(DISCLAIMER: All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White
I sometimes get asked for advice on writing by desperate people who’ve got nothing left to lose and I usually give them some pap about being true to your art and letting the story flow naturally and blah blah blah. If I was honest, there’s really only one rule with writing; “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.” Trite? Yes. Cliché? Absolutely. But also true.
I feel I owe you all an apology. Last time I tore into From Up on Poppy Hill because of its story problems, it’s lack of payoff, its glacial pacing. And it has all of those things. But this is the truth of the matter: I watched that movie and had an emotional reaction to it. I didn’t like it. And then I used those problems I mentioned before as justification for why I didn’t like it, both to myself and to you. And this is not just me. Every critic does this. We have subjective, emotional, often illogical reactions to movies and then use film theory to present those reactions as objective, dispassionate and perfectly sound. This doesn’t mean that From Up On Poppy Hill is a good movie, it just means that when I depict the movie as being bad because it breaks Law X of good screenwriting I’m being disingenuous. On the most fundamental level, I didn’t like it because I didn’t like it.
This was brought home to me rather powerfully by today’s movie, Tokyo Godfathers. This movie breaks two rules that are supposed to be pretty ironclad. Firstly, the action of the plot is largely driven by coincidence. Secondly, the ending only misses out on being a literal deus ex machina because it doesn’t involve a machine. And yet, it works. It really works. It works like German ants.
This the third of only four moves directed by the legendary Satoshi Kon before his tragic death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 46. I haven’t seen any of the others (although after seeing this you can bet your left buttock I am going to check them out). Even more unusually, each film in Kon’s tiny filmography seems to be wildly different from the others; Perfect Blue is a psychological thriller, Paprika is concept-heavy sci-fi, Millennium Actress is a time-travel historical romance and Tokyo Godfathers is a straightforward caper movie. I went into this movie fore-warned that Kon was the “David Lynch of animé”, an idea that seems to promise weirdness so potent that even staring at it would drive you to gibbering madness. Tokyo Godfathers is most definitely not the movie that I expected. It’s actually one of the least alienating and most accessible animé movies I’ve ever seen, which is impressive as my DVD has no English dub and I watched this one in subtitled Japanese. The story is actually grounded enough that there’s really no reason the movie couldn’t have been made as a live action feature (although we would have been missing out on some fantastic animation if it had been).
We begin with our main characters, two bums, sitting in a Christian church in Tokyo, listening to the priest giving a Christmas sermon. One them is called Gin, possibly because it’s his name or maybe because that’s what comprises 70% of his body mass. The other is Hana who is…possibly trans or maybe gay and the movie seems to think that those two things are the same?
So the movies wastes no time introducing our characters. Gin is grouchy and cynical and is clearly just here for the warm place to sit and the free soup. Hana, on the other hand, is incredibly moved by the sermon,. Hana desperately wants to be a mother and finds the precedent of the miraculous conception very comforting. She then pretends to be pregnant to scam another bowl of soup by saying that she’s eating for two.
Okay, there is a word I was going to use. It begins with “P” and it ends in “atic”. You know the word. I know the word. I am not using the word because I fucking hate the word as the ugly, overused tool of miserable pseudo-intellectual blighters that it has become. Instead, let’s just say “dodgy”. Hana is, on the surface level at least, a bit dodgy. To put it another way, you could take Hana out back on a summer’s day, strip her down, slap some meat on her and presto you got yourself a barbecue because she is FAH-LAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA…
And yet, the character’s over the top campiness isn’t really a problem because Hana is one of the most layered, sympathetic, well-written, downright real feeling main characters I can ever remember seeing in an animated film. Beneath the broad, sitcom drag-queen shtick there are depths, beneath depths, beneath depths.
On a roof top we meet our third main character, Miyuki, a teenage runaway who’s taken up with Gin and Hana. Hana and Gin take Miyuki to a recycling centre to find her a Christmas present, with Gin saying that even homeless teenagers deserve a present at this time of year. Miyuki says that she can go home any time she wants and Gin says that it’s the people who say that who never do. Miyuki loses her temper and throws a book at Gin and they have a slap fight while Hana looks on wearily. Then…uh…then Gin cops a feel of Miyuki’s breasts and she yells that that’s harassment.
