Three tramps, alcoholic Gin, transvestite Hana and teen runaway Miyuki, find an abandoned baby while searching through the trash on Christmas Eve. They decide to return it to its mother, only to plunge into a whirl of scandal, kidnapping and attempted murder, all on the one day when Tokyo is supposed to be quiet.
Tokyo Godfathers may have three wise men (one and half of whom are actually female), but its nativity story is not limited to Christian lore, and displays a typically Japanese attitude towards death. A cemetery becomes a treasure trove as the tramps search for votive offerings of sake, and the film’s stand-in for Santa Claus, white beard and all, can only perform his task properly if he dies doing it. The movie alludes to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which similarly features old men bickering over a foundling child in a storm, via John Ford’s 1948 Western 3 Godfathers, but at its heart is a search for kindness and warmth in materialist Japan.
Like Perfect Blue before it, Tokyo Godfathers initially seems like a strange choice for animation. With so many real-world locations, why not film it with real people? But nobody in the metropolitan government was going to approve a live-action film depicting a shanty town in the shadow of Tokyo’s distinctive twin-tower tax office, nor were too many of today’s TV idols likely to sign up for a tale of grunge and poverty; however happy the ending, they might have mussed their hair. The clincher would have been the snow. It is popularly believed that it only falls in Tokyo once every ten years – the presence of snow in Tokyo Godfathers being the first of its many Christmas miracles.
The baby’s arrival sends the tramps scurrying to buy water instead of booze at their local convenience store, much to the shop assistant’s surprise. Hana jokes in the soup queue that she is “eating for two”, only to shock the charity worker the following day when she does indeed turn up with a babe in arms. In its comedy and sentimentality, Tokyo Godfathers is the closest thing we’ll see to an anime pantomime, an end-of-year revel that turns everything on its head. It even features stars having a laugh at being cast against type, such as Koichi Yamadera (Cowboy Bebop’s Spike Spiegel), who has a brief cameo as a harassed taxi driver. The movie finds divine inspiration in everyday events, such as a wounded tramp seeing an angel, who turns out to be a bar-girl in fancy dress.
Satoshi Kon’s choice of subject matter is an act of faith in itself – framing the relentless hope and happiness of a Christmas comedy in the stark, realist tones of his other work. Gin walked out on his family over unpaid gambling debts. Hana lost her surrogate family of fellow drag artists after punching out an unappreciative listener to one of her songs. And Miyuki ran away from home over a misunderstanding with her father. Throw in a gangland wedding, a suicidal wife in the middle of a collapsing marriage, and a cross-dressing Filipino assassin, and the result is a seemingly impossible knot of problems to sort out before dawn.
Tokyo Godfathers performed poorly on British DVD, despite higher production values and even more fiendish twists than Kon’s better-known Perfect Blue. In a world where every December sees a rash of cynical, focus-grouped, predictable Christmas specials, Tokyo Godfathers urges its audience to see miracles on every street corner, and it’s good to know that there is a movie with a genuine heart. Since it’s the season to be jolly, why not give Tokyo Godfathers a try? But just remember, anime isn’t just for Christmas, it’s for life.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #14, 2005.