One cold Christmas Eve,
A baby cries in Tokyo.
Where is your mother?
Loosely based on the 1948 John Wayne film 3 Godfathers, Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers tells the story of three homeless outcasts who find a new-born baby abandoned on Christmas Eve and set off across the city on a quest to find its mother. From there they find themselves caught in a series of unlikely events, their various escapades leading to run-ins with the yakuza, unexpected family reunions, and a cross-dressing Latino assassin. Oh, and the odd impromptu haiku.
Is it really a Christmas film? Sure, it starts with a nativity play and a Japanese rendition of Silent Night (Godfathers remains the only one of Kon’s films yet to be dubbed into English), but Santa is nowhere to be seen and most of the action takes place between Christmas and New Year. Well, there’s a simple answer to that: Tokyo Godfathers is a Christmas film between the first and twenty-fifth of December, and not for the rest of the year. You see, it’s just too good to restrict to one month of the year. Having said that, it is a Christmas film at heart, with the feel-good nature of all the best Christmas films without the cloying schmaltz or sentimentality that brings so many seasonal movies down.
Oddly for a Japanese film, Tokyo Godfathers takes a number of visual and thematic cues from Christianity, and the story of the nativity in particular: there’s a baby, an angel, a redemption story. Fable-like and full of meaningful coincidences, the film acts as a modern-day Christmas Story, and one that centres outsiders, humanising those on the edges of society, whether they be LGBT people, ethnic minorities, or the homeless. While the representation of transgender Hana may be less-than-perfect by modern standards (she has a female name and refers to herself as having ‘a woman’s heart,’ but is constantly referred to by others – and sometimes herself – as a gay man), she is nonetheless a sympathetic character with as much depth as the other two leads.
And it is the relationships between the three of them that is the core of the film. An alcoholic, a child runaway and a transgender former drag queen don’t make the most obvious combination of characters for a Christmas film about the importance of family, but Kon’s found family make the perfect leads for that exact reason – when placed onto the shoulders of a diverse group of people pulled together by genuine affection rather than duty, the regular Christmas movie themes about love and family feel that much more sincere and meaningful.
Kon’s Tokyo is cold, dark, and grim, but there are pockets of warmth, and they are invariably where there are warm people. Because Tokyo Godfathers is a film all about people, and the power of human kindness to transcend societally imposed boundaries of race, sexuality, and wealth. It’s a message that is needed all year round, but perhaps one we are more receptive to at Christmas.
Tokyo Godfathers is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.