Year Released: 2003
Distributor: Destination Films/GKIDS
Running Time: 92 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG-13
Related Films/Series: The Three Godfathers, Marked Men, Action, Hell’s Heroes, Three Godfathers (1936 Remake), 3 Godfathers (1948 Remake)
For Fans Of: Millennium Actress, My Neighbors the Yamadas, The Pursuit of Happyness, God Bless the Child
-I was able to stream it via Crackle and it’s streaming for free albeit with ads.
-Please check out Ashley’s blog The Review Heap.
-Tokyo Godfathers is the first and only time Satoshi Kon remade something. It’s a 21st-century Japanese anime remake of The Three Godfathers which is based on Peter B. Kyne’s novel of the same name, hence the multiple entries in the “Related Films/Series” section.
-The nurse that shows up later in the film (she will be unnamed lest it spoil a major aspect of the plot) is voiced by Mamiko Noto. She’s the voice of Rin from Inu-Yasha, Yukina from My-Hime, and Nina Fortner/Anna Liebert from Monster.
-GKIDS is going to give this film an English dub this year which has never been done until after they relicensed it.
-Musical Fan Bonus: The song that Hana sings from The Sound of Music is “Climb Every Mountain”.
-The co-writer of Tokyo Godfathers’ script is Keiko Nobumoto. She was a writer for Cowboy Bebop, Macross Plus, Samurai Champloo, and she created Wolf’s Rain.
O: It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed anything from the late great Satoshi Kon, but now’s as good a time as any to check out more of his works. For those that are new to Iridium Eye, I have reviewed his debut film Perfect Blue and his last film Paprika AKA The Original Inception. I was certainly positive about both of those films. I’m glad to revisit Kon-sensei’s work, but this time, I’m not reviewing alone. What’s good Ashley?
A: Hey! So much seems good, I don’t know quite where to start. Perhaps with the way that this film still stands out for me, in Kon’s filmography, as being quite ‘warm’ in tone. Yes, it’s winter and of course, it’s meant to be comedic but even with heartbreaking themes there’s a real sense of ‘everything will work out’ to this movie that I’m not sure I see in his other works. Do you see Tokyo Godfathers as having similar qualities?
O: That’s good to know. I have noticed a lot of warm colors with the outfits and some of the backgrounds that aren’t covered in snow. That’s actually an astute observation of sorts with the overall tone and coloration. I guess we’re a bit late by not reviewing this around Christmastime, but it’s still a movie anyone can enjoy regardless of the holiday season or the weather. Since you’re from Australia, I know you guys have a Summertime Christmas down under. Not so much here in America especially with me being from the Midwest. Okay, we had a green Christmas that was surprisingly warm that time of year (it was in the 50s Fahrenheit which is almost unheard of where I’m from).
Now for all of you readers not familiar with Tokyo Godfathers, this is what the movie is about. It takes place in Japan’s capital (obviously) around Christmas time and there are three homeless people trying to survive in this snowy weather. There’s Gin, who’s a rugged and crotchety middle-aged man who struggles with alcoholism. There’s Hana, who’s a drag queen that tends to be very dramatic and has a romantic way of looking at life. The last one is Miyuki who’s a runaway girl who’s very brash and tomboyish. After going to the local Christmas pageant for some free food, they go dumpster diving for more food and supplies until they all find a baby girl that was buried in all of the trash. Hana decides to name the girl Kiyoko and the three of them become unlikely foster parents of sorts before seeing how they can return the child to her parents. As the homeless trio takes care of Kiyoko, they encounter other people that need help along the way, but they get entangled into crazy situation after crazy situation in order to find out who the parents are.
A:It is almost like a comedy of errors, huh? Yet, the narrative often keeps things firmly in that idea of ‘Christmas miracle’, as the trials they face lead to another clue or some respite from trouble. In that sense, Tokyo Godfathers really does feel like a fantasy but the setting is still kinda grimy. After all, the poor kid’s found in a trash heap and our heroes are homeless so it’s not a conventionally ‘pretty’ anime – instead, I think the obvious inference we as viewers are encouraged to make is that we should recognise the beauty of humanity beyond appearances.
I think that’s one aspect that makes it a perfect Christmas film too. And down here in Australia most of us had an extremely rough fire-season to go with our holidays (I could have used some of that Northern Hemisphere snow you missed 🙂 ) so I found watching Tokyo Godfathers a really welcome distraction, even as you say, we’re watching it a little late. Speaking of snow, I wanted to ask, since we both like haiku, whether you enjoyed the appearances of haiku?
