Christmas films are a tough nut to crack, if you’ll pardon the pun. They require an almost faultless balance of pathos and sentimentality, lest we forget that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is about the failure of common man and suicide as well as angels attaining wings. If you go too far in one direction, you can end with a film which seems insincere, idiotic and full of saccharine trust. The inverse of that is you end up with a nasty, hateful film which just sneers at the audience. Every now and then, a film gets the balance just right; Satoshi Kon’s 2003 opus, Tokyo Godfathers is one of those films. It is a film which despite the darkness that surrounds it’s setting and characters is, ultimately, a pleasant cruise through the highs and lows of humanity, the interconnectivity of the universe and the redemptive possibility that the season offers us.
The film follows 3 homeless characters, who could be described as a couple of Kooks if their situation were not so relentlessly bleak, as they find an abandoned infant on Christmas eve. The trio resolve themselves to return the infant to it’s mother and along their journey they encounter transvestites, gangsters and various things that happened in the past and in their minds which have led them to this point. These are characters who have been down a million dead end streets and visibly bare the scars from it. They are a teenage runaway, a gambling addicted wino and a former queen bitch. All of this, when viewed in conjunction with the Christmas setting and the harshness of the society around them, should attain a level of misery hitherto reserved for Grave Of The Fireflies, but yet it’s oddly optimistic picture. Satoshi Kon was a humanist filmmaker at his core and particularly here it is clear that while his characters are these deeply damaged people, they’re not cruel or even mean. They scared, fearful and ashamed and Kon wants them to have better. He wants us to understand that those people who left to freeze on the streets are human beings with hopes, fears and that same need for connection. He uses flashbacks to devastating effect here, be in an allegorical of story of two demons or a simple memory of a young girl’s mummy yelling no, while her daddy tells her to go. Even the more disturbed and hateful characters are given the same level of depth to remind us that even they are human and that it is their fear and the pain they can’t let go of that drives them. Even those people who can abandon their children in the blistering cold on Christmas Eve should not be cast aside and that they can all find a home to keep them safe. All of these downtrodden mortals have the potential of Supermen and Kon wants us to remember that we are all many things: demons, champions, victims, brutes. But fundamentally he believes that we need each other and that together we can save each other.
It’s a Christmas film, but it is a surprisingly secular one at that. It is based around Christmas and the central trio do evoke the magi, particularly with their huddling around this miracle infant. But what is so interesting about Tokyo Godfathers is how it seems to view God. There is no tangible God present in this film; from the outset things happen seemingly randomly, the good get punished for no reason while the wicked walk free and children are left to die on Christmas Eve. On the surface it appears inherently nihilistic, but as the film unfolds it’s narrative it allows you to be privy to how it perceives the universe. Much like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, there does seem to be some kind of structured coincidence to everything. A vicious assault leads to a chance encounter with a forgotten face and the possibility of reconnection; a gust of wind comes like some kind of crack in the sky and a divine hand reaching down to save the day. The film subtly weaves all it’s coincidences in such a way that they don’t feel like lazy writing or a narrative crutch but rather as an argument both for and against the existence of God. The writing is on the wall for whichever side you choose to believe in. All of these things could just be random chance arranging themselves or as the God Entity in Futurama reminds us, “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all”.
Tokyo Godfathers, while it is a tough film to find, is an absolute must. It’s one my favourite films of the 2000s and is probably the greatest Christmas film I’ve seen. It’s hilarious, heartbreaking and exhilarating in equal measure. While everything may not entirely work, those parts that too are simply phenomenal. It chiefly understands what makes this time of year so special: the analyse, adapt and begin again. As Warren Ellis says:
“The future is inherently a good thing.
And we move into it one winter at a time.
Things get better one winter at a time.”
That is the magic of the season, the magic of Christmas and the magic of Tokyo Godfathers. It is a testament to how in spite of the world being a icy and isolating place, if we reach out to one another things can get better, they can better one Winter at a time. William Murphy