Three bums and a baby

A new anime film refigures a classic Western plot.

Tom Horgen

Tokyo Godfathers” has nothing to do with the Japanese mob. Well, that’s not entirely true; the Yakuza do make a brief appearance. But the actual pith of this story lies in the bonds of family, real and unreal, between three homeless souls as they embark on a quest to find the parents of an abandoned baby.

“Tokyo Godfathers” is the latest anime to find distribution in U.S. theaters and it comes from one of Japan’s top animation directors, Satoshi Kon, whose other films include “Perfect Blue” and “Millennium Actress.”

The film’s success might come as a surprise, since its subject matter isn’t as fantastical as most of the anime films released theatrically in this country. In Japan, anime is made up of many genres, almost like a separate cinema. That’s not to say Kon’s film doesn’t contain fantastical elements – because it does, though you won’t find any forest gods or naked cyborgs running around. And that’s the intriguing part of “Tokyo Godfathers”: in some ways it’s attempting a realism we as U.S. filmgoers rarely see in anime, but at the same time it keeps a firm footing in the flamboyance many of us have come to expect from these imported gems.

“Tokyo Godfathers” is loosely patterned after “Three Godfathers,” a 1948 American film by Western master John Ford, in which three gunslingers, including John Wayne, attempt to raise a baby. (Ford’s version was itself a remake of a 1916 film of the same title by director Edward LeSaint.) Kon’s film follows three Tokyo drifters who cling together like a makeshift family. Gin is a middle-aged alcoholic gambler, Hana is an absurdly emotional transvestite and the teen-age Miyuki has run away from home. The discovery of an abandoned baby and the ensuing adventure are just the set-up for an elaborate story that uncovers the roots of each character’s fall from grace. And also how they’re going to stand up again.

Some aspects of the film move it away from a direct attempt at animated realism. Kon’s story relies heavily on serendipity, which isn’t to say live action films do not, but here, happenstance seems a bit out of control. Kon also has chosen to use a more expressive animated style, where faces often contort wildly with emotion, unlike the films of Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”) or even the 1988 classic, “Akira,” where there is some attempt at fluid, lifelike movement.

If Kon had leaned more toward animated realism, a style better suited for the film’s core story, “Tokyo Godfathers” might have been more effective.