When I think of famous Japanese directors, Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki are the first names to come to mind, and with very good reason. But there’s a director who is just as acclaimed in Japan who, I believe, doesn’t get nearly enough recognition in the United States: Satoshi Kon (Paprika, Millenium Actress). Even I can’t claim to have exhaustive knowledge of his work, but what I’ve seen has bowled me over utterly; my favorite film of his is Tokyo Godfathers, which could easily become a holiday staple for everyone.
Japan is not a particularly religious country; as far as Christianity goes, Wikipedia tells me that it has about one percent of Japan’s population as adherents. Not really a staggering number, though Christmas is still widely celebrated in a strictly commercial sense (much like it is in the States at this point, as well). It is particularly shocking to me, then, that the movie that is closest in nature to the spirit of Christmas for me is one that came out of Japan.
Tokyo Godfathers follows three homeless protagonists: the middle-aged Gin, ex-drag queen Hana, and teenage runaway Miyuki. It is clear from the beginning of the film that these three have formed a kind of hodgepodge family unit. While they are looking through some garbage on Christmas Eve (Hana had misplaced the gift of childrens’ encyclopedias she had scavenged for Miyuki), they hear a cry and discovered an abandoned infant. Gin and Miyuki want to take the baby to the police, but Hana is so enamored with the child (whom she decides to call Kiyoko) and begs to keep her for just one night, promising that they can do the right thing and return the baby come morning. Gin agrees, confessing to Hana that he also once had a wife and child.
To say that wacky hijinks ensue would be a most egregious understatement. The trio finds the key to a train station locker buried in Kiyoko’s bag—their first clue to locating Kiyoko’s mother, which kicks off a roller coaster of train rides, chase scenes (in taxis, and on bicycles, and on foot), and at least one crime syndicate-related shooting. Though the drama is high, the characters remain grounded in humanity as more and more about their mysterious pasts floats to the surface, all sparked by the intervention of one small child.
The particular version of this film that I watched more recently included a “Making of Tokyo Godfathers” segment, which provided some incredible insight into Satoshi Kon’s vision and process. He is a very quiet and humble man, at least in interviews, and the viewer gets the sense that he has not sought to necessarily create a hugely successful blockbuster film; he tells one interviewer that he sees film as entertainment, though his idea of entertainment might be different from other peoples’. He stresses that animation is a medium that can challenge the concept of what’s marketable, though many animation studios choose to stick with the formula that works: “cute girls, robots, and explosions.” Indeed, as his interviewer points out, a middle-aged homeless man doesn’t really make for a marketable protagonist (“If he’s young and homeless, you can have him played by a young actor, at least!”). Regardless, there is so much depth to Kon’s characters that it is impossible not to feel for them and to see your own life reflected back at you from the screen—yes, even if you’re not an aging drag queen.
The “Making of…” also provided some background on how the animation process worked for this particular film. The animators layered all of their scenery in an imitation of three-dimensional animation, allowing the camera to pan in a more life-like way than traditional animation styles would permit. The color palette is dark and realistic—there are no pink-haired bishojo here! In fact, Kon states that his intentions for Miyuki were to make her very unlike the typical teenage anime protagonist. In an interview conducted by Miyuki’s voice actor, Aya Okamoto, Kon tells her that he had watched her in other films and knew that her voice was the one that Miyuki should have—low and grumbling, almost raspy, with the distinct quality of sarcasm inherent in it. He said that as a sixteen-year-old himself, he always felt that girls of the same age were more complicated than their male counterparts, and he wanted to reflect that complication in Miyuki.
Though the interviews imply the promise of Satoshi Kon’s many brilliant works yet to come, the unfortunate truth is that he passed away in 2010 of pancreatic cancer. The disease progressed quickly and his death was a huge shock to even the animation community, from whom he kept it mostly a secret. At the young age of 46, Satoshi Kon left behind a veritable treasure trove of brilliant animation, cartoons that show us our humanity in ways that live action refuses to do, mostly because of lack of marketability. In Tokyo Godfathers, he has reminded the world that Christmas, though it may not be a deeply religious or spiritual time for everyone, should be about the relationships we share with others, whether they be blood related or otherwise, and how we should cherish those relationships because life is miraculous, but it is also ephemeral.
On this day before Christmas Eve, I would like to wish all of my readers a very warm and wonderful holiday season and a transformative year ahead. Thank you all so much for your readership and your thoughtful responses.