“Tokyo Godfathers”: Satoshi Kon and Growing Up Anime

crazyHappy Independence Day weekend for all you American readers out there! While you’re out there mastering the art of barbecue and tossing sparklers and Roman candles at your friends, you may be wondering what to watch as the night winds down. There’s a lot of time between lunch, dinner, and fireworks, so it might help to have some movies to watch to fill the hours.

You may be feeling extra patriotic, putting in some “Independence Day” for Bill Pullman’s epic, hell-yeah President speech. Or maybe it’s Marvel’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the lovable Boy Scout with a heart of gold, a tight shield, and a fist of fury. But when I think of Fourth of July, I also think of family and what brings us together. So, I recommend “Tokyo Godfathers” for your viewing pleasure. It’s not your average Japanese anime film, “fun for the whole family”; it’s directed by Satoshi Kon, who recently passed away in 2010. He was known for thinking outside the box, gearing his films toward the strange, mysterious, and not often seen on the silver screen.

Granted, this film would be better served as a Christmas review, as the plot of the story takes place on Christmas Eve. However, it’s a feel-good film that analyzes what makes us who we are, even our haunted pasts, and the diversity around us.

What’s the Story?

It’s Christmas Eve in Tokyo, and three homeless vagabonds are out looking for food: an old man named Gin, a witty transvestite named Hana, and teenage runaway Miyuki. The trio discover a baby girl in the garbage while looking for scraps, and Hana convinces them to keep her and names her Kiyoko. The film takes place over the course of the night, as the clues left with the baby lead the trio around the city searching for her parents, running into hitmen, foreigners, old foes, and forgotten family.

IMG_1766As I said before, it’s a feel-good movie (trust me), even though there’s a few dark elements and topics that are touched on. There’s death, homeless beatings, illness, abandonment, severing family ties, losing children, regret and more. It’s why this film may be more suited for families with older children. But there’s also the optimistic side of the coin: hope, love, family forgiveness, luck, and the little ways we impact the lives of strangers every day without knowing it.

The big themes of this film are hope and coincidence. Hana, the most optimistic and outspoken of the three, has a habit of reciting haiku that she makes up on the spot, especially at moments when they’re down on their luck for the night. A lot of their nightly troubles are also due to chance: one of them is taken hostage by accident, another happens to find the winning lottery ticket on a bum, and they happen to run into family members thought long-lost. But there’s a charm to these happenings and they’re readily accepted by the viewer. After all, these little moments are happening on Christmas Eve and good karma seems to be on their side after rescuing a baby. In fact, the climax is so coincidental, you might as well call it a Christmas miracle.

The Charm (and Strangeness) of Satoshi Kon

“Tokyo Godfathers” is Satoshi Kon’s more straightforward, family-oriented works. When I saw it for the first time, I had never seen anything like it. I laughed, I cried, I sought out my sketchbook to try and improve my drawing like his. Compared to the pop-funky or demon-riddled anime that was available at the time, this film was gritty, challenging, and hopeful. It definitely challenged my perception of anime and sent me searching for other mature works in the medium.

Satoshi Kon is also famous for his other controversial, psychological works such as “Perfect Blue” and “Paprika,” but also delves into these human moments in “Millenium Actress”, “Tokyo Godfathers” and his short film “Good Morning.” He challenged how we watch anime and how emotions are expressed in the medium. He also challenged our thinking and how we are shaped by events in our lives and the deepest, darkest parts of our memories and desires. Pretty heavy stuff, I’ll tell you that. I may review “Millenium Actress” at another time, which was my other favorite film of his. Satoshi Kon will be sorely missed in the cinematic community.

Put “Tokyo Godfathers” On Your Viewing List

As far as I know, “Tokyo Godfathers” is not available on Netflix or Amazon. However, it’s fairly easy to find a copy online or in stores. If you’re looking for a feel-good, circumstantial drama that’ll make you feel lucky, than give “Tokyo Godfathers” a watch.


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