- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

“Tokyo Godfathers,” exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema, confirms my antipathy for Japanese animation, which now seems to specialize in maximum conceptual squalor wedded to minimum illustrative flair, especially in the area of expressive movement.

A lurid urban variation on the classic Westerns “Hell’s Heroes” and “Three Godfathers,” in which escaped outlaws risk their lives to protect an orphaned infant found during the getaway from a robbery, “Tokyo Godfathers” shares the typical Japanese reluctance to experiment with movement in more than a single plane.

Only the backdrops possess some pictorial distinction: They seem so closely modeled on photorealistic images of the city that the method of scene-setting hovers on the verge of live-action. Facetiously repulsive brainstorms and convoluted, cliched subplots are meant to conceal the kinetic inertia and monotony.

Director and co-writer Kon Satoshi is inordinately fond of shameless tear-jerking dodges, often in the form of shock-treatment flashbacks that purport to account for the present-tense degeneracy and self-pity of the characters.

The gallant desperadoes depicted in “Hell’s Heroes” by William Wyler and in “Three Godfathers” by John Ford were metaphorical versions of the Three Wise Men of the Nativity story. The new movie retains this tradition, evoking the slums of Tokyo on Christmas Eve. Undeniably an oddball trio, the Satoshi godfathers consist of a drunk called Gin, a brat named Miyuko and a transvestite hag known as both Hana and Uncle Bag.

They find a baby tucked into one of the trash-strewn alleys they regularly patrol and sometimes use as sleeping quarters. A locker key is tucked into the baby’s blanket, setting up a prolonged search for the mother that’s booby-trapped with frequent false clues, brutal side trips and preposterous chases, notably Gin’s high-speed pursuit of a stolen truck by bicycle over icy streets in order to retrieve the baby.

There’s an outrageous mother-daughter interlude in which Hana is reunited with her hag of a mom, still the proprietor (or at least bartender) of a drag bar. Bicycle racing is the skeleton in Gin’s closet: Once a promising rider, he ruined his life by consorting with gamblers. Miyuko became a runaway after stabbing her father.

Basically, everyone is a big softie, but the hard-boiled conventions demand blatantly obscene dialogue and blood-spattered encounters in order to justify the sappiness.

“Tokyo Godfathers” may help demystify aspects of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” revenge spectacle for people unfamiliar with its exotic inspirations, which include ultraviolent Japanese animated features.

Yet, lacking a certain ruthlessness, Mr. Satoshi patches things up between Miyuko and her estranged dad at the fadeout. In the “Kill Bill” context, she would become the teenage assassin who revels in the idea of mass slaughter.

*1/2

TITLE: “Tokyo Godfathers”

RATING: PG-13 (Lenient in the extreme, given the frequent profanity, vulgarity and graphic, albeit cartoon, violence; allusions to drug use, transvestism, prostitution; repeated episodes that imperil an infant)

CREDITS: Directed by Kon Satoshi. Screenplay by Keiko Nobumoto and Mr. Satoshi. Some dialogue in Japanese with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: Four stars

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