REVIEW: Tokyo Godfathers
Produced by: Masao Maruyama, Masao Takiyama, Shinichi Kobayashi, Taro Maki
Written by: Satoshi Kon, Keiko Nobumoto (screenplay); Satoshi Kon (story)
Edited by: Takeshi Seyama
Cinematography by: Katsutoshi Sugai
Music by: Keiichi Suzuki, Moonriders
Starring: Aya Okamoto, Toru Emori, Yoshiaki Umegaki, Satomi Korogi, Shozo Iizuka, Seizo Kato, Hiroyama Ishimaru, Ryuji Saikachi, Yusaku Yara, Kyoko Terase, Mamiko Noto, Rikiya Koyoama
It’s funny how so many Christmas movies are about rich, good-looking people celebrating this time of giving together and learning life lessons and/or finding love together. You would think that more movies would focus on those who are most in need, right? I think the problem is that somewhere in the movie making system, someone thinks that nobody wants to watch a story that might potentially depress them during a time of year when a lot of people actually are struggling and suffering, and so instead we get tripe like The Family Stone, wherein a rich awful family emotionally tortures a rich career woman who is dating their golden boy son in the confines of their ideal home, and somehow we’re supposed to grow to like these snobs. (I thought of reviewing the film this year, but I gave out so many negative reviews, I couldn’t possibly bring myself to subject you and me to that, so let this be a little teaser, perhaps, for next year.)
Tokyo Godfathers is not such a film, however, instead focusing on a trio of homeless outcasts with not exactly ideal backgrounds. Gin, the alcoholic whose family is no longer around to provide him comfort. Hana, the large, aging drag queen who is prone to poetic asides and who longs to be a mother, despite the mechanics of his body not exactly being in his favor. And Miyuki, the runaway teenager who could easily find a home again if she were only able to reconcile with her parents. These are just their base character profiles, as we continue to learn as the film goes on the further details about the characters’ lives and what led to them becoming homeless and what led the trio to come together as an oddball family unit who welcomes into their group a new member and the catalyst for their journey – an abandoned baby, another outcast, who they discover while scavenging through a trash heap and care for while determining what course of action they should then take with her. Gin and Miyuki see the baby as a drain on their resources and want to take her to the police, but Hana, the most unexpectedly devout of the tree, sees her as a sign from God of what he was always meant to be.
The story is clearly a modern retelling of three wise men who happen upon a “miracle baby,” as Hana describes her, affectionately naming her Kiyoko – “pure child.” While the baby is obviously not the Second Coming, she is the reason why these three vagabonds go on a perilous journey through Tokyo’s upper and lower classes, putting them directly into the harm’s way in a Yakuza war, encountering strangers who regard them with contempt at the sight and smell of them, and coming to grips with the often harsh realities that come with their harsh lives. Despite all this, however, they soldier on, determined to ensure that Miyuki gets a better life than what they themselves have led, whatever that may be – even if it means losing what few possessions and hopes they cling to.
It’s an incredibly moving story, reflecting a maturity and grittiness that mainstream Western audiences don’t normally associate with the animation medium. There are moments of bleakness, and subjects that are normally reserved for live action films. And yet, if Tokyo Godfathers were made in the live action medium, I think we would lose a lot of what makes the film so memorable – the style and exaggerations of the characters’ body language, the way that the animators’ total control over the beautiful environments that are often so cold, so real, and yet somehow so beautiful, even when it’s showing us the trash heap where baby Miyuki was left, not normally a symbol of hope but, like the manger where Christ was born, a humble beginning where hope begins for both the baby, her caretakers, and those they come in contact with. Let’s also not forget that, in spite of the fact that the animators forego the full motion animation style that are used in Western hand-drawn films and even the anime films produced by Studio Ghibli, Tokyo Godfathers’ exaggerated, no less expressive and lively animation is still stunningly exquisite.
I’d heard about this film years ago, my earliest memory being from reading the Roger Ebert review online while visiting my grandparents. At the time, I myself held the belief that anime, outside of Studio Ghibli, was largely a ridiculous medium for bizarre, nonsensical stories. Tokyo Godfathers sounded interesting, if only because it was when I first discovered that Ebert was an admirer of anime. I’m continuing to grow out of that prejudice, admittedly, but I have quickly learned to not discount the medium nor the abilities of its creators to tell fascinating and often unconventional, unexpected stories – as I learned when I recently reviewed another film directed by Satoshi Kon, Perfect Blue, which was an intriguing, Hitchcockian psychological thriller in animated form, and even, to a lesser extent, the film version of Macross II. Tokyo Godfathers further defies the conventions with its sweet, sentimental, and often humorous story about a series of unexpected Christmas miracles and selflessness, even when you might have very little material possessions to give. It’s a message I think that everyone of any creed and social status can get behind, and Tokyo Godfathers itself deserves to be recognized among the best Christmas classics.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5