Tokyo Godfathers opens with Christmas mass. The Tokyo congregation is not made up of finely dressed churchgoers, but a ragged group of homeless people. Amidst the throng of people are Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) and Gin (Toru Emori). As the two wait in line, Hana bemoans that he’s a woman trapped in a male body and wonders if he might become the virgin Marry and conceive without sex. When he tells the server he’s eating for two, the shock is palpable. The duo returns to Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), a spunky teen with a chip on her shoulder.
Like the Christmas story, the lives of these homeless people are interrupted by an infant. Instead of a manger, it’s a pile of trash where the pair find the infant child. The trio decides to search for the child’s parents. Unbeknownst to them, this begins a journey of forgiveness and redemption that perfectly captures the rich hope of the birth of baby Jesus.
As they search for the parents, the journey forces all three characters to face the sins of their past. This takes the form of the characters’ facing people from their past that they have harmed or wronged. What they learn is that these characters have already forgiven them and they only need to accept that forgiveness and forgive themselves.
Therefore, the lack of forgiveness is not in the individual wronged, but comes from a deeper source. All of the characters are unable to forgive themselves for what they’ve done. They recognize the obscenity of what they’ve committed and it’s ultimately that within themselves that they need to address, not the external affirmation or approval of those they’ve wronged.
But this journey is not just a story of forgiveness, but one of salvation. Throughout the film, the characters encounter circumstances and situations in which they either need to save someone or they are saved by someone else. There’s the fat man stuck under the car, the hitman at the party, and the prostitutes from Hana’s old club. All these encounters recognize the need for a deeper salvation and some force behind it all that is forcing these characters to come face to face with a cosmic fate.
But it’s not always people that provide this salvation. The final act builds to an interesting climax. The resolution is not any of the characters saving the day, but a magnificent deus ex machina that defies reason or logic. It’s an act of God, the divine descending into the affairs of men, that ultimately saves the day.
As a work of animation, Tokyo Godfathers is notable for a few things. The first is its use of expressive faces. While this is the most realistically animated of Satoshi Kon’s films, he often uses performances of faces that simply would not work in live action. These expressions are almost always to enhance the comical elements of the film.
Another easy to overlook feature of the animation is the constant snowing in Tokyo. It rarely snows in Tokyo and when it does it’s only for a few days and there’s not much of it. But in animation, weather is controlled by the whims of the artist, making Tokyo Godfathers into the mythical winter wonderland that is Christmastime.
The final strong element of animation is the character of Hana. His gender duality creates for a fascinating feat of animation. While Hana often gives hand expressions of a woman, his walk is that of a man. When he runs, his hands might be flailing about like a woman in distress, his steps are long, masculine strides. While an actor certainly could have learned to perform this way, animation sells the effect with a lot less effort.
All together, these elements make the film a beautiful portrait of the hope and healing of the Christmas season. As the virgin snow falls down on the dregs of society, hope arrives in the form of a child. Love and forgiveness mingle in a series of orchestrated events that weave all things together. Christmas miracles are real.
© 2016 James Blake Ewing