A little baby / powdery snow on its cheeks / on this holy night
My mother’s white breath / as she watches me set out / on a long journey
On the year’s last day / when all of a life’s accounts / have been settled up
O: That would certainly be accurate about it being a comedy of errors. Tokyo Godfathers certainly delivers funny moments like Hana’s “eating for two” comment or the callback to that quote when one of the parishioners sees him with Kiyoko from a distance, Gin temporarily losing his voice due to losing his breath as he’s explaining the mother’s whereabouts, or the yakuza don not paying attention on the road were random highlights for me. The comedy worked, but I enjoyed there is a healthy balance between the funny and serious moments. The “Christmas miracle” aspect was a nice contrast with the grimy reality of poverty, homelessness, and crime. Your sentiment of recognizing beauty beyond appearances is quite the opposite of so many Western animated films while also unintentionally reminding me of the French/Congolese music documentary Benda Bilili! Since the title refers to two-thirds of the Kinshasa-based band’s name (Staff Benda Bilili) and it’s Lingala for “Look beyond appearances”. Wow, I didn’t expect to cross over a documentary or a DRC band in an anime review, but I really was adding to your point. Hahaha!
Yeah, having a summer Christmas is so foreign to me. I never experienced a warm January until I visited Ecuador three years ago. I’m certainly fine with snow as long as the roads are plowed and salted. Trust me, driving in three inches or more of snow really isn’t fun. With that said, I was sorry to hear about Australia’s fire issues and all the damage done to the people, wildlife, and the environment. The haiku? Oh, yeah. You knew I would be a fan of that being an actual narrative device. I’m a poet and spoken word artist, so this was right up my alley. A few years ago, I did a whole series on katauta, so I do have an interest in Japanese styles of poetry.
A: I thought you’d dig the ku 🙂
O: You’d be right about that. The verses were plot relevant and certainly creative in its presentation. I liked how the words of the haiku showed up on screen every time Hana would wax poetic in those moments.
A: I think about the verses a lot because it really feels like another piece of fantastic congruity in an already super-cohesive film – each haiku has a winter kigo and the setting is full of snow and shadow, the layers of clothing for the characters signal it too or the coldness of the antagonists.
Speaking of antagonists, I also really like that there aren’t many simplistic villain/hero set-ups in the movie – even with the shattered family that kicks everything off. It’s understandable why some of their actions were taken, even if it’s still unconscionable. Right down to the yakuza you mentioned, we see that humanisation. This extends to our leads I guess, as they have some pretty rough secrets in their past, though maybe Hana is the most open of all the characters.
About Hana, I wanted to ask whether you’d come across much writing around representation for her or the film in general? In terms of representation she’s far from a cruel cliche played as a joke – she’s a fully realised character, but I did stumble across a concern about some translations of the script into English, where choosing to use a slur for what might have actually been better written as ‘drag queen’.
O: Definitely. The poetry really adds another layer to Tokyo Godfathers without becoming overbearing or even pretentious. I feel like most other directors would’ve been too obtuse or handled it in a clunky matter. For example, I do like Makoto Shinkai’s works, but there are times when the poetic aspect wasn’t needed in some of his films.
That’s right. The people feel human whether it’s the main characters, the yakuza don, the Latinx family living in Japan, and most of the other passersby. Most of the characters had some kind of humanization. The characters that come the closest to being straight-up villains even if it was to shed light on an issue were those rich kids who beat up Gin in the middle of the film. That’s a sad thing that happens in Japan where the homeless population gets abused. It’s not even just limited to that nation since I know that happens in America as well by some “Affluenza gangs” of sorts who come from wealthy families and get away with so many things. Not many movies would dare to take on poverty or call out a situation that is very under-reported, to say the least.
