Realism and Absurdism in Tokyo Godfathers
(This post is part of a series of posts covering Christmas-themed anime episodes. For more posts like these, check out the 12 Days of Anime tag.)
Tokyo Godfathers is my first Satoshi Kon film. I really, really liked it. I should probably watch more Satoshi Kon films.
As much as I enjoyed this film, though, I don’t feel like this could have been his best work. The sharp directing doesn’t quite cover up all the holes in the script. The plot relies too heavily on a series of coincidences, especially in its latter half, which I think robs the characters of their agency. This is a bit of a shame because there’s some clear and uplifting insight into human nature here – Kon shows an ability to look into the lives of the most hopeless of people and to see the humanity in them.
One thing that strikes me is the film’s juxtaposition of realism and the cartoonish. On one hand, the backgrounds are detailed and picturesque – the film takes us through the dank alleyways of Tokyo and abandoned houses without sparing us the filth and misery these places are filled with. The character backstories, too, are true to life to a heartbreaking degree. Gin’s failed marriage rings particularly true because his alcoholism and gambling addiction are very real problems in many families.
Yes, the setting and the characters are the sorts you’d see on the streets of Tokyo. But on the other hand, the actual events that transpire blow any sort of realism out of the window. There’s an car chase scene that looks it could have been lifted straight out of a Hollywood action film. Hell, the characters themselves even comment on this.
At first glance, this seems like a case of a film winking at its audience in an oh so clever way, but it leads me to think that Kon was being purposeful by playing with the audience’s suspension of disbelief like this. The realistic backdrop is just that – a backdrop. The story itself is bombastic and larger than life – a clear stance of defiance against the darkness ever present in everyday life.
After all, the plight of the homeless is something everyone has probably been exposed to in some way. The homeless who populate the streets of your town or city have lives and a story to their names, but their voices are rarely ever heard. I’m sure part of reason behind this is because thinking about the homeless makes many people feel rather glum – it is not a problem an ordinary person can solve. It’s too dark, too real.
Kon doesn’t want us to pity these people by focusing on the darkness that defines them, though. He wants us to empathise with them and to believe in their own capacity for altruism – and what better way than to tell the kind of patently absurd, Disney-like tale we’ve come to associate with heroic characters?
As I said before, it’s not a perfect film. It’s one thing to be idealistic and to strive to tell an “unrealistic” story in a realistic world, quite another to avoid any of the heavy lifting in storytelling by relying entirely on coincidences to push the narrative forward. Even a character who seems to represent God makes an appearance out of what can only be called pure randomness.
I’m quite certain all of this was intentional. I suppose you could describe much of the events of the film as “structured coincidence”. Even so, I was still never entirely able to overcome my shattered sense of disbelief for this not to bother me. I might think differently next time I watch this film.
For what it’s worth, I do think Tokyo Godfathers succeeded in telling an appropriately heartwarming story about a bunch of misfits finding solace in each other over Christmas and finding new resolve over the New Year. Despite the dark themes it touches on, I think it’s a film the whole family would enjoy.