Last Level Press

Film Review: Tokyo Godfathers

Reviewer: Olen Bjorgo

Nothing quite says the holidays like a Nativity play with children telling the story of birth of Jesus and the three kings who gave gifts, a lovely rendition of Silent Night, a sermon by a priest, and then a former drag queen asking a woman in the soup line for a second serving since she’s “eating for two,” along with a middle-aged drunk and a teenage runaway who find an abandoned baby in a pile of garbage on Christmas Eve in Tokyo and are determined to find the child’s parents. And it’s all in Japanese. All together now! Silent night~! Holy night~!

Alright, alright, I won’t be singing. Maybe I will at the end.

Tokyo Godfathers is a Christmas film directed by the late Satoshi Kon, and showcases many of Mr. Kon’s trademarks with a fine eye for detail, keeping the animation grounded in reality, but brings some exaggeration in highly comedic or emotional situations, and just beautiful scenes of modern Tokyo, from the glitzy tourist shots to the more seedy parts of the criminal underground. Some of my personal favorite touches in detail are that numbers “1225” appear a few times, representing the numerical date for Christmas Day, and one instance where the face on some money changed in relation to how a certain scene played out. Those with keener eyes might even spot some things I missed.

The film is very dialogue heavy, with the only music that isn’t already playing in the background of the scene through speakers, a radio, or a TV being the opening and ending sequences and a traveling montage. However, any word that’s spoken is rarely ever wasted since a vast majority of what our strange trio talks about is related to either the baby Kiyoko or about themselves; since the film revolves around the holiday exploits of these three homeless individuals, we learn much about them in not only how they interact with each other, but also how they talk about themselves. For all intents and purposes, the voice work is the audio, and it sounds great.

The story and its progression is very much a string of coincidences that lead up towards the end. In any other film, this would feel contrived or flimsy, yet it’s played up and even characters will make note of how lucky or miraculous things get. In all of these coincidences the characters face, there also exists themes of love, family, and forgiveness above all; each of our homeless protagonists are homeless mostly by choice due to regret, guilt, and feeling as though they are living trash who deserve no love from those they scorned or betrayed, and only have each other to count on like a strange, dysfunctional family. Sure there are a few events that feel like they just happen by pure chance or even through deus ex machina, but humbug to you because they’re Christmas miracles from God, and they’ll get their peace in the end! …or so the religious and kind-hearted Hana would say about it, albeit in Japanese.

“Farararara, ra ra rara!”

What, A Christmas Story references aren’t P.C. Anymore?

Speaking of which, since there is not an English dub available, this marks a first, where I literally have to play by ear on whether the performances were good or not since I don’t speak Japanese, so I can’t remark on if they did great performances or not in their native language. Tôru Emori (Paprika [JPN dub]) plays the middle-aged drunk Gin pretty well, as he’s full of energy when angry, quiet and sympathetic when pensive, somewhat slurs his words while drunk, and is also the most abrasive of the group, as he’ll insult both of his friends. Yoshiaki Umegaki (Samurai Fiction) plays Hana, the religious trans woman and the kindest member of the group, as she always wanted to be a mother, and sees the baby she names Kiyoko, meaning “pure child”, as a sign from God. Mr. Umegaki doesn’t play up Hana as a stereotype, but as a very emotional woman who quietly suffers and wishes for Kiyoko to have the sort of life she never had as a child who was moved through foster care, and would rather find Kiyoko’s biological mother and see why she abandoned her child rather than return her to the authorities. Hana is also the butt of jokes, and is called rude names but she’ll let many of them slide except for one… which I won’t spoil because you really should see the movie yourself.

If only to understand why you will never be as cool as this baby.

Finally, there is Aya Okamoto (Azumi) who plays Miyuki, the runaway teenager who can’t return home. Of all the characters, Miyuki perhaps has the most change from beginning to end, as we learn that since she is still much younger than Hana or Gin she still has a chance to not live her life as a bum, but due to her actions she can’t forgive herself for what she did. She’s bratty and rude at first, but having to care for Kiyoko brings some perspective that she lacked, and running into her father, a detective, makes her feel that any reunion will see her sent to jail. The interactions our three stooges have with strangers and each other are what helps this movie shine, despite the language barrier many might face.

Tokyo Godfathers is a wonderful film, and after hearing the praises some have given it, I wish I had seen it sooner. In spite of the sadness you’ll see or the tiny miracles that happen without rhyme or reason, it’s a genuinely heartwarming film that left me laughing in quite a few spots. The climax and ending of the film might be nothing compared to how much of film is played, yet it fits right in with how the movie feels throughout: it just makes sense because it’s Christmas. If you’re bored with the specials that have been played all month or enjoy the work of Satoshi Kon, seek this film out, and I guarantee you won’t regret it. If you’re the sort who might not like reading subtitles while watching a movie in any language, you’ll probably not be seeing this anytime soon. As for everyone else, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all from us here at Last Level Press!

…yeah, I changed my mind. This isn’t A Charlie Brown Christmas.

No singing at the end.

Rating: 8.0

Visuals: 9
Audio: 7
Narrative: 8
Acting: 7
Atmosphere & Experience: 9

Final Verdict:


  Director: Satoshi Kon, Shogo Furuya

  Producer: Masao Maruyama

                   Masao Takiyama

                   Shinichi Kobayashi

                   Taro Maki    

  Studio: Madhouse

  Release Date (U.S.): Aug 30, 2003

  Release Date (E.U.): Nov 21, 2003

  Release Date (JP): Nov 8, 2003

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