Good question about Hana. I totally understand the concerns about the translations about the multiple instances of homophobic language whether by Gin or Hana. This came out in the early 00s when it wasn’t seen as much of an issue back then which certainly doesn’t help. There could’ve been better word choices or at least they could’ve tweaked the script to where Hana would call out those who would use those words. I do feel like Hana is someone who is believable and can be taken seriously as a character. When I first watched this film, I did have concerns if she would be some flaming LGBT stereotype. Yes, the drag queen/transvestite aspect certainly plays into the character, but she doesn’t play it up as much as one would expect. Besides being addressed by a female name, wearing women’s clothes, and even using feminine dialogue like saying “Atashi (wa)” as opposed to the gender-neutral “Watashi (wa)” or masculine “Boku (wa)” when comes to saying “I (am)” in Japanese, she is someone with redeemable character traits who legitimately wanted the best for everyone. Even though I’m a straight man, I didn’t feel as though Hana was some stereotypical LGBT character.
A: I hadn’t noticed the personal pronoun aspects, that’s a great piece of detail. And yeah, she’s got the biggest heart in the film 🙂
I can’t find the quote but I believe Kon mentions that 1948 film as one aspect of what inspired him here, but I found it interesting that if ‘3 Godfathers’ has the baby as its device to drive a redemption arc for criminals, that Kon chose to give the heroic task of saving a baby to three folks who were not bad sorts. More, three people who are also vulnerable. In this sense, I wonder how much social commentary we can read into the film? We’ve both talked about the work done to humanise everyone in the movie and you mentioned the rich punks beating up the homeless, which I’ve seen in other anime too. I wonder, with the focus in the mainstream on Shonen fighting (and also Isekai) whether at times, the heroism in anime can be focused on massive battles against massively evil forces – sometimes to the exclusion of ‘smaller’ heroes? Is there shrinking room for social commentary in anime? It is out there but I suspect commercial pressures shape the landscape as much as anything else.
O: No problem. It was something I remembered from my Japanese classes during my later high school years. If you want a very glaring example of this in that language, I’d check out Kino’s Journey and the first movie from the original series. Going back on topic, Hana is the heart of the trio.
I wasn’t aware of that quote or notion, but this gives a whole new dynamic to Tokyo Godfathers. The only one who did anything criminal of the bunch was Miyuki and while I’m not excusing her actions in this case, the three of them were vulnerable people in their own ways but were united because of their homeless state. It’s like they know they can’t survive on their own for long, so they become a surrogate family of sorts with Gin being the dad, Hana being the mom, and Miyuki being their teenage daughter if you will. The dynamics work well even with how broken they all are.
My goodness, you bring up a very legitimate point about heroism. In the context of anime, you always see these giant epic battles with the fate of a city or the world at stake. I’m even going to add to your point by saying Tokyo Godfathers becomes an even starker contrast in heroism in hindsight when you consider how popular superhero movies have been for over a decade now (Iron Man pun not intended). With the MCU and DC, you see these same giant battles or at least high-risk situations going on and people assume that’s the kind of heroism that matters. Instead of showing heroes in spandex, capes, masks, or martial arts outfits, we see people who would be considered at the bottom of society doing the simple kindness of taking care of a baby, saving someone from being buried in a car in the snow, or even just talking to an immigrant family despite language barriers was that much more poignant. This could be a great discussion piece on “smaller” heroes as opposed to the rampant superhero or Shonen fighting-type stories that many idolize that people forget to do “smaller” forms of doing good things. I don’t expect to see Superman flying around to fly people to safety in reality. I don’t expect to see Captain America using his shield to fight bad guys in real life. I sure don’t see Goku coming to Kamehameha or spirit bomb any inter-dimensional threats. However, I do know there are people helping others in simple and understated ways, but they never get the shine like fictional characters do. What does that say about our society and what constitutes heroism?
A: I think a lot about this in terms of who we elevate in society, yeah. So many ‘smaller’ folks do so much but receive too little recognition. I do wonder how much of our attraction to the larger-than-life heroes simply comes from needing those giants… maybe as some sort of paragon to look up to, even being aware that it’s not possible in the real world? I do wish heroism was more generally discussed in a broader sense/more visible in film. And while we definitely agree on the heroes in Tokyo Godfathers I wanted to ask where you saw shortcomings in the movie?
For me I guess I wanted a little more backstory for our heroes at times, though I know it would have impacted what felt like pretty great pacing to me. I’m in two minds about whether more condemnation of the villain for abandoning the baby would have been good – I guess it could easily changed the tone of the film too much if Gin had given him a real thrashing.
O: Oh, sure. I could see your typical superhero type to be some kind of paragon to look up to, but some of them can be Marty Stus/Mary Sues. Seeing three normal people who are in the bottom echelons of society makes them more relatable and grounded. We see their flaws and some aspects of their situation were out of their control. I wish other forms of heroism were discussed like those without superpowers or hi-tech gadgets to save the day.
