Original release: November 8th, 2003
Running time: 92 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Directors: Satoshi Kon, Shōgo Furuya
Writers: Satoshi Kon, Keiko Nobumoto
Cast: Tōru Emori, Yoshiaki Umegaki, Aya Okamoto
The thought of people getting to the point of losing everything and having to live on the street is one I find not just sad but also really quite frightening. Not having a background that could provide a financial safety net in case of an emergency made me look at homelessness as a real, not-too-distant possibility at times. I’ve always had to think carefully before taking my next step and I think this made me to take life a little more seriously than people of my age generally do.
This is why I had that really anxious sensation in my stomach when beginning to watch Satoshi Kon’s animated film Tokyo Godfathers. Meeting the three protagonists in this off-beat Christmas story, we find ourselves in the world of the homeless on Christmas Eve.
This is a world of no hope; the grumpy alcoholic Gin (Tōru Emori), the transsexual former drag queen Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) and teenage runaway girl Miyuki (Aya Okamoto) aren’t trying to find a way out and move towards a better life. They’ve accepted their place in society and live from one day to the next. The three of them together make a distorted image of a family, critiquing modern society for abandoning its weak, vulnerable and unfortunate members.
On this day, however, they find a little package in a trash dump that’s even more vulnerable and in need of help than they are. An abandoned baby girl and a bag with some clues to her origins will set the trio off on a peculiar adventure. Hana – who always dreamed of being a mother – is keen to find the parents without the aid of the police so she can experience motherhood for a short while. They name the baby Kiyoko, “pure child”, and our dysfunctional family now has a brand new member as they begin the journey to find her parents.
Trying to summarise the details of the film’s plot would be nearly as difficult as it is pointless; Satoshi Kon’s Christmas story is an almost psychedelic ride that’s riddled with strange coincidences that drive the narrative in new and unexpected directions frequently.
Tokyo Godfathers is clearly a story that’s under the control of a higher power connecting dots, changing directions and gradually moving events towards a miraculous climax. While the plot revolving around baby Kiyoko is moving ahead at a fast pace, some of the protagonists’ back-stories are also revealed and some of the coincidences seem to bring them closer to resolving their personal issues.
While Tokyo Godfathers is a magical Christmas story with ‘deus ex machina’ being an unseen but nevertheless constantly present force, all of this is framed in a gritty context of realism. The investigation into Kiyoko’s background reveals a desperately sad couple before the final turn of events, and Hana is struggling with serious illness – implied to be AIDS related – throughout the film. The grumpy old Gin throws homophobic remarks at Hana as often as he can, but it’s quite clear that it’s just his grumpiness speaking; at the end of the day they’re friends.
Gin later also gets caught up in a situation that we’ve probably all heard of; a gang of youths beat him up really badly for no reason at all. This particularly vicious form of urban cruelty amongst other realistic elements in the narrative combined with benign miracles makes Tokyo Godfathers a unique Christmas tale for grown-ups.
Satoshi Kon’s film is remarkable in that it’s a feel good story in spite of looking through the eyes of some of the most unfortunate members of modern society.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.