Uh…nope. Pretty sure that’s full on sexual assault. On a minor no less. Yeesh. It’s completely out of left field too, Gin doesn’t do anything remotely like that for the rest of the movie. He’s actually portrayed as a really decent guy from here on in, it’s really weird. The fight comes to an abrupt halt when the three hear a baby crying and find a two month old girl crying in the wastepaper. As Hana comforts the baby Gin reads over a note that was with the kid (“Please care for this child”) and mutters “What a world”. Even for cynical, jaded, Gin, abandoning a baby to the elements on Christmas Eve is just beyond comprehension. Gin changes from this moment on. He’s still a drunken grouch but finding the baby seems to jolt his moral compass back in the right direction.
Anyway, Gin wants to take the baby to a police station but Hana has…other ideas.
Which of course is insane. Why would God give other people presents on His birthday? Gin and Miyuki try and convince Hana that her plan is not only theologically unsound but also kind of crazy since they’re homeless and can barely look after themselves let alone a baby. Hana’s hearing none of it though, and names the kid Kiyoko. They take Kiyoko back to their tent in the park and when the baby start crying, Hana tries to cheer her up by making faces but this just makes her cry even more.
THE DEVIL YOU SAY.
After around five minutes of uninterrupted baby crying Hana breaks down and admits defeat (pff, candy ass) and tearfully agrees to bring Kiyoko to the police station in the morning. Gin then boils some water and fixes the baby up some milk. He reveals to Hana that he was once married with a child. Gin used to be a bicycle racer and, when his daughter got sick, he threw a race to cover her medical bills. He got found out and barred from competing and his daughter died, followed soon after by his wife. So, before I put my head in a mousetrap, let’s change the subject and talk about the animation.
When you think of the word “animé” you probably think of something like this:
“I AM SO CUTE UNTIL YOU REALISE I AM STANDING IN A POOL OF BLOOD!!!!!”
Kon was, to put it mildly, not a fan of this aesthetic. Instead, his characters models are incredibly detailed and very recognisably Japanese. That’s not to say that he doesn’t use exagerrated facial expressions, but unlike Princess Kittyhair Huge-Eyes McNonose up there, he only uses them for moments of heightened emotion (especially for Hana. ESPECIALLY). In this way Kon creates a style that’s not entirely realistic, not entirely cartoony and completely and utterly smurges.
Let’s get back to the story though. At first it seems like Hana is being incredibly selfish by trying to keep Kiyoko. But we now learn that she was also abandoned as a child and she can’t bring herself to put Kiyoko in a foster home. She decides that she’s going to track down Kiyoko’s mother and demand to know why she abandoned her. She says that if the mother can make her understand, she’ll forgive her and her own mother. Gin and Miyuki agree to help. Their first clue is a key that they found with the baby that opens a locker in a bus depot. In the locker they find a photograph of a young couple, some bourbon (which Gin offers to look after) and some business cards for a “hostess club”.
Do I want to know? Okay then.
They decide to get a train to the club and this leads to a hilarious scene where the old lady from the church sees Hana with the baby and whispers amazaedly “He was eating for two!”. Another thing about this movie, the comedy translates really, really well.
The train gets delayed opposite another one by the snow and Miyuki has to escpe through the window when a man in the other train recognises her. Gin and Hana chase after her and Gin berates Miyuki for wasting their train fares (and he’s not being unreasonable, just crossing the city probably cost them half of all the money they have in the world). So now they’re tramping through the snow with no milk, no nappies, no money and a screaming baby. But luck is on their side…well, clearly not because their homeless at Christmas trying to look after an infant. But they catch a break! In a cemetery, amongst the offerings to the dead they find some nappies and baby formula (let’s just not think too hard on that one) and they’re on their way. Gina also finds some booze and proceeds to get stonkered and tells Hana that if she really cared about Kiyoko she’d stop dicking around and take her to the authorities. And it’s impressive that drunk Gin stills makes more sense than sober Hana.
