It's okay, which means that by the standards of other anime movies it's a masterpiece. Yes, it's meandering and coincidence-ridden, but for once that doesn't matter. Besides, I think we all know better by now than to watch anime movies for their plots. At least this one has an interesting world and entertaining characters. It's fun. I enjoyed it. What's more its arbitrary storytelling is excusable, since the film is basically a non-fantasy quest. You know about quests. Kill the dragon. Save the princess. Here it's literally the latter, except that the "princess" is a baby and the heroes are homeless bums on the streets of Tokyo. Quest stories are essentially nothing but a string of set-pieces and that's the case here.
Three urban tramps, Gin, Hana and Miyuki, have formed a kind of surrogate family, albeit a squabbling dysfunctional one that sticks together more through inertia than any kind of conscious bonding. Gin is the 'father', a gap-toothed bearded drunkard who used to have a real wife and daughter. Hana is the 'mother', a washed-up old drag queen and the intellectual of the group, composing haikus and defending Dostoyevsky. Miyuki is the 'daughter', an obnoxious teenage runaway with emotional issues. One Christmas they're fighting as usual and stumbling through life in their incompetent way when they hear a baby crying. Someone left it out with the rubbish.
Our heroes may not know much, but they know you don't do that with babies. Thus begins a random series of misadventures.
Gin, Hana and Miyuki are the glue that holds the film together. Without them it would be a negligible thing, but fortunately all three are strong enough to hold your attention even when nothing much is happening. The film doesn't completely avoid romanticising homelessness, but it certainly has fun plunging into a world of gangsters, transvestites, street violence, mental ill-health and suicide. In this film even the people with homes to live in have other kinds of problems instead. They're not all saucer-eyed and beautiful either. Tokyo Godfathers will teach you the joys of ugliness and obesity. There's something endlessly watchable about these gnarled, characterful faces.
Besides, the film doesn't want to be a social polemic any more than it wants to be a tautly plotted thriller. Harsh realism would be inappropriate. It's a Christmas fable about people who need to make contact with people they'd lost. Its themes are home and family. All three of our heroes are haunted by particular figures from their pasts, plus there's the small matter of the baby. Thus it doesn't matter when coincidences push the story along. For Gin, Hana and Miyuki, life is nothing but coincidence. This is a Christmas movie, meant to be enjoyed in the same Frank Capra spirit as Miracle on 34th Street or It's A Wonderful Life, with its snowbound setting a factor in its deliberate distance from reality as with all the best fairy tales.
The direction and animation are both strong. The film's set-pieces are all impressive, Satoshi Kato turning his hand with equal aplomb to comedy and to homeless bum action scenes. He's particularly fond of the background joke. Meanwhile the characters have been given dynamic and subtle body language, plus in contrast to certain other renowned Japanese anime directors this film can portray a rich variety of older people without making them all look like the same rubber-faced prune.
There's a lot to admire about this film, but it feels strangely unconsequential due to the aimlessly drifting nature of both the plot and its heroes. It shouldn't, but it does. Gin, Hana and Miyuki all get some lovely moments, but even if they saw an escape route from their homeless lifestyle you're not sure if they'd be able to grasp it.
Incidentally I've seen this film described as an anime remake of 3 Godfathers, a 1948 John Wayne film which was itself a remake of a 1936 version starring Walter Brennan and Chester Morris. I've seen neither of those films myself so can't comment, but the 1948 version was directed by John Ford and apparently it's a good'un, so I imagine you can take all this as a good sign.
The most impressive thing about Tokyo Godfathers is that it's a true fairy tale. It avoids the usual Christmas film pitfalls, being neither as moronically cloying as many of Hollywood's efforts or as uncomprehendingly Japanese as much anime. Japan isn't a Christian country, so their cargo-cult version of Christmas has somehow become a festival that's mostly for lovers. The real family occasion comes a week later at New Year, for which the entire country shuts down. Returning to the subject of Tokyo Godfathers, I'm prepared to bet that the film's heart and painstaking craftsmanship mean that it only gets better on repeat viewings. Its story is sufficiently slight as to almost qualify as delicate, but it has charm.