TOKYO GODFATHERS | REVIEW & ANALYSIS
Updated: May 26
Satoshi Kon’s Coincidental Christmas Miracle
Director: Satoshi Kon
Cast/Voices: Tôru Emori, Aya Okamoto, Yoshiaki Umegaki, Shôzô Iizuka, Seizô Katô
The Sins of a Throwaway Society
For every blinding neon light, there’s a dark back alley to wander down. For every perfectly polite smile, another soul disappears in the night. Consume or be consumed! Tokyo’s mantra rings truer than ever when Christmas comes to town.
Introducing Tokyo Godfathers
Much like its characters, Tokyo Godfathers don’t conform to expectations. Satoshi Kon improvised on the biblical tale of the three wise men, or rather, he turned it upside down and found Christmas spirit where no one thought to look.
Kon’s wise men are consumed souls. The city has chewed them up and spat them out. On the «happiest night of the year», a homeless trio of outcasts finds an abandoned baby in a back-alley thrash heap.
Like most improvisations, Tokyo Godfathers play on well-known tangents. The story is familiar, but Kon’s signature contrasts resonate in every frame. It's flawed but has heart, just like his resourceful runaway, wise wino, and tender transgender, Hana.
Background & Facts
Tokyo Godfathers was Satoshi Kon’s third movie but his first step into the public limelight. It premiered in 2003 and cemented Kon’s position as the leading anime innovator of the new millennium.
Kon won over anime fanboys with psychological thrills in Perfect Blue (1997). After that, he blew away art-film-fanatics with Millennium Actress (2001) and its homage to Japanese film history. But then, he went for something entirely different.
Tokyo Godfathers was a step away from chilling thrills and perplexing dreams. Though the characters were caricatured, the story was grounded. As it turned out, the realism resonated with audiences around the globe.
«I was nervous when Tokyo Godfathers premiered overseas. It pleased me when the audience laughed at my humor. There were no cultural barriers.»
– Satoshi Kon Interview | Making of Tokyo Godfathers –
Three films in, and Kon had taken three giant steps, from indie productions at Madhouse Studios to American Distribution by Sony Pictures. His Christmas miracle might play a different tune than his other pieces, but its melody made Kon a star.
Kon was fascinated with the living and breathing Tokyo atmosphere. Even more so, he considered how the city treats its homeless population. From these core components, he composed an «anime-aria» about families lost and gained pseudo-families.
The way Kon saw it, Tokyo could be cold and heartless, but the very same city offered affluence enough to keep everyone alive, even the homeless. In this sense, Tokyo is both the villain and the hero of the story. (More about this in the analysis chapter.)
The Story of Three Homeless People and One Baby Girl
It is Christmas eve. A streetwise trio with no place to call home rummage through the paper collections at a garbage depository. On the lookout for Christmas presents, they stumble upon a forsaken baby.
In between wrinkled plastic bags and discarded newspapers, a crying infant turns the homeless holiday season upside down. Hana’s maternal instinct kicks in right away, but she soon realizes that raising a baby in homelessness is a fool’s errand.
Instead, Hana decides to take her makeshift family on a journey through the urban jungle. Their goal? To find the mother of the baby girl and ask her why she threw her child in the trash.
«If she can make me understand, I’ll forgive her, and my own mother too.»
– Hana –
Next to the baby was the key to a coin locker. In the locker, they find a clue that sends them hiking across town in search of a host club. On the way, they help a yakuza boss in a jam, who incidentally happens to know the owner of the host club.
From there on, the story goes through a series of unthinkable events. From a yakuza wedding assassination to drag club confessions. From the caretaking of a dying street bum to confrontation with a shut-in gambling addict. Along the way, the characters confront demons of old and new.
Hana proves to herself (and anyone else) that she can be as good a mother as any. Gin the wino and the teenage runaway Miyuki search for courage to face their families again. The Christmas miracle that started with baby Kiyoko in a trash bag is nicely wrapped up when Hana finally flies in and saves Christmas once and for all.
