Christmas in Japan – what do I know about it? Well, considering Christianity makes up 2.3% of religious beliefs in the county (that’s still 2.9 million people, roughly the entire population of Jamaica…quite insane, I know) it usually is celebrated as a secular and commercial holiday that’s good for business. I’m aware that it’s quite traditional for Kids who (sort of) experience it like every other country that allows it. While for adults and teens, it depends on the individual. Some go on dates, others are with family and friends, and others are alone or too busy with work and it’s a normal day. There’s also the known fact that KFC’s business booms around that time of year, to the point that meals have to be ordered a year in advance…and then there’s the strawberry cream cake, which is also, seemingly, a Japan-only Christmas tradition long before Chicken was considered. However, despite the range of celebrations of the holiday around this time of year – the artistic expression of the season isn’t as evident beyond the Christmas Decorations. SEGA’s Ryū ga Gotoku (Yakuza) games usually happen in December, so the decorations are up and the music is playing throughout each tale. Some anime shows would have 1 Christmas episode, usually about the 2 love interests in a Slice-Of-Life anime, and altogether there are only 3 Japanese Christmas Movies that Wikipedia is aware of: The live action (Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, starring David Bowie and featuring Ryuchi Sakamoto’s famous piano piece of the same name), the stop motion animation from 1979 called Nutcracker Fantasy, and of course, the 1 in focus for today; The anime.
Directed by the late great Satoshi Kon (7 years later, the void remains), Tokyo Godfathers is a Christmas movie about 3 homeless people; Gin, a middle aged gambling addict and alcoholic who says he was a bicycle racer. Hana, a former drag queen who became homeless after the death of a boyfriend. And finally, Miyuki, a fouled-mouthed 14 year old high school student who ran away from home after a violent argument with her father. After receiving food from a Christian Outreach via outdoor soup kitchen with Christmas Carols and Sermon, the 3 end up finding a baby in a trash pile, which in turn leads us on an adventure as the 3 unlikely heroes go in search of the baby’s parents.
Now to go into some details:
The Animation, much like Satoshi Kon’s other work, is absolutely top notch. It’s grounded in reality, and yet it throws in a number of facial expressions and visual quirks that can only be found in animation. The expressions are realistic with a subtle cartoon hint that isn’t really over the top.
Actors are awesome, but sometimes you need to turn volumes up to 11 in the facial department for the biggest laugh.
Unlike Satoshi Kon’s other work, which are extremely colourful and like to blend reality and fantasy – Tokyo Godfather’s art style chooses to be grounded in reality, with any blending being created by hunger induced hallucinations. The backgrounds look like they were rotoscoped from photographs (Some might ask why not just use the photos on their own to save time, well, animated characters need to be in a world that looks like somewhere they belong, and sometimes you’re not going to get completely empty shops and streets). The brightest scenes in the movie take place either indoors or where street lights or business signs are in galore. In the process there is balance and change in scenery.
Yes, in the name of submerging animated characters their world, you sometimes have to recreate photos as illustrations.
The Music is like the film’s story – Happy, Sad, Funny and Chaotic. It doesn’t stand out like the rest of the movie, or even from other Kon movies like Perfect Blue and Paprika where music is tied into the stories. But it’s eclectic and suits the scenes really well, including, obviously, at least 1 Christmas song.
The Voice Acting is excellent with both the weight and the emotion transcending the language barrier (This is the Japanese audio). Japanese audiences could say otherwise, but to my ear, it worked really well.
The Characters, especially our 3 heroes, are very colourful and at times can come across as more human than most live action shows. With the exception of the thugs that beat up Gin halfway into the movie, no character comes across as bad…just sad, broken and lonely – a reflection on how some people are around that time of year. Throughout the movie, these 3 meet all sorts of folk, ranging from troubled couples to Yakuza to immigrants to other people who remind them either of their past or point them towards their possible future if they continue down such a path. Together they make up a sort of distorted nuclear family with Gin as the drunk good-for-nothing dad, Hana as the protective mother, Mizuki as the oldest child who fights with Dad, and obviously the baby Kiyoko (whose name means pure child, a reference to being found on Christmas Eve)as the newest arrival. As the story progresses, even for just 92 minutes, you get to know who they really are and even feel for them deeply as they confront their pasts.
The Story and its themes are by far Satoshi Kon’s most straightforward while having all of the twists and turns of an unpredictable but oddly logical story. It places great emphasis on coincidences and timing. It shows that even the smallest detail can tie complete strangers to each other for better or worse. It also has “miracles” woven into the plot, as particular timing seems to not only rescue the 3 homeless grumps (and a baby), but also have them confront their pasts – pasts that made them homeless to begin with, whether through misunderstandings or stupid mistakes and selfishness. The theme of family plays throughout the film as well. This thrown together family is highly dysfunctional, and could part ways if they wanted to…and yet they look out for each other. It challenges not only traditional families, but also the pseudo family.
Would I recommend Tokyo Godfathers? Absolutely! It’s not a Christmas movie that gets brought up much, but it’s incredibly funny and entertaining, even if anime is not your cup of tea. It’s humour (and language) is not for kids, but it has a ton of heart and is probably 1 of the best seemingly-out-of-place Christmas movies out there.
Art Style: ****3/4
Voice Acting: ****3/4