Tokyo Godfathers

Tokyo Godfathers

directed by Satoshi Kon

featuring the voices of Toru Emori, Aya Okamoto and Yoshiaki Umegaki


Each year there are a handful of Japanese animated feature films that make the jump from late night screenings and film festivals to art houses and wider distribution. This happened last year with Spirited Away and Millennium Actress. In 2004, the first film to make this jump is Tokyo Godfathers.

Tokyo Godfathers is the third film from Satoshi Kon, who scored critical acclaim with his first two features, Perfect Blue and last year’s Millennium Actress. During his career, Kon has established himself as a filmmaker who understands the importance of narrative, character and atmosphere. With this film he combines these with the tapestry of wintertime Tokyo and the unsexy subject of homelessness. Beneath the layers of grime, trash, concrete and desperation of homelessness is a story filled with hope, happiness, warmth and comradery.

The film opens on a cold Christmas Eve in Tokyo as three downtrodden vagrants, the drunkard, ex-racer Gin, the sad drag queen Hana, and the runaway teen Miyuki are foraging for presents. As they search for presents amongst putrid piles of garbage, they chance upon an abandoned baby. After much discussion the trio decides to find the mother of the child and return it.

Each character has turmoil to overcome. Gin has become a vagrant after compiling a huge debt that eventually destroys his marriage. Miyuki is a teen, running away from her dysfunctional family life and Hana is a misplaced Drag Queen, wandering in loss following the death of his lover. Life has beaten them down. Despite the fact that the threesome has formed a unique friendship, it takes this lost child to bring them together.

The most poignant aspect of this film is the way that Kon de-glamorizes the plight of his lead characters. Gin, Hana and Miyuki each face the challenge of homelessness head on, with charm, and dignity. Their day-to-day travails become trivial when they undertake the odyssey that will forever change their lives. Kon, who is renowned for making emotionally powerful films with rich characters, places homelessness under a lens and makes some strong social statements along the way.

This is a sumptuous film with many things going for it. It is oftentimes very hard to make an anime’ film crisp, tight and complete, especially one with no sci-fi aspects involved. Kon has directed and written a rich story filled with memorable characters co-developed by Kon and character designer Kenachi Komishi, who previously worked for Osamu Tezuka’s Studio Ghibli.

The legendary Madhouse Animation Studio provides the film with enough visual oomph to bolster the story. Keiichi Suzuki’s soundtrack provides balance and depth to the movie’s most tragic, textured, warm and fragile scenes.

You don’t have to be a connoisseur of Japanese animation to enjoy Tokyo Godfathers. It is a warmhearted romp that confronts important contemporary social issues while remaining evocative and entertaining.

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