I watch Tokyo Godfathers every Christmas. It’s a fantastic Christmas movie, but it’s not just a Christmas movie. It’s also a fantastic family movie and a fantastic auteur film. It’s Satoshi Kon’s greatest movie, out of the few films he was able to make in his lifetime.
The main characters are Gin, Hana and Miyuki. All of them are hobos and all have contrasting personalities. Gin is an alcoholic who doesn’t want to face reality, so he makes up stories and lies a lot. He wants to shift the blame of his failures onto someone else instead of changing for the better. Hana is an okama, which is the Japanese version of a crossdresser, but is associated with homosexuality. Okamas are seen as weirdos in Japan and are not accepted by the mainstream. Miyuki is a bratty young girl who wants to be left alone, but also wants to be cared for. She is short-tempered and gets frustrated by Hana and Gin when they start arguing. The “colourful” personalities each bring something relevant to the story. Gin is practical but has no self awareness, Hana drives the trio forward but is very dramatic and Miyuki brings the other two back to reality when she’s not being a pain in the ass. The characters are forced to work together in order to return the missing baby to its parents, which results in a lot of entertaining conflicts.
Family plays a big role in Tokyo Godfathers. Each of the three homeless protagonists has their own character arc revolving around their family, covering the issues faced by the family that lead to it breaking up, and resolving the family matters in a cathartic and believable way. The three protagonists also have a familial bond between each other, which is noticed more and more as they look after the baby. The story is fundamentally family-based because it revolves around finding the baby’s mother and returning it to its home. In Christmas season, watching a family movie can put you in the right mindset for when you see all your family on Christmas Day, or over the New Year. Tokyo Godfathers doesn’t just vaguely relate to Christmas using the holiday season as a front for Christmas; there are biblical roots to the story. After a church service, the homeless trio find a baby in a garbage-manger with no parents, representing the Virgin Birth, and embark on a journey to keep the child safe. Gin, Hana and Miyuki could represent the Three Wise Men, or perhaps Gin and Hana could be Joseph and Mary. The amusing implications of two men being Joseph and Mary aside, the biblical foundations of the story are clear.
A major theme in Tokyo Godfathers is coincidence. The movie begins with three homeless individuals finding a baby abandoned in the trash. Along their journey to try and find the baby’s mother, the homeless trio coincidentally run in to just the right people at just the right locations, find members of their family just when they needed to see them most, and happen to save the day in the nick of time in an absurdly unlikely way. An example of a common coincidence is Hana narrowly avoiding being hit by a skidding motorbike. It’s quite coincidental that so many characters happen to be named Kiyoko. All of these small coincidences show that coincidence is integral to the narrative. These coincidences don’t work against the film’s narrative and are never used as a convenient “out” in the circumstance of the script reaching a dead end. There were no dead ends, no mistakes requiring asspulls to fix and none of the coincidences undermined the family and Christmas messages of the film. The coincidences make for a far more interesting movie than if it was perfectly realistic. A realistic movie would result in the baby being given to the authorities immediately and the homeless people staying unhappy, filthy and poor. All good movies use some form of convenience and coincidence to make the story more interesting.
The reason it’s possible to focus so much on the themes, roots and narrative of this film is that the presentation is excellent. It would require a great deal of effort to find any technical flaws. The animation is as good as you can find, the backgrounds and character design are detailed enough to look real, the voice acting is of a much higher caliber than your usual anime so it sounds like people, not mediocre voice actors, and the soundtrack is appropriate for the scenes, working well to set the right tone. Satoshi Kon was primarily a visual storyteller and he always excelled at making beautiful films. This is a must watch any time of the year, but especially during Christmas season. Have a Merry Christmas.
I found this review Helpful
I started watching this movie knowing little more than that it was directed by Satoshi Kon, and even though I'm a fan of the man's work in general, I must say I was pleasantly surprised.
STORY - In brief, Tokyo Godfathers is a heart-warming Christmas story about family. Slightly elaborated, it's a rather unique slice-of-life movie featuring a less-than-average family. Sure, inspiration was taken from an old western film (3 Godfathers), but I haven't seen it, and I don't think having seen it would have affected the charm of this one. (Other than the bare bones, the details of the two movies are vastly different anyway.)
Though thoroughly punctuated with reminders of how hard life can be, the movie was fun, comedic at times, and pretty darn feel-good, reflecting the general optimism associated with the winter holidays. It was uplifting, meaningful, and potentially relevant to people from all walks of life. That said, there were a lot of situations that felt a bit contrived and overly corny. For a destined-to-have-a-happy-ending story like this, a few coincidences here and there are completely expected and can even be cute. But there's a line somewhere and after a certain point, it starts to get a bit silly. (How many characters do we need to be coincidentally named "Kiyoko"?) I'd say that Tokyo Godfathers crossed this very vague line -- maybe not by much, but it was crossed all the same. I guess I can only take so much cute before I start groaning.
