Why abandon cel animation? That's the question one wants to ask of Hollywood. With the recent middling reaction to such classically animated films as Home on the Range, Sinbad, and Brother Bear, and the out-of-the-park success of the Pixar films and Shrek, Hollywood animation is going through a paradigm shift that may find Disney abandoning the process that made the company in the first place. They're already shutting down much of their cel animation departments (while bolstering their computer animation teams), and it may takes years for American cel animation to resurge, or as the industry shifts into a more digital-based medium it may die completely. But the reason why such appears to be a mistake is the same reason why so many of Disney's and DreamWorks' traditionally animated films have failed. It isn't because people prefer computer animation, but because the studios have viewed these films as more product than art. Recently, Disney has pumped out two animated films per year to continually diminishing returns, while mediocre writing and formulaic plotting becomes more and more transparent. Though these efforts are passable, the lack of care shows especially in comparison to the tightly constructed Pixar efforts which is perhaps why, in part, the Disney logo has grown tarnished. Foreign filmmakers seem to be the only artists looking to keep cel animation alive. And as long as the product is as good as Satoshi Kon's Tokyo Godfathers (2003), all is not lost. The film begins on Christmas Eve, following a trio of homeless people who have come together to form a de facto family. The father is Gin (voiced by Toru Emari), an alcoholic louse who's resorted to living on the streets because of the financial problems that destroyed his family. The "mother" is Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) a transvestite also referred to as "Uncle Bag," who has little to no control of her emotions, and went homeless after losing her job and then her man. The child is Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), a girl who ran away from home after an incident where she stabbed her father. On an evening scavenger hunt for food, the trio stumbles across a baby left in the trash. Taking the infant to the police seems to be the most pragmatic solution, but Hana wants to confront the child's mother, in part to feel better about herself (she too was abandoned). This leads the three on a quest, spurred on by a locker-key found with the baby (whom the group names Kiyoko). The locker holds a photo of the parents, and through the landscape visible in the background the vagabonds figure they can find them. However, this requires running all over Tokyo with the baby in tow. After freeing a Mafioso accidentally stuck under his car, the group end up at his wedding party where they find that one of the crook's assistants knows the baby's mother. But the assistant was the man who cheated Gin, and Gin wants his revenge.
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Loosely drawn from John Ford's 1948 film Three Godfathers, Tokyo Godfathers is meant to be a touching family drama about redemption and the power of friendship. And it works. Writer/director Satoshi Kon (best known for Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue) knows how to get the right emotional pitch out of the story: There's obviously going to be some sweetness when a baby's involved, but all three characters retain their rough edges, and their reasons for hitting the streets are never cheapened for sentiment. One also understands why these three people are clinging on the baby, since all of them (whether they recognize it or not) wish to redeem themselves. For Han, it's seeing his daughter; for Miyuki, it's patching things up with her family. Kon displays a wonderfully light touch by establishing Gin's character through having him interact with numerous doppelgangers: the assassin who shoots the man he was about to strike, the old bum who wants to die drunk, and the deadbeat husband who loves the gambling that's ruined his family. But though the film is more grounded than the average anime, Kon also understands that the pleasures of watching something animated is the fun of watching the laws of physics be broken. There are some spectacular moments of visual poetry, especially toward the end when the three end up chasing a woman who's kidnapped the baby. It's notable that Kon does with Tokyo Godfathers what the Mouse House has forgotten how to: He involves the audience, and he makes us care.
Columbia TriStar presents Tokyo Godfathers in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) with the original Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Thankfully, there is no dub track, though subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. The main extra is a "making-of" spot that offers interviews with the director and three stars (also presented in Japanese with subtitles, 22 min.). Because it was produced overseas, it's a bit more entertaining to watch than a standard American-built EPK, if only because it feels foreign. Also included is the original theatrical trailer and bonus trailers for other anime titles. As has become the case more and more often these days, the disc starts with some of these trailers. Keep-case.