Now for something completely different.
Satoshi Kon's first two films were challenging, compelling works of art. Tokyo Godfathers is not quite that, but I still loved it for its memorable cast of characters and big heart. An oddly spiritual fable about a trio of homeless people who find an abandoned baby, this one will sneak up on you. Visually, with its gorgeous snow-covered cityscapes, it is as beautiful as any other Kon film. This time, however, the director set aside his typical themes and aimed for a more human and less abstract story.
The director's gift for realistic character designs serve the movie very well. There are a lot of priceless facial expressions in Tokyo Godfathers, most of them belonging to the scruffy, hard-drinking Gin. Then there's Hana, a melodramatic transvestite who doesn't bother to alter the pitch of his deep voice despite being dressed in women's clothing. The two of them have a contentious, quasi-marital relationship, and their "daughter" is Miyuki, a sullen teenage runaway. The three of them trade vicious (but hilarious) insults that would not be out of place in a 1990s family sitcom...though I guess you wouldn't have anyone shouting "Eat shit, you old fart!" on "Family Matters."
The three search the back-alleys of Tokyo to solve the mystery behind "Kiyoko's" abandonment, which are odd circumstances indeed. It's amazing how much coincidence drives the plot, to the point where it becomes humorous. It's fully intentional - Kiyoko is a harbinger of old-fashioned Christmas miracles, as the cosmic powers that be take pity upon those who have been shunned by society. This film is really funny, but Kon is not just interested in making you laugh. There is an emotional undercurrent that bubbles underneath the surface the entire time, bursting forth a few times along the way. Not many directors could make you choke up at the sight of a girl alone in a phone booth (makes sense in context).
Despite Gin's protests that "we're homeless bums, not action movie heroes!" there's a lot of excitement in the movie's epic finale. This scene brilliantly walks a tightrope between laughs and tears, and is likely to provide both in equal measure. Hana's jaw-dropping act of heroism, in particular, is as hilarious as it is moving.
In the end, I'm glad Kon stepped so far out of his comfort zone. It's a testament to his wide-ranging talent that this film, easily the odd one out in his body of work, is as excellent as it is. Plus, I'm glad there's at least one film of his I can show to a "average movie watcher." Let's face it, for a lot of people, Millennium Actress is too baffling and Perfect Blue is too damn frightening.
Speaking of fright, next time we go down the rabbit hole with Kon's miniseries, Paranoia Agent.