Review – Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

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Anime and Christmas.  Two things you might not connect with each other, unless you work for the merchandising arm of Gainax.  A few ongoing series certainly touch on the occasion, but there aren’t many anime shows or films which really try to enter into the spirit of it, the way their western counterparts so often do. There is, however, the one major exception.

Taking golden-age Hollywood classic Three Godfathers as its touchstone, Tokyo Godfathers follows three very unlikely heroes; a trio of down and outs who discover a newborn baby whilst raking through Tokyo’s rubbish on Christmas Eve. Mistrusting the authorities, but vowing to do the right thing, they embark on a hazardous journey (for those with no money or transport) to cross the snowbound city and find the baby’s parents, if they can even stand each others’ company for that long…

In all my time writing this column, it surprises me that I’ve somehow managed to avoid mentioning the work of Satoshi Kon. While hardly a household name, Kon was a daring and innovative director whose tragically short career would see him complete only four feature films and one tv series. Tokyo Godfathers, his third film, is a marked departure from his other work, swapping horror and outright fantasy for a kind of Capra-esque magic realism, yet, it seems entirely fitting that the cinema-savvy Kon would produce this kind of story. Most other anime encounters with Christmas show the occasion from a very Japanese perspective, where the event is more tied in with romantic love, but here we have something very much in the mould of classic Hollywood fare, touching on the importance of family, forgiveness and miraculous occurrence during the holidays.

Not to say that this film is merely going over old ground. Homelessness is a difficult subject in Japanese society and, by placing the homeless at the heart of his film, Kon is keen to remind you that they are people too. Although we are certainly not spared the harsh realities of their existence, the core trio of alcoholic Gin, transgender drag-artist Hana and teenage runaway Miyuki are great fun. Not only are they imbued with enough offbeat backstory to make you emphathise with them, but also more than enough personality to make them highly entertaining as they bicker and trudge towards their possible redemption.

Visually, the film is easier going than some of Kon’s other work. Given the subject matter, it should be no surprise that his distinctive, caricatural character designs are more flattering than the eerie, uncanny look of Paranoia Agent or Perfect Blue. Unfortunately, this isn’t his most memorable film in that regard either. Despite the pleasing use of colours across different environments, Tokyo Godfathers is largely a film of back alleys and side streets, filth dusted with snow. It’s always impressive to look at, but there’s little room for fantastic spectacle.

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With occasional bursts of shocking violence and some very frank discussion of sexuality, the film may be not suitable for whole family either, so be warned before putting it on in front of any conservative in-laws after dinner.

Despite its sharp edges, however, there can be no doubt that warmth and humanity pour from almost every frame of this film. It may not quite have that broad appeal you seem to need for a quintessential Christmas flick, but Tokyo Godfathers is both the most accessible of Kon’s films and smart enough to make it a Christmas film you can enjoy all year round. Speaking as a man who should probably have “bah” and “humbug” tattooed on his knuckles (if only space would allow) and generally feels Christmas films should involve the Nakatomi Plaza or possibly Stalag Luft, even I found it wholly enjoyable and just a bit heartwarming.

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