Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Sharon Mizota

It's a yuletide tale with all the trimmings: a trinity of homeless people, an infant foundling, the glittering lights of a snowy metropolis, Tokyo-cum-Bethlehem.

Tokyo Godfathers

Director: Satoshi Kon
Cast: Toru Emori, Yoshiaki Umegaki, Aya Okamoto
Studio: Tokyo Godfathers Committee
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2004-01-16 (Limited release)

After the surreal grotesquerie of Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue (1997) and the intricate, multivalent narrative flourishes of Millennium Actress (2001), I'm a bit surprised by his third full-length anime. Tokyo Godfathers is a yuletide tale with all the trimmings: a trinity of homeless people, an infant foundling, the glittering lights of a snowy metropolis, Tokyo-cum-Bethlehem.

Even as it evokes classic Christmas fare like Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Tokyo Godfathers is loosely based on John Ford's Three Godfathers (1948), whose pseudo-Christian plotline is also the inspiration for Three Men and a Baby (1987). Despite obvious differences in language and locale, the basic story arc remains intact: adversity reigns until the child is found, fate smiles, and love wins the day. In other words, high melodrama.

But Tokyo Godfathers is also full of surprises. Laced with screwball comedy and high-speed action, the film encompasses more complex themes than the usual sugar-coated "spirit of Christmas." It opens on Christmas Eve, as the homeless trio enjoys a modest celebration. Gin (voiced by Toru Emori) is a gruff, middle-aged drunkard tortured by the loss of his family. Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) is a gay former drag queen, still regal with a powerful maternal instinct. Affectionately known as "Uncle Bag" (for "bag lady"), she looks after Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), a willful runaway teen.

While searching through a trash heap, they stumble upon an abandoned baby, whom they name Kiyoko ("pure child") and vow to reunite with her parents. Their quest results in an unbelievably zany series of coincidences, through which each is forced to confront past demons and reckon with the realities of love and forgiveness.

For a start, clues in Kiyoko's blankets direct them to a nightclub in another part of the city. En route, they happen upon a Yakuza trapped beneath his own car. Amazingly, he's the father-in-law of the owner of the very nightclub they seek. As if that's not coincidence enough, that club owner turns out to be the loan shark who ruined Gin's life. A Latin American assassin aiming for the Yakuza ends up shooting the club owner, takes Miyuki and Kiyoko hostage, and brings them home. It happens that his wife Maria is breast-feeding their newborn son and willing to provide succor to a hungry Kiyoko as well.

Maria's family is a classic biological unit, but as immigrants, they are economically, culturally and racially alienated from the society in which they live. Gin, Hana, and Miyuki, though separated from their biological families, are bonded together by their homelessness. The transplanted biological family meets the native makeshift one, raising questions about heterosexist and biological definitions of family.

Through her conversation with Maria, who speaks only Spanish, Miyuki comes to understand the events that have separated her from her biological family in relation to the feelings she has for her adopted one. Maria's Spanish utterances are untranslated. This omission is typically and egregiously reserved for babbling foreigners in anime, but here, it illustrates the cultural gap she and Miyuki are bridging. The scene also alludes to the underground world of immigrants in a city known for its racial and cultural homogeneity. In this connection between the native outcast and the isolated immigrant, Tokyo Godfathers blurs racial, class, and national lines, underlining the possibility for understanding beyond the limits of language and culture.

At the same time, in the "other" family, Hana and Gin argue like any over-protective mother and distant father: Hana is frantic to find the girls, while Gin schleps off hopelessly to drown his sorrows in a bottle of wine. Although there is no overt suggestion that Hana and Gin are lovers, at one point, Miyuki asks Hana, "You're in love with him, aren't you?" It's an idea that Hana furiously denies, but later, unable to locate Gin, she sighs only half-mockingly, "Where is that man of mine?" Hollywood romance it's not, but we recognize their emotional bond as something approaching marriage.

Through a series of events involving mistaken identity, desperation and sheer coincidence, the threesome are eventually reunited. Kon's weaving of storyline and circumstance is a virtuoso display of narrative finesse (no loose ends here), but the serendipity pushes hard at the limits of believability. Then again, Tokyo Godfathers is a Christmas movie. Miracles are supposed to happen.

What makes most of these "miracles" bearable is that they are balanced by moments of broad humor. In one brilliant sequence, Gin has been savagely beaten by a youth gang, and lies bleeding in a dark alleyway. As the camera closes in on his battered face, we see a faint golden glow off to the side. The camera pulls back to reveal a radiant angel standing over him. But just as the scene is about to devolve into utter cheesiness -- one imagines choirs of seraphim welcoming Gin to the promised land -- the glow fades, leaving behind a bitchy drag queen in angel costume. Heavenly transcendence is an illusion; earthly salvation takes a humbler form.

Tokyo Godfathers is also a brave and unusual portrait of the city. Far from the candy-colored playground depicted in films like Lost In Translation (2003), this Tokyo is full of contradictions. Its sparkling surfaces and commercial glitz are undermined by trash heaps, back alleys, and desolate parks populated by those on the fringes of "civilized" life.

This portrait often treads dangerously close to reinforcing the myth of the "noble poor," a stereotype that fetishizes perseverance without examining the circumstances that necessitate it. But the characters defy easy classification, and Kon employs an exaggerated and humorous animation style -- bulging eyeballs, outsized mouths, flailing limbs -- to prevent you from admiring them overly much.

Reinvigorating the Christmas concepts of love and redemption, Tokyo Godfathers' circuit of coincidences suggests that everything has been predetermined by some higher power. But by expanding its purview beyond the traditional confines of the nuclear family, the movie transforms that wondrous fatefulness into a network of good will rooted not in exclusion and transcendence, but in forgiveness and acceptance.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.