Christmas Movies II

film 24 of 25

Tokyo Godfathers

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 5, 2014

First off, what amazing animation! Second, in case you’re interested, Tokyo Godfathers is a remake of, or perhaps a fantasia on themes found in two notable John Ford Westerns, 3 Bad Men (1926) and 3 Godfathers (1949). The second of these Ford films is actually a remake of the first. They are very much worth the viewer’s attention. This Japanese transposition, or transmogrification more like, is quite exceptional in its own right.

Ford’s films effectively illustrate the salutary notion that the worst individuals always have much to recommend them. Who is really, fundamentally bad, after all? It’s a great question, and it’s given a thoroughly invigorating, refreshingly disconcerting run-through in this present instance.

What a crafty, unlikely, successful combination of naturalism and sentimentality! Ford’s three bad cowboys are now a flamingly cross-dressing homosexual, a morbid alcoholic, and a profanely violent juvenile delinquent. Did you get all that? You might suspect that they’re trying to pull one over on you. Sympathy, for these extremities? Well they are pulling one over on you, and they’re right to do so. Tokyo Godfathers is something like those AIDS ribbons that started to circulate in the 1980s. Did you, do you resist, or object? You can kind of understand why. But wait. Your moral views apart, don’t or shouldn’t we all want to find a cure?

Satoshi Kon, Tokyo Godfather‘s late, lamented writer/director, is indeed baiting and switching, and there’s more than just gender at stake. He is asking about difference generally, and the inhuman lengths to which we’ll sometimes go to affirm our favourite moral abstractions. This is all very movingly contained in the matter of our protagonists’ hygiene. About half way through the film there is a scene on a train in which bystanders start reacting to these personages in a pointedly hold-your-nose fashion. This is after the audience has already spent an hour getting a sense of them, of who they are, and why, and what it all means. Kon’s characters are far from flawless. They are in fact all kinds of objectionable, and they are largely responsible for the trouble into which they’ve gotten themselves. Still, this last episode comes as a surprise to us. They stink?

The viewer had never really considered this, or known it. Moreover, he does not believe it. These characters are all kinds of objectionable, but consecutive exposure has made them also made them lovable, and laudable. They have their reasons! And their considerable virtues as well. In this process Kon has provided his viewers a lovely lesson, and a lovely surprise as well. We may have entered into this particular world with suspicions and hesitations of our own. And we have not been required to abandon them. We have however been provided an opportunity to refine and humanize the moral abstractions to which we adhere.

Toward the film’s conclusion there is a scene where a gang of well-appointed, cell phone wielding hooligans gratuitously assault and nearly kill that ill-behaved alcoholic. We are horrified. If we’re paying attention, we’re also implicated. How often have we hastened by that unsightly beggar, that distressing drunk? Kon has contrived that we identify with the outsider, and essentially recoil at our own selves. The French writer Georges Bernanos’ 1936 novel The Diary of a Country Priest coins a stirring phrase in its own portrayal of the least and weakest. He called them “God’s tarnished image.” Objectionable? Only superficially. Kon, like Bernanos, affirms that though there are errors, and these not inconsiderable, there is always the more fundamental fact of divine derivation.

To further and finally drive all this home, Kon sets his story at Christmas time (as did Ford, ’49). In Japan? Absolutely, and profoundly! For all of Japan’s considerable diversity, this fact may have provided domestic audiences with their own opportunity to reconsider their own problematical preconceptions, their cruel loyalties.

This seasonal tale has some humdinger of a conclusion, the kind of preposterously kinetical and emotional tie-up that could put the most striving of Hollywood productions to shame. Kon’s exhilarating resolution is full of ridiculous coincidences, all invented and articulated most virtuosically. In fact, speaking of provocation, gender, kinetical melodrama and ultimate loving kindness, Kon’s masterpiece evokes the best of Spain’s problematical and undeniable Pedro Almodovar. Some of the most stirringly edifying things can come from some of the most uncomfortable and unexpected of sources.