Anime Review: Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

TL;DR – When three homeless citizens of Tokyo discover an abandoned baby in a back alley, a chain reaction of events is triggered revealing their lives and regrets. And quite possibly a path to redemption.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Like many of the largest cities in the world, Tokyo is a place where those that wish to disappear can do so with barely anyone batting an eyelid. And if you’re the homeless then you end up invisible and forgotten trying to survive on the streets.

Stories about the homeless are generally sombre affairs, so I was somewhat hesitant to pick up Tokyo Godfathers. If you ever watched Grave of the Fireflies, then you will understand what I mean. But I have to say that Satoshi Kon’s film is not only full of surprises, but it also conveys a sense of hope that is not mired in saccharine ideas of what constitutes a ‘happy family’.

To point, there is no such thing as a ‘happy family’. Families are messy, relationships can be filled with emotional struggles that can result in drastic (and often tragic) choices. But families can also be filled with a sense of love, understanding and forgiveness that comes about through genuine connection (and often struggle).

Such is the story in Tokyo Godfathers which introduces us to Gin (an alcoholic), Hana (a transgender woman), and Miyuki (a runaway teenage girl). Their humanity, flaws, idiosyncrasies, and histories of how they ended up living on the streets of Tokyo are slowly brought to light for the viewer as the film progresses.

Set on Christmas Eve, our trio are rummaging through garbage only to discover an abandoned baby that they name Kiyoko. The elements of dark humour, mainly through the banter and interactions of our trio, will draw you in as we watch them fumble and debate what to do with baby Kiyoko. The sensible decision is to deliver the baby to the police, but instead Hana insists on keeping the newborn and finding her parents.

The story moves along through a series of coincidences that one can only construe as fated and results in many revelations about our trio’s past.

We learn that Miyuki ran away because her policeman father was overbearing, and when her cat went missing, she believed it was her father that got rid of it. This resulted in a violent altercation where Miyuki stabbed him and then ran away. She now feels she can never return home.

Hana used to work at a club as a singer and became violent towards a drunken patron when he criticised how awful her singing was. She then quit and left with her lover, Ken, but when he died from slipping on a bar of soap (I kid you not) she found herself on the streets.

Initially, Gin tells Hana and Miyuki that his wife and daughter are dead. This turns out to be a lie. He had a gambling problem and drove his family into debt. Ashamed he ran away even though his wife and daughter tried unsuccessfully for several years to find him.

Along with our trio, we learn about the many broken lives and families that are somehow intertwined with them or with baby Kiyoko. This becomes a central motif. Tokyo Godfathers is not only a film about people without homes but also people without families. And how Gin, Hana and Miyuki come to be a family unit in their own right even if they argue, bicker and, at times, hate each other.

Coincidences throughout this film are intentional, and a way to show that whether we know it or not, we are all connected in some way by the thinnest of threads.

The funny and dark comic moments (the scenes where Hana gets a taxi driver to pursue a truck stolen by a woman who has Kiyoko is hilarious) are offset by depictions of humanity’s failings towards the homeless. For example, there is one scene where Gin gets beaten up by a bunch of teenagers just for kicks. Another where the three are on a train and all the other passengers are holding their noses because of the stink and attempting to ignore them.

The story is packed full of threads that all eventually tie together in the end, even if its a ragged tapestry as opposed to a beautiful quilt. In a way, the film is all the better because of its imperfections.

As I watched Tokyo Godfathers, there’s a real Cowboy Bebop feel to the animation. The characters especially are not your stereotype big-eyed anime characters but are grounded more in realism. Yet, there are scenes that are distinctly anime and are very well done. For example, when Hana lets loose at Gin in front of his estranged daughter about all his lies, her expressions are priceless. Viewers have to pay attention as much to the background and surroundings as they do the main characters.

Complex, rich in detail in both plot and animation, and a totally quirky Christmas tale that will have you believing in miracles that aren’t shaped as sugar cubes or tied up in a bow. It has been a while since an anime flick has surprised me as much as this one.

9.5 out of 10

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