Very few pioneers have revolutionised the art of animation like Satoshi Kon has over the course of his illustrious career. Known for his artistic investigations which explore the endlessly shifting domains of fantasy and reality in anime masterpieces such as Perfect Blue and Paprika, Kon left an indelible mark on world cinema. Although he passed away too soon due to pancreatic cancer, Kon’s legacy lives on through films like Tokyo Godfathers.
Right off the bat, it is important to note that Tokyo Godfathers is not revolutionary in the same way that some of Kon’s other works are. While he is mostly celebrated for his mind-bending treatments of human psychology, Tokyo Godfathers is beautiful in its relatively simple neorealism and its commitment to providing reflections of a grim reality.
While setting out to make an anime film about Christmas, Kon drew inspiration from a John Ford movie called 3 Godfathers. Tokyo Godfathers revolves around three homeless individuals: an alcoholic with a gambling addiction, a teenaged runaway with anger problems and a trans woman who hopes to encounter a miracle on Christmas as Virgin Mary did.
Pushed to the margins of urban existence by the socioeconomic reasons behind their poverty, they spend their time looking after each other as well as fighting against each other while navigating the labyrinths of modern life. On Christmas eve, during their routine garbage-rummaging session, they come across an abandoned child.
Over the course of the next few days, they embark on a harrowing journey to reunite the child with its rightful mother while developing a closer bond with the infant girl and with each other. Tokyo Godfathers is an essential Christmas watch because it humanises the people who are abandoned by society and it does so without diminishing the gravity of their condition.
In an interview, Kon admitted that the implication of a sociopolitical statement was something he had in mind especially because homelessness was a problem that Japanese society did not acknowledge. Kon said: “The important thing wasn’t to just present the homeless problem in the script, but to focus on the mindset surrounding things we ‘discard.'”
“These are people who have been ‘discarded’ from society; the homeless, the runaway girl,” the filmmaker added. “In Japanese society, civil rights that the people have are few in number. I wanted to examine how someone separated from mainstream society would once again rejuvenate society.” By focusing on these people, Tokyo Godfathers conducts a reconfiguration of the idea of what a family is supposed to be.
We observe three downtrodden people forming an unbreakable unit that is less dysfunctional than most ‘normal’ families, banding together to take care of a child that was thrown away. Like many other Christmas films, Tokyo Godfathers uses the concept of fate and miracles to play around with the narrative structure and inject absurd misadventures but the central thesis remains intact.
The film insists that many ‘acceptable’ members of society have forgotten what it means to be human, contrasting the flawed central characters with other residents of Tokyo who are better off but engage in senseless cruelty by harassing and beating up the homeless. Satoshi Kon paints the entire spectrum of humanity, claiming that the subject of human morality is an incredibly nuanced issue.
Tokyo Godfathers manages to achieve a lot of things – a brilliantly animated and comprehensive portrait of a city, a socioeconomic meditation on capitalism and the value of human life, a sensitive portrayal of the trans community and so on. However, more than anything else, it translates what Christmas is supposed to be about more effectively than many films that are often erroneously labelled as ‘Christmas classics‘.