animefringe october 2003 / feature
Animefringe Coverage:
Tokyo Godfathers - Yakuza, Trans-Bars and the Homeless Who Loved Them

This year's Big Apple Anime Fest, held on Labor Day Weekend in Times Square, Manhattan, had the distinguished honor of holding the world premiere of the latest film by Satoshi Kon and Studio Madhouse. Those of us in the 400-seat theatre were the first in the world to publicly view the beautiful and powerful film, Tokyo Godfathers. Kon's new work, completed but two weeks prior to the Labor Day Weekend premiere, was one of the most amazing pieces of animation I have yet to set my eyes on.

(On a side note: Never before has being an American anime fan been so enjoyable.)

The film takes place in the holiday season, the week starting at Christmas Eve and ending at New Years, a season of snow, present-giving, temple visits, and above all, family. The film stars members of the invisible population of Tokyo, three homeless people named Hana, Gin, and Miyuki. Looking for Christmas presents among the trash-heaps of Tokyo, worrying about keeping warm and eating well, the trio unexpectedly find a newborn baby girl in the rubbish. Armed with a strong determination, the three embark on an amazing journey through the different parts of Tokyo to find the mother of the lost child and discover why the child was thrown away.

The film opens with Hana and Gin go to a Christmas Eve homeless service, where their attendance is exchanged for a warm meal. While Hana is moved by the service, Gin is annoyed, grudgingly taking the free food for himself and for their little runaway, teenage Miyuki.

After their meal of soup and bread, the trio decides to go through the garbage to find Christmas presents for each other. Instead of clothing or discarded merchandise, the three homeless people find an abandoned baby girl. At first surprised and planning to give the child away to the police, the three eventually decide to take a different path. Calling the child "Kiyoko" which means "Little Pure One", Hana, Gin, and Miyuki go on a journey to find the parents of Kiyoko and determine whether or not they deserve to have this child returned to them.

Each character has his or her reasons for going along with this caper and spending the week searching through all of Tokyo for the negligent mother. Playing the mother figure in the homeless trio is Hana, a transgendered woman who has always dreamed of having a child. Hana takes the infant's arrival as her one chance to be a mother, to live for and take care of such an innocent life. She immediately takes charge of the group, forcing the other two to go along with the insane adventure she proposes. Exactly because she cannot herself have children, she is angered that anyone with such a power could throw away this gift. Thus, until she finds out what extraordinary circumstances led to this tragedy, she won't give the child back to the parents.

The fatherly member of the group is 40-year-old Gin, a gambler who lost all, including his family, and has lived a homeless existence for quite a few years. A gruff, hardworking man, he does his best to provide shelter and food to the two others in his care. Due to a variety of circumstances revealed as the film progresses, Gin has lost his family, forcing him to live in the streets, forever reminiscing of what he once lost. While he usually hides his true feelings behind harsh words and a cold exterior, the film reveals Gin to be a deeply caring guy, who will take care of the people around him, no matter the circumstances or the costs.

Miyuki plays the daughter role in this ragtag family. A teenage runaway for reasons I dare not spoil here, she somehow starts living with Gin and Hana, keeping up a rough, nasty front in order to look strong in the face of her new family. At heart, though, she's just a kid, who is soon thrust into the role of caretaker of the newborn Kiyoko. On the run from her family, she lives in fear of being found and taken back, yet at the same time yearning to return to the home she left behind.

The introduction of the child into the lives of these three homeless people, each coming to the situation from very different places in life, completes them as a family unit. Through thick and thin, they each endure many trials in their quest for Kiyoko. In the film, they constantly rely upon each other to get through not only this adventure, but through their harsh lives as part of the homeless, ignored masses of the economically depressed Japan.

Following tiny clues and scant evidence, the trio embarks on their adventure, which takes them into all the red-light districts across Tokyo. Starting with a locker key found with the child, the trio walks through miles of snow, avoids near-fatal car accidents, gets held up by Latin gangsters, and hangs out with a club full of transsexuals on their journey to help Kiyoko.

An action family comedy. What an odd addition to Kon's cinematic portfolio.

Kon is an amazingly prolific director; each film that he created is uniquely different not only from the rest of anime cinema, but also from each other. Perfect Blue was a brilliant psychological thriller that tore apart the harsh music and film industry of Japan with cutting-edge animation and brilliant editing. His follow-up, last year's Millennium Actress, was part historical journey through the pre-war, military-controlled Japan to well into the post-war era, and part romance, told through some of the most intriguing editing I've seen in any media format.

Tokyo Godfathers, compared to his first two films, is a very straightforward piece. While this film lacks the dynamic and exciting editing that was a signature aspect of his first two films, it easily makes up for it by keeping an exciting pace, punctuating the action with truly unpredictable events, tying together the themes of fate into this action-adventure comedy.

Simply put, Kon has shown that he is one of the most amazing individuals to ever be a part of the animation world. What he does with the medium is simply breathtaking, completely utilizing all the artistic advantages that only animation can offer in comparison to other forms of media, such as live-action cinema or comics. If one were to say that anime is going through an evolution, then surely Kon is the new leader of this wave of revolutionary animation. His contributions to the field of animation in the past few years have been remarkable. Tokyo Godfathers is further evidence of this fact.