Satoshi Kon’s third feature, Tokyo Godfathers (2003), sees three unlikely, homeless protagonists happen upon an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve in Tokyo. Gin, a middle-aged alcoholic, Hana, a former drag queen, and Miyuki, a young runaway girl are forced to look after the baby, which they name Kiyoko, and in the process are taken on a whirlwind tour of the city in the lull between Christmas and New Year’s as they try to keep her safe – and find her real parents.
The film is gorgeously animated and visually inventive from start to finish – from Hana’s haiku appearing against beautiful, snow-capped urban backdrops to how their face is replaced for a few frames by the cab driver’s when they’re imitating his voice and demeanour, to the lights in the building above Gin and his attacker acting like health bars from a fighting game, winking out one by one as Gin gets pummelled. It’s shocking to consider that its going on 14 years old at this point, though the animation style – but certainly not the quality – starts to give away its age. It’s another reminder that Satoshi Kon’s early death robbed us of many potential films, with his last work, Dreaming Machine, languishing incomplete.
As the trio and their precious cargo scrabble around Tokyo, the film touches on myriad unexpected situations and themes. All three are homeless, and the homeless are rarely depicted with any great deal of sympathy in Japanese media – off hand, I can only think of Tokyo Godfathers and in its own bizarre way, the Yakuza series of games. Instead, they’re typically either ignored or worse, viewed as ‘trash’ to be ‘cleaned up’ like the gang of youths who happen on Gin midway through the film. Hana is gay or trans*, and Japan does not deal well with or even acknowledge LGBT issues (see also: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence). Even the choice of setting, between Christmas Eve and New Year, is unusual: Japan barely celebrates Christmas, with most of the emphasis being on Christmas Eve, which is treated more like a ‘holiday for couples’ akin to Valentine’s Day. Much more ceremony is placed on New Year’s Eve and Day celebrations. In the film, however, the three protagonists attend a Christmas Eve mass in Tokyo (an unusual experience I shared in 2006, just a few years after the film is set). It’s not clear whether they’re attending out of religious animus or simply to get out of the cold, but Hana certainly sees the arrival of young Kiyoko as a kind of Christmas miracle, and the rest of the film is wrapped up with this idea – the idea of miracles, or at least of incredible coincidences.
Their journey introduces them to feuding yakuza, South American hitmen and wet nurses, a drag cabaret bar, violent youths, and a taxi driver who looks suspiciously like Ken Takakura. There are ample twists and turns as they piece together clues to the identity of Kiyoko’s parents and why she was abandoned, but everything is tied together by the snow-shrouded Tokyo cityscape. As someone who lived in Tokyo and loved it in winter, the entire film is a total nostalgia trip, but I’d like to think even someone with no attachment to the city would be sincerely taken with it.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of the film and its conclusion might depend on your tolerance of its reliance on coincidence and deus ex machina. For me, Tokyo Godfathers is a heartwarming and wonderfully put together movie, and easily one of my favourite “not quite Christmas” stories.
Tokyo Godfathers / 東京ゴッドファーザーズ Tōkyō Goddofāzāzu
Director: Satoshi Kon
Japanese Release Date: 8th November 2003
Version Watched: 92 min (Amazon Video)
*Hana’s gender identity is not made especially clear in the film; I’m using neutral pronouns with them as they use a female name and tell Gin and the woman at the soup kitchen that they ‘should have been born a woman’, indicating that they may identify as trans. However, they may also identify as a gay male and only performed as a woman in drag, and this is further complicated by Japan not necessarily using the same identifiers as western LGBT+ culture. The other characters generally refer to Hana not by name but by ‘okama’ (an often derogatory term for a gay man, subtitled as ‘homo’) or as ‘obasan no ojisan’ (“Uncle Auntie” or as subtitled, “Uncle Bag”, as in “Uncle Old Bag”) – neither of which clarifies the situation, but do illustrate the attitudes of the time and setting.