With "Tokyo Godfathers," director Satoshi Kon once again demonstrates his skill for creating movies that are the antithesis of American animated feature films.
The movie, which opens Friday at the Nuart Theatre, is centered on two men and a teenage girl who sleep in cardboard boxes and scavenge food from the alleys of central Tokyo. Their tenuous existence is thrown into further upset when they find an abandoned baby.
Some U.S. critics argue that such realistic tales are more appropriate for live-action filmmaking, but Kon -- who also made "Perfect Blue" and "Millennium Actress" -- strongly disagrees.
"I'll probably never make a live-action feature," Kon said during an interview last summer, when "Millennium Actress" was released. "Animation is the perfect form to realize my ideas about movies. I can express my thoughts and ideas clearly and in detail. The realistic essence of drawings makes them the ideal way to present information to an audience."
Kon's trio of "Godfathers" couldn't be more different from their counterparts in American animation, say, Aladdin, Jasmine and the Genie, or Shrek, Fiona and Donkey. Hana is a flamboyant ex-drag entertainer; Gin, an alcoholic former bicycle racer; Miyuki, a sulky teenage runaway. This unlikely family of misfits sets out to find the parents of the infant they discover on Christmas Eve.
Other anime directors have set films in urban slums: Katsuhiro Otomo's "Akira" takes place in a dystopian Neo-Tokyo, and bounty hunter Spike Spiegel walks the mean streets of Mars and Ganymede in Shinichiro Watanabe's "Cowboy Bebop." But the contemporary setting of "Tokyo Godfathers" has an immediacy that jars the popular image of a clean, affluent Japan. Kon's use of a gray-blue palette suggests the bitter winter cold and the alienation of the characters from a society that despises them.
"I didn't choose homeless people to be heroes. They're messengers," Kon explained. "The image of these socially disadvantaged people, who are living their lives vitally and fully, should make viewers less anxious about the troubles, worries and discontents of everyday life."
Hana, Miyuki and Gin don't lead happy lives like "The Little Mermaid's" Ariel or "Toy Story's" Woody and Buzz. These guys steal bottles of whiskey left as offerings in graveyards. They scream insults as they confront the lies about the past they've told each other -- and themselves. Yet they remain endearing and curiously noble in their way. All three care passionately about the infant, whom Hana names Kiyoko. And they love each other, although they're loath to admit it. Kon suggests that battling the inner demons that led the threesome to skid row can be more daunting than fighting dragons or swaggering villains.
In America, virtually every major animated feature, from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" to "Finding Nemo," has been aimed at big, family audiences. Anything deemed offensive has been scrupulously excised. The sailors in "Sinbad" never swear, for instance. In "Treasure Planet," B.E.N. the robot caused the spidery pirate to fall to his death, so the hero character Jim Hawkins wouldn't commit a violent act that might be "imitable."
Japanese animated characters behave in ways that are less idealized: Spike Spiegel is never without a cigarette, Kintaro in "Goldenboy" lusts after every female he sees, and high school teacher Mr. Fujisawa in "El Hazard" can use his superpowers only when he's not drinking.
Anime also regularly includes gay and transvestite characters. The cross-dressing Nuriko is a respected member of the team of supernatural heroes in the romantic fantasy "Fushigi Yugi: The Mysterious Play," and dashing detectives Tsuzuki and Hisoka in "Descendants of Darkness" are clearly lovers. In "Tokyo Godfathers," Gin is savagely beaten by a gang of street punks -- and patched up by the performers at the club where Hana used to do his drag show.
"The wider the audience you try to attract, the more limits appear. To reach everyone -- children, adults, women -- all violence and sex have to be eliminated," Kon said. "I don't want to deny the quality of the Disney films, but I get the feeling that some of those eminently orthodox stories are predicated on an adult's idea of what a child thinks. They treat children as if they're of very limited intelligence, which is profoundly insulting."
Differences in studio structure as well as audience expectations allow anime directors to make more personal films. American features have traditionally emphasized fine draftsmanship, character animation and upbeat musical stories.
Having neither the money, the trained artists nor the tradition of polished animation, Japanese films stress storytelling, design and directorial vision. Lower wages, smaller studios and fewer executives make it possible to produce animation cheaply in Japan. "Tokyo Godfathers" was made for about $3.25 million -- very respectable by anime standards.