Note: Review copy supplied by Manga Entertainment
Title: Tokyo Godfathers
Anime Studio: Madhouse
Publisher: Manga Entertainment
Genre: Christmas / Drama
Released: October 15th 2018
Length: 92 Minutes
Extras: 3 documentaries and an art gallery
It’s Christmas Eve and three homeless friends have experienced a miracle: while rummaging in a dump for a Christmas present, they discover a newborn baby. Despite having nothing, the three take the baby in and name her Kiyoko, meaning Pure One. They embark in search of Kiyoko’s mother, based on the little they know about her from her meagre belongings. Kind transwoman Hana, runaway teenager Miyuki, and belligerent Gin make an unlikely trio as they care for the baby and try to find where she belongs. By finally looking toward the future, they are also able to confront their pasts, coming just a little bit closer to finding their own place in the world.
The Satoshi Kon directed Tokyo Godfathers is one of those anime that gets mentioned quite regularly as being a masterpiece, and this Manga Entertainment re-release is an excellent opportunity to find out for yourself whether it really is. Watching it for the first time myself, I can honestly say that I wasn’t expecting it to work as well as it did.
The film is set up to show a lot of things happening by coincidence, with the result being that each one leads into the next and pushes the story along. While this is a plot device that can be hit or miss, Tokyo Godfathers makes good use of it, and the reason it works is simply due to the quality of the overall storytelling. At its heart, this may be a Christmas film, but it’s far cry from the lighthearted fluffy pieces that we’re sometimes used to for the season.
You need only look to our trio of protagonists for evidence of this: An alcoholic, a runaway teen, and a trans woman, each with their own secrets and tragic backstories. It’s not the sort of line-up that we normally see, and that really goes a long way towards making the film feel that much more original. It also does a great job of balancing out the heartwarming and sweet moments with some harrowing bursts of realism. These are people that society kicks down to, sometimes literally, and much of the hardships they suffer are not truly deserved. The same can be said for the supporting characters that pop up as and when relevant, with even those in more favourable positions in the city falling prey to some terrible events. Whether less or more fortunate, everyone is fair game in terms of the hurt, and that is itself a harsh reminder of how our world sometimes works.
There are some nice touches here that I wasn’t expecting either, such as the clear language barrier when Miyuki meets a Spanish speaking family. There’s no easy solution for them to communicate, but they keep trying until they find a way to get a fundamental understanding out of the conversation. Throw in the animation being so reminiscent of the excellent Perfect Blue (which was also directed by Satoshi Kon and produced Madhouse), and we have a real treat on our hands.
Of course, that’s not to say that the movie is perfect. The coincidence angle could be too much for some. There’s also the potentially problematic treatment of Hana. While clearly a straight trans woman, she does throw around queer as a self-description quite a bit. Part of that is due to the societal views on homosexuality and the transgender community in Japan at the time, but it may still be tough for some to view. On the positive side though, despite being the butt of a few jokes, Hana is a very complex character and comes across as both real and likable throughout the film.
In all, Tokyo Godfathers is more than deserving of its reputation, thanks in a big way to being so many things at once. It’s gloriously animated, and features a cast of multi-faceted characters. It’s harrowing yet heartwarming. It offers a commentary on different family set-ups and society’s tendency to kick down. Above all else though, it is an authentic tale of redemption and perseverance in the face of the bad times. Tokyo Godfathers is a winter film that’s suitable for all seasons. 4.5 out of 5.