Film Review: Hilarious and Compassionate, ‘Tokyo Godfathers’ Delights with a Phenomenal Christmas Tale
On Christmas Eve, three homeless people living on the streets of Tokyo discover a newborn baby among the trash and set out to find its parents.
Director: Satoshi Kon
Cast: Tôru Emori, Aya Okamoto, Yoshiaki Umegaki, Shôzô Îzuka
Language: Japanese, Spanish
Runtime: 92 minutes
Considering how Satoshi Kon is well known for his films Perfect Blue and Paprika which tap into psychological horror, one wouldn’t expect him to venture into comedy. But he did. With Tokyo Godfathers. And he did it pretty fricking well.
Co-written by Keiko Nobumoto who wrote Cowboy Bebop, Tokyo Godfathers tells the tale of three homeless people, a former drag queen named Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki), an alcoholic named Gin (Tôru Emori), and a teenage runaway girl named Miyuki (Aya Okamoto). They bicker with each other frequently, but they still support and care for one another like a family. On Christmas Eve, they find an abandoned baby in the dumpster. Christening the baby as Kiyoko, Hana insists on finding Kiyoko’s parents to find out why they had abandoned her.
And thus begins a wild, hilarious adventure of finding Kiyoko’s parents. Along the way, they get into the most ridiculous, yet somehow believable incidents, such as saving a guy from getting crushed by his own car, getting embroiled in an assassination scheme, granting a homeless man’s dying wish of wanting to drink alcohol before he dies, and many more.
At some point, you’ll start to wonder in disbelief how so many extraordinary things can happen in a short span of time, often in the trio’s favour. Coincidences hardly work convincingly in stories, especially when there are several of them. But the film has two little tricks up its sleeve to persuade the viewers. Either Hana would gleefully proclaim that Kiyoko is their lucky star, or it’s all a Christmas miracle. Maybe some viewers will still find the plot unconvincing, but I went along with the flow and definitely enjoyed the extraordinariness even more.
Throughout the film, Kon throws in tons of slapstick jokes, black and absurdist humour. But never once do they feel forced or cringy. He knows exactly how to handle the beats, the mood, and the dialogue to get his viewers roaring with laughter. The characters’ facial expressions as they argue with one another are also exaggerated without being too gimmicky.
But the film is more than its light-heartedness and frivolity. Kon knows when to dial down the humour to pivot into more sombre or sentimental atmospheres so as to touch on heavyweight issues, like homelessness, poverty, queer subculture, and traditional and non-traditional family structures.
The film especially doesn’t hold back on showing how intentionally violent and cruel people can be towards homeless people. There are times where extra characters throw snide remarks at the trio’s ragged appearances and smelliness. There is even a scene where some youngsters enjoy bashing up Gin in a park. Kon opens our eyes to the plight of the marginalised, the abandoned, and asks us to sympathise with them.
And therein lies what I believe to be the true beauty of the film. Sure, the visuals are beautiful, and the humour is excellent, but Kon’s treatment of his characters especially deserves praise. Often, comedy films make fun of their stock or caricaturised characters as means of humour, which can be degrading. Kon, however, chooses to treat his characters with empathy and generosity, even if they’re flawed.
For instance, Gin has made a lot of mistakes in his past and is liable to lying, often at the detriment of his companions. Miyuki, as well, can be quite mean-spirited and hostile. But the film never punishes them for their flaws. Instead, they confront their pasts and acknowledge their mistakes, growing organically and tremendously in the process. If you love the trio for their hilarity, I’m sure you’ll love them even more, by the end of the film, for how vulnerable, yet honest they become with one another and with themselves.
Is Tokyo Godfathers a feel-good, wholesome film? Yes and no. Just as there are times where you laugh at the trio’s antics, there are also moments where you want to reach out and give them a hug for the hardships they’ve been through, and times where you get angry at the injustice of things. And if that’s not a testament to Kon’s brilliance, I don’t know what is. Tokyo Godfathers is truly an unforgettable Christmas film that nobody should miss, and I will revisit it as my favourite holiday classic for years to come.
Tokyo Godfathers is now shown in The Projector with two of its three only screenings sold out. Hurry up and catch the last screening on 1 January 2021 before it sells out!
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