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Three Godfathers; Three Successes

Anime expert Fred Patten looks at Tokyo Godfathers, Satoshi Kons third animated feature, which makes it three hits in a row for Japans brilliant director.

Director Kon keeps this winning streak alive with Tokyo Godfathers. Photos courtesy of Destination Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Director Kon keeps this winning streak alive with Tokyo Godfathers. Photos courtesy of Destination Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Satoshi Kon has certainly skyrocketed into prominence among the ranks of Japans leading anime directors. Perfect Blue, his 1997 first theatrical feature as director, was a global critical success on the international film festival circuit. Its American limited theatrical release also won rave reviews. (It goes without saying that so did its video release to the anime market.) Kons second feature, Millennium Actress, got the same results starting with its 2001-2003 tour of the international festivals, its 2002 Japanese release and its late 2003 release in America. As of this writing, it is expected to be a 2003 Academy Awards finalist in the Best Animated Feature Film category.

Now, right on the heels of the latter comes Tokyo Godfathers. This had its world premiere at NYCs Big Apple Anime Fest 2003 on Aug. 29-31, 2003 (where it was personally introduced by Kon who was a Festival Guest of Honor). It had a limited release in December 2003 in Los Angeles to qualify for 2003 film awards (its Japanese release was on December 29), and its American art-theater release begins on January 16 in Berkeley, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis, San Diego and San Francisco, spreading to other cities over the next few weeks. Glowing reviews have already begun appearing in trades like Variety and the Village Voice, as well as throughout the anime fan community.

Since this is only Kons third feature (as director), it may be stretching a point to describe it as a startling change of pace for him. In one respect, each of his films has been different from the previous ones. In another, each of them feature similar themes. But it should be safe to say that audiences who saw Perfect Blue (a Hitchcockian thriller) and Millennium Actress (a romantic melodrama combined with a historical overview of the Japanese movie industry) would not expect a film like Tokyo Godfathers to follow them.

Tokyo Godfathers has a Hollywood pedigree being based on John Fords 3 Godfathers. Photos courtesy of Destination Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Tokyo Godfathers has a Hollywood pedigree being based on John Fords 3 Godfathers. Photos courtesy of Destination Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Kon has acknowledged that Tokyo Godfathers was inspired by John Fords offbeat Christmas 1948 Western melodrama, 3 Godfathers, in which three hard-bitten outlaws find a dying mother with a baby in the desert and undergo a moral redemption as they try to save the infant. Kon had been considering homeless people as a subject for a feature, and the idea of substituting modern street people for Western outlaws gave him his hook for a sociological commentary on modern urban homelessness which swings back and forth between serious drama and exaggerated comedy.

Tokyo Godfathers opens on a beautifully snowy, but freezingly cold Christmas eve in Tokyos fashionable Shinjuku district. The Christmas spirit is both thick and superficial at charities for homeless street people. The Odd Trio who share the same shelter at night are Gin, a despondent alcoholic ex-bicycle racer; Hana, an ex-drag queen transvestite who manically complains about being a woman trapped in a male body; and Miyuki, a cynical mid-adolescent runaway. As they rummage through dumpsters for Christmas presents, they find an abandoned newborn baby.

With the main characters  a homeless drunk, runaway and transvestite  weird family unit is not the only term that comes to mind. Photos courtesy of Destination Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films.

With the main characters a homeless drunk, runaway and transvestite weird family unit is not the only term that comes to mind. Photos courtesy of Destination Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Gin wants to turn it over to the police, but Hana is determined to not lose this chance to become a mother, while Miyuki wants nothing to do with the police. As Hana and Miyuki are forced to recognize that they cannot raise the infant, the three compromise and agree to find the babys parents themselves from clues within its blankets.

Perfect Blue is a psychological mystery-suspense melodrama. Millennium Actress is a bittersweet romance spanning many decades, with surrealistic scenes that are understood by both the characters and the audience to be visualizations of the elderly protagonists vivid recounting of her past. Tokyo Godfathers swings wildly from straight melodrama to black comedy (my favorite sequence is the one in which the search for the mother leads the three into a lavish wedding reception, and they are rejoicing at getting in from the cold, until they realize that it is a wedding of a crime boss daughter and that a shootout may result at any moment), from the realistic actions of three derelicts faced with the responsibility for an infants life to the (possible) fantasy that the child is being protected by angelic forces, and from very realistically drawn characters in most scenes to occasionally grotesquely distorted versions of the same characters for comedic effect (what anime fans call super-deformed). The blend is skillfully done and compelling (by halfway through the movie, you dont know what to expect next), but Tokyo Godfathers is definitely Kons weirdest film yet.

However, all three have a common theme of emphasizing a strongly female viewpoint. Perfect Blues main character is an innocent adolescent actress shocked by the unpleasant aspects of the movie industry. Millennium Actress s main character is a former movie star telling the flashback story of her search for over thirty years for the unknown man whom she loves. Tokyo Godfathers emphasizes such female concerns as an abandoned baby, a missing mother, a homeless adolescent girl, and men who are obsessed with becoming women.

