[SF Signal welcomes the return of guest reviewer Jason Sanford!]
REVIEW SUMMARY: The most uplifting Christmas movie of the last decade—either animated or live action.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In modern-day Tokyo, three homeless people find an abandoned baby at Christmas and set out to locate the little girl’s parents.
PROS: The film mixes comedy, melodrama, action, and the higher callings of humanity in ways Frank Capra could only dream of doing.
CONS: Satoshi Kon’s deliberate play off stereotypes, along with the harsh reality of being homeless, may make some viewers uncomfortable.
BOTTOM LINE: I watch this film ever year. My Christmas wouldn’t be complete without it, and neither should yours.
We all have those special holiday movies which ring our sentimental bells. A Christmas Story. Miracle on 34th Street. It’s a Wonderful Life. But even though I love Christmas, there must be something wrong with me because those famous films simply don’t move me. Instead, the Christmas movie I return to year after year is Tokyo Godfathers.
This 2003 anime movie was created by director Satoshi Kon, who also made Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue. While Kon’s other films are good, Tokyo Godfathers achieves nothing short of greatness. It is, to put it bluntly, the most uplifting Christmas movie of the last decade—either animated or live action.
Set in a fantastical yet hyper-real version of Tokyo, the story follows three homeless people—a middle-aged man who is an alcoholic, a gay drag queen, and a runaway teenage girl—who find an abandoned baby at Christmas and set out to find the little girl’s parents. I don’t want to give away the story, but the film mixes comedy, melodrama, action, and the higher callings of humanity in ways Frank Capra could only dream of doing.
The film is also an astute commentary on people at all levels of life, and how we’re bound together by quirks of life and fate. When I say the film is uplifting, I can’t state how true that is. Each year after watching this film, I walk around in a happy daze for days, feeling as if I have experienced the truly best of humanity.
But this doesn’t mean Kon sugarcoats how poorly humans treat each other. The three main characters are homeless, which in Japanese society marks them as almost inhuman. When they ride on the subway, other people hold their noses at their stench. Teenagers chatting happily on cell phones attack one of the characters, proclaiming it time to clean up the trash. Each of the characters also have all too human failings, as shown by Miyuki, the runaway teenager who stabbed her father in a violent attack and is now afraid to go home.
But it is precisely because of both the failings of humanity and the individual characters that the movie so moves me, as Kon shows how we are greater than our individual faults. In addition, Kon mixes in stereotypes and symbolism into all layers of his film—drag queens and angels interact with yakuza and hit men in ways which both pokes ironic fun at melodrama, and also shows why well-done melodrama so aptly resonates with all of us.
I’d highly recommend adding this movie to your seasonal viewing. Please note it is rated PG-13 for some violence, language, and partial nudity (babies sucking at breasts—get over it). The movie is also only available in English in a subtitled version. All of that may not make the movie appropriate for your kids, but if your kids have already seen Bad Santa, then yes, Tokyo Godfathers is appropriate and must be shown to them ASAP. It’s also the perfect antidote to anyone who is feeling bah humbug about this wondrous time of year.