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'Tokyo Godfathers' Is A Touching, Streetwise Riff On The 3 Wise Men


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. "Tokyo Godfathers" is an animated Japanese film about three homeless people who look after an abandoned baby. Originally released in 2003, the film has been restored and can now be seen on most major video-on-demand services. Our critic at large John Powers says the movie seems even better and more relevant today than it did when he first saw it.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: We never seem to get enough of stories about cool people who live on the margins of society, high-rolling gangsters, high-end strippers, high school chem teachers who sell crystal meth. We have less time for those whose life on the margins isn't cool - day laborers, residents of nursing homes, people who live on the streets. We've heard that stories about them will be depressing or preachy or both. The ideal antidote to this fear is "Tokyo Godfathers," a marvelous Japanese animated film by Satoshi Kon, whose death at age 46 cheated the world of its most interesting animator. Almost nobody in the U.S. saw the initial release in 2004. But happily, a restored new version has become available on VOD, to be followed by a Blu-ray in June.

Funny, touching and exceedingly entertaining, "Tokyo Godfathers" is an upbeat fable about three social outcasts that never sinks into moralizing or treacle. It begins on Christmas Eve with children singing "Silent Night" in a nativity scene. Their audience includes our three heroes, who share a cardboard shack in the shadows of prosperous Tokyo high-rises. There's the bearded alcoholic Gin, a gruff middle-aged man who lives from drink to drink, the runaway teenager Miyuki, who's got a real mouth on her, and the gigantic cross-dressing Hana, a onetime drag performer whose gap-toothed smile is as striking as her turban. They're digging through a trash heap when they come across an abandoned baby. This discovery launches them into a wild jaunt through the snowy streets of Tokyo, from gaudy neon boulevards and palatial hotels to sardine can subway trains and dark, dangerous alleyways.

Along the way, our tattered, smelly trio meets up with doctors and Yakuza dons, nightclub owners and hooligans who enjoy beating up the homeless. Their journey also leads them into the past, letting us see the unhappy family lives that led them to be on the street. Here in the dubbed version - you can get subtitles if you prefer - Gin and Miyuki try to convince the maternal Hana that they can't keep the baby but must take her to the police.


JON AVNER: (As Gin) How in the hell are you going to raise a child? You're homeless, for Christ's sake.

SHAKINA NAYFACK: (As Hana) I know. I know. It's just I don't want her to go from one foster home to another without ever feeling truly loved. The thought of sending her to that kind of life...

VICTORIA GRACE: (As Miyuki) Lots of kids know what that's like. You don't have to be abandoned.

AVNER: (As Gin) I get it. But the parents must have had their reasons.

NAYFACK: (As Hana) What reason could anyone have for abandoning their child? There's no excuse. Her parents threw her away like she was trash.

AVNER: (As Gin) I'm not saying you're wrong. But what can we do about it?

POWERS: If "Tokyo Godfathers" sounds familiar, that's because its premise, a riff on the tale of the Three Wise Men, has been used over and over since the silent movie days. I've seen at least five versions, ranging from a John Wayne Western to a French farce that inspired the Hollywood comedy "Three Men And A Baby." Of the bunch, this is my favorite. That's because Satoshi Kon's work always aims high. If Hayao Miyazaki is Japanese animation's great mythmaker, Kon, one might say, is its radical psychotherapist. His movies explore Japan's cultural unconscious by revealing things that society usually ignores - the misogyny that shapes its J-pop girl groups, the dark crazy dreams that lurk within innocent figures like Hello Kitty or the homeless people who folks literally step over on the Tokyo sidewalks. And he does all this in images that pop with vivid beauty worthy of Japanese woodcuts and are as tightly edited as a Hitchcock thriller. By his standards, "Tokyo Godfathers" is unabashedly straightforward and warmhearted.

We come to see Gin, Miyuki and Hana not as generic losers - to use a familiar term these days - but as individuals who possess both self-destructive flaws and big-souled virtues. Much like the wonderful 2018 film "Shoplifters," Kon takes outsiders who strike us as alien and annoying and then shows them to be every bit as decent and generous as the respectable citizens who look down on them; maybe more so. Coming from fractured traditional families, they find support in the alternative family that they've created together in their cardboard home. It's only natural that these improbable Magi would look after a foundling.

Now, few things are harder than capturing goodness on screen, and I must confess that there are a couple of moments in "Tokyo Godfathers" that fall into cuteness or sentimentality. But I forgave that when I first saw it back in 2004, and I forgive it even more now. In these days when tens of millions are out of work and don't know what the future holds, I can't fault a film for showing too much compassion and love for characters who must struggle just to get by.

BIANCULLI: Critic at large John Powers reviewed the newly restored animated version of "Tokyo Godfathers." Coming up, we remember Fred Willard, the comic actor and improviser who died last Friday at age 86. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTEFIORI COCKTAIL'S "GNE GNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.