Directed by: Satoshi Kon
Tokyo, Christmas Eve. An infant is abandoned, and the three people who find it are the least equipped to care for it. Can they find the baby’s parents, and in the process redeem themselves?
In Satoshi Kon’s animated story, three homeless people; a self-styled “bum,” a transvestite and a runaway teenaged girl find a baby dumped in the trash where the three of them are scavenging. The city in winter is a place of danger for people on the fringes, people like Hana the maternal cross-dresser or Miyuki, a defiant and vulnerable teenager. The film is moving, suspenseful and funny, loaded with social commentary. The artwork is beautiful.
On their “road trip” our three outcasts have adventures and meet strange and scary individuals. Things aren’t what they seem. . .or they are exactly what they seem, it’s just that there’s more to them than what you see at first. They help a wealthy man who’s stuck under his car, and he invites them to his house. It turns out he is a powerful crime lord. There is an assassination attempt, and the would-be assassin grabs Miyuki and the baby as he makes his getaway, but far from hurting them, takes them to a place of warmth, nourishment and safety. When we first see Hana, at a Catholic Christmas Eve service, she looks like an elderly, overly-made-up woman. Then we find out she’s a man. The movie is all about looking beneath the surface, so it is no surprise that the baby’s parentage is not as simple as it seems either.
It isn’t clear why Hana is living on the streets, but we learn why Miyuki and Gin, the “bum,” are. Gin, the most bitter and realistic of the three, provides the voice of social comment. We see that he was a regular guy who put himself on the streets because of his gambling addiction, a theme the movie returns to later.
Because it’s a quest, each outcast has to find an inner truth before the outer events of their lives can align. Miyuki, touched by the connection with the Hispanic family she meets, sheds her “tough girl” armor long enough to attempt a phone call to her home. Gin chooses to help his drag-queen friend instead of walking away, and is re-connected with his own family as a result. Hana, outwardly burlesque-feminine, ends up being the film’s action hero.
The animation is lovely, strange and whimsical, whether it’s a frame of snow falling, or pinwheels spinning outside an elderly homeless man’s shelter, or Gin’s face as he talks about his family. The scene with Miyuki on a train, looking across at the other track and recognizing someone, is exquisite and had me holding my breath.
What is it about babies? Not everyone likes, or is comfortable with babies, but we all get what they represent. They represent the future. They represent hope.
In 1948, John Ford released a movie called 3 Godfathers, starring John Wayne and Harry Cary Jr. In it, three bank robbers flee into the desert, where they find a dying woman in labor. They deliver her baby and promise the dying woman they will keep her child safe. This means they have to return to the town whose bank they just robbed. Not everyone survives in this movie, but the baby, the hope of the future, is returned to civilization.
Ford’s movie was a remake of a 1936 movie called The Three Godfathers, which has exactly the same plot. I usually roll my eyes at the thought of remakes, but the idea of a John Ford western— a John Wayne western—migrating to Japan, where it becomes an animated feature commenting on modern alienation and intolerance, just tickles me.