Feature Four Frames

Realism and miracles: Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers

The anime film Tokyo Godfathers (Tokyo Goddofazazu, Japan, 2003) starts with children performing the nativity scene on Christmas eve and singing “Silent Night”. It is only after these comforting and delightful first shots that the whole setting is revealed – the interior of a church crowded with shabbily dressed men and women. The dark colours – black, brown, grey – that dominate in their clothing and the darkness of the church that surrounds them contrasts starkly with the brighter colours of the nativity performance. Among the crowd of poor and homeless people are the film’s three main protagonists – the alcoholic Gin (Toru Emori), the transgender woman Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) and the runaway adolescent girl Miyuki (Aya Okamoto) – who live in a tent in Central Park in Tokyo’s Shinjuku quarter. While searching in the rubbish bags for Christmas presents, they discover an abandoned newborn baby among the garbage. Hana, who says “In my heart, I am a woman”, sees her dream of becoming a mother – for her the fulfilment of womanhood – coming true, and she takes the baby with her, ignoring Gin’s and Miyuki’s objections. However, instead of handing it over to the police, all three of them set off on a search for its parents.

© 2003 Dentsu

Tokyo Godfathers is the third anime film directed by manga author Satoshi Kon after Perfect Blue (1998) and Millennium Actress (2002), and it was produced by the animation studio Madhouse. The plot recalls John Ford’s 3 Godfathers (USA, 1948), a film in which three desperados find a woman dying in the desert and save the life of her baby. Kon develops a story which is original on both the narrative and the aesthetic level by presenting a blend of realism and almost magic moments, the latter appropriate to the film’s Christmas setting.

“This is a Christmas present from God,” says Hana, who wants to keep the baby but in the end accepts that it needs its parents. However, there is little room for sentimentalism in the film or for magic, as they are continually challenged by realism. Christmas is evoked less by festive illuminations than in a more down-to-earth way by the date 25 December, with the numbers 25 and 12 appearing on the key to a locker that the three protagonists find together with the baby, in the digital display of an alarm clock that has stopped, on a taxi’s number plate, on the page of a newspaper and in the taxi fare (12,250 yen).

Christmas is also evoked  by frequent references to angels, for example when Hana gives the baby the name Kiyoko, written with the kanji for “pure child” and calling the little girl “angel”. However, the other references to angels have no religious or cultural significance – Angel being the name of Miyuki’s cat, which had white spots on its fur that looked like wings. It was after the disappearance of her beloved cat that Miyuki stabbed her domineering father – whom she suspected having got rid of the animal – before she ran away from home. There is an almost ironical twist in the sequence in which Gin lies helplessly in a street after being attacked by a group of young men. He has a vision of a blonde angel with big white wings who offers him “magic or an ambulance”. When Gin asks for the ambulance, the angel grunts angrily “How rude!”, and the halo of light around the angel’s head suddenly disappears. In one of the following scenes, the viewer is led to understand that the angel was not a hallucination but a young drag queen dressed like an angel in Christian iconography. 

Toyko Godfathers is not a fairy tale – it tries to explore the mindset of people who have been discarded by society, pointing to problems in contemporary Japanese society such as homelessness and runaway youngsters. Within the film’s group of the homeless, the drag queen Hana is herself an outsider among outsiders, despised by some of the other homeless people.

The discrimination in Toyko Godfathers is a general attitude towards the poor and the homeless. Miyuki’s father, a police inspector, is irritated by the fact that the parents of the abandoned child want its three rescuers – Hana, Gin and Miyuki – to be the little girl’s godparents. “But they are homeless!” he mutters. Exclusion from the rest of society becomes visual in the sequence in the crowded local train. Passengers start covering their noses with their hands before complaining about the strong smells emanating from the unwashed bodies and clothes of the three protagonists. In one very violent sequence, a group of young men beat and kick Gin over and over again, leaving him unconscious. Not satisfied with their heinous deed, which they refer to as “cleaning up”, they beat the dead body of an old, homeless man and drag it out of his shack. This is a man Gin had been looking after in the last minutes of his life.

These young men are presented as vigilantes cleaning up Tokyo of individuals who they consider “undesirable” by targeting its weakest citizens, those who have been tossed aside like trash and who live in tents or makeshift shacks all around the city. The word “trash” designating the homeless is frequently used – Gin and Hana call themselves “human trash” and live surrounded by trash. Tokyo Godfathers reveals the ugly face of Tokyo as a squalid city with dirty backstreets and huge amounts of garbage piled up at numerous locations. This is the negative side of the modern consumer society, a society that is evoked in other images showing hoardings with advertising for food and other consumer goods.

© 2003 Dentsu

The man who is assumed to be Kiyoko’s father lives in a litter-strewn appartement. He is not homeless but is a gambler and an alcoholic, a victim of the growing isolation in contemporary urban societies in which traditional family ties have been severed. This aspect is underlined by the many dysfunctional families in Kon’s film, and other social problems that Tokyo Godfathers only alludes to include drug consumption and organized crime. The impact that organized crime can have on the life of an ordinary citizen is exemplified by Gin’s story. As a middle-aged man, he was a gambler, became the victim of a loan shark and, unable to live with this shame, left his wife and daughter. 

Society does not seem to offer any answers to social problems such as poverty. The doctor at the hospital Hana was admitted to after she had a breakdown acknowledges that he is helpless. He can only treat and try to cure medical conditions and is unable to deal with poverty or homelessness, which, according to him, are problems that those concerned should solve themselves. He is not depicted as mean, but he does represent the opposite of the doctors in Akira Kurosawa’s films such as Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi, 1948) and Red Beard (Akahige, 1965), films in which illness is a symptom of a social evil that the doctors stubbornly fight against.

