Tokyo Godfathers (2003), Satoshi Kon’s Christmas Masterpiece

Satoshi Kon is one of the most recognisable directors within the animation medium. He is often regarded as one of the greatest directors to work within animation and any list of great animated/anime movies would be incomplete without the inclusion of at least one of his four feature films. If you weren’t already aware Kon unfortunately passed away in 2010 at the tragically young age of 46 years old, leaving an incomplete and yet powerful legacy behind him. Over the course of 4 feature films and a 13-episode anime series, Kon carved out his place among the greats in the medium and I think you’d be hard pressed to find an anime fan that wouldn’t agree with that statement. 

Satoshi Kon’s work is known to be complex, his two most popular films; Perfect Blue and Paprika, are both complex studies of identity and the human psyche. So I’m sure many who haven’t seen it would be surprised to hear that Tokyo Godfathers is not only a comedy film about family, but a Christmas film as well. But despite it looking like an outlier amongst his filmography on the surface, Kon uses the tragicomedy to its fullest potential to create a powerful film that examines the nature of familial bonds, homlessness, and the impact that random strangers and chance can have on each other. By framing these themes through the unconventional Christmas narrative, Kon creates one of the most powerful holiday movies by showing both the struggles and humanity of the vulnerable characters.

The film follows three homeless people; Gin, a middle aged man who became homeless due to his addiction to gambling and alcohol, Miyuki, a teenage runaway, and Hana, a transgender woman who used to work as a drag queen. This trio create a sort of pseudo-family for each other, with Gin and Hana acting as a surrogate father and mother for Miyuki, but while rummaging for trash on Christmas Eve the trio find an abandoned baby and a bag of clues about the whereabouts of the parents. Over the course of the film we see the main characters encounter and interact with a wide and varied cast of characters; from a Yakuza boss who gets run over by his own car, to the assassin trying to kill the aforementioned Yakuza boss, to the trio’s past family members, both blood-related and pseudo families, to eventually finding the newborn’s lost mother and father (…..sort of). In almost all of these encounters Kon analyses the nature of families in society, Hana’s surrogate family are her fellow drag queens at the bar she used to work out, meanwhile Gin encounters his now adult daughter while also spending time with an elderly homeless man who acts as a father figure for Gin. 

Hana is easily the most interesting character in the film due to the relative lack of transgender representation in early-2000’s animation, but I think it’s important we clarify a few things about her character. Firstly, the film never explicitly confirms or denies that Hana is transgender, but I would argue that if you were to claim that Hana is not transgender you would be missing the forest for the trees. In the opening scene, Gin refers to Hana as “some homo with no balls” to which Hana replies “God just gave me a pair of those by mistake, but in my heart I am more woman than anyone”, which if you don’t read as Hana being trans it’s unlikely anything else will convince you. Similarly while explaining how she got fired from the drag club she used to work out she reveals she attacked a man who called her a ‘smelly old man’ to which she only took exception to be called a man. The issues surrounding Hana’s gender identity aren’t fully Kon’s fault, in early fansubs of the film Hana was referred to using male pronouns, something which I’m told isn’t the case in the original Japanese. But the accepted consensus in 2020 is that Hana is trans, so much so that alongside the new 4K restoration of this film a new English Dub was recorded in which Shakina Nayfack, a trans woman herself, plays Hana. So while one could argue that the film never explicitly tells us that Hana is trans, in my opinion it’s a ludicrous argument to suggest otherwise at this point. However while it is fascinating to see a prominent trans character in a film made in 2003, it is also unfortunately dated by some moments of transphobia. Now Satoshi Kon in my cishet opinion is never explicitly transphobic or homophobic, but there is a level of ignorance that is clear, so while Hana is definitely a big milestone for representation the film is by no means perfect. If you want a more comprehensive breakdown I’d highly recommend this blog that does a fantastic analysis of Hana. But the reason I love Hana as a character is that after revealing that she wants nothing more than to be a mother, she eventually becomes the perfect maternal figure, not only to the abandoned baby who Hana risks her life to save in the climax, but also to Gin, providing the perfect fuel to mend a broken relationship with his daughter despite the pain it causes herself (the Blue demon parable that she tells Miyuki encapsulates this perfectly). The fact that Kon allows Hana to develop into this complex and beautiful character that, and to experience motherhood in such an authentic way through the narrative is so powerful. While Miyuki and Gin obtain their Christmas miracles through mending fractured relationships with their Father and Daughter respectively, Hana’s miracle is so much more special; she finally becomes a mother, it’s not a permanent motherhood but in those fleeting moments where Hana looks after the baby she proves something to herself and to everyone around her, and it’s truly beautiful to watch.

But one idea that is examined through all three of the main characters is the treatment of those in need in society. The main trio are incredibly generous, offering help to those in need that they encounter, regardless of their place in society. Sometimes this results in them receiving help themselves, like being taken in by Hana’s co-workers or the Yakuza boss inviting them to his daughter’s wedding, but equally we see instances of mistreatment towards our homeless protagonists. In an act of “cleaning” we see Gin mercilessly beaten by a group of teenagers who treat the encounter like a game or something to occupy their time until they get a better offer of karaoke. In another instance we see our protagonists having to leave a convenience store due to the verbal abuse a drunk customer throws their way. But what makes the film so brilliant is all of these scenes are underpinned by Kon’s message of coincidence and chance, there is no clear binary; the good actions don’t always yield good results, but similarly, bad actions don’t always yield bad consequences, with the two examples I just listed ultimately leading to beneficial outcomes for the characters. While Kon very clearly condemns the bad actions, he also offers an incredibly hopeful message through this idea of chance and coincidence that by putting good out into the universe, even in the face of hardships, good things will eventually come back around. You might call this idea karma, and while it definitely shares an ideology, I don’t think the film is necessarily karma focused and it could be interpreted through any spirituality or ideology. It’s a message that can be seen in Christmas films from It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and even Die Hard, but coupled with Kon’s messages of families and specifically the validity of chosen families, makes Tokyo Godfathers, in my opinion, one of the greatest christmas films ever made.

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