The Godfather of Tokyo

“So the Madhouse studio was in debt,” says Masao Murayama, “and there was this big buy-out. I was happy to sell it on to someone else, and then I thought: now what am I going to do? I put people together. We make things that we love. Am I going to stop?”

Which is why, at the age when most Japanese workers are long-retired, Maruyama found himself setting up Mappa, the Maruyama Animation Produce Project Association, which soon established its credentials with the critical smash of Kids on the Slope. But even then, Maruyama bowed out in 2016, as the studio unleashed In This Corner of the World and Yuri on Ice.

Did he retire? Hell, no. “People like me and Hayao Miyazaki,” he said, “we’re all born in 1941. We were there for the beginnings of anime as we know it. We don’t know when to quit. We don’t know what we would do if we did quit!” And so he founded his newest start-up, the studio M2, at the age of 75.

“This is probably my last,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “Or is it?”

He is wearing an Astro Boy sweatshirt that recalls his first-ever job, but is remembering a figure from much later in his career.

“I said to Satoshi Kon: I like you. I like your work. There’s greatness in you, but the mainstream just can’t see it. We just don’t get the box office on your films. We did horror with Perfect Blue, we did film history with Millennium Actress. So maybe let’s do something entertaining. And he says: ‘I want to do a thing about three tramps who find an abandoned baby.’”

The result was Tokyo Godfathers, anime’s good-natured, sardonic Christmas movie, in which a foundling child inadvertently propels the cast into a series of increasingly unlikely coincidences that fix their issues, solve their lives, and reunite them with their estranged families. The message, arguably, was universal, but the medium was incredibly, well, Christmassy, unleashed on a Japanese population with barely 1% believers.

“Yeah,” sighs Maruyama. “Nobody came to see that one, either.” He looks out over the packed cinema at the Edinburgh Filmhouse, and raises a quizzical eyebrow. “What did you think?” The crowd bursts into raucous applause for his 14-year-old movie. This frail old man, so shaky that my heart’s in my mouth every time I have to watch him climb some steps, beams with pure joy.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in NEO 171, 2017.

Christmas Movies: Tokyo Godfathers

Tokyo-GodfathersThree 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.

Spending Spree

The scoop of 2009 in the British anime world was a very simple piece of information that has been lurking unnoticed in the public domain for months. It was Andrew Partridge of Beez Entertainment who broke the story, when he began poking around for possible sources of funding for anime. Putting a film on in cinemas costs a lot of money, because the cost of an actual, physical print is much more than you think. But Partridge discovered that the UK Film Council, a National Lottery organisation, would happily help obscure films reach wider audiences by contributing to advertising and/or the cost of making extra copies. House of Flying Daggers, for example, was given a hundred grand. Lust/Caution had a helping hand to the tune of twice as much. And much to everyone’s surprise, anime had got a little financial aid behind the scenes as well.

I realise that many readers probably aren’t yet taxpayers, but if you aren’t already you will be soon enough. You don’t even need a job. You pay tax on beer and fags, you pay arbitrary levies on airline travel, and then you get to gripe about it when the government gives it to the Wrong Sort of People. But Lottery money isn’t like that. It’s a voluntary tariff. It’s a shard of blind hope in an unhappy world, paid for by coughing single mothers on council estates, and grim-faced old men with Zimmer frames. And you, for all I know. But if the money is spent on mad things like inflatable windmills or bungee jumping for the elderly, only a fool would complain, as that’s precisely what Lottery money is for. I, for one, am ecstatic to see it being spent on something I actually like – long may it continue, and hats off to the canny distributors who knew how to fill in the forms and tick the right boxes.

But this has surely become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Howl’s Moving Castle had a Film Council handout of a mind-boggling £150,000. That kind of money would have gone a long way to bringing the overlooked Millennium Actress or Tokyo Godfathers to the masses. And let’s put this in perspective: the £150,000 forked over for Howl’s Moving Castle would have been enough money for me to buy the rights to Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, subtitle it, press and box ten thousand DVDs, wrap each one in a £10 note and then give them away in the street for free!

But how did Spirited Away, for example, gain from its £40,000 Film Council cash injection? The subtitles were American-made. The dub was American-made. The Film Council money was earmarked for extra prints, so you could catch it in Didsbury or Chipping Ongar, and on extra advertising, so that you knew you could catch it at all.

So you buy a lottery ticket. That money goes to the Film Council. The Film Council gives it to Optimum Releasing to subsidise Spirited Away. Optimum gives it to NEO to advertise Spirited Away, and the sales of advertising help subsidise NEO itself.

Your copy of NEO is that little bit cheaper than it would have otherwise been. Maybe you’ve saved a quid. So now you can buy another lottery ticket! It’s a win-win situation for absolutely everybody involved, and isn’t that a nice thing to hear once in a while?

(This article first appeared in NEO #66, 2009)