So like I said in the introduction, coincidence is the fuel that keeps this movie chugging along. Outside the cemetery they find a Yakuza boss who’s been run over by his own car (it slid over him in the snow). They help push the car off him and he gratefully asks how he can repay them. They ask him if he knows where the club on the business card is and he tells them that only does he know where it is, his daughter is marrying the guy who owns it. Today.
These guys seriously need to a buy a lottery ticket.
Alright so the Yakuza boss invites them to the wedding and even introduces them to the groom. They show him the picture and he tells them that the girl’s name is Sachiko and that she used to work for him and even makes a few calls to try and track her down for them. Everything seems to be going their way until Gin grabs a wine bottle and swings for the groom’s head because, in yet another coincidence, the groom was the guy behind the race-fixing scam that caused Gin’s life to go down the crapper. But before he can even hit the guy, the groom is shot by an absolutely gorgeous Latin American waitress who pulls a gun on him and empties the chamber into his chest.
“¿Alguna vez has bailado con el gallo rojo en la luz de la luna pálida?”
Panic. Screaming. Chaos. The waitress makes a run for it and the groom collapses bleeding on the ground. Know what I love about this movie? It has a really generous view of humanity. That might seem weird to bring up in a scene where a dude has just been gunned down in cold blood on his wedding day. But the first thing Gin does when the groom falls to the ground is drop to his knees and ask him if he’s okay. Despite the fact that he destroyed his life and he was ready to kill him mere moments ago. These characters are just decent by default.
Miyuki, who was changing the baby in the bathroom, comes out at exactly the wrong time and gets taken hostage by the gun-toting waitress, who then pulls off her wig and reveals that “she” is a “he”.
Which I guess is supposed to be a hilarious prank on anyone in the audience who found her attractive.
‘”Ha! Joke’s on you movie! I’m bi! Makes no odds to me.”
“Mouse? You…uh…you look kinda different.”
“Yeah. It’s a medical condition. Apparently if you watch too many cartoons you turn into one.”
“Wow. And you can’t just…stop watching cartoons?”
“I think its fairly obvious that I can’t.”
The hitman bundles Miyuki and the baby into a taxi at gunpoint and they drive off with Gin and Hana in hot pursuit. The car gets away and Gin tells Hana that they’ve done all they can and that they’re not action heroes and should just leave this to the police. Hana is furious at Gin for giving up and yells at him to go die in a gutter, saying that he’s trash. Gin responds; “I may be trash, but you’re ugly.”
Damn. Gin’s like the Winston Churchill of drunks. Let me rephrase that. He’s like Winston Churchill.
Hana leaves Gin by the side of the road and continues on alone. Gin staggers on through the streets, drunk and miserable, until he comes across an old bum face down in the snow and nearly frozen to death. He takes the old man back to his tent, gives him some booze and tries to make him comfortable in his last moments. The old man says that he’s just trash, as good dead as alive. Gin tells him not to talk like that and again we see the character’s innate decency shining through. The old man gives Gin a bag and asks him to dispose of it after he’s gone and Gin agrees. After the old man passes, Gin sees a photograph a brochure pinned to wall of the tent with two buildings on the cover that match the buildings in the photograph the bums found in the bus depot locker (another coincidence). Gin leaves the tent…only to find himself surrounded by a group of teenage boys. Their leader sneers at him and says “Time to start the New Year’s clean up…”
Meanwhile, the hitman has taken Miyuki and Kiyoko back to his place. His wife and him have a baby too so she’s able to breast feed Kiyoko, which impresses Miyuki no end.
Oh really? I hadn’t noticed.
The wife doesn’t speak Japanese and Miyuki doesn’t speak Spanish so instead they converse in English…kinda. Miyuki reveals that her father is a policeman, and says that he’s probably going to arrest her.
Meanwhile, the leader of the teens squares up to Gin and attacks him. The scene where the teens assault Gin (and the old man’s frickin’ corpse!) is the most harrowing and brutal in the whole film. And yet, Kon also sneaks in an absolutely inspired visual gag. I can’t find a clip of it online so you’ll have to make do with these stills.
