The Collegian
Saturday, June 03, 2023

Cinema in Retrospect: 'Tokyo Godfathers'

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

“Tokyo Godfathers” is a 2003 animated holiday tragicomedy directed by Satoshi Kon. The crux of the film centers on a trio of homeless people’s cross-Tokyo journey to return an abandoned infant to the estranged parents. Although the film paints its humor and oft-ironic tragedy on with thick coats of whimsical animation, a swift undercurrent of humanistic sentimentality bubbles up from beneath its slapstick antics and winter wonderland aesthetic. Through such crossroads, the film examines the intersections between personal, communal and absolute truth. Like many other holiday movies, the film places a central focus on found family – most literally via the trio’s quest to deliver the infant they found; however, Kon’s iteration suggests that a familial community comes as much from the quality of surrounding peers as it does one’s internalized personal narratives and their inlying socio-economic systems.

The most elemental facet of the film’s through-lines is its exact blend and employment of a uniquely charismatic and bursting emotive animation style: characters energetically bounce around the screen, facial features shrink back or elasticize outwards and emotive boiling points are foregrounded by images rather than words. When Hana, the transgender mother figure of the three protagonists, first finds the baby, she bursts into a dramatic series of waterworks, pleading with Miyuki and Gin, the runaway child and father figure of the group, to let take them take the infant under their roof. However, after Hana wins them over, on account of it being Christmas Eve, she ricochets right back into an eruditely composed figure without missing a beat. Variations of similar emotional pendulum moments persist throughout the film – each example of which is starkly emboldened by the animation’s simultaneous buoyancy and mutability.

Generally, the film’s visual components are less to be understood as matter-of-fact happenings and more as evocations of the perspective characters’ individually tinted lenses. For instance, when the characters reminisce on their past, the visual filmic representation treats any potential editorializing on the speaker’s part as demonstrably indistinguishable from truth. Miyuki’s internalized narrative of her father’s disownment and Gin’s version of his familial downfall each receive equal initial visual validation – despite their later revealed questionable veracity. A causal component of which is that the in film and extra-film audiences of both stories do not, and cannot know, any potential truth to the matters at hand. The film depicts the storytellers’ stories as they will them to be, independent of conflicting evidence and through an assumption of good faith.

Yet, even when new, or altered, information arises that would pull the rug out from the dominant narrative, the revised “truth” is not immediately accepted. Miyuki’s status as a runaway child is predicated on her interpretation of her falling out with her parents as leaving things irreparable. Therefore, even as fragments of her repeated narrative gradually chip away, the identity she cultivated and the emotional and physical pains she endured in the interim bear an irreversible and undeniable impact. She adopted her identity out of perceived necessity, adapting to find new comfort and solace where previously there were none. Returning to the way things used to be, necessitates relinquishing some degree of comfort from the way things are. New information or apologies cannot simply toggle off months or years worth of lived experiences; change is a process of accumulated acceptance and mutual commiseration. Only via the honest acknowledgement of things – not only as they are, but also as they are internally taken to be – can a generalized communal truth be reasoned.

At the same time, the film places emphasis on the role a vested community plays in forging one’s own identity and relative truth. After the trio stops to escape the cold for a night in a dilapidated house, they come to the sudden realization that it is the very building they had been searching for – which they presumed was the residence of the child’s parents based on a photograph. In the morning, they seek clarification with a residential passerby, who – because she does not know all the details – gradually drafts more and more neighbors into piecing together the parental couple’s potential whereabouts. While the moment is ostensibly comedic, with the growing crowd gradually opining about increasingly arbitrary and inconsequential details, the sentiment expressed still holds. That is to say, that small talk and rumors – specifically here, in the form of town gossip – are speculative but decentralized narrative forms. Ones that uniquely enable the congregation of disparate voices and perspectives to construe an amalgamated image of person or place, even in their absence. Although the consultation is not as fruitful as initially hoped, speckles of a unified truth are suggested via the overlapping of a myriad of potential pictures. Each person, regardless of their absolute distance to the matter, gets a say in shaping the understanding, identity and truth of the matter at hand.

Although it equips its characters with the tools to potentially resolve their various strifes, the end of “Tokyo Godfathers” leaves the door unnervingly open as to the fate of the future. Just as its players find themselves caught up in the indulgences and discomforts of the past, the film’s structural foundation seems intentionally backwardly lop-sided – favoring layered world-building and exposition over a concrete payoff. However, the film doesn’t deny closure out of malice for its subjects; rather, it reflects and exemplifies the nature of the lives on portrayal. At each moment in life, individual players are necessitated to persevere -- to consolidate the past and present into a strictly volitional action and operandi. Miracles and resolutions are wonderful, but they only last so long. The human journey is one of navigating how best to dangle oneself between faltering miracles and the forever encroaching onslaught of the future -- to discover one’s own truth and their place in a community.

Contact columnist Henry Skalbeck at

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