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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.

vlcsnap-2014-12-23-18h23m21s105One 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.

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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.

What if God was one of uuuuuuus? Just a slob like one of uuuuuuus?

What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us?

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.

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Posted on December 23, 2014, in Reviews and Impressions and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. One of my favorites christmas movies to date. Really love the way each character is depicted, not as good people, not as bad either, but as flawed and affected humans with a past and traumas that can resonate with the audience. What they live is a reality in every city in the world.

  2. The thing about Tokyo Godfathers is that it’s not so much a Christmas film as it is a film about the concept of home. The protagonists are all literally homeless and Kon decides to write the characters so as to make them social pariahs: Miyuki’s a teenage girl on the cusp of adulthood (alienated by both children and adults), Gin’s… well, I can’t spoil his story, and Hana is transgendered. What was great about how it handled its story, in my opinion, was that more of the film was spent on developing these characters than focusing on that aforementioned contrived plot — it’s not about a lost baby on Christmas Eve; it’s about three people searching for a place to call home. The final couple of shots in the film really hit hard when you think about it that way.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s a pseudo-remake of an old western called 3 Godfathers. A lot of the contrivances and what-have-you aren’t Kon’s fault in that regard; they’re taken from its inspiration.

    Not to say that I didn’t enjoy this post. You pointed out yourself how you’re sure this method of storytelling was intentional. But Tokyo Godfathers is my annual Christmas movie, so I just had to comment with all this meandering. One last thing: I really love how Kon actively tries to write characters who are underrepresented in Japanese pop culture. Between this and Paranoia Agent, you could tell that he actually cares about people and doesn’t just use the underrepresented as a cheap way to evoke sympathy or something.

  3. All those coincidences are definitely intentional, so much so that I ended up watching it less as a project in realistic writing. Instead more as what you’d get if you married the essence of heartwarming Christmas comedies — movies fraught with coincidences up to the chimney — and the personalities and backgrounds of three unlikely protagonists. It’s pure absurd, yet touching magic of Satoshi Kon style Christmas contained within such an otherwise bleak setting, by contrast, which makes Tokyo Godfathers all that more absurd, yet magical.

    To reiterate, I doubt the Christmas comedies like Home Alone we grew up with would hold very well to the usual critical standard. They’re fraught with opportune implausibilities that, applying those scenarios to our cold reality, would produce likely equally frigid results. However, they don’t have to be, because that’s not what people usually want from their Christmas comedies. You can see it escapism, and it probably is escapism, but it’s also the magic people crave.

    • Isn’t that a staple of comedies in general? The Shakespeare romcoms were still all about coincidences and misunderstandings and low-stakes executed through high-stakes shenanigans, all about escalating trivial concerns into the trainwrecks of their logical extremes. There’s no easier way to trigger my love for a comedic set-up than spend the third act having a huge cast of characters magically converging on the same location for the hilarious collision of a 4th act climax. (Almost as good, the Scooby-Doo style of just barely missing each other again and again while entering and exiting the same locations.)

      Consider Guy Ritchie’s action-comedies. (Lock Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, Rock ‘n’ Rolla, etc.) The juxtaposition of the theatrical staging (aforementioned several groups bypassing each other through the same locations, before crashing together in the climax) with performances with the “gritty” criminal settings highlight that the coincidences are part of the joke.

      As for Tokyo Godfathers, the other role that coincidences play is that of romance/sentimentality. It signifies that these chain of events are dictated by fate, that these people/events are special, and different from the rest of the normals. For example, the improbable web of existing relationships and meetings helps signify which characters are to be paid attention to in Les Miserables, and lends the entire story a very romantic air by playing on the notion of kismet.

  4. I ADORE Tokyo Godfathers. I didn’t bother the consequences, to be honest, perhaps because the 2 times I’ve watched this I hadn’t cemented my criteria, didn’t put much thought into writing. What counts is that it captured my heart.

    If you watch more Satoshi Kon in the future, you’ll see that Tokyo Godfathers is kinda an extention of his main theme: dreams. And that’s why reality is just a backdrop here.

  5. Tokyo Godfathers isn’t Satoshi Kon’s best work by any means – which means it’s *just* very, VERY good.

    Among his movies, I’d argue Paprika is the best visually (seriously, the thing’s a total trip), and Millennium Actress is the one with the best story.

    His masterpiece though must be his only TV series, Paranoia Agent. And THAT for me blows out of the water not only everything else he did, but even almost every other anime. Ever. I consider it the best anime I’ve ever watched, with Revolutionary Girl Utena coming sort of close as a second (not a coincidence that they do share a certain taste for symbolism and visionary direction). It’s a work of art and genius, nothing less.

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