The main theme of this movie is the importance of family, which is a huge shift from Kon's usual work involving diminished divides between fantasy and reality. Even so, there are little indications of the man's handiwork woven carefully into the backstories of the individual characters, which I found interesting. After all, you don't immediately think of hobos when you think "family values," but the homeless might be among more believable subjects for those who may want to disassociate themselves with reality. It was subtle, but I really think Kon did a superb job blending the two themes together, and that was just what I needed to tide me over.
CHARACTER - The characters were definitely the highlight of the film. The three protagonists were all wonderfully in-depth, but I never got the feeling that their complexity was being flaunted or that they were throwing it in our faces. Gin, Hana, and Mitsuki are all introduced as fairly ordinary people, which makes them easy to sympathize with and easy to relate to, even for such unconventional characters as Hana. They were all troubled people -- a deadbeat debtor, an okama with AIDS (implied), and a teenage runaway, all homeless and living in a tent in the park. But each character's personal issues were presented in gradual fragments, and there is enough ambiguity and deception to keep you wondering. That scores big in the realism department with me; after all, you don't really go around dumping life issues on people, even if they're your friends.
Throughout the movie, each of our three godparents struggle with their personal issues, even as they all deal with the immediate crisis involving the baby. But despite the fact that the baby problem was very pressing and is the main storyline, it's hard to miss the gradual development in the characters. There are short, solo scenes for all the protagonists scattered throughout the movie, and that's where some of the coincidences start mounting. Tokyo is a huge city, and I found it a little ridiculous that so many relevant figures from the characters' past should appear in such a short time, but I realize that those situations are hard to avoid, if not impossible. All the same, I really enjoyed each character's maturation, especially since so little was actually said in two out of three cases. That made everything seem all the more poignant. For some reason, even though I thought Miyuki's runaway story was a bit "Wait, what?" I could sympathize with her all the same.
The main trio aside, the other characters were more roles within the story than actual characters. Sachiko was a little over the top for me, and her husband a bit predictable as well, but that's okay. The other support characters more than make up for them. The yakuza guy was entertaining, and the Hispanic hitman intriguing, not to mention the raving, crazy, old hobo. They're as good as minor characters get.
ART & ANIMATION - Tokyo Godfathers was a gorgeous, gorgeous movie, but I wouldn't have expected or accepted anything less. Seriously, there wasn't much not to like here visually. The characters were all distinct, memorable, and animated. Expressions were rendered with impressive realism, and the scenic city background was beautiful. I especially loved how the snow and light rail were handled, as well as nighttime city lights. The realness of the city really resonated as well. We do see a few prominent landmarks like Tokyo Tower, but pretty much all the buildings looked like they could have been real. The big city feeling really came out perfectly. It was kind of nice to see a few trademarks of Satoshi Kon's style as well, including that a stout, self-important man, and that one creepy, old guy. They're Kon's white doves.
MUSIC - Average in that I-don't-really-remember-any-of-it way. The final melody that played with the end credits was nice though.
VOICE ACTING - I saw this movie subbed, and it was lovely. The cast for our three protagonists all did great; the emotion was clearly there. I was especially fond of Yoshiaki Umegaki, who voiced Hana. I suppose I'm always impressed with those that do well playing less traditional roles, but it was a very believable portrayal. And... the baby cry was too believable. I don't like babies much, but even amongst the baby lovers of the world, I'm sure there is a general consensus that the noise they can make is incredibly unpleasant. I almost muted this movie so many times because oh, snap, there is a lot of baby wailing in this movie. Oh well. More realism points?
The inclusion of a few Spanish-speaking characters in the movie was a nice surprise and scored some multicultural points. I like Spanish a lot and even though I probably wasn't the best student of the language, I understood well enough without subtitles (I guess KAA hadn't been prepared to sub Spanish). They used real Spanish-speakers too, so it actually sounded like Spanish instead of some strange, garbled Supaniishu. Yay!
OVERALL - Barring a bit of partial nudity (exposed breasts for breastfeeding), I think Tokyo Godfathers is an excellent family film. The story is pretty straightforward and easy to understand. All the traditional elements of a Christmas movie are there -- inspiration, hope, good deeds, strong relationships, family values, feel-goodness, and a happy ending -- but the rich characters that Satoshi Kon brings into the mix really makes the difference. So yeah, even with all the silly little coincidences that move it along, I really enjoyed this movie.