I do agree that a bit more backstory would’ve helped with the main characters. They could spend even just a few more minutes doing so. What they had was great and worked well with the pacing. While the concept of rich people abusing the poor was a rare concept that needed to be addressed, that affluenza gang was karma houdinis that got away and weren’t mentioned again. Part of me wanted there to be some kind of retribution even if they weren’t a main part of the story. Maybe this could be fridge brilliance with how those with money get away with crimes even though what they clearly did was enough to get anyone behind bars. Man alive, you have those in jail serving hard time for non-violent offenses and this would include homeless people being locked up because of their homelessness. I also thought that Sachiko got off with just a slap on the wrist (or rather a slap from Hana after they interact) for what she did at the climax of the film. I wouldn’t wish what happened to her in the backstory to anyone, but that in no way excuses what she did. If that was a man in her position, he’d be considered the biggest monster of the movie (I’m trying not to spoil for those who haven’t seen Tokyo Godfathers). The story was still great regardless, but those were things that bugged me that came to mind.
A: Definitely with the Marty/Mary stuff, yeah. And that’s a really good point about the punks and especially Sachiko, I remember wondering whether the dark humour of the bridge scene undercut some of the seriousness of the moment with her? (Also, trying not to spoil that part :D). Walking the line between comedy and drama with such serious subject matter must have been tough but it feels like Kon did succeed ultimately, huh?
O: Yeah. The darkly comedic aspect did undercut the bridge scene a bit and even more so in hindsight given the finale. Kon was able to bring the whole story together, but there were a few missteps along the way. I’m probably going to sound like a hardcore dyed-in-the-wool fanboy for Kon-sensei, but I don’t think most other directors would’ve handled the balance as well as he did.
In closing, I was glad to have re-watched this film. I was planning on reviewing it alone at first for my goal to review everything Satoshi Kon directed, but ever since I got that email for a collaborative review, I thought to myself “Yeah, let’s make it a collab.” Thanks, Ashley! I’m glad to have collaborated with you. This film is certainly a must-see for anyone regardless if they are anime fans or not. The level of humanity of the characters is spot-on, the animation is wonderful despite not being as flashy as Paprika, and the themes used are still relevant to this day. I will admit that there were a few flaws that prevented me from giving it a full 10/10 with some underdeveloped story and character aspects, but they were minuscule in hindsight. Any closing thoughts, Ashley?
A: I think just thanks for reviewing this with me 🙂 It was a lot of fun to collaborate and I enjoyed seeing the film from other angles, and especially the way that something you noticed then triggered something for me. And I feel like a Kon fanatic too… but it really is a fantastic film, folks!
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1 point if you like anything from Satoshi Kon.
Add 1 point if you like dark humour.
Subtract 1-2 points if you want flashier and over-the-top animation.
Subtract 1-2 points if you prefer bright, wholly happy films.
Subtract 1-2 points if you don’t enjoy films featuring coincidence as plot feature.
-Wonderful main characters and their interactions
-Excellent albeit understated animation quality
-Relevant and on-point social commentary
-Sachiko and the affluenza gang got off the hook too easy
-Some less-than-desirable moments of dark comedy
-More character insight would’ve been great
Final Score from Curtis/Ospreyshire: 9/10
Final Score from Ashley: 9/10
Content Warning: Tokyo Godfathers is rated PG-13 which makes sense. While this film is nowhere near as graphic as Perfect Blue or Paprika, I wouldn’t let young children watch it. There are adult themes with child abandonment, homelessness, poverty, suicide, and alcoholism to name a few. The language does get very strong in parts and there’s homophobic language around Hana given that she’s a drag queen/transvestite. There are moments of blood and violence with Miyuki’s backstory, the affluenza gang beating up on Gin, and actual on-screen murder of a Yakuza member by gunshot during a wedding party. The only other things would be some innuendo and a couple of cases of nudity with breastfeeding.
-Written by Curtis Monroe and Ashley Capes
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Tokyo Godfathers is property of Madhouse, Destination Films, and GKIDS. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of Destination Films and GKIDS. The screenshots are from the UK release of the Tokyo Godfathers DVD (Thanks, Ashley!) and is property of Madhouse.