Awelcome exercise in anime weirdness, Satoshi Kon’s boldly morose Tokyo Godfathers has a yakuza-fest title, but in fact transposes John Ford’s sagebrush crèche, 3 Godfathers (1948), to the lower depths of a lovingly detailed, snow-covered Tokyo skid row.
The story of Ford’s gorgeously Technicolor, if strenuously inane, allegory—in which a trio of would-be desperadoes rescue a Christmas Day foundling, accompanied by endless variations on “Streets of Laredo”—goes even further back than his first 1919 version to the Stone Age of the western and Broncho Billy’s Redemption (1910). Kon, whose previous animes include the ambitiously disorienting cyber-thriller Perfect Blue (1997) and the faux documentary Millennium Actress (2002), both self-reflexive in their relation to Japanese pop culture, is here in relatively straightforward mode.
Madonna may have appropriated Perfect Blue as background visuals, but Kon is far funnier in transforming 3 Godfathers. The desperadoes, introduced attending a Christmas pageant for the homeless, are in this case a runaway teenage girl, a gruff, middle-aged dipso, and (in the John Wayne role) a turbaned trannie. The latter is wonderfully unconvincing, except in her histrionics once the trio discovers a baby abandoned in a Shinjuku dumpster.
Did I mention this is a cartoon? Much of the action unfolds in a city hospital where, as it turns out, the old guy’s daughter is a nurse. Actually, Tokyo Godfathers is mainly about families—lost, found, and invented. It’s full of convoluted character relations and hard-luck stories, some of them bogus. There’s even a yakuza subplot as well as an extended action closer.
Tokyo Godfathers‘ plot twists can be confusing, but almost as impressive as the urban landscape—even moodier here than in Perfect Blue—is the tart self-awareness with which Kon imbues his ultimately mystical feel-good story. Daringly, the supernaturalism is withheld until the last moment, when the skyscrapers of downtown Tokyo dance in the final “Ode to Joy.”