Japan Animated Movie Reviews: Tokyo Godfathers
by Hemanth Kissoon, July 2007
"We're homeless bums, not action-movie heroes" Gin.
This 2003 feature film is up there with my favourite cartoons The Incredibles and Castle in the Sky. Tokyo Godfathers is like an animated It's a Wonderful Life. They are not many higher accolades than that.
Set in modern Tokyo on Christmas Day, this film begins with the Nativity Play, a sermon and a dinner for the homeless at a church. It is unusual and interesting to see Christmas and Christianity in Japanese works. The film is heavy with religious themes of redemption, self-sacrifice and love, though without mawkishness. The adventure starts on Christmas Day and ends a week later on New Year's Day.
This is a fantastic film; heart-warming, beautiful and entertaining. It only has a UK 12A rating (unusually low for most anime), so it is apparently meant for the whole family; though a more conservative family may find some of the elements a little risque.
The action centres on a group of homeless, who unwittingly have become a surrogate family: Gin (a middle-aged man), Hana (a male transvestite) and Miyuki (a teenage girl). They each have their tragic stories of how they became homeless.
The family scavenge to survive, but do not steal. Like many families they say tough things to each other, but love is there. They have honour and know what is right. The film gives a face and a voice to the homeless who rarely have either in the media, in Japan or anywhere.
On the night of Christmas Day, while looking for books in the garbage, the family find an abandoned baby with the note "Care for this child". There is much debate among the family as to what to do with the baby. Gin and Miyuki want to give the baby to the police. Hana, who has always wanted a child, states, "This is a Christmas present from God". This is a "once-in-a-lifetime chance" to "feel like a mother". Hana is inspired to compose a haiku, "A little baby Powdery snow on its cheek On this holy night" Hana names her "Kiyoko" from kiyo ("pure") "on this purest of nights".
However, it is decided to do what is right and return the baby to her mother, and also find out why she was abandoned. And the adventure is ramped up as they traverse Tokyo, meeting all sorts, to fulfil their mission. In the meantime Gin, Hana and Miyuki are forced to confront themselves and who they are through the seeming magical coincidence that the baby generates.
What happens to the family on their quest shows Tokyo in a mixed light: the dangers of living on the street through violence and addiction, but on the other-hand they are those kind souls who help them for no reward. Tokyo Godfathers is a modern fairy tale that is both cautionary, and uplifting.
The film is stunningly animated in traditional 2-D, which seems to have been enhanced by computers. The level of detail is impressive, of cars going by, facial expressions and backgrounds. The lighting adds depth to the visuals, with the neon, and a striking scene in an apartment where the television illuminates the room and characters. You do not often see this level of artistry. As the credits roll and the buildings dance to Beethoven's Ode to Joy, you know you have discovered something different.
Some bold creative choices were made on artistic and thematic levels. Tokyo Godfathers deals with important issues, such as abandonment, isolation, regret, moral fortitude, family, forgiveness and hope. This is a sophisticated, warm anime.
Japanese Cinema Reviews by Hemanth Kissoon
Castle in the Sky
The Castle of Cagliostro
Cyber City Oedo 808
Grave of the Fireflies
My Neighbor Totoro
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Tales From Earthsea
Throne of Blood