Tokyo Godfathers (2003) is in many ways the perfect Christmas film. It’s an antidote to both the saccharine holiday specials each network feels compelled to churn out this time of year, and the holiday “comedy” films about finding or delivering the right toys to the right kids at the right time. It takes place on Christmas Eve, but it is not, strictly speaking, about Christmas. It’s about three homeless people finding an abandoned baby. But it’s really about the families we lose, the families we choose, the mistakes we make and the things we say, and the back alleys we wander through on the long road to redemption.
The late Satoshi Kon is best known for evoking feelings of fear and trepidation in pieces like Perfect Blue, Paranoia Agent, and Paprika, but watching Tokyo Godfathers you learn that it’s not dread he understood best, but the human heart itself. It helps that Kon was assisted in writing this screenplay by none other than Keiko Nobumoto, who also scripted Cowboy Bebop and Wolf’s Rain. Both those series are about chosen families facing impossible odds and unforgiving societies, and both examine personal tragedy with an unflinching gaze. That same approach is what makes Tokyo Godfathers so rewarding to watch.
The film centres on four homeless people: Gin, an alcoholic who claims his family is dead; Hana, a former host club worker; Miyuki, a runaway, and Kiyoko, the baby they find abandoned in a pile of garbage. The three of them are prickly people scarred by very deep wounds, and as such are often disappointed in themselves and each other. They fight, they cry, they laugh, they get drunk and try to avoid being kicked to death by random teenagers. They are, in short, human beings, and we learn why each of them can’t go home as they spend Christmas finding a home for the baby.
That process takes them to the lowest places in Tokyo, to yakuza weddings and crowded kitchens, to bars and hospitals and convenience stores. For as much as this film is about families, it is also about cities. If you enjoy films like L.A. Story, Manhattan, or Paris, Je T’aime, or if you’ve ever enjoyed the way that big cities can sometimes feel like small towns, this is the film for you. It highlights the fact that what makes a city wonderful is not always the architecture or the services, but the connections between its inhabitants.
Those connections can at times feel contrived. The film walks a fine line between everyday whimsy and Dickensian coincidence. Occasionally, it stumbles. It relies heavily on luck, but never implies any sort of supernatural or divine blessing. Rather, it explores the miracles of connection and redemption, of what happens when the people who have always done the wrong thing at the wrong time start doing the right thing at the right time. It may be about a child of mysterious parentage found by three wizened people in the urban equivalent of a manger, but there is no guiding star, here, no sign or revelation. The revelations in this story are intimate, but wondrous: the discovery of family, of possibility, of truth, of hope, of home.
Home is where we make it. Too often at this time of year, we focus on what that home should look like, who should be there, how we should feel when we return there or welcome others. We miss what is there, and what we do have. Tokyo Godfathers is about having nothing at Christmas, and finding that everything you needed was right there all along, like a gift waiting to be opened.
Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and foresight consultant living in Toronto. Her debut novel, vN, will be available in August from Angry Robot Books.