Watched via DVD
Tokyo Godfathers is a Satoshi Kon movie that takes place in Tokyo around Christmas time. The general premise is that three homeless people happen across a baby while sifting through garbage, and decide to take in the poor child. Over the course of the movie, we watch this motley crew do everything in their power to give the baby a loving Christmas.
Interestingly, over the course of the film, the baby (named Kiyoko, or “pure child”) does as much for her new homeless family as they do for her. While Gin, Hana, and Miyuki search for Kiyoko’s mother and fight for her to live a good life, Kiyoko’s luck helps them find some purpose and support in their lives. It takes a lot to make a person become homeless, and Tokyo Godfathers provides a sympathetic and realistic look at that process while also showing the strength of family bonds, ending with hope for all of the main characters to reconnect with their families.
As Crystal says, it takes a lot for someone to end up on the streets, and throughout the movie we get a glimpse into how each character ended up on these cold and wintry streets. Gin, the “papa” of the group, has been living on the streets for the longest and is somewhat of a pro at it. He looks after the group as if they were his own family. He lost his wife and daughter to gambling and debts, and uses this opportunity to do right by his new street family.
Hana, a crossing-dressing, middle-aged man, is the “mama” of the group. When they find the infant “Kiyoko”, it is she who decides to take in the baby. She claims that she always wanted to raise a baby, and that this is her opportunity to do it. It becomes clear later on in the movie that Hana feels a connection to the abandonment of the child, and feels a need to find it a proper family, even if it is not the original parents.
Miyuki, the youngest member of the trio, is a runaway teenager. At the beginning of the film she brags that she, unlike the older two men, can always return home if she changes her mind. We learn through flashbacks that she is more similar to these two than she’d like to believe. All three have run away from their problems and their own fears of disapproval. Rather than face their families, they chose to reject them before they could be rejected. Their involvement with Kiyoko gives each character the chance to face their families head on and challenge these fears.
Part of what I love about the main characters’ backstories is that each brings in a different element of society. Unlike most anime, Tokyo Godfathers doesn’t shy away from the disreputable aspects of society, and it makes the film so much more powerful, especially because this film isn’t harsh or judgmental towards its main characters.
Instead of treating Hana like a freak for being a transgender woman, Tokyo Godfathers is respectful of her (though its characters are not always). Instead of being homeless because of being transgender, Hana is homeless because of a falling out at her workplace after her lover died, which is on par with Miyuki’s shame after stabbing her father during an argument. Both of these women happened into bad circumstances and felt like they had to leave as a result. Of the three main characters, Gin takes the most guilt upon himself, as his gambling and alcohol drove him away from his family. Clearly, Gin’s family is more than willing to talk to him once he returns, and I appreciate that they want to help him with his addictions, but I’m glad that Hana is not the “worst offender” of the group. Hana may be ostracized by Japanese society, but in Tokyo Godfathers she’s just herself and accepted without much thought.
Out of all of the Satoshi Kon movies, Tokyo Godfathers has a special spot in my heart because of the wintry setting and themes of Christmas, love, and forgiveness. Crystal and I felt that it worked perfectly as a Christmas special. The movie takes place in the streets of modern-day Tokyo during the winter holiday season. Gin, Hana, and Miyuki are doing all they can to survive in the harsh cold streets. It is insinuated throughout the movie that the three make a living at digging through unwanted garbage and at times recycling/selling found objects to make a profit. Through their eyes we see how harsh and frigid the world can be to the the lowest of the low. One of these moments in particular is very heart wrenching. We see Gin, drunk and alone, happen across an old street urchin, whose last wish is to have a drink. The pair of them get attacked by a gang of young men who beat them up for entertainment. Unbeknownst to the thugs, the old man is already dead, and yet they still beat on him as if he were a hunk of trash. While it may seem odd to focus on the lives of the homeless, the setting helps to bring home the message of how precious life is and how easily it is overlooked by those who have everything.
