It's Christmas Eve in the Japanese capital and, in a homeless shelter, an audience of lost souls sits stony-faced watching a children's nativity play. Amid the gray and the grimaces, a woman beams brightly. She's so filled with life, with flushed-cheek animation, you half expect her to jump off the screen like a figure in a pop-up book. Instead, she just opens her mouth and a voice rumbles out like a Mack truck, puncturing the first of many such illusions. The she is actually a he named Hana (voiced by Yoshiaki Umegaki), a towering, gap-toothed cross-dresser who wears the sort of turban and flowing caftan favored by women of a certain age, celebrity and temperament, and the men who impersonate them in nightclubs.
This is the third feature from director Satoshi Kon, a rising star in world animation and one of the most exciting and original talents to emerge in the field in years. On its way to DVD last fall, Kon's second feature, "Millennium Actress," flashed in and out of American theaters before audiences could discover its world of imaginative wonders.
Like the director's feature debut, "Perfect Blue," "Millennium Actress" and this new film center on characters who tend to live in worlds very different from our own and for whom reality and fantasy sometimes blur. Yet as with the greatest animated films, the triumph of Kon's work lies not just in its beauty and singularly sophisticated storytelling but in how that beauty and storytelling combine to give the films a sting so human you can forget you're watching a cartoon.
In "Tokyo Godfathers," that sting does more than animate Hana and his two companions, Gin, a broken-down alcoholic (voiced by Toru Emori), and the churlish runaway teenager Miyuki (Aya Okamoto). It also turns them into three distinct, generously realized characters. Thrown together by fate and misfortune, the three live as a makeshift family in a homeless encampment under the shadow of Tokyo's looming City Hall. After the trio discovers a foundling while Dumpster-diving, the newly expanded family plunges into a jaunty adventure that takes them across the city and deep into their respective pasts. As villains emerge alongside heroes and memories swirl like a vapor, each of the three is forced out of an everyday existence that, however impoverished, has also served as a kind of refuge from still-harsher personal truths.
Inspired by the 1949 John Ford chestnut "3 Godfathers," in which a troika of cowboy-bandits (including John Wayne) rescues a newborn, "Tokyo Godfathers" unwinds in more straightforward fashion than Kon's earlier features. Unlike the characters in those films, the threesome in "Tokyo Godfathers" exists in a separate reality not because they're schizophrenic (as is the pop idol in "Perfect Blue") or have lived through the movies (as does the star in "Millennium Actress") but because they're homeless. Off the grid and generally out of sight, these castaways are little more than annoyances for the people rushing past them, bundles of rags stinking up a crowded subway car. For Kon, though, the three serve as both guides into an otherwise obscured world and reminders that an individual's humanity can pierce the darkest shadow of their circumstances.
The story, written by Kon and Keiko Nobumoto, glides from one revelation to the next, picking up new characters — an amiable yakuza, a mysterious hit man and a plush-upholstered wet nurse — with grace. As in classic Western literature, in which foundlings often embody larger truths about the societies that abandon and rescue their children, the baby here carries some serious metaphoric weight. Certainly the vision of Japan as chock-a-block with broken homes, absent fathers, juvenile delinquents and social outcasts is like that found in live-action movies. Still, although its color and emotional palettes are more darkly shaded than what we are used to in animated features, filled with smoky undertones and moody blues, "Tokyo Godfathers" moves with a distinct pop spring in its step.
Among this film's modest delights, perhaps the happiest is that it never sacrifices pleasure for finger-wagging and hand-wringing. At once a model of craft and encouraging proof that the future of animation exists beyond the glories of Pixar and Hayao Miyazaki, "Tokyo Godfathers" is more than anything else great fun. The language tends to be far saltier than most American animations (parents beware), and the cute and fuzzy take a back seat to the carnivalesque and modestly freaky, but this is also foremost a movie that aims to please, complete with laughter and tears. In some way, Hana, Gin and Miyuki are modern-day Magi, bearing tidings and visions from other lands. But mostly what they have to offer is another, more precious gift — that of a well-told story, forged on vision and delivered with heart.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, violent images, language and some sexual material.
Times guidelines: Some adult language, intense emotional themes, violence; not for young or impatient children.
A Destination Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Director Satoshi Kon. Screenwriters Satoshi Kon, Keiko Nobumoto. Original story Satoshi Kon. Character design Satoshi Kon, Kenichi Konishi. Music Keiichi Suzuki. Director of photography Katsutoshi Sugai. Sound director Masafumi Mima. Art dirctor Nobutaka Ike. Co-director Shogo Furuya. In Japanese (with English subtitles] and unsubtitled Spanish.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 281-8223.