I really, really, really thought I had reviewed Tokyo Godfathers for a previous Christmas Endeavor, but I can’t find any evidence of such a thing on the site. It’s better that way, though, because I’m sure I would have done a bad job of it.
At the bottom of everything, is love. And when love is present, forgiveness is usually nearby. In spite of some very dark happenings over the course of its runtime, Tokyo Godfathers earns its status as a Christmas classic by keeping these facts just beneath the surface of every event that happens on-screen. Love is what drives everything we do. Love is what keeps us together, and what brings us back together.
No one in Tokyo Godfathers is suffering because someone else is doing something to them. Everyone who is suffering in this movie is struggling with themselves. A father’s shame over his treatment of his wife and daughter. A daughter’s shame over her treatment of her parents. A lonely man’s shame over a poor choice made in a safe space, which has made him feel like an exile. A woman’s sorrow for her lost child. A boyfriend’s disgrace over the state of his life. An old man’s dying moments in a makeshift tent, and all his life and decisions added up to.
And yet beneath all of it there is always love. There is always the possibility of redemption, and it is never as far away as the guilty parties think it is. They continue to dig their personal holes deeper and deeper because their self-hatred and sadness won’t let them do anything else. To quote another movie, we accept the love we think we deserve.
Tokyo Godfathers is visionary director Satoshi Kon’s penultimate theatrical release before his death. It is loosely based on a book, but is uniquely a product of Kon’s own mind. From its art style to its creative direction and editing, it can be spotted as a work of his from a mile away. And, like Perfect Blue, Paprika, and Paranoia Agent, (and Millennium Actress, I am sure), it is a work of pure art.
Grounded in reality, but only able to be expressed in the medium of animation, it tells the story of three homeless individuals who stumble upon an infant, discarded in the trash at Christmastime. These three misfit allies, all out on the streets by their own doing, struggle not just with what to do with this baby (keep it? turn it over to the police? try to find its mother?) but how to go about it.
In so doing, they travel all over Tokyo, in a series of lucky and unlucky turns that keep the viewer invested and guessing along the way, and all the while there is a layer of real, mystical fortune above it all. Something, somewhere, means for things to end well. Not just for the infant, or even our main trio of characters, but for everyone in the movie. In spite of gang violence, street violence, illness, and more, there is a clear, guiding, invisible hand doing its best to ensure everyone makes it out of this movie in a better state than we first find them.
This is an atypical Christmas film, and a heady, hectic enough one that it isn’t in my annual rotation. But it is a must-watch, as are all of Kon’s works. There are some scoring choices that leave me scratching my head, and there is a very Japan circa 2003 conflation of homosexuality, drag, and transgenderism that also hasn’t aged especially well, but these are easy enough to overlook. Of the many, many Christmas films I’ve seen in my life, this is near the front of the pack in terms of movies that clearly have their heart in the right place.
If you haven’t seen it yet, you really ought to.
GBU Holiday-Adjusted Rating: 8/10
Tokyo Godfathers is apparently streaming on Crackle, however, the last time I watched something on Crackle, it was interrupted by ads about every 5 minutes. I wouldn’t recommend it. You might rent it for a couple bucks on Amazon or a similar service, or find it on a less-legal service like Nyaa.
For further reading, check out the excellent Breadsword’s video on the subject.