Director – Satoshi Kon – 2003 – Japan – Cert. 12 – 91m
Three homeless people – a drag queen, a hard drinker and a runaway teenage girl – find an abandoned baby at Christmas and resolve to return her to her parents – plays in the Anime season April / May 2022 at BFI Southbank
This opens with a nativity play to an audience of what one initially presumes to be admiring parents, a perception rapidly revised with the realisation that what is on offer is a programme of ‘nativity play, sermon, dinner’ for Tokyo’s homeless, with the first two items something to endure in order to access the much wanted third one. Any thought that the film is going to deal with religion is however swiftly dismissed with the introduction of three homeless characters holed up in an empty house containing a piles of discarded and bagged up goods, one of which turns out to contain an abandoned baby.
Teenage runaway Miyuki (voice: Aya Okamoto) has fallen in with two men old enough to be her father (if not her grandfather) who look out for her: the cross-dressing Miss Hana (voice: Yoshiaki Umegaki) and the hard-drinking Gin (voice: Toru Emori). Miyuki is working through daddy issues, Hana identifies as female and Gin has never got over the death of his wife and daughter. If they sound unlikely surrogate parents, led by Hana’s desire for motherhood, they rise to the challenge.
A Christmas movie that plays equally well at any other time of year, this swiftly dispenses with the superficial trappings of organised religion while appropriating the protagonists of the Biblical nativity story for its main narrative. Three homeless people – a man, a teenage girl and a drag queen – stand in for the three wise men, the abandoned baby girl they name Kiyoko for the baby Jesus and their object of their search – the child’s parents – relegated for most of the running length to a couple in a photograph with the family home and a double skyscraper landmark in the background – as the (absent) Holy Mother and Father. With the attempt to take care of the child while attempting to find her parents and return her to them, the story evokes the seasonal – and indeed Biblical – sentiment of “Peace On Earth and Good Will to All Men”; arguably a little picture of the Kingdom of Heaven in miniature.
Like Perfect Blue (Satoshi Kon, 1997), this opens with a stage play which swiftly turns out to be a sideshow to the main event: in this case, three homeless people surviving on the streets at Christmas who discover an abandoned child. Miss Hana recalls that film’s fanboy stalker, a distinctive fact that immediately stands out in a crowd.
Also like Perfect Blue, it defies convention as to what animation ought to be. Starting off as a drama about homelessness and surrogate parenthood, it veers at various points into violent crime within the family unit and even a bravura car chase. Once again, the characters are the thing: Kon is fascinated by what makes people tick and at times achieves moments of great sensitivity. Without ever being cloying or manipulative, the whole thing is intensely moving. Kon’s signature, muted colour palette immediately links the visual style to that of Perfect Blue, even though, on so many levels, it’s a very different film. Another extraordinary work of genius.
Tokyo Godfathers plays in the Anime season April / May 2022 at BFI Southbank. It can also be found on Netflix.