Satoshi Kon's sentimental but lovely film makes a decisive break from the likes of "Akira" and "Sailor Moon" by proving that not all anime depicts intrepid teens fighting robotic aliens. Tokyo Godfathers' warm-hearted story would easily fit a live-action film, but the animated format and unusual setting lets the audience enjoy its cliches as if new.
The film begins with a Salvation Army-style Christmas pageant and dinner for the homeless, complete with a rendition of "Silent Night." It's like Lost in Translation in reverse, showing how peculiar Western traditions can look to the Japanese. More importantly, it provides a hot meal for gruff, middle-aged cynic Gin (voiced by Toru Emori), chatty drag queen Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) and fiery teenage runaway Miyuki (Aya Okamoto).
The bickering threesome make unlikely allies, yet we can imagine how, sometime before the story began, they drifted into each other's orbits for lack of anywhere else to go. When they discover the baby girl in a trash heap, the angelic infant stirs up feelings they'd all rather suppress. Miyuki pines for the parents she left, Hana feels transgender "maternal" instincts and Gin recalls his lost wife and daughter, Kiyoko, after whom he names the baby.
Hana convinces the others to seek out the birth mother rather than hand Kiyoko to the police, so the trio embarks on a kind of quest from one end of snowy Tokyo to the other. A locker key found with the baby leads to a suitcase of snapshots and other clues, sending them everywhere from a bustling mobster wedding to a deserted nightclub, where Hana flashes back to her days as a fabulous cabaret singer.
Tokyo Godfathers incorporates credible details about Japanese homelessness. For instance, the trio finds food and drink left in cemeteries as offerings to the dead. When Hana discovers a huge supply of milk at one gravesite, he deduces that Kikoyo is some kind of good-luck Christmas baby. Throughout the film, the three encounter head-spinning coincidences, from reunions with long-lost loved ones to hair's-breath rescues from freak accidents. Tokyo Godfathers gets away with its "Christmas miracles" because the twists never happen the way you'd guess. They bend the rules of realism without breaking them.
Kon borrows the film's premise from John Ford's 1948 western 3 Godfathers and uses live-action cinema styles throughout the cartoon feature. He puts the opening credits on billboards and the sides of buses, like something Martin Scorsese would do. A Steadicam-style shot glides down a sinister alley. A flashback unfolds as a series of still photographs. When the three kill time in a diner, the crowd outside rushes past in fast-motion. Kon even makes surreal, ironic jokes: A badly beaten Gin looks up to see a glowing fairy who asks, "What is your desire? My magic or an ambulance?"
Low-budget anime often leads to sketchy background details and limited facial expressions, but Kon frequently uses these to his advantage. From the perspective of its homeless heroes, the streets and skyscrapers all blur together, while passers-by appear in washed-out grays, as if lit by dirty streetlights.
The character animation benefits from simplicity, like the way Miyuki glowers underneath a floppy-brimmed hat. Looming, swishy Hana faintly resembles Carol Burnett's imitation of Norma Desmond, and the observant animator notices the knock-kneed way the cross-dresser runs in a skirt.
Hana occasionally lives up to gay stereotypes, but emerges as more than a one-note drag queen. Gin and Hana, as a straight man and a queer one pushed together by circumstance, have a kind of Kiss of the Spider Woman relationship in which they conceal their affections for one another with insults. Tokyo Godfathers' screenplay avoids reducing the three to plucky hoboes. They all suffer from external hardships as well as bitter feelings and self-inflicted punishments.
Tokyo Godfathers has its violent outbursts, including a gangland hit and sadistic young people who prey on the homeless. The only moments that feel out of place are the car chases and the finale's cliffhanger moments, which are skillfully rendered but feel like concessions to the anime/action movie convention and run counter to the rest of the film's bittersweet tone.
Kon built a cult following for his first films, Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress, which each feature storylines about actresses torn between illusion and reality. Tokyo Godfathers uses serendipity to shed doubt on our darkest assumptions about the real world. Without stooping to false optimism, Tokyo Godfathers suggests that sometimes cynicism is too easy, even for the down and out.