Saturday, October 9, 2010

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Today is the second part of our Satoshi Kon Tribute. We now look at Tokyo Godfathers, a version of a story that goes back to the early days of film, usually as a western (John Wayne stars in one version).

Tokyo Godfathers is probably Kon's least impressive film...meaning it's still better than most. This isn't to say that there is a problem with the film; it's kind of like trying to pick out which is greater among Michelangelo's works, The Piata, the Sistine Chapel or the Statue Of David. You really can't do it. It's also not fair since each of those works of art have their own merits. This film is like those works of art; it's the least of a group of masterpieces.

I know that when I saw the film for the first time I was kind of shocked that I wasn't really blown away. Kon's earlier films HAD blown me away, and this film didn't. It also didn't completely make me feel that the story needed to be animated. Other than a few magical realistic moments there are very few others needing animation.

The plot of the film is simple. It has three outcasts (a young girl, a transvestite, and a bum), living on the streets of Tokyo finding a small baby at Christmas. With the barest of information the trio begin to try and reunite the baby with its parents, and to come to terms with their pasts.

The film is for the most part a conventional drama or comedy drama. I know that kind of throws people who wanted something on the order of Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. Compared to those films this is a trifle light. If you can accept the film for what it is it suddenly comes into stark focus; it may be a trifle, but it's a masterfully done one. How many filmmakers can move between the light and the dark like this? If Kon wanted to show he shouldn't be pigeonholed, this was the film that did it. For me the fact that Kon could move from light and dark subjects (or heavy and light ones) with ease and have the films work from start to finish is a sign that he is a master.

I'm going to get into a bit of trouble here and say that Kon is probably a better storyteller than the recognized master of animation in Japan, Hayao Miyazaki. I'm not going to argue the art of Miyazaki or his ability to make moments that bring tears to your eyes. I will argue that Miyazaki's feature work more often than not gets into trouble when it comes to the plot of his films. If you look at Kon's output, all of his films work from start to finish, and tell complete stories. Miyazaki certainly has better moments, but if you look at his films there is always a moment or two where the plot falls apart. I would argue that Spirited Away, Porco Rosso, and Princess Mononoke (with the Ghibli subtitles), are the only ones of his films that work from start to finish. All of his other films (My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Howl's Moving Castle , amongst others) all have points where the films go off the rails to various degrees. For the most part I find I watch Miyazaki films for the moments, or for the treats (anything with the Totoros, or the eye candy in Ponyo, for example), but not, with rare exception, for the entire movie. I watch Satoshi Kon movies because I want two hours of entertainment, not a ten-minute pick-me-up.

What does this digression mean to the talk of Kon's Tokyo Godfathers? Only that as a complete film it's better than many of the classics of Hayao Miyazaki.

I like this film a great deal. It's a magical film that has surprised me each time I've seen it. The surprise comes from the fact that the complexity of it is the sort of thing that only is apparent when we see it a second or third time. Like tomorrow's Paprika, there are moments in this film where what you see the first time plays one way, but once you see it again you understand the depth of what's going one. If you want an example, watch how you view our three heroes the first time you see the film and then, when you watch it a second time, watch how you react to things in the early part of the film knowing the characters back story. You will be touched more the second time.

This is a great little film that's worth your time.

Out on DVD

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