Christmas Film Parallels and Other Inspirations
The most famous parallel between Tokyo Godfathers and Hollywood cinema is thrown in our faces from the get-go. Both title and story are loosely inspired by a 1948 John Ford-western film called 3 Godfathers.
Aside from the title and three outcast protagonists who take care of a baby, these films don’t have all that much in common. However, there is something about the Christmas atmosphere in Tokyo Godfathers which brings Hollywood cinema to mind.
In one of the early clips, Miyuki spits on a pedestrian from the top of a downtown high-rise. Up-beat jazz tunes set the scene, and from out of the blue, Kon effectively conjures something akin to American Christmas spirit.
The same thing happens when the end credits roll. Strange as it may sound, the image of skyscrapers dancing to the lo-fi rendering of Beethoven’s 9th by the Japanese band Moonriders (Keiichi Suzuki) made me think of Hollywood Christmas films.
Perhaps it was unintentional, but it’s still curious that these scenes conjure Christmas spirit in me who’s an outsider in both Japan and America. For a few moments it felt like I was watching American Christmas classics like It’s A Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street? Perhaps it’s just me…
«Miyuki momentarily inhabits a different field of social relations ... and treats the well-to-do holiday shoppers below her with the same contempt that she has been dealt in her day-to-day encounters with fellow city-dwellers.»
– David Scott Diffrient | East Asian Cinemas –
A far more credible parallel, is the resemblance between Tokyo Godfathers and the Christian story of the three wise men. More than anything else, turning three homeless people into wise men made Kon’s parable a quintessential Christmas film.
Thereafter, Kon could shape the story anyway he wanted, and the wise men-parallel would still make it a Christmas story. And so he did. But instead of resorting to sentimentality, Kon cut open the underbelly of Japanese society for all to see.
Like Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, or Bad Santa for that matter, Kon summoned Christmas spirit from those discarded by society. He looked for goodness in the ignored and overlooked, and his Christmas message became all the more powerful for it.
At the time, there were few Japanese filmmakers who directed their cameras, or drawing pens, toward the fringes of society. In this sense, Kon was ahead of the times. Soon, many Japanese anime and film directors would follow in his footsteps.
Most notably are Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (2018) and the anime Hinamatsuri (2018). The latter is a 12-episode supernormal, yakuza comedy about two girls from the future who drops in on present day Japan. One lives in affluence, the other amongst Tokyo’s homeless population.
Hitoshi Yazaki also directed his camera at the fringes of Japanese society in Mubansô (2016) about LGBTQ issues in 1960s Japan. And let’s not forget Naoko Ogigami, whose characters often are ostracized by society, like in Kamome Diner (2006), Rent-A-Cat (2012) or Close-Nit (2017).
Production of a Tokyo Feature Film
Kon was well-known for approaching human duality via nonlinear storytelling. Tokyo Godfathers, on the other hand, was a departure from his typical dives into dreamlike surrealism, or what most people would call disturbing nightmares.
The narrative is linear, the setting is realistic, and even though the characters are colorful and caricatured, they appear authentic. In a way, Kon challenged himself. His goal was to make an unbelievable story believable.
In his opinion, the world around us facilitates coincidences that make people lose their homes or families. But it also allows us to form new bonds and find new families. To elaborate his view, he concocted a story of wild coincidences. Then, he tried to make the coincidences flow as naturally as falling dominoes.
As usual, Kon achieved what he set out to do. Eccentric and exaggerated as the characters and their story may be, their actions and reactions make the unfolding events believable. The dialogue, which arguably is the highlight of the film, carries a lot of weight and invites to reflection.
«A little baby, powdery snow on its cheeks, on this holy night.»
The atmosphere is grey and smoggy, but the artwork is as magnificent as anything Kon ever made. The characters are drawn in his typical fashion, but the city is something else.
The details in the dark corners of town and the back-alley design are incredibly intricate. The drawings of the cold city streets perfectly capture the unwelcoming gushes that flies through Tokyo in winter.
