The late Satoshi Kon delivers an equally grim and uplifting holiday classic in Tokyo Godfathers
“On the year’s last day / when all of a life’s accounts / have been settled up.”
Christmas in Japan in an entirely commercial event: with less than 1% of the population practicing Christians, the holiday is usually portrayed as a reason to go crazy with decorations and to queue up outside a KFC for hours. Hell, there’s a song that celebrates the meaningless but bombastic fun of the whole thing. So who’d have thought that one of Japan’s most famous Christmas films, if not the most famous Christmas film, has more heart and depth than half the Christmas schlock we release.
Gin (Toru Emori), Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) and Miyuki (Aya Okamoto) are three homeless people in Tokyo. On Christmas, they discover a newborn child amidst a pile of trash. Gin, a hard-drinking cynic, wants to return it to the authorities while Hana, a cross-dresser who identifies himself as a woman, sees it as a sign from God that he can have a child. Miyuki, a young teenager on the run from her police captain father, makes them agree to return it to the parents, and the three start tracking them down. Using clues found in train station locker, their journey across Tokyo brings them face-to-face with the Yakuza, Latino hitmen, and their own pasts.
Having a movie about the homeless population of Tokyo makes for a very nice change of pace for a Christmas movie. Satoshi Kon and Keiko Nobumoto’s script doesn’t pull any punches, depicting the titular godfathers’ lives as bleak, dark and full of misery. Gin feels like he has failed as a father, and wishes to see his daughter again. Hana is on the run from his past singing in a drag club. Miyuki is afraid to go home because she’s afraid her father will arrest her for stabbing him. All three characters live lives surrounded by dark clouds and empty futures. None of them can accept what they’ve done, and continue to live in a limbo they’re almost too blind to see.
The set-up is incredibly simple, but the story is almost an excuse for us to get to know the three main characters and for them to come to face to face with their issues. Here, the missing baby – whom they name Kiyoko – stands for something more, for all of them. Originally, Hana wants to keep her, but is convinced that their life is no place for a baby. They might be unable to remove themselves from the situation they’ve put themselves in, but at the very least, they can prevent the baby from being in this life.
The past is constantly coming back to haunt the three main characters, usually through unexpected and coincidental ways. At first this almost looks like the writers are using a couple of cheap get-out-of-jail cards to move the story along, but then you come to realise that this is all built in to the fabric of the story. The three of them appear to be Christians, and throughout the film it almost appears as if their faith in themselves is being tested. The coincidences could be seen almost as a pre-chosen path of redemption, and what they do with all of these pot holes and speed bumps is entirely up to them.
Tokyo Godfathers is gritty, and down-to-earth enough that none of this really matters. There’s an hour and a half to get out three back stories and have them be part of the main story, so even if you don’t really buy into how they keep bumping into each other, and the right characters, when they need to the most, it’s easy to ignore, because the real focus is on the three of them. We see how they interact, and how they better each others’ lives. All of them are resigned to their fates, even if there exist ways for them to get out, and the other two are there to remind them that this isn’t the end.
Every character here from the main three to the mother looking for her lost child has lost something, and thinks that there is no other way out. Tokyo Godfathers teaches us that even when we’re at our lowest point, there can still be hope and beauty. Gin saves up petty cash to give to his daughter, Hana keeps inventing haikus.
In the end, Satoshi Kon has told a very non-traditional Christmas story that touches upon the themes we all come to expect: acceptance, forgiveness, family, regret, redemption. Mix in some gorgeous animation and the beautiful imagery of a snowy Tokyo at night, and you’re in for a heart-filled, sweet, if often bleak Christmas classic.
Verdict: If you’re in the mood for something a bit different this year, Tokyo Godfathers’ sheer sincerity will more than suffice
Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
Also known as: 東京ゴッドファーザーズ
Director – Satoshi Kon
Writer – Keiko Nobumoto, Satoshi Kon
Toru Emori – Gin
Yoshiaki Umegaki – Hana
Aya Okamoto – Miyuki
Satomi Korogi – Kiyoko
Shozo Iizuka – Ota
Seizo Kato – Mother
Hiroya Ishimaru – Yasuo
Ryuji Saikachi – The Old Man