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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Hana: Oh my! You're a little girl. I wonder what your name is.
Gin: "John Doe."
Hana: She's a girl, I said! He's so rude.

- Yoshiaki Umegaki, Toru Emori

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: April 12, 2004

Stars: Yoshiaki Umegaki, Toru Emori, Aya Okamoto
Director: Satoshi Kon

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, violent images, language, and some sexual material
Run Time: 01h:31m:43s
Release Date: April 13, 2004
UPC: 043396028142
Genre: animation

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-A-B+ C+

DVD Review

Despite the critical success of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away (the latter of which even managed to pick up an Academy Award over several celebrated entries from Disney), Japanese anime is still viewed as a niche market in the United States. Most still think of giant robots and blood and gore when they think of "Japanimation." Even the works of Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese Walt Disney, are marketed primarily as family films. Such niche classifications don't allow for subtle, startling works like Grave of the Fireflies or Tokyo Godfathers, the 2003 release from Satoshi Kon, the celebrated director of Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress.

I've seen Perfect Blue, a psychological thriller that's intelligent, but still full of sex and violence, and nothing out of the ordinary. I haven't seen Millennium Actress, but after Tokyo Godfathers, it's high on my list. Kon's new film is a near-perfect piece of animation, a lavishly detailed production full of heart and humor, a blend of realism and the magical that feels totally authentic—almost like it could be live action—but is a clear triumph of the form. Many Japanese directors make animated films because they are cheaper than live action (even Kon's Perfect Blue was to feature flesh and blood actors, until funding fell through). Tokyo Godfathers uses it to tell a very human story that might be overshadowed in some of the darker moments were we watching it play out with real people.

The story is unlike anything I've ever seen in an anime. Set in present day Tokyo, it follows three homeless people who happen upon a baby abandoned in a pile of garbage on Christmas day. Each has a broken past, revealed slowly as the trio ventures across the snow-covered city in search of the child's mother, and the presence of the little girl will change them in unexpected ways. What's surprising is the world they inhabit—from what I've heard of Tokyo, it's a clean, sterile city, free of crime. Yet the vagabond heroes encounter drugs, poverty, illness, sadness, and violence. At one point, a gang of listless teens drags a homeless man out of his cardboard shack and beats him nearly to death, merely for amusement.

Thankfully, the story is full of lighter moments too, brief reprieves that dispell the lingering darkness. Much of it comes from the familial interaction between the three homeless—Gin, a middle-aged man who at one point had a wife and child; Hana, a drag queen and homosexual who has felt like an outsider his entire life; and Miyuki, a young girl who feels she can never go home again. The unlikely group has built a new life on the streets, one that will be thrown into upheaval by their unexpected discovery.

Kon, who also co-wrote, directs his story with careful ease, turning what could have easily been a pile of sentimental slop into a touching, philosophical character study. There are moments that could be considered corny or cliché, including a truly miraculous event that saves the lives of two characters near the end of the film, but Kon is always careful to step back from the mush with a moment of humor or a surprising turn of events (I don't want to spoil anything, but expect some action amidst the drama). The animation is obviously fairly low budget, but still wonderful. Somehow the rather broad character designs and movements fit perfectly with the detailed multiplane backgrounds and occasional computer enhancements.

The story is an update of John Ford's Three Godfathers, a John Wayne classic about three bandits who find a baby on Christmas. I've never seen it, but I can't imagine even a master like Ford could make a better, more carefully balanced film than Tokyo Godfathers. I don't know what kind of reception this unusual picture received in Japan, but it certainly deserves attention in the US.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Due to the lower budget, an animated Japanese film like Tokyo Godfathers will never look as good as digitally transferred Disney fare, but the image on this disc is still mighty fine. Colors are solid and free of bleeding, sometimes saturated and sometimes washed out, as required to set the tone of a given scene. The source print is very clean, and shows no scratches and no excessive grain. I didn't spot any edge enhancement ether, and only a touch of artifacting in one scene.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Though it's primarily a drama, Tokyo Godfathers has a few surprisingly kinetic moments, and the mix milks them for all they're worth. Surrounds are used subtly throughout, and quite impressively at times, particularly during a chase sequence. The front soundstage features good stereo separation and clearly anchors dialogue in the center channel. The only minus is a relative lack of bass, but that does little to distract from an otherwise strong presentation.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
7 Other Trailer(s) featuring AstroBoy, Steamboy, Cyborg 009, Returner, Metropolis, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Memories
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Aside from a trailer gallery featuring clips for recent and upcoming Japanese imports (several of which play when you insert the disc, though they are skippable), the only extra is a fair 23-minute making-of featurette produced for Japanese television and presented with English subtitles.

It's a sometimes bizarre promotional piece, featuring interviews with the cast, comments from the director, and footage from the film's world premiere at a New York anime festival. There isn't a lot of solid information about the making of the film, but the piece is worth watching just for the cultural differences. At one point, the actress who plays Miyuki interviews Satoshi Kon, though he ends up turning the tables on her, and she reveals that she spends Christmas "home alone, hunched over." Odd. Later, Kon is interviewed by some producer, who comments that the film is a hard sell in Japan, both as a film and as anime. It's a fine interview, but the setting is bizarre (a totally white room, with white chairs) and the camera work, schizophrenic (why must interview footage be filmed at an angle from the corner of the ceiling?).

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Equal parts harrowing and heartwarming, Tokyo Godfathers is easily one of the best dramatic anime films I've ever seen. Director and co-writer Satoshi Kon manages a tricky balancing act, blending grit, sentimentality, and a touch of magical realism without ever giving in to maudlin melodrama. If in the past you've shied away from the genre due to a perceived excess of robots and tentacles, you owe it to yourself to give this film a chance.


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