From acclaimed director Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress) and Japan’s leading animation studio Mad House (X, Vampire Hunter D, Ninja Scroll) comes this visually and emotionally stunning tale of adventure, love and redemption.
In Tokyo, three homeless people’s lives are changed forever when hey discover a baby girl at a garbage dump on Christmas Eve. As the New Year fast approaches, these three forgotten members of society band together to solve the mystery of the abandoned child and the fate of her parents. Along the way, encounters with seemingly unrelated events and people them to confront their own haunted pasts, as they learn to face their future together.
Tōkyō Goddofāzāzu 8.25
eyelights: its blend of drama and humour. its quirky protagonists. its touching tale. its animation style.
eyesores: its 2D quality.
“This is a Christmas present from God! She’s our baby!”
I’m a big fan of Satoshi Kon. The Japanese filmmaker directed only a few films before unexpectedly passing away in 2010, but I like each one of them. His debut, ‘Pafekuto Buru’ was a psychological thriller that would have made Hitchcock smile. His follow-up, ‘Sennen Joyu’, is a touching period drama invested with more empathy than most films. And then there’s the jaw-droppingly trippy ‘Papurika’, which is challenging but satisfying.
Meanwhile, ‘Tokyo Goddofazazu’, his third picture, is his most accessible. Inspired by Peter B. Kyne’s novel ‘Three Godfathers’, it’s a quirky dramedy that follows three homeless people as they try to track down the parents of a newborn girl that they found on the street on Christmas Eve. Relative strangers to one another, Gin, Hana and Miyuki have become a surrogate family – but they support, bicker and make up like the real deal.
And like any good family, they take care of their own – including Kiyoko, the family’s new addition.
What makes the movie work so well are its mix of various genres, the interplay between its leads, and the way that all the pieces interconnect. Though it’s a lot of elements to coordinate, Kon managed to strike the perfect balance between all the parts, which is an astonishing achievement. One would be hard-pressed to find many other pictures that are as successful at blending humour, melancholy, warmth, mystery and thrills.
And a touch of magic.
Our trio is also a great balancing act: Gin is an alcoholic former cyclist who left the spotlight after failing to secure the medical help his daughter required; he’s gruff and implacable. Hana is a drag queen who is secretly in love with Gin and who dreams of being a mother; he’s emotional and very loyal. Miyuki is a rebellious young woman who’s run away from home following a familial conflict; she’s sullen and antisocial. They’re quite the cocktail.
And yet, they’re genuinely affecting.
The plot is developed in a fairly contrived fashion, which one mustn’t challenge in order to truly enjoy the picture, but Kon connected its threads in clever ways; as our “Tokyo Godfathers” scour the city for clues leading them to Kiyoki’s family, every encounter or incident takes them a step further on their investigation – and in their personal journeys, as their own individual past histories are gradually explored and eventually resolved.
What’s remarkable about this picture is how it humanizes the homeless without pitying them: it serves up various different motivations and concerns for all of its characters and illustrates quite well the challenges that they face as the perceived dregs of society. And, in the process, it also explores our collective perceptions of family values and familial connections – in ‘Tokyo Goddofazazu’, no family is a picture-perfect “traditional” one.
Much as in real life.
Though Kon would peak with his next film, his swan song ‘Papurika’, the animation here is also superb. The characters express themselves in mildly cartoony ways, but their motion is realistic enough – and the rest looks life-like. As we visit all over Tokyo, we get to see it through our trio’s eyes, and the backgrounds look very good. Unfortunately, they have a 2D quality to them, but the falling snow sort of adds a third dimension to them.
The picture ends on an exciting note, with a riotous chase featuring a stolen truck, a kidnapped baby and a taxi. It’s funny, it’s exciting, it’s wholly entertaining – and, unlike many chases, it doesn’t outlast its welcome. It all wraps up with a stunning rooftop freefall and landing that Kon made beautiful, slowing it down in such a way that he was not only easing his character, but also his audience. He fashioned it into a magical moment.
The kind you can only find at Christmas.
‘Tokyo Goddofazazu’ is masterful storytelling. It finds Satoshi Kon at the height of his powers, taking his audience on all sorts of twists that are equally dramatic and hilarious. Here he struck such a fine balance that the picture never lulls, never bores, never feels off-kilter. Were the animation just a touch stronger, this would likely be a genuine masterpiece. Despite this, it’s meaningful enough that it should be seen on par with the classics.
On these Tokyo streets, in the company of Gin, Hana and Miyuki, it’s a wonderful life too.
Date of viewing: December 1, 2016