Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

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Synopsis: It’s Christmas Eve in Japan, but the only present friends Gin, Hana, and Miyuki are hoping for is a decent meal and a warm place to sleep. Gin’s gambling debts have reduced him to scrounging on the street; Hana is a former night club performer who lost her job and, with it, the only family she ever knew; and Miyuki is a teenage runaway trying to keep her distance from her repressive father. All three are homeless, and have joined together in a makeshift family to help each other survive another night on the cold streets of Tokyo. But their lives are forever changed when they encounter a small baby abandoned in a pile of trash. While Gin thinks they should take the infant to the police, Hana sees the serendipitous discovery as a Christmas miracle, and makes it her mission (and Gin and Miyuki’s mission as well, much to their chagrin) to return the lost child to her family.

Satoshi Kon (October 12, 1963 – August 24, 2010) was born in Kushiro, Hokkaidō, Japan. He studied graphic design at Musashino Art University in Tokyo, graduating in 1982. In 1984 he published his first manga, the short story Toriko, which won him a runner-up spot in Young Magazine‘s 10th Annual Tetsuya Chiba Awards. He then found work as an assistant to Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of the renowned manga Akira. In the late 1980s, Kon slowly transitioned to film work, acting as occasional animator, layout artist, and screenwriter. In 1995 he acted as writer, layout artist, and art director of “Magnetic Rose,” the first of three short films adapted from Otomo’s work and compiled in the anime omnibus Memories. Kon made his directorial debut with 1998’s Perfect Blue, a psychological thriller loosely based on Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s novel of the same name. He followed this with 2001’s Millennium Actress, which won high acclaim as well as numerous international awards, including tying for Grand Prize with Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away in Japan’s Agency of Cultural Affairs’ Media Arts Festival. He followed this with 2003’s Tokyo Godfathers, which won an Excellence Prize at the Media Arts Festival; and the thirteen-episode television series Paranoia Agent, which he created, wrote, and directed. In 2006 he released Paprika, which won the Best Feature Length Theatrical Anime Award at the sixth annual Tokyo Anime Awards (and is now credited as being highly influential on Christopher Nolan’s 2010 smash box office hit Inception). He then began work on his next film The Dream Machine, described by Kon as “a road movie for robots” targeted at younger audiences. Tragically, in May 2010 Satoshi Kon was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Though he showed relatively few signs of illness, the cancer rapidly progressed, and Kon passed away on August 24, 2010, shocking his friends and fans the world over. He was 46 years old.

Yes, I know an anime movie from 2003 doesn’t seem to fit in with the theme of classic film on the surface, but, like Zelda Rubinstein, I can’t let my In Memoriam series end without talking about Satoshi Kon. Like Rubinstein, I feel Kon’s death has gone unnoticed by the majority of film fans who simply may be unaware of his work and his importance to Japanese animation. I know I mucked it up by not getting all my planned reviews done in December, so a lot of important people who died in 2010 are going unmentioned; this is to be my last review in this series, and out of all of them, Satoshi Kon is the only one I couldn’t bring myself to leave out. That should show you how important his work is to me, Tokyo Godfathers in particular.

The moment of discovery.

Let me back up a little and say that I am not an anime fan. Not to say I don’t like anime; I just know next to nothing about it. I love Hayao Miyazaki and have seen most of his films, and I know enough about Japanese culture to probably understand more of the untranslatable jokes and references within anime than the average American can; but I wouldn’t last more than two minutes in a conversation with a real fan. So this definitely isn’t a case of me indulging in one of my other obsessions by posting about it on my classic movie blog. The animation is completely beautiful and superbly done, and I don’t want to understate the artistry of the film; but for the sake of this review, let’s forget entirely that Tokyo Godfathers is an anime film and just discuss it as a film. Forget your preconceived notions of anime and animation in general; when taken on its merits alone, regardless of style, origin, or genre, I’m convinced Tokyo Godfathers can hold its own against any live-action equivalent.

Set in Tokyo on and around Christmas Day, Tokyo Godfathers tells the story of three homeless people who stumble across an abandoned infant and make it their mission to return her to her parents. It is loosely based on the 1948 John Ford Western 3 Godfathers, which stars John Wayne as one of three outlaws who find a dying woman in the desert and vow to take her baby to safety – so there’s the classic film connection for you! But Tokyo Godfathers obviously differs from a Ford/Wayne Western. It is strongly driven by the three lead characters, whose sordid pasts and motivations are slowly revealed to us as the film unfolds. We are intrigued by the Godfathers from the start, and that intrigue increases exponentially with each small tidbit of characterization that is unveiled. Discovering the baby sets into motion a web of intertwining fates, serendipitous encounters, unlikely coincidences, and good-ol’ Christmas miracles that thrust the three protagonists into brushes with near-peril as well as unexpected good fortune. It is a tightly-woven script with moments of humor, pathos, anxiety, and pure joy. I’m a sucker for a movie where everything has a meaning, where seemingly insignificant details or objects from the first act come back into play in unexpected ways in the second. The whole film feels as though there is some unknown driving force behind everything that happens to the Godfathers and their charge; it is an uplifting, feel-good sort of film, which is not at all what you’d expect from a movie starring three hobos and an orphaned newborn.

Another thing I’m a sucker for? Angry drag queens!

It’s hard for me to put into words exactly what I love so much about Tokyo Godfathers, partially because it’s such an unexpected breath of fresh air. It’s complex without being incomprehensible; it’s satisfying without ever being dull; it’s unpredictable without ever seeming far-fetched (within the context of the film; the whole sequence of events is totally unbelievable, but it’s supposed to be). It’s just… beautiful. I knew next to nothing about it going in, and I feel like that’s the best way to view it. I don’t want to give any more away, because I don’t want to deprive anybody who might see it on my recommendation of that magical experience.

I will say, though, that if you’re not familiar with anime, Tokyo Godfathers is definitely a good place to start. I have seen Kon’s most highly-lauded film Paprika (2006); while I could tell it was a masterpiece of the genre, it went right over my head. Godfathers is by far his most accessible film; it’s probably the most accessible anime I’ve ever seen. Plus it’s a Christmas movie, something all us Americans can understand. It’s funny that it is a Christmas film, because Christmas is not celebrated in Japan the way it is in America. It’s a secular holiday where, instead of staying home with family, everybody goes out on dates and eats fried chicken. But the movie definitely has a very Christian motivation and a very Westernized depiction of what Christmas is supposed to mean. However, it’s one of those Christmas movies that’s good any time of the year, especially if it’s your first time seeing it. So… SEE IT! Normally I just like to tell you whether a film is worth your time or not, but I honestly believe this is one that everybody should see at least once in their lifetime. Tokyo Godfathers is one of my favorite films and one I urge everyone to rent or buy; it couldn’t come with a higher recommendation from me.


Tokyo Godfathers (2003) – 5/5 stars

4 Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree with your review more. Coming from someone who’s seen a lot of anime, this movie just feels so different (I want to say better, but that’s not fair). There’s a lot of reasons to dislike anime, and none of those reasons appear in this movie. I believe if you are a fan of movies and don’t give this one a try you are missing out.

    • I didn’t put it in my review, but we’ve discussed before how I don’t feel like this film needed to be animated at all and could have just as easily been live-action. I don’t want to come off like I’m insulting the animation or that I think anime is an inherently weaker medium, because that’s not fair, nor is it true. The animation in this film is beautiful, and it does add to the story; but the fact that the story doesn’t need to be an animated one makes it feel all the more special that it is.

  2. Scanadensis

     /  January 12, 2011

    I will keep my eye out for this one!

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