Living in a city, dealing with transient homeless people is something that I have to do a lot whenever I go out. While I don’t think my behavior will really change because I watched this film, I’ve definitely been provided with an interestingly different perspective. Plus, it’s fiction! The late Satoshi Kon’s (also known for Perfect Blue and Paprika) 2003 work with Madhouse, Tokyo Godfathers, centers around three quirky homeless individuals who happen upon an abandoned baby one Christmas night.
The motley trio is comprised of the drunkard Gin, the transwoman Hana, and the runaway high school girl Miyuki. Being an abandoned baby herself, Hana sees much of herself in the baby and gives her the name “Kiyoko.” Disgusted by the actions of the baby’s irresponsible parents, Hana vows to return her to her family so that she can escape the fate that she and the others suffer from. The other two are a little more unwilling, but inevitably go along with her crazy mission.
As their journey rolls on, the three gradually open up to each other about their pasts and how they ended up homeless on the streets of Tokyo. Gin was estranged by his family because of his drinking and gambling habits, while Hana actually started on the streets and returned there after being fired from her cabaret job. Miyuki is a bit of a different case as she chooses to live on the streets after attacking her policeman father. Hana makes the remark that Kiyoko is a gift from God, and it kind of is. This gift gets the three of them to realize the mistakes they’ve made in life and brings out the best in all of them as they try to prevent Kiyoko from sharing the same fate.
Despite the sort of heavy character backgrounds and circumstances, Tokyo Godfathers, is actually a comedy first and foremost, I think. The dysfunctional character dynamic between the three main characters really bring out the best of each other and adds an incredibly amount of personality to the whole movie. Gin and Hana fulfill the role of a bickering old couple perfectly, yet so unconventionally, whereas Miyuki and Kiyoko are kind of surrogate daughters. Their journey to find Kiyoko’s parents, using only a picture, takes them all over Tokyo and gets them involves in the most unexpected trouble. Saving the manager of a strip club and witnessing an attempted murder are just a couple of things that the trio do on their quest.
I think the thing I like the most about the film is how inextricable events separate characters and ultimately bring them back together, only to separate them again and again. It really feels like things are scripted to work out a certain way, and it really works for the movie, particularly for comedic effect. It also provides the uplifting theme that good things can happen to those who deserve it and things will always work out for the best. Very rarely is an action not rewarded with some sort of reaction that further guides the three on their journey, and that reaction may or may not come immediately or some time down the road.
For example, Gin saves a dying homeless man and in his tent, he finds another picture of Kiyoko’s parents’ house. In another scene, Hana gets into a fight with a man at a store. When they take it outside, an ambulance immediately crashes into the store. The kicker is when the driver asks them to call the ambulance. Scenes like these are what the movie great, as almost every scene (even the serious ones) are punctuated with some sort of joke or visual punchline.
The animation style is responsible for much of the comedy and personality that exudes from each scene. The expressions on all of the characters’ faces when they get excited or frustrated are priceless. There’s also a lot of color and detail that goes into the backdrops and brings out the dirtiness of homeless life. The film looks great for being ten years old.
Tokyo Godfathers gets the balance between comedy and drama perfectly. When I first heard that the film was about homeless people, I immediately thought it would be very dramatic. However, when I watched it I was pleasantly surprised. The tragic backstories and character performances are enough to tug at the heartstrings, but never for too long as the hijinks never really stop rolling. Sometimes, it can be a bit disorienting because you aren’t sure what emotion you should be feeling at which time. I’ll set the record straight for you all. As Tokyo Godfathers tells a story of redemption in the face of uncertainty, I think it’s only fair to approach it head-on with a smile. That honestly shouldn’t be too hard because you’ll probably be laughing most of the time, anyway.