The setting for the social and economic crisis haunting Japan in the first years of the new millennium after the end of the “Bubble Economy” is marked by realism and a wish to deliver true representations of ordinary human beings and the city of Tokyo. Cars passing by in the background and the movements of the protagonists and other people contribute liveliness to the stillness of the background scenery with its high buildings and narrow streets. This liveliness is reinforced by the variety of light sources – the street lighting, the flashing neon lights of vending machines and the advertising on the hoardings. The film pays great attention to details, from the shots of Tokyo landmarks such as Tokyo Tower and Shinjuku’s Central Park to representations of the most insignificant objects. The AC outdoor units look as realistic as the design of the tapestry in one of the rooms.

© 2003 Dentsu

The city is presented as vibrant, and almost as a character in itself. The semi-transparent look of the rubbish bags is amazingly realistic as is the way snow is designed, its whiteness creating a special glow and the depth of the footprints looking very real. Even the human breath rising in the cold is recreated. In the scene during which Gin is brutalized by the group of youngsters, the lights in a building in the background go on and off in succession like a dramatic comment on the scene’s violence, making unnecessary any music to underpin the action. In general, Kon does not make much use of music in this film and instead relies on the noises of the city or the sound of the wind. 

The complexity of the animation reflects that of the story itself with its flashbacks and dream sequences. In their quest to establish the baby’s identity, the three protagonists have numerous adventures, saving a yakuza boss trapped under his car and having Miyuki and the baby kidnapped by a Latino hitman who had wanted to kill the yakuza.

The search for the child’s parents itself has elements of a detective story, the photograph of a young couple whom the three protagonists take for Kiyoko’s parents being their main but misleading clue. Sachiko, the woman in the photograph, who had given birth to a stillborn baby, stole the little girl from the hospital. Later, her husband got rid of the baby but without her knowledge. Hana and Miyuki, still unaware of these facts, prevent the desperate woman from committing suicide and return the baby to her. However, when the truth is revealed, Sachiko flees with the child and is chased down the streets of Tokyo by Hana and Miyuki in a taxi and by Gin on a bicycle. This chase is one of several action film elements in Tokyo Godfathers that contribute speed and suspense to the anime film. When Sachiko reaches the top of an office tower block and is about to jump with Kiyoko in her arms, Hana heroically rescues the baby. Catching hold of the little girl, she clings to a huge banner and, helped by a gust of wind, parachutes safely to the foot of the tower block.

At the end of the film, the identity of the true parents is established, and the secrets in the lives of the three protagonists are revealed one by one: Miyuki’s identity, the reason why Hana left the club where she performed as a drag queen, and Gin’s various lies about his past. He ran a bicycle shop and was not the famous racing cyclist he claimed to have been, nor did his wife and daughter die – he left them out of shame.

Many of the film’s elements – its topics and dialogues – recur, with or without variation. Gin’s lie about his past is the true life story of the doctor at the hospital, whose wife and child are no longer alive. The father of Sachiko’s stillborn child is a gambler and a drunkard, like Gin. There are four people trying to find their daughters – two fathers (Gin and Miyuki’s father) and the young couple (Kiyoko’s biological parents). Kiyoko is the name not only of the baby but that of Gin’s daughter and the daughter of the yakuza boss too. There is also a suggested link between abandoned children and Hana, who exclaims when she sees the baby Kiyoko: “I can see myself in her.” This line is reminiscent of what Kikuchiyo played by Toshiro Mifune says in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954), who also rescues a baby and is reminded of his own fate.

The film’s three protagonists, following the clue given by the photograph showing a young couple in front of two office tower blocks, discover that very place accidentally and in an almost magical manner. However, such discoveries are always pure chance rather than magic. By pure chance Hana finds a package of nappies and some milk powder that people have deposited on the grave of a child. And the gust of wind that helps her to land safely with the baby could be a “divine” wind but is mainly an example of the magic of cinema to create happy endings. The same power of illusion is at work at the end of this dramatic scene, with the sun rising and the darkness of the previous shots replaced by light and warm colours.

There is also an element of hope that permeates the final sequence in the film, a film in which the protagonists’ major concern has been their quest for love. Many scenes in Tokyo Godfathers are set at night and in darkness, but there are also colourful images, underlining life’s complexity and injecting the film with hope. The three outsiders are not rejected outright by everyone, and they receive support from the drag queens in the club, the taxi driver, the people they talk to in their search for Sachiko and her husband, and from Kiyoko’s true parents. When the police officer remarks that the three are homeless, the young couple reply: “Who cares?”

© 2003 Dentsu

The three protagonists themselves develop as characters during the film, showing their human side by taking on responsibility for the baby and for each other. Moreover, they discover their hidden desires – Gin’s wish to find his daughter and Miyuki’s longing for reconciliation with her father. Gin overcomes his lethargy and Miyuki her aggressiveness. Hana understands that Gin cares more for her than he is prepared to admit. And the winning lottery ticket that Gin discovers in the bag the dying old homeless man has given him is one of the miraculous twists in the film’s plot. The ending is perhaps rather abrupt but offers a glimmer of hope for the three “godfathers”, a suggestion idea which is supported by the final shots of office tower blocks dancing to the tune of “Jingle Bells”.

By Andrea Grunert

Andrea Grunert is an independent scholar (Ph.D University Paris X, with a dissertation on the films of Clint Eastwood and the American frontier) and freelance writer and lecturer in film and cultural studies. She has published widely in France and Germany. She is the editor of three books published by Charles Corlet (France): Le corps filmé (2006), L’écran des frontières (2010) and De la pauvreté (2013). Her Dictionnaire Clint Eastwood is out in French bookshops, published by Vendémiaire.

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