Has the anime artist Satoshi Kon gone soft so soon? His first picture was the kinky psychological thriller "Perfect Blue," about a soft-porn starlet whose pop singer past returns literally from the dead to haunt her. Last year, he gave us the less outrageous but equally ambitious "Millennium Actress," a reality-warping tribute to a film legend across the span of time.
Now there's Kon's "Tokyo Godfathers," a tidy dramedy about broken homes, three homeless tramps, and the abandoned infant whose parents they're trying to locate.
Coming from the gentleman who wed smut and metaphysics with such fever in "Perfect Blue," the relative wholesomeness of "Tokyo Godfathers" might seem troubling. Sure, the vagabonds are a belligerent drunk named Gin (the voice of Toru Emori), the embittered teenage runaway Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), and a lovingly R-rated transvestite named Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki), but they want to be pulled out of their dire straits and loved again.
The plot is from the "if it's not one thing it's another" school, and there's a melodramatic coincidence lurking down every cul-de-sac. The setting is the time between Christmas and New Year's Day, which gives these lonely souls a layer of seasonal pathos (they suffer at least one breakdown a minute); the soundtrack even dreams up a wispy carol or two. But nobody's redemption feels like a holiday rite. Kon, in the end, might be good-natured but he's not cheesy.
Unlike his more passionate fans, begrudging admiration is what I've felt for Kon until now. His first two movies were made by an explorer eager to present what a crafty stylist he was, communing with Brian DePalma in "Perfect Blue" and George Cukor in "Millennium Actress."
"Tokyo Godfathers" demonstrates an idiosyncratic human touch. Kon is unafraid of the unseemly and unsightly. People are captured as they really might be. Every face in this movie is surreally long, and Hana is the toughest but most steadfastly unglamorous transvestite since John Lithgow in "The World According to Garp." The backgrounds, meanwhile, are more inviting than what's going on in front of them: the junkyards seem alive with trash and the inert elevator riders checking text messages on their phones are handsomely indifferent to the plight of the movie's tragicomic stars.
This is a journey picture that nods to O. Henry and "The Wizard of Oz" while cracking pulp surprises like a whip. The bullet-riddled sequence in which a Latin fellow kidnaps Miyuki and the infant is exciting. From there, though, "Tokyo Godfathers" goes to the kidnapper's family's house, where his Spanish-speaking wife and Miyuki transcend their language barrier with emotional rapport.
Kon, it turns out, is working on his people skills.
("Tokyo Godfathers: ***)
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.