Let's face it anime sucks. Mind you I say this as fan. Anime has been flooded with crap kid shows and dominated by insipid variations on the forum o' girls and giant robots piloted by pre-teens genres. But every once in awhile you find a jewel and that's what makes it worthwhile. Just this year we had the beautiful eulogy to the long running Ruorini Kenshin series, a cool chapter in Cowboy Bebop, and a much needed breath of life in Last Exile. On the whole though, anime is about as active and dangerous as a toothless, fat, neutered tomcat; a far cry from the treasure trove it felt like when I first discovered it. Like I said, I enjoy it from time to time and every once in awhile something hits me across the head like a two-by-four, but if I were to say that I'm getting the same charge now as I was when I first discovered Eva, Cowboy Bebop, Lain, BGC, and 3x3 Eyes, I'd be lying.
That is why Satoshi Kon is so vital. What he is doing to anime right now is just as important as what filmmakers like Frances Truffant did in the 60's. He’s taking an art form that lost its fire long ago and dumping some fresh gasoline on it. His two previous movies, Perfect Blue and Millennial Actress are masterworks. He is simultaneously able to reject the saucer eye cliches (Perfect Blue is actually a devastating critique of Japanese pop culture) that have so effectively hamstrung the art form and embrace the classic beauty that the true masters can effortlessly conjure. Kon's new film Tokyo Godfathers is another masterwork.
Tokyo Godfathers is the story of three homeless people. There's Gin an alcoholic who surrounds himself with a grand tale of tragedy (which may or may not be the product of a drunken mind), Hana a transvestite who probably hasn't fooled anyone since AIDS, and Miyuki a girl in her early teens. The three have formed a family of sorts, dwelling in a home made of cardboard and plywood, although saying it’s a happy one would be an overstatement. The three find a baby in the trash on Christmas Eve and are seized with the need to return it to its parents. What follows is a journey through Tokyo that is beautiful, ugly, gritty, stylized, nihilistic and hopeful all at once, in the way that only the best of Japanese anime can be.
As the three make their way through Tokyo they attempt to track down the baby's parents, traveling through a purgatory of abandoned houses, homeless alley dwellings, drug stores, and the grim streets. Yet the warmth of their journey is undeniable (the last scene is really quite amazing). Redemption is never heavy handed and drama is never exaggerated beyond honesty. Many give anime a fat lip because of its exaggerations, its wild style, its bizarre locals, and to be honest Tokyo Godfathers still has plenty of that, maybe even too much. However, if you Mister high and mighty "I stopped watching cartoons awhile ago" can look past it, you'll see honesty and beauty, enough to fill ten thousand Bruckheimer films.
As for Kon himself, he continues to be the most interesting thing happening in anime today. Out of his three films, I'd rank this second. It doesn't quite deliver the artistic and narrative sledgehammer to the guts that Perfect Blue wielded, but while I love it Millennial Actress was almost too damn clever and quirky for its own good. So here it is in the middle a beautiful piece of magical realism, one that Gabriel Garcia Marquez would be proud of. See this film, open your mind to it, and I swear it'll open your heart for you.
Post Script: Much has been made about the film being a remake of the John Ford classic 3 Godfathers. While the title and the general premise (Of three outcasts finding a baby) are the same, the stories take wildly different courses, and unless some new tell all book comes out I don't think John Wayne has ever played a turban clad transvestite.