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Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

On the streets of Tokyo on a cold Christmas Eve, three homeless people find an abandoned newborn baby amongst the trash. The unlikely trio-  middle-aged alcoholic Gin, transwoman Hana and runaway schoolgirl Miyuki- decide to try and reunite the baby with its parents. With the aid of a few clues left in the bag with the child, they find themselves caught up in one unforgettable Christmas eve night.

Tokyo Godfathers was the third film directed by the late, great Satoshi Kon, and the second that he both wrote and directed -alongside Keiko Nobumoto (Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo) and was released in Japanese cinemas in November of 2003. Initially released on DVD in the US and UK by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, GKIDS Films released a new 4K restoration and brand new English dub in a limited cinema release in March of 2020 before a subsequent release on Blu-Ray, DVD and digital formats.

Kon left behind such a small filmography that it's hard to pin down quite what was a 'typical' Satoshi Kon film. Was it the psychological horror of Perfect Blue? The mind-bending sci-fi of Paprika? Or the poignant understated drama of Millenium Actress? The truth is that there is probably no such thing as a typical Kon film, but there are definitely some pet themes- such as the nature of reality and dreams- that run throughout his work. In this respect, Tokyo Godfathers really stands out as unlike his other films.

While Kon seemed to love exploring the blurring of reality and dreams and memories, Tokyo Godfathers is stubbornly reality-based. It's also Kon's only comedy, with the film having a much lighter tone than any of his other works, making it the most family-friendly of his films.

After the deadly serious mood of his first two features, it's no wonder that he wanted to let loose and have a little fun. But this is still a Satoshi Kon film, and that means that we were never going to get a sanitised, Ghibli-fied version of the story. This is an urban fairy tale with an edge.

Part of the inspiration behind the film was to show a side of Tokyo that was never seen on screen. Both in animation and reality, the Japanese capital is always portrayed as a bright and shining Blade Runner style metropolis. A sterile futuristic and always utopia.  Anime that wants to show the opposite will usually choose a sci-fi or post-apocalyptic setting. Kon wanted to show us the real other side to Tokyo.

Japan's homeless problem, the result of the country's 1990's recession, has always been swept under the rug and ignored. Kon chose instead chose to make them the heroes of his story, our guides to the Tokyo of back-alleys, dingy nightclubs and cardboard villages. Streets populated by tramps, gangsters and streetwalkers. It's not the Tokyo the tourist board or the government wants you to see, but its as relevant today as the day it was made- if not more so.

Importantly,  through the central characters, the film humanises them and makes the audience fall in love with them. They are certainly not perfect, but they're decent, big-hearted human beings who have fallen on hard times. It reminds us that it's only luck that we haven't up in a similar situation- it could happen to any one of us.

They make a very entertaining trio, and the addition of the baby reinforces the feeling that they are essentially a (slightly dysfunctional) family. They look out for each other ( and now for the baby) and provide each other with companionship in a bleak situation.

Each of the three have a tragic backstory, a reason they ended up on the street. It helps make them more filled-out characters and even more sympathetic. It also explains some of their flaws or character quirks. When the reason the baby ended up in the rubbish tip is revealed, it also turns out to be a terribly sad story.

Despite these serious themes and some dramatic moments, Tokyo Godfathers feels much less worthy and depressing than I've made it sound. For the most part, it's a delight. Gin and Hana bicker like an old married couple. Weddings turn into wild chases. It feels like a caper movie, telling the story of one crazy night. For a more recent comparison, it's not a million miles away from Masaaki Yuasa's The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, although Godfathers is much more grounded and gritty.

Christmas does not have anywhere near the importance in Japanese society that it has in the West, so it acts more as a backdrop than anything else. That said,  it's thematically relevant, and it is no coincidence that the baby is found after the trio watch a performance of the nativity. Tokyo Godfathers makes for a good festive seasonal watch, but it can equally be enjoyed any time of the year.

The conversation around gender and identity has come a long way since 2003, making the character of Hana a potentially thorny issue. However, Kon and Nobumuto are largely considered to have been ahead of their time in their portrayal of a trans character. What could easily have been a caricature is instead a fully rounded and sympathetic character. Some elements and language may be dated, but generally, it seems to be a job done as well as was possible for the time. Hana effectively plays the role of mother to this 'family' and is really the true heart of the film. It seems to me to be a sensitive portrayal, but of course, your mileage may vary.

In the original version, a male actor was cast in the role, buy NYAV Post's new dub of the film cast Transwoman Shakina Nayfack in the role. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to see the new version of the film prior to the review, but NYAV Post have an excellent track record. It should be noted that the version of the film currently available in the UK does not feature the restoration or the Dub, even on Blu-Ray.

Tokyo Godfathers is a beautiful looking film- even when it's showing the ugly side of Tokyo life. It finds the beauty in the every day resulting in some striking imagery. At the same time, it shows the seedy side of the city with unflinching honesty.

Kon's films do all have a distinctive look- it's possible to recognise one of his at a glance. Unusually for an anime director, he designed the characters for all his films himself. This gives them all a very distinctive visual style, with his characters looking more realistic than most.

The animation is beautifully fluid. Simultaneously it presents remarkable realism but delights in occasional cartoonish exaggeration (such as in each character's distinctive runs).  Tokyo Godfathers would work perfectly well as live-action. But somehow it would lose that sense of fairytale magic that the animation provides.

It's Kon's most accessible work, and lacks the darkness and introspection of his other movies.Tokyo Godfathers may seem slight when put up against Kon's other work, but there's more to it than first appears.


IN A NUTSHELL:  Humane and heartwarming, Kon's urban fable is one for the ages.