Do you see it? Don’t worry if you didn’t, I didn’t catch it on my first viewing either. Look at the way the scene is staged in the first still, with profile views of the two fighters facing each other. Remind you of anything? Now pay attention to the office lights behind them.
I don’t know if Kon is trying to make a point about violence in video games causing violence in real life and honestly I don’t care, the gag is just inspired. The punks beat Gin to within an inch of his life and steal the brochure from them so he limps after them to try and get it back.
Meanwhile, Hana has found the taxi driver who picked up the hitman and tracked down his safehouse. Hana
rescues Miyuki and Kiyoko and Miyuki asks where Gin is and Hana grimly says that she hopes he’s dying in a gutter somewhere.
Cut to Gin, dying in a gutter somewhere. He’s managed to get the brochure back from the punks but got the ever living snot kicked out of him. Aaaaand then an angel appears before him and asks him if he’d like her blessing or an ambulance.
I know right? Typical Gin. Wanting to live. Like a jerk.
Realising that she’s got nowhere else to go, Hana, takes Miyuki and Kiyoko to the drag bar where she used to work. The bar’s owner, Mother, tearfully welcomes her back with open arms and we learn some more of Hana’s backstory; she left her job as a lounge singer after assaulting a heckler and then her boyfriend died and now she’s living on the streets. Miyuki and Hana are also shocked to discover Gin, who was found by one of the drag queens (the “angel”) and brought to the bar where he was patched up. Gin and Hana tearfully reconcile and then Gin gets the shock of his life when he sees the clothes the drag queens have dressed him in.
“Yves Saint Laurent?!? I ONLY WEAR CHANEL, YOU ANIMALS!!!”
The next day our three bums and a baby set out to find the house that Kiyoko grew up in with the help of the brochure that Gin got from the old man’s tent. When they arrive though, they find the house has been demolished, with only the front door still standing. From some of the neighbours, they get more of the story of Kioyoko’s parents and unfortunately it’s not a pleasant one. He drank and ran up gambling debts, she beat him, then she got pregnant and he ran out on her and finally the house was repossessed.
Thoroughly disheartened, the group decamps to a local shop until they get kicked out by the clerk…right before an ambulance goes careening into the shop window right through where they were sitting mere seconds ago. Hana collapses from shock and they take her to the hospital. While in the waiting room, one of the nurses strikes up a conversation with her and asks her Kiyoko’s name. It turns out the nurse is named Kiyoko too. The doctor tells Gin that Hana needs rest and better nutrition and Gin says that they’re homeless and that rest and good nutrition aren’t how they roll, man. Also, sidenote; I fine it really weird that the Japanese for “homeless” is “homeless”, as in, it’s an English loan word. Did Japan not have homelessness before they encountered us foreign devils? Anyway, Hana’s discharged and there’s nothing left but to see how much they owe the hospital.
But then Kiyoko (the nurse) walks past and sees Gin and says “Dad?”
So it turns out that Gin may have stretched the truth just a little. His daughter never died, his wife is still alive, he was never a bicycle racer and he’s probably not even really Japanese. Gin just rang up some gambling debts with the Groom from earlier and bailed on his wife and daughter. Kiyoko forgives him, and tells him that she’s getting married and gives him a number to keep in touch. She also tells him that the Groom was brought into the hospital and is going to pull through. Gin’s relieved, saying “I ran up those debts, not him.”
Hana, however, is disgusted by Gin saying that he’s no different from Kiyoko’s father. Not the nurse. The baby. The other Kiyoko.
There are too many damn Kiyokos in this movie.
She then makes this face:
OH GOD OH GOD OH JESUS OH GOD.
She then storms out with Miyuki and Kioyoko (the baby) in tow. Back in the hospital, Gin looks through the bag the old man gave him and finds a lottery ticket, just as the news reads out the winning numbers and yep, Gin is now a millionaire. Well. A million yen, but still. Should last him a few days. Following that bombshell, the news shows a sketch of a baby that was snatched from a maternity ward a few days ago and yep, it’s our little Kiyoko.
