Last Thursday night, the Williams Anime Club and the Nihonjin American Student Union joined forces to screen and discuss Tokyo Godfathers, a touching animated film about miracles, family and love. Set in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo on Christmas Eve, the film follows three homeless friends Gin, a middle-aged alcoholic; Hana, an aging transvestite and former drag queen; and Miyuki, a teenage runaway – who find a baby in the garbage while they are searching for food. Naming the baby Kiyoko, translated “Pure Child,” they set out on a quest to reunite the baby with her parents. Along the way, through a series of miraculous coincidences, each member of the party must face truths from his or her pasts that he or she was avoiding, as well as kidnappers and hit men.
Tokyo Godfathers is the third animated film from writer and director Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Paprika), co-directed by Shôgo Furuya and co-written by Keiko Nobumoto. The moving story of these three outcasts from society was well received at its premiere in 2003 at the Big Apple Anime Fest and has since gone on to win six awards, including Best Animated Feature Film at the Sitges-Catalonian International Film Festival and the Mainichi Film Concours.
Partly inspired by John Ford’s western film, Three Godfathers, Kon wrote Tokyo Godfathers to show the side of Tokyo that the Western world rarely sees: the growing problem of homelessness. In an interview with Kon from the Big Apple Anime fest, it was revealed that the homeless community that Gin, Hana and Miyuki live in underneath the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building actually exists. “What’s really being depicted in Tokyo Godfathers is not something you would see in a guidebook or something in current fashion,” Kon said at the Big Apple Anime Fest in 2003. “When these characters have to eat they have to go to the garbage piles to eat, and in that scene, you can actually see the actual, unusual Tokyo, like taking a peek through the back street.” Kon also wanted to explore what it means to be “homeless,” emphasizing the loss of family connections is what makes the main trio truly homeless. He wanted to use Tokyo Godfathers “to express the revival of family ties, human ties.”
The film shows another element of Tokyo that foreigners are not aware of or accustomed to, which is the startling immigrant culture in Japan, often considered in the West to be a strikingly homogenous society. According to Kon in his interview at the Big Apple Anime Fest, “[W]hen you go to one certain station in Tokyo, you will find around there many, many foreigners. Not many Japanese go near it.” At one point in the film, there is a standoff where people are speaking Spanish, Japanese and English in a vain attempt to communicate. Kon expressed a desire to show “how people speaking different languages may have some misunderstandings, but can somehow communicate … Without having words and speaking different languages, we can still communicate.” For example, when Miyuki is kidnapped by a Hispanic hit man, she bonds with the hit man’s wife over Kiyoko and pictures of Miyuki’s family; this moment shows how connections can be formed across cultures despite extreme mitigating circumstances.
Though the story is well framed by the magical feelings of possibility that Christmas brings, this film is fitting for any time of year. The coincidental connections among the strangers that the three protagonists meet paint the picture of a small, connected world, one where second chances can be found and new beginnings are waiting with the coming of the new year. The showing of Tokyo Godfathers was also screened at an especially fitting time at the College. As so many new students are separated from their families as first-years, they find themselves searching for those same kinds of chance connections with people in their entries and their classrooms, and as students return to the College, they leave behind the connections they forged in the summer, hoping to return to their own families at the College.
For anyone who missed the showing on Thursday but has interest in seeing the film, it can be found streaming on Netflix or on loan from Sawyer.