The icing on the cake, so to speak, was Kon’s subtle breath of life into the cityscape. I didn’t even notice it the first two times I saw the film, but allover town, buildings and inanimate objects form facial expressions of concern.
The faces were Kon’s way of telling us that Tokyo never sleeps, but always watches over its residents. It also allowed him to sneak in a layer of duality. The characters never see the faces. To them, the city never says a word. To the audience, it tells another story.
Hana the Mother of Christmas Spirit
Hana is the star of the show. She is a firm believer in Christmas, and her maternal instinct outclasses that of any other caretaker in the movie. She is neglected and mistreated, yet nurturing and caring. Her person is complex, but instead of resorting to gender confusion clichés, Kon approached motherhood via Hana.
Hana was forsaken by her own mother and found another mommy at a drag club. The negligence made her fixate on motherhood. She is the first to question the whereabouts of the baby’s mother, and she dreams about becoming a better mom than her own mother ever was.
In the end, Hana turns out to be the very embodiment of Christmas spirit. Her pseudo-motherhood to Keiko feels more genuine than any other relation in Tokyo during the holiday season. In the midst of the yuletide chaos, she, more than anyone else, shows true compassion to those who need it most.
All three homeless wise men show great mercy, but Hana’s moral compass never points in the wrong direction. Now and then, both Gin and Miyuki strays from the righteous path. Hana, on the other hand, never thinks twice about running till her lungs bleed, if so needed to keep Kiyoko safe.
At times, Kon leans on Hana’s flamboyance for comic effect, which somewhat enforces transgender stereotypes. That said, the jokes at Hana’s expense are never explicitly transphobic, but rather build the story and her character development.
Kon might not have completely succeeded, but at least he tried to give Hana the respect she deserves. He took some cheap shots, but he also let her express her emotions without judgment.
Was it a coincidence that Kon saw it fit to juxtapose homelessness and Christmas celebration in Japan? One is hidden in the shadows, the other shining bright with a billion epilepsy-inducing lights. One is brushed under the mat, the other is shoved down our throats.
The sins of a throwaway society was the focal point of Kon’s attention. He questioned the meaning of discarding things of great value. Like Hana so aptly puts it when Gin argues that the parents of the abandoned baby must have had their reasons: «That means they’ve taken love and tossed it away, like thrash».
Whoever discarded Hana, certainly threw away something precious. Who knows how many angels like her the city hides in cardboard boxes or blue plastic shelters? Who knows how much love we throw away, or how much compassion we fail to notice with our noses in the air, or our eyes locked on smartphone screens?
Between the Snowflakes on an Anime Christmas Eve
Tokyo Godfathers was a new turn for Kon. His trips into the subjective realities of the human psyche were put on hold for the time being. Instead, the time had come to tackle human emotions via background and character development.
By doing so, Kon commented on the homeless’ situation in Japan in his very own way. To him, homeless citizens reflected the mindset of a throwaway society. Hana, Gin, Miyuki, and Kiyoko had been discarded way before their expiration dates.
Kon felt that homeless people had few civil rights in Japan, which is why he tried to reveal virtue and kindness in the shunned and mistreated. He wanted to tell us that Tokyo’s leftover-people could still rejuvenate society, just as much as everybody else.
At the same time, Kon could never let go of the common thread that ran through his filmography. Tokyo Godfathers might be linear and character driven, but just like Perfect Blue or Paprika, it also deals with self-images and identities.
Instead of diving into the human psyche, however, Tokyo Godfathers approaches prejudice, imposed stereotypes, and self-deception head on. Where Kon’s other films were blurred, Tokyo Godfathers is transparent.
From serious discussions to hilarious yelling and eccentric outbursts, the story is about confronting your demons, rather than embodying them. The homeless trio all have to face their past and deal with their denial of, or escape from reality.
By doing so, they display forgiveness, care, and love in a very real way. Moreover, they point a finger at the Japanese family system. How come they felt safer with their makeshift family than their own kin?
