Tokyo Godfathers, now available on DVD, 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), the film 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 sugarcoated “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 her 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.
And so, en route to a nightclub, they happen upon a Yakuza trapped beneath his own car. They free him and discover that he is the father-in-law of the owner of the very nightclub they seek. And 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 kills the club owner, then takes Miyuki and Kiyoko hostage. Conveniently, the assassin’s wife, Maria is breast-feeding their newborn son and is happy to provide succor to a hungry Kiyoko as well.
This violent-yet-generous nuclear family serves as a counterpoint to the “artificial” family composed of Gin, Hana, and Miyuki. The Latin Americans are a classic biological family, but as immigrants, they are economically, culturally and racially alienated from the society in which they live. Gin, Hana, and Miyuki are separated from their biological families, but are bonded together within the wider social context of urban homelessness. The transplanted biological family meets the native makeshift one, questioning the 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, an omission typically reserved for babbling foreigners in anime; but in this case, it communicates the cultural gap she and Miyuki are bridging. The scene also sheds light on 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, illustrating the possibility for understanding beyond the limits of language and culture.
Meanwhile, 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 then later, unable to locate Gin, she sighs, “Where is that man of mine?”
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 Godfathersis 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 emerge 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, 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. 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 side of Tokyo is a novel subject for anime, and makes some viewers uncomfortable. In the DVD’s “Making Of” documentary (the only extra feature on the disc), Toru Emori all but apologizes for the film, asserting that even though the film is about homeless people, it is “cheerful and energizing.”
In an interview with Kon, an unidentified industry commentator notes that while Tokyo Godfathers has “good drama,” it is unappealing since it features homeless people instead of “cute boys or girls.” In an apparent effort to redeem himself, he adds, “Even homeless people try to communicate with others.” I hope the subtitles are a bad translation. Kon makes a polite yet pointed reply: “It is the people in the industry who force boundaries onto animation… It’s all about cute girls, robots and explosions, to them. That’s not right. Movies like this [Tokyo Godfathers] exist and work.” Bucking the conventions of anime, Kon hopes to expand the genre’s themes and inspire other directors to do so as well.
This concern can also be seen in a brief sequence about Tokyo Godfathers‘ detailed animation process. The art director, Nobutaka Ike, describes how animators usually render surrounding objects in less detail than the object of focus. But for this movie, Kon insisted on detail for everything, from the windows on a skyscraper to the creases in a garbage bag. This creates a “hyper-real” vision of the city, making it seem grittier and more tactile. Kon applies a similarly amplified animation style to the characters — bulging eyeballs, outsized mouths, flailing limbs — making their emotions both more humorous and more palpable.
Tokyo Godfathers‘s uncharacteristically “realistic” anime calls attention to its unconventional definition of “family.” Going beyond the confines of the nuclear unit, Tokyo Godfathers transforms a wondrous fatefulness into a network of good will rooted in forgiveness and acceptance.