As Tokyo Godfathers opened, I thought I could boil it down to one descriptive line: Three Men and a Baby meets Japanese anime. But that would rob this elaborately crafted animated feature of its subtlety and substance.
The story goes like this: during a Christmas Eve nativity play (which features “Silent Night” sung in Japanese), we’re introduced to a motley trio from Tokyo’s homeless demimonde watching the play from the audience: Miss Hana, Gin and Miyuki. Hana is a grotesquely aging drag queen; Gin (Sake would have been a more culturally appropriate name) is, of course, an alcoholic; and Miyuki is a runaway schoolgirl. At first they seem like characters in a zany comic melodrama. With their dysfunctions and homelessness, it’s difficult to imagine a more pathetic family apt for maudlin comedy than the one Hana, Gin and Miyuki have become. When the three stumble on what Hana calls “a Christmas present from God,” an abandoned infant girl wrapped in swaddling clothes, the child becomes a kind of baby Jesus to their less-than-Wise-Men ladies, and Tokyo Godfathers becomes a clever and well-written parody of Christ’s nativity.
Writer-director Satoshi Kon twists his plot again and again, as the major characters are drawn into the mystery of baby Kiyoko’s abandonment, and the women become ad hoc detectives looking for the child’s parents. Through a series of improbable coincidences, Hana, Gin and Miyuki discover clues that lead them toward a woman who may be Kiyoko’s mother. Along the way, they find themselves recalling the dysfunctions and familial losses that led to their homelessness. As the plot develops, Kiyoko’s plight mirrors the pasts of Hana and Gin. More melodrama ensues, of course, but Kon cuts its treacle with wry humor and refines it into something that is actually sweet.
While a reggae version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy sung in Japanese plays over the closing credits, I dab at the first tear a movie has jerked out of me since Antwone Fisher. It seems that Kon’s belated Christmas message is that the promise of redemption may be found in any family’s love for a child and for each other regardless of blood ties. That’s more than I expected from an animated manga that I was ready to dismiss as Three Bums and a Baby.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre. Call 248-263-2111.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.