In his first two animated films, Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue, Japanese writer-director Satoshi Kon used the professional illusions of actresses to play subtle, dizzying games with his characters' reality and identity. In his new anime comedy Tokyo Godfathers, by contrast, the three main characters announce their identity loudly, often, and unsubtly: "We're homeless!," their irascible alcoholic semi-leader (voiced by Toru Emori) snaps whenever he feels slighted and wants his situation openly acknowledged, or whenever he doesn't feel slighted enough to suit his own self-hatred. Along with a young female runaway (voiced by Aya Okamoto) and a gushy gay transvestite (Yoshiaki Umegaki), Emori lives in a cardboard house in a Tokyo park and subsists on Dumpster pickings and charity meals. Each member of his triumvirate hides behind a minor personal illusion: Emori claims to be a tragically widowed former cyclist; Okamoto pretends to be tough and apathetic, but secretly weeps whenever she's reminded of the home she left; and Umegaki surrounds himself with protective fictions, from the carefully positioned beach posters on his walls to his wistful crush on the brutally contemptuous Emori. But when the trio finds a screeching baby in a trash heap on Christmas, their meager illusions are gradually swept away. Each identifies with the infant in one way or another, and by attempting to reunite her with her family, they reunite with their own estranged pasts. Kon's major cinematic conceit is that the abandoned infant serves as a remarkable source of luck, and possibly even a "messenger from God"; nothing else could explain the film's incessant bizarre coincidences. Even assuming a heavy dose of divine intervention, some of Tokyo Godfathers' plot twists don't make sense, but Kon appears more interested in feel-good Christmas miracles and broad caper-movie comedy than in detective logic. The results are funny and even touching, but also slight, cutesy, and more than a bit pandering, especially by comparison with Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue's giddy challenges. And Tokyo Godfathers' lighter tone and real-world focus give Kon a lot less room for his characteristic visual bravura. Without action setpieces to fill the screen with motion, his simple, squared-off, caricature-ridden animation just looks bland. He compensates with random fantasy elements and chase sequences, but no amount of shoehorned-in razzle-dazzle can keep this forced fable from feeling like a shadow of Kon's early work.
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