I honestly wasn't sure what to expect from this movie before watching it.
Was it a comedy? Was it a tear-jerker?
From Satoshi Kon, the director of Millenium Actress and Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers tells the story of three homeless people who find a baby abandoned on a pile of trash in the street and try to find the baby's parents. It's a simple plot, a simple concept and this leaves a lot of room for subtle character development and mini threads within this overarching storyline. Our main characters are Miyuki, a rebellious young runaway, Gin, an older grumpy, bearded guy and Hana, a gay transvestite who dreams of being a mother. Well, Hana's dream comes true early on when the homeless trio find the lost child and the film, from then on, explores the connections between people, their pasts and their futures as life offers them surprising coincidences.
These characters are instantly loveable and are the heart and soul of this movie. You really care about them and, throughout, you really don't want them to get separated or anything bad to happen to them. They're all flawed: Miyuki's unpredictable, Gin's a drunk, Hana has the occasional angry outburst. But they're a family, whether they like it or not, and they just belong together. In contrast, their own personal life stories are full of regret, heartbreak and tragedy. Individually, they're very fragile and could break down at any moment but together they're the strongest team around. Lesser writers and directors could have easily let the film tumble into schmaltz but, luckily, there's a perfect balance here between the sweet and the sour. You'd expect the director of the grim, twisted Perfect Blue to take the film to its darkest places and yet he shows restraint, honouring instead the tone the film demands.
The mini adventures these Tokyo godfathers find themselves taking part in are varied in what they convey: some are more light-hearted, some are emotionally charged, others are suspenseful as hell. The third act is particularly tense and nail-biting. Our trio initially come off as just a goofy, likeable bunch but, as the movie progresses and we go deeper into their backstories, by the end, you'll see them as three-dimensional characters you really feel for and understand. The film does the serious stuff very well but it really shines as a comedy. The writing (by Kon himself and Keiko Nobumoto) is so good that, not only is there no dull, wasted moment but the jokes basically all work, which is rare in anime features. Spirited Away, for example, may have its funny moments but it's never really laugh-out-loud funny, Tokyo Godfathers greedily goes for full-on lols and totally gets away with it.
The people our main characters meet are also worthy of mention since many of them are both colourful and memorable: the old dying homeless dude who keeps making last requests, Hana's flamboyant "mother", the stressed-out cab driver, the Yakuza boss stuck under a car, even the dodgy couple we believe to be the baby's parents, they're all significant and brilliant additions. Made in 2003, Tokyo Godfathers has a timeless quality to it and, in a weird way, deserves to become a Christmas classic since it takes place on Christmas Eve and is honestly far better and more heartfelt than 90% of the Christmas movies out there.
Tokyo Godfathers is a pleasant surprise: very sweet, smart, thoughtful and funny. It looks great and introduces us to an unforgettable, disjointed yet irresistible group of characters you can't wait to spend an hour and a half with despite their depressing, cruel environment. It's another excellent little film from Satoshi Kon which reveals him as a versatile director with a dark, delicious sense of humour and a natural talent at injecting tonal balance and a beating heart into what could have probably been a forgettable effort and a missed opportunity in lesser hands.
But what of the cliffhanger?