Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

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.