Tokyo Godfathers

Christmas Eve in Tokyo: as the snow falls and the night-time cold bites, three homeless people – alcoholic Gin, transgender Hana, and teenage runaway Miyuki – discover an abandoned baby while searching through rubbish for presents. While Gin and Miyuki want to hand the baby over to the police, Hana insists on adopting the child, arguing that since the baby girl – whom she names Kiyoko – has been abandoned, she belongs to them. But when Miyuki discovers a key that has been left behind with the baby, this leads the trio to a railway station locker, where they discover clues to the identity of the baby’s parents. Thus begins a long odyssey across a snow-bound Tokyo as Gin, Hana, and Miyuki try to locate Kiyoko’s parents and discover why she was abandoned. Along the way, they encounter Yakuza bosses, underworld assassins, teenage thugs, a hapless taxi driver, and a community of drag queens – before eventually finding the woman who claims to be Kiyoko’s mother. But the journey also brings to light their respective pasts and secret shames, filled with the tragedy of human weakness, unrepaired sorrow, and the fractured brokenness that lurks behind the façade of domestic “normality”. All these forces – and the unpredictable intervention of chance and coincidence – culminate in the discovery that Kiyoko’s “parents” are not who they seem, and that the fragile life of this helpless child teeters on the brink of tragedy and despair…

Written and directed by the legendary Satoshi Kon, and produced by storied anime studio Madhouse, Tokyo Godfathers premiered in 2003 to both critical acclaim and commercial success. Animated in Kon’s trademark combination of exaggerated character designs, gritty urban realism, and distinctive art deco aesthetic, Tokyo Godfathers is a Christmas story viewed from the street up, rendered without any of the schmaltz or saccharine sentimentality one normally associates with Christmas-themed productions. All three main characters are portrayed as very limited – and even selfish – people in different ways; but their personalities are articulated in such a non-judgemental and compassionate manner that they also become worth the emotional investment. Chance and coincidence play major parts in driving the narrative forward, highlighting both the helplessness of the characters to determine their fates, as well as Kon’s personal conviction that strict scientific rationalism was unable to account for all the truths of life and being. Likewise, the notion of “family” is deconstructed to argue that blood-relationship is not essential to either the existence of family or the ties that bind people to one another – ties that, even in the most fractured of circumstances, can result in reconciliation and renewal. But what really stands out is the thread of ironic – and even laugh-out-loud – humour that runs through the piece, even in its darkest or most dramatic moments; life is absurd, and sometimes it is the absurdity of sorrow that makes it so. Beautiful to look at, and by turns dark and moving and funny and heart-stopping, Tokyo Godfathers captures the essence of the Nativity story in all its human brokenness – and with all the fragile, resilient possibility of hope and grace in human life. 

Text © Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2022. All rights reserved.