Gin hates himself for the choices he made in the past. It haunts him every second, just like Miyuki is plagued by what she did to her father. Their inner demons are sinister for sure, but for the most part, their inner battles are left for another tale.
Instead, Kon directs our attention to the cause of Gin and Miyuki’s misfortune. He makes us question what drove these unfortunate souls to the brink of madness. Why did they prefer to run away, rather than to face their gambling addiction and violent outrage?
Japan is famed for its nuclear families of salarymen and homemakers. Many ties the knot out of convenience rather than love. Many others choose to skip marriage altogether. Whether families are forced together or forgone, something is askew.
Hana, Gin, and Miyuki found comfort and kinship in their pseudo-family, more so than in their blood relatives. Sometimes, they argue or criticize each other, but they also accept each other as equals and pay attention to each other’s needs and feelings.
In the end, Tokyo Godfathers is about re-uniting families. Along the way, it demonstrates that family ties in modern Japanese society are just as well forged in dark back-alleys as in mass-produced prefab homes. The coincidental family ties are just as real and meaningful as the designed bonds of traditional Japanese families.
This brings us to the essence of Kon’s Christmas miracle, which is coincidence. Why did he set out to make sense of the senseless? Why did he first concoct an unbelievable story, only to make it believable thereafter?
Perhaps he wanted to say that life is more coincidental than we think? Under the right circumstances, or rather, if stricken by the worst of luck, perhaps you or I would find ourselves living on the street.
Who knows when life throws you a curveball, be it a terminal disease or a massive lottery winning. It can happen to all of us, no matter how good or bad we have been. Even if people caused their own misfortune, it doesn’t make them bad. They are still people, and still capable of doing amazing things.
Taking Kon’s tragic demise into account, Tokyo Godfathers almost feels ethereal. Seven years later, Kon passed away from pancreatic cancer. What could be more senseless than to rob the world of such a magnificent genius? Tokyo certainly gives, but it also takes away. Kon’s Christmas miracle, at least, will stay with us forever.
Final Verdict for Tokyo Godfathers
Why is Tokyo Godfathers one of the best Christmas films I have ever seen? Because it is not really about Christmas. If you took away the Christmas setting, it would still be a compelling story, and the characters would be just as interesting.
I only have two things to criticize in Tokyo Godfathers. For one, the character development feels rushed, and the abrupt ending leaves something to be desired. The pacing isn’t fast per se, but the atmosphere is very dense. The movie could easily have spent another thirty minutes digging into the characters’ background.
The second thing, which is more of a subjective opinion, is the lack of Kon’s typical mysticism. We see it peeking out from the shadows, like in Miyuki’s flashback from the past. Suddenly her real parents turn into Gin and Hana, while her baby sister turns into a baby angel.
A few more such dives into the characters’ psyche would have given us a chance to know Gin, Miyuki, and Hana better. We get to know a lot about these charming tarp-dwellers during their journey, but who they really are, is anyone’s guess.
Perhaps my criticism is in fact praise. I can never shake the feeling that the end approaches too fast, followed by the immediate urge to put on Tokyo Godfathers another time. And it never stops growing on me. For every return to Kon’s Tokyo, I discover new details in the background and new messages between the lines.
It might not be as instantly mind-blowing as Paprika, or as frightfully twisted as Perfect Blue. But it’s so re-watchable that in the long run, it might outlive Kon’s other films. Every season spent with Hana, Gin, and Miyuki, makes me more certain that Tokyo Godfathers is one of the best Christmas films ever made. Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
AnimeAnime: 今敏作品における「虚構と現実」の関係性とは？(Japanese only)
Anime News Network: Interview: Satoshi Kon
Austin Chronicle: Tokyo Godfathers: Social Commentary … Onto a Toonscape
Diffrient, David Scott: From Three Godfathers to Tokyo Godfathers
Kon’s Tone: Interview 08 (Japanese only)
Pop Matters: Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
Trap Disposal Unit: Hana, Tokyo Godfathers (2003)