There are a lot of Christmas movies out there, so it’s only natural that many would go underappreciated. But these films deserve to be put in the spotlight once in a while and get the acclaim they deserve. One such film is Tokyo Godfathers, a 2003 animated film from Japan directed by Satoshi Kon. The film follows the story of three homeless people, Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki), Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), and Gin (Tōru Emori), after they discover an abandoned baby and embark to track down its parents. It’s a film characterized by dichotomies: the kindness of these people and the cruelty they face, their selfless quest and their selfish pasts, the magic of Christmas and the harsh realities of the winter season. Tokyo Godfathers offers us an uplifting story about the importance of helping each other no matter the reward and how humans are often much kinder than we give ourselves credit for.
While digging through the trash in an abandoned building on Christmas night, Hana, Gin, and Miyuki come across an abandoned baby lying in the trash. Though none of them know exactly what they need to do, they know it’s their responsibility to do something for this child they just found. Each character has their own backstory that influences how they want to proceed with the child. Gin is a jaded alcoholic who thinks the kid is best left to the police and Miyuki agrees at first. Hana, on the other hand, sees the baby (who she names Kiyoko) as a sort of Christmas miracle, a chance for her to have the child and family she could never have alone. When they discover the child was left with a key to a lockbox, and that lockbox had clues to the child’s identity, the three decide they will try and track down the child’s family themselves to figure out why they would do such a thing to a child.
Tokyo Godfathers Shows the Kindness of Humanity
Each of these characters is struggling with their pasts and are looking out for Kiyoko with that in mind. Hana has never had a family, she came from the streets and somehow found her way back there. She performed at a drag bar for a while but after a confrontation with an abusive customer, Hana left the bar, and when she eventually lost her husband she ended up on the streets. As a trans woman she faces a lot of prejudice on top of what she already faces for being homeless so to her, Kiyoko represents a fresh start and a family she can choose for herself. Gin feels a responsibility to give the child to someone he feels could do the most good for the child. Throughout the narrative, he insists taking Kiyoko to the police is the best course of action. Throughout the film we get pieces of his backstory; Gin had a family once but his debts started piling up, and ultimately he ended up alone. He sees himself and the others as irresponsible and knows that, practically, they cannot take care of a baby in the long term. He goes along with the plan to reunite the child with the family because Hana and Miyuki are so set on it.
Miyuki is a bit of an odd case within the group. She doesn’t have a storied past like the other two. A teenage runaway, Miyuki, comforts herself with the idea that she’s homeless by choice. Though she won’t admit it, she sees herself a bit in Kiyoko and once she discovers they could track down the child’s parents, she also wants to confront them to understand why. Though the three have different reasons for acting the way they do, they all look out for each other throughout their journey, and ultimately share the same goal of doing whatever they can to see this child find a safe home.
The film takes a more It’s A Wonderful Life type approach to the holiday season, showing us a story of struggle and renewal that’s imbued with the magic of Christmas. It’s at times quite bleak and willing to show a lot of the harsh realities of life on the streets. The characters are flawed and prone to saying things that can hurt each other. They’ve all been hurt by the world deeply. As opposed to the more middle-class, clean stories we typically get about families relearning the magic of Christmas, Godfathers gives us a more classic Christmas fable of doing good for goodness’ sake.
A group of homeless people isn’t exactly your stock-standard Christmas movie cast, but they manage to demonstrate the spirit of the season more than anyone. It sets out to show that everyone is capable of good and worthy of empathy. These characters have done things they aren’t proud of, yet they manage to forgive and understand each other not just because it’s the time of year for forgiveness but because they care enough to understand each other. The film shows us the harsher parts of all the characters’ lives; the prejudice and challenges they all face but also the empathy and connection that this inspires within them.
And it’s not just the main characters who show the thread of kindness that runs throughout the film. Early on, the gang helps a man who’s trapped under his car who turns out to know some details related to the person they’re tracking down. Miyuki gets help from a Latin American woman who helps her take care of Kiyoko when the group gets separated. They can’t speak the same language, but they have full conversations about both of their families. Gin gets attacked, and he’s saved not by an angel but by a drag queen. The whole plot is Hana, Gin, and Miyuki trying to get Kiyoko home, and yet we see time and again how this was only possible because of the kindness of others.
Tokyo Godfathers Doesn’t Solve Every Problem But It Shows a Change in the Characters
Tokyo Godfathers isn’t the kind of Christmas movie where everything is solved by the end. The characters are still homeless, Gin is still an alcoholic, Miyuki still hasn’t confronted her family, and yet there’s still a sense that something has shifted. This experience has changed all of them in some way, they’ve all been touched by the magic of Kiyoko and the events that unfolded because of her. Ultimately, it seeks to show that even though these people struggle and will likely continue to struggle, in this instance they were rewarded. Their goodness had a tangible impact and fate, the universe, the magic of Christmas, something saw the lengths these three were going to and saw them through it safely. The characters are miraculously saved multiple times throughout the course of their journey (though the details of all those miracles shouldn’t be spoiled). It shows us miracles aren’t always world changing, and they don’t always save the day in the long term but for this day, for these people, it was magic.
This film is about the spirit of giving in a less conventional way. These people have few possessions and are not valued by society, in fact, they’re often abused by it, and yet they go out of their way to help someone who can’t help herself and go so far as to all end up in near-death situations not because they are seeking a reward but because they’re trying to do the right thing. Christmas is a season when we look out for each other and Tokyo Godfathers shows us this in the most straightforward of terms. Christmas films are often about hope and family and miracles and though Tokyo Godfathers shows all these things in a less conventional sense, they’re all here in full force. A family can be one you choose for yourself, hope can be found in the face of a smiling child, and miracles can be regular acts of kindness. It’s about the mundane magic of Christmas and a triumph of the human spirit, and what’s more Christmas-like than that?