Satoshi Kon learned under anime greats before moving on to direct his own features. Photo courtesy of Go Fish Pictures.

Satoshi Kon learned under anime greats before moving on to direct his own features. Photo courtesy of Go Fish Pictures.

Kon, born Oct. 12, 1963, studied visual communication design at Musashino Art University. While at the university, he made his debut as a comic artist at Young Magazine.

In the early 1980s, Kon met fellow manga artist/writer Katsuhiro Otomo, who had recently begun his mega-popular Akira sci-fi manga serial. When Akira was adapted into an anime theatrical feature, Otomo himself was its director. The 1988 Akira feature was such a hit that Otomo has been more active as an animation and live-action director than as a manga author ever since and he brought Kon into the movie industry with him.

Kons first motion picture work was in 1991 on two features with Otomo; one anime and one live action. In the anime sci-fi comedy Old Man Z (Roujin Z), a senile inmate of a retirement home is selected as a test subject for an experimental robotic/AI care-bed that is supposed to automatically minister to all his needs. The government healthcare designers of the bed do not know that the military is trying to surreptitiously piggyback some of its own experimental equipment into the test; a super-fighting machine controlled mentally by its driver.

When ancient Mr. Takizawa daydreams about his long-ago summer visits to the seaside, his bed takes him on a rampaging ride toward the coast, smashing through all obstacles and integrating the rubble into itself to grow from a mechanical bed into a huge robotic monster. Old Man Z was written by Otomo, directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo, and produced at the A.P.P.P. studio. Kons credit is art design, which means the general look of the movie rather than the characters (character design is by Hisashi Eguchi). Kon was the principal background artist; also, he explains in a brief written interview with AWM, Otomo simply asked me for some [story] ideas on Roujin Z and I did supply some to him.

The live-action horror/comedy World Apartment Horror is about a young Yakuza hoodlum who is given one week by his gang bosses to get rid of the occupants of a derelict apartment house so it can be torn down and the land sold at a big profit. The building turns out to be haunted by some kind of spirit that protects its tenants. There is a strong subtext of social protest against Japanese arrogant attitudes toward other Asiatic nationals, but mostly the movie is a black comedy about the cocky gangsters growing unease and fear as his attempts to intimidate the tenants backfire on him. World Apartment Horror was Otomos live-action directorial debut. Kon wrote the story, and also drew it into the published manga version of the movie.

After these two 1991 movies, Kon and Otomo drifted apart professionally for awhile. Kon was a background and layout artist on the 1992 Run, Melos! and the 1993 Patlabor 2 anime theatrical features. In 1995, Otomo and the Madhouse studio were preparing Memories, a feature-length triptych of three of Otomos most popular early sci-fi manga short stories, and Otomo recommended Kon as the screenwriter as well as the background and layout artist of one of the three segments. Both the public and Madhouse were so impressed by Kons sequence that, when Otomo recommended Kon as the director for Madhouses planned Perfect Blue feature, it was an easy sell. The rest, as they say, is history. Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers are also Madhouse productions.

Kon describes his relationship with Madhouse as very comfortable. (He is, of course, aware of Madhouses other very prestigious director, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, but I do not have any [professional] relationship with him so far.) Perfect Blue was already in development when Kon was invited to become its director; Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers were his own original concepts. Kon would like to continue making his future anime projects as different from each other as possible. I try not to stay on the same subject or area on my films, he told AWM, to prevent from losing motivation and creativity. I am now working on a title called Mo-so Dairinin, a psycho thrill story for a TV animated series. After this, I will create a new animated feature with Madhouse studio, but the idea has not come yet.


With the thriller Perfect Blue (left) and the epic romance Millennium Actress, what genre will Kon decide to tackle next? Perfect Blue 1999 © Rex Entertainment Ltd. and Manga Entertainment. Millennium Actress images courtesy of Go Fish Pictures.

Kon did not plan the strong feminine viewpoints in his three Madhouse features as a continuing theme. It was simply my attention that I had at that time for making those films. Therefore, I would make a male-related story in the future if something related to this theme would interest me; or any other theme as well.

Kon says that he and Madhouse are pleased with the marketing strategy that has made Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers better known and more prestigious on the international film festival circuit than as traditional theatrical releases in Japan. I do not really intend to make art films rather than commercial films, but the box office results have turned out to be that way. My goal is to create a film that has artistic value and is commercially accepted in the market. Kon certainly has a sterling record in that regard. Each of his films, back to Old Man Z, have gotten excellent reviews. Tokyo Godfathers is sure to maintain that record, and anime fans are already eager to see what his first TV anime series will be like.

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He wrote the liner notes for Rhino Entertainments The Best of Anime music CD (1998), and was a contributor to The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons, 2nd Edition, ed. by Maurice Horn (1999) and Animation in Asia and the Pacific, ed. by John A. Lent (2001).