Focusing this story on homeless people in a big city reminds viewers of how life is everywhere and that everyone, even homeless people, are trying to live their lives to the best of their abilities. Tokyo Godfathers also does a good job of showing how people interact and how in a big city you can be indebted to anyone. Gin, Hana, and Miyuki save the lives of several people, including a yakuza boss and the infant Kiyoko, even though they’re homeless people. Though most people see little value in their lives (as the film repeatedly shows), several people’s lives would be much worse off without our three main characters.
On another note, Tokyo Godfathers does an excellent job of portraying how the homeless live in large cities. The film opens with a scene of them at a Christmas play and sermon, waiting until the church gives out a meal to those who attended. Later one, characters steal expired food or old books from the trash, using what they can find in order to keep living. These are all behaviors that homeless people must use in order to survive, especially without homeless shelters in place to help them during the winter months. I can only assume that Satoshi Kon and his animation team did research on the lives of homeless people, and I hope that they gave out some assistance as well.
Tokyo Godfathers does a wonderful job of realistically exploring the lives of the homeless. Crystal mentions how the studio did an excellent job of recreating characteristics of those in need, and having known people who went through hard times, I have to adamantly agree with that. The animation works harmoniously with these portrayals as well. Throughout the movie the main cast is seen swaddled in odds and ends to keep them warm. The character designs work well to match the personalities of each cast member, and I loved watching each character unfold before me. One scene in particular that I found awe-inspiring was when Miyuki chases one of the antagonists up a stair well. As she runs after the villain she peels layer after layer of her “homelessness” off until you can see the real Miyuki shine beneath. The animation truly helped give individuality and humanity to each person in the movie.
I also highly enjoyed the mannerisms of each individual. Each character is shown reacting to their environments, whether it’s them constantly snorting the snot running down their noses, or drunkenly sauntering around. This is one of the few movies where I really felt that I knew the characters through their body language.
This film’s animation definitely adds to the characters, giving everyone a greater emotional depth. Immediately, the viewer knows that Hana’s upbeat despite her homelessness, while Gin and Miyuki spend more time grappling with their self-worth, all expressed through their body language. Even secondary characters receive this close attention to body language, including Sachiko, the woman who desperately wants a baby. Her mannerisms and facial expressions work perfectly to convey her despair, making her completely believable in that role. In many other anime, a character would just look kind of sad or have wide eyes with small pupils, but Tokyo Godfathers goes that extra distance to make the emotional turmoil believable. The character designs also make the film more believable, with everyone looking somewhat realistic, especially for their roles within the narrative. There’s a stylistic connection between these characters and those in other Satoshi Kon films, but in Tokyo Godfathers the character designs emphasize the sad, quotidian lives of people who live in cities but are overlooked.
Overall, I think Tokyo Godfathers is a must watch/buy for the winter holiday season. While it isn’t the best of Satoshi Kon’s films, it still goes a long ways towards exploring life and what makes us human. What I love most in Satoshi Kon’s movies is his exploration of story and character through time, and this movie lives up to that standard well. There are some rocky moments with the main plot, but I think that the exploration of characters is enough to get anyone through the movie. So taking that all in mind, if you haven’t already, borrow a copy or purchase one, and watch it with some friends or family for this holiday season.
I agree with Whitney that Tokyo Godfathers is definitely worth looking into this holiday season, especially if you want a different spin on what Christmas can mean. Most Christmas movies are about presents, while most anime fetishize Christmas into a day for romance, but Tokyo Godfathers provides the unique spin that the end of the year should be about family and doing what’s right by others. Tokyo Godfathers doesn’t have as much flashy animation as other Satoshi Kon films, but it’s a fairly-straightforward story about love and family that’s probably the most accessible of his films. I feel like Tokyo Godfathers is somewhat under-appreciated among Satoshi Kon’s films, which is a shame because it’s still a solid film, even if it’s not one of my favorites. If you haven’t watched this yet, do yourself a favor and check it out. It’ll bring you some holiday cheer and some variety in Christmas movies, both of which I can always use more of.
FINAL SCORE: (8/10)
FINAL SCORE: (8/10)