Tokyo Godfathers is a creation of one of the “greats’ of anime Satoshi Kon, who both directed it and wrote the base story for the film. Cherry on top was the screenplay being written by another of the greats Keiko Nobumoto (someone I can never find enough words to gush about). To put in simple terms, Tokyo Godfathers is the story of three homeless people who find a baby and try to unite her with her lost family, loosely inspired from the Western ‘3 Godfathers.’ But that’s probably about where the usage of the term “simple” ends for this story.
Just like Keiko Nobumoto, Satoshi Kon is also no longer with us but he is responsible for works like Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress etc. which are still counted amongst the seminal pieces in anime. In my opinion, Tokyo Godfathers definitely deserves its place alongside those pieces because of its beautiful heart-breaking humanity bundled under a layer of humour and a story which seems almost ridiculous at times but is very rich and deep.
Kon’s films generally play around with the element of surrealism quite a bit and, while this is perhaps not as overtly visible in Tokyo Godfathers, it’s present in a very different way. The surrealism here is in the presence of a crazy amount of coincidences which basically become the drivers of the story. It doesn’t even try to be subtle about it, with Deus ex Machina being pretty much the main force behind the narrative. The film is a moment in the lives of these characters who live on the opposite end of miracles when the universe seems to suddenly realign itself around them. (If you are also reading my stuff on Cowboy Bebop where I’ve talked about coincidences which are likely not coincidences at-all, this is a very different kind of coincidences so don’t worry-I watched both around the same time and did this hygiene check already.)
Our main characters in Tokyo Godfathers are a transgender woman, an ex-gambler who lost his family to his addiction, and a young girl who ran away from home after stabbing her policeman father. All three seem to have no home or families when the story begins but we eventually find out they have all ended up living on the streets through misguided choices they themselves made. The baby Kiyoko comes into their lives as the catalyst for a series of miracles which bring all three back to the lives and people they lost even as they literally put their own lives on the line to help her find where she belongs.
The film is set in the middle of winter on New Year’s Eve and the city of Tokyo is very much a character in it, not as the megalopolis but as an exposed underbelly, depicted through abandoned parks, dark alleys and back streets, locales which would be most familiar to those existing on the fringes of society. The “real lives” of its citizens are always apparent, always visible in the background, as our “invisible” protagonists seem to exist almost in another dimension, unwanted and unwelcome, weaving in and out of them.
The atmosphere of winter and a vague reminiscence of Christmas further props up the aura of a “Christmas miracle” which is never quite voiced but still very palpable in the film. In line with the desolate lives of our protagonists though, this is also executed with a twist where a man who looks like Santa Claus gets happy drunk before dying with his body desecrated by hooligans and the “angel” who shows up to rescue a grievously hurt Gin turns out to be a drag queen formerly known to Hana.
Reminders of Nobumoto-san and Bebop
Both the creators of Tokyo Godfathers were masters of understanding broken, unloved individuals dealing with things beyond the normal but a lot of the humanity and “slice of life” element in the story and areas where it departs from Satoshi Kon’s typical works always remind me of the other works of Keiko Nobumoto, especially Cowboy Bebop.
For me personally, Nobumoto-san’s execution of the “found family” dynamic is what I have loved most about her other works like Cowboy Bebop and Wolf’s Rain, and Tokyo Godfathers carries that legacy forward. It’s the story of a found family which seems to not care about each other if you go by what they are saying but whatever they deny matters to them the most, extremely reminiscent of the apparently nonchalant Bebop ensemble who all matter a lot to each other but seeing them you’d never know it. This also overlaps with another running theme in the movie of feeling unloved by those who care deeply about us, a motif which is played around with quite a bit in Bebop as well.
Nobumoto-san was a master of writing characters toeing the line of morality with motifs like gambling, debt, neglect of loved ones etc. but still managing to take a 3 dimensional view to them rather than that of moral judgement. Her writing of queer characters is also something which I have not seen executed quite as well in mainstream anime elsewhere. While yes, there are problematic elements which do crop up whenever anime touches on these themes due to the norms of the time or the culture of the country but she has written characters like Gren and Hana with such beautiful poignance, insight, and sympathy that both stand out as human beings and not caricatures of the category they happen to fall into. Hana’s longing to be a mother despite the body she was born into is dealt with beautiful empathy.
Another Nobumoto motif which seems to play out in Tokyo Godfathers is the telling of the story of the Blue and Red Devils (honestly I have no way of knowing if this was her or Kon but given the parallel I would like to think it was her) used to parallel the story and state of mind of key characters, very reminiscent of the two stories told during ‘The Real Folk Blues’ at the end of Cowboy Bebop, episodes which she wrote herself.
Why you should watch Tokyo Godfathers…
If you are someone who does not enjoy sentimental stories, this is probably not one for you. It’s not an overtly sentimental one prima facie and there is plenty of humour peppered in but the complex equations between the central characters and the people they encounter along the way as well as the people who abandoned them or whom they abandoned require you to really strap on that EQ. It also tugs at your heart quite a bit and this watch was perhaps the first time I have managed to get through it without crying so fair warning on that too. But if you enjoy complex storytelling, well-meshed out characters, and slice of life stories where not a lot happens but that’s the best part, this one is definitely for you.
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