of emotion.
Usually, in both animation and live action films, the main object that the director wants the viewer to notice is highlighted. This is done either by backlighting or by giving the surrounding objects muted colors. It has the effect of not only highlighting one object, but also dulling the others. They didn't do that in this movie. Everything in this movie is detailed and colored. From the rust and dirt on an old weather vane, to the signs on the streets, all of the backgrounds were filled with objects that made the movie look like the streets of Tokyo.
A lot of time was spent animating the main characters too. Their
expressions were very realistic, and the way they moved was so authentic
that it almost looks like they had been rotoscoped.1
The whole picture was very life-like and had a depth that you usually don't
find in animation.
The 5.1 soundtrack is in the original Japanese, with optional subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. There is no English dub. This DVD sounds wonderful. The movie is mainly dialog driven, but there are many incidental and background noises that come through very clearly. There was a good range, with the sounds of an auto accident and gunshots filling the room, but the more quite parts are still crisp.
The voice talent in this movie was superb. The voices didn't sound like typical anime voices, with the women all having high squeaky voices and every man sounding gruff. These characters sounded like real people more than actors trying to make their character stand out. Miyuki voice was very low, especially for a teenage girl, but she sounded like a real girl. A great job all around.
The anamorphic widescreen picture was mastered in high definition, and it looks outstanding. There is a lot of contrast in the scenes of this movie, and they all look great. You can clearly see the details in the shadows and low light areas, such as the Tokyo streets at night or the scenes in the interior of the tumble down shack. Subtle variations of tones and shades are easy to detect and help give the movie its distinctive feel. Digital compression artifacts were hard to spot. Aliasing, something that typically affects animation on DVD was almost nonexistent. They have done a great job mastering this movie. It looks wonderful.
There are not too many extras on this DVD, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. The main bonus feature is a 22-minute making-of documentary. This is in Japanese, with the same optional subtitles as the movie itself. It has clips from the opening night, short interviews with the actors who voice the three godfathers, and scenes of them recording their lines. The highlight of this featurette is a couple of longer interviews with Satoshi Kon, in one of which he talks with Aya Okamoto who voices Miyuki in the film. They also talk with the animators and the composer of the music for the picture. This was much better than your average HBO fluff piece, with some interesting information about the creation of this film.
One thing that is missing is an audio commentary by Satoshi Kon. Even if it were in Japanese with subtitles, I would love to hear what he had to say about this movie and the way that he constructed it.
Every once in a while you see a movie that you
want to tell all your friends to go out and see. This is that type
of movie. It is unexpectedly funny and entertaining while also being
incredibly charming and touching. Tokyo Godfathers is a movie
that is sure to make it on several 'best of' lists for 2004, the fabulous
picture and sound on this DVD makes this disc a must buy. DVD
Talk Collector Series.
1) Rotoscoping is an old animation technique developed by Max Fleisher in the early part of the 20th century. Actors were filmed and then the film was broadcast onto an animator's table. There the figure was traced and colored over. This gave the animated figure very realistic movements and proportions. A more recent example of this method can be found in the films American Pop or Cool World.