Meanwhile, on a bridge, Hana admits that it’s time to just give Kiyoko up to the police and let them take care of it. But by coincidence (I know, I’m as shocked as you are), they see a woman on the bridge about to throw herself in and manage to stop her. To their amazement, Hana and Miyuki see that the distraught young woman is Sachiko, Kiyoko’s mother who abandoned her on the street in the middle of winter. And then Hana smacks her right across the face because WHAT THE FUCK WOMAN!?
Sachiko tearfully explains that her husband abducted the baby when she was gone and that she’s been looking desperately for her everywhere. She was about to kill herself out of sheer despair. Hana listens solemnly and then hands Kiyoko back to Sachiko, telling her “God loves this child. I want you to give her lots of love too.”
“Also, you should totally buy a lottery ticket.”
Sachiko tearfully thanks them and it seems like we have our happy ending. But, tellingly, Kiyoko won’t stop crying…
Meanwhile Gin, who’s gotten really drunk (and honestly by this stage who can blame him?) has found Sachiko’s apartment and let himself in, where he almost scares her husband to death. Gin demands to know why his daughter who he abandoned is on the news as having been kidnapped and the dude explains that Kiyoko is not his daughter. See Sachiko was pregnant but…
And she was so distraught that she kidnapped Kiyoko from the maternity hospital (this is a comedy, really). Gin finds Hana and Miyuki and explains to them that Sachiko nuttier than squirrel poop and they chase after her. Sachiko, however, does not do things by halves and steals a truck and crashes it into an office building while trying to escape them. Gin is injured in the crash but manages to protect Kioyoko before Sachiko snatches her back and heads to the roof to throw herself and the baby off and yeesh this got dark quick.
As the police surround the building Miyuki follows Sachiko to the roof and tries to talk her down. She tells her that Kiyoko’s real parents are desperately searching for her. Sachiko recalls how her own daughter died at birth, and how she had wandered into the maternity ward and seen all the healthy babies there. And how Kiyoko had smiled at her.
And Kyoko Terase’s performance as Sachiko in this scene will tear your goddamn heart out.
She then says “I want to be reborn”, and steps off the roof. Miyuki grabs her and Kiyoko but can only barely hold on. Sachiko stares into Kiyoko’s face and finally realises what she’s doing and gives her back to Miyuki, telling her to return her to her parents. But Miyuki’s grip slips and the baby goes over the edge and Hana leaps after her. Hana catches the baby in mid-air but as they go plummeting down it seems only a miracle can save them.
“Oh for the love of…do I have to do EVERYTHING around here?”
A magical gust of wind catches a banner at just the right time and Hana and Kiyoko float down to earth safely. Kiyoko’s returned to her parents and Gin, Hana and Miyuki enjoy a well-earned rest in hospital.
“And that is IT! No more coincidences!”
And the movie ends with Kiyoko’s parents asking the three bums to be her godparents. And they’re introduced by a police officer who just so happens to be…
“Hah! Fooled you!”
If you want the perfect Christmas movie, a real fuzzy celebration of love and family and togetherness and human kindness…that just happens to feature foul-mouthed alcoholics, mob-shootouts and attempted infanticide, then this is the movie for you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and stream every other movie Satoshi Kon ever made because clearly I’ve been wasting my life.
Kon finds a way to put rubbery, cartoony characters in a recognisably solid real world and it just works. Don’t ask me how.
The main trio is just flawless character work; funny, warm, relatable, distinct and just achingly human.
Second movie in a row without any real antagonist.
Supporting Characters: 17/20
No matter how small their part, every singly background character in this is visually distinct from every other character.
It’s amazing how many Christmas carols sound better in Japanese.
FINAL SCORE: 90%
NEXT UPDATE: 09 July 2015
NEXT TIME: Mouse puts on his music critic hat and reviews Daft Punk’s dialogue-free conceptual album/sci-fi anime Interstellar 5555. Somehow.
Hugh Laurie’s in this?
Neil Sharpson aka the Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, blogger and comic book writer based in Dublin. The blog updates every second Thursday. Today’s review was made possible by the kind donation of Chinyere Breitner-Nwizuzu. Thanks Chinyere! Original artwork for this blog was commissioned from the oh-so talented Julie Android who you should definitely check out.