Three of the homeless people of Tokyo come upon an abandoned baby during the Christmas season. Together, they must cooperate to find the baby's parents and bring her home.
The urban landscape of Tokyo is a confusing, chaotic world that very few of us in the United States ever get a chance to see. Even casual visitors will mention trendy hangouts like Shibuya, Ikebukuro, or districts such as Shinjuku, Roppongi, or Akihabara, famed for business, entertainment, or electronics.
Very few visitors ever mention that Tokyo is also home to a population considered invisible to the average Japanese, but hardly invisible when one peruses the daily Japanese news: the homeless.
Tokyo Godfathers brings light to this world, illuminating the hidden shanty towns of migrant workers, the dirty back alleys, the parks where gangs of students casually and brutally beat the homeless in the name of "cleaning the trash".
But Tokyo Godfathers, for all its remarkable detail on this dangerous and peripheral world, is not a documentary about the homeless. It is a movie about the lives of a few people who, by choice or circumstance, have ended up here. It is a movie about redemption, true love, and more than a little bit of divine providence.
Tokyo Godfathers is nothing less than a modern-day Japanese homage to Frank Capra. With its remarkable chain of coincidences, leading woebegone protagonists on the road to bettering themselves, it is strikingly akin to movies like It's a Wonderful Life, though perhaps without an angel named Clarence.
The characters themselves are three very complex and real people. Miyuki is a belligerent teenager, the youngest of the trio, always fighting for the last scrap of food. Hana is a flamboyant, aging transwoman who uses feminine speech and dresses in the most feminine clothes she can find. Gin is a frustrated drunkard who complains about the personal crisis that led him to the streets. It would be easy for passersby to dismiss them as a runaway, a drag queen, and a bum, but there's much more to their personalities and their histories than that, and this movie does an excellent job of exploring these characters, and exposing the truth behind why each has set down the lonely, harsh road they currently travel. Particularly noteworthy is the role of Hana -- traditionally, the role of transgendered people in anime has been one of superficial comic relief, if not outright derision. Here, Hana is a very determined person looking for her place in life, and one who is intensely interested in spirituality, attending Christian services and performing Shinto rituals in the earnest and solemn way that only the Japanese can. Another scene has the runaway Miyuki discussing her seemingly lost home with an illegal immigrant mother, neither of whom speak the other's language, and yet still effectively communicating with each other about what is important. This a scene I find doubly impressive because I understood both the Spanish and Japanese dialogue. Gin's most memorable scene involves an elderly bum on his deathbed, a sign, perhaps, of what he might become if he continues on his current path. Even the smallest bit parts come off as real people, from befuddled store clerks to generous yakuza.
The plot is an entertainingly desperate goose chase, triggered by a single clue, and hastened by a set of seemingly insignificant ironies and coincidences that remind me of a Victor Hugo novel, without the pathos. It will annoy a few people, but most will be highly entertained as they put all the disparate threads of this film together in their minds.
Artistically, Tokyo Godfathers is sound, with a setting that almost makes you shiver with the cold wind and snow of December. It's definitely a work visually worthy of Kon and his continued collaboration with Madhouse. The character designs, made more to be realistic than attractive, get special kudos here, as it seems ridiculously rare to find anyone in the anime industry who can draw anyone over the age of forty without using some sort of template. And of course there's the issue of the "cuteness" of the baby, who proves once and for all that even in animation, how "cute" you think a baby is is conversely proportional to how much you can stand being around them. The primary animation kudos really goes to the characters' body language, which is quite exceptional for an anime film.
Kon picks another interesting musical choice, opting for a ska beat for this film which keeps the energy level of the "chase" scenes up to a frantic pace. Of course, the classical standby, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", serves to remind us that this is very much a film set in the Christmas season.
Indeed, it could be said that this is a rarity among rarities, a genuine anime Christmas film. So many "Christmas specials" concentrate on the Japanese perception of Christmas as a romantic holiday, where you buy presents for a loved one. But Kon firmly sets this movie in the root belief that Christmas is in fact a day celebrating more than romantic love, but the unconditional love between a parent and a child ... or even a child and its three unlikely godfathers. Tokyo Godfathers is a film about family, about friendship, and about the ideal of the Christmas season, even under the direst of circumstances.
But most of all, Tokyo Godfathers is not a movie about the homeless.
It's a movie about home.
A genuine, heartfelt film that takes a seemingly impossible premise and turns it into gold. Highly recommended at any time of year. — Carlos Ross
Recommended Audience: Since this is a film largely regarding the homeless, much attention is paid to the rather harsh living conditions the protagonists live in. One scene has young men viciously beating up one of the characters for sport. There are also shootings and stabbings, which are taken very seriously and are important to the plot. None of the violence ever seems gratuitous, but rather, comes off as important components of the movie.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Tokyo Godfathers © 2003 Kon Satoshi / Madhouse / Tokyo Godfathers Production Committee
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