My Favorite Christmas Movie is From Japan

Around this time of year everyone has their holiday lineup. Whether it’s A Christmas Story and the nightmare inducing clay faces of the Rankin-Bass specials, whatever Chanukah films are left after disregarding the atrocity that is Eight Crazy Nights, or just raising the good old Festivus pole and perhaps rocking out to Die Hard, this is a time of year that deals in familiar faces. After all, the holidays are times we want to spend with our families (of blood or of choice), remembering good times and enjoying the safe space of familiarity while spreading kindness to all humanity. I’m a bit of an optimist, so sue me.

But that nostalgia can make it hard to bestir yourself to look into new stories. After all, there’s so many great ones already, right? And we’ve all sat through the Hallmark schlock at least once, induced in our sleepy sense of goodwill into at least attempting a warm embrace of the cash in made for TV stuff. I’ve been there, dear readers. But the point of this unusually uncoordinated missive is to give you the last great addition to my own family’s Christmas filmathon: Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers.

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My heart grows three sizes just looking at them

Tokyo Godfathers (which takes quite a few notes of inspiration from John Wayne’s The Three Godfathers) is the story of three homeless people: Gin, an irascible alcoholic man; Miyuki, a teenage girl who’s run away from home; and Hana, a trans woman attempting to mother hen their little group without much success. On Christmas Eve the three find a baby girl in a dump, and (at Hana’s insistence) set out to find the child’s parents. Their journey brings them into contact with the pasts they’ve lost, the problems they’ve tried to forget, and more than a few mysteries. The film can be streamed on Netflix or picked up exceptionally cheaply from Amazon.

Now, while Kon was a visionary filmmaker who was taken from us too soon (not to put too fine a point on it), the majority of his work isn’t exactly family friendly (this film and Millennium Actress being the exceptions). But it is recognizable on sight: a realistic art style, aspects of madness, and the uncertainty of human perception, meta-commentary, and a shifting wall of media versus reality all make various appearances in his films. Even without knowing his name, you could get an inkling that Paranoia Agent and Paprika have the same behind them. This is true for a lot of directors, of course. Think of Tarantino’s gore and non-sequitur conversations, Spielberg’s love of spotlight imagery and film-as-history themes, or Time Burton’s so-ubiquitous-it’s-a-joke everything. It’s inevitable that what’s distinctive will become oversaturated with time, unless the director knows how to break their boundaries or explore new subject matter.

All of that is my very long preamble to the movie at hand, and the fact that Tokyo Godfathers does break from Kon’s other films while still retaining a sense of his style. The media-versus-reality theme, for example, here takes on a sense of magical realism through the many fortunate coincidences that befall the trio and their charge. It very much evokes the Blues Brothers’ “mission from God,” but with a tender understatedness that lets the viewer bring their own interpretation to how much divine intervention versus dumb luck is at play. Human cruelty and instability is also on display, including a particularly brutal scene of bored teenagers beating up an elderly man for kicks. But most importantly is the subtlety of the character interactions, which rises to the fore when Kon’s more surrealist and fantastical tendencies are dialed back. The world and its characters truly do feel real, with naturalistic dialogue and interactions that suit the art style to the bone. Our three protagonists are flawed people all, each carrying the weight of their own past actions. The bond that grows between the three of them over the course of the film anchors the plot, serving as a reminder to an all important fact when writing magical realism or any fantastic story: truth lives in the mundane details of life, and if you can strike a chord with those then the viewer will follow after you down the rabbit hole. It’s one of the most honest and touching films I’ve ever seen, sitting at a comfortable place in my favorite films list.

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Am I overselling it a bit?

Most importantly of all, though, is that this is a film that goes beyond Christmas. Not in the Gremlins or Die Hard sense of having the holiday as the background to completely unrelated or perhaps ironic events, or in the sense that the story’s timeline continues through the new year. Nope, I’m talking about thematically. While I’ve got an insatiable love of the holidays to rival Doug Walker’s, I feel I must note that the special huggly-snuggle feelings of Christmas movies very much have a sell-by date on them. They’re like closing time portals, showcasing special one-time loves or gifts, or mind-altering and life changing events that must occur on this ONE day, and then life is better happily ever after the end. And I don’t have a particularly burning issue with that. But it does serve to set this film apart yet again in the enacting of its themes.

Tokyo Godfathers is a story of love, compassion, selflessness, sacrifice, family, and all those other things we hear about in Very Special Episodes of things. And the way the story carries out those themes makes me eternally enthralled with it: our heroes bitch at each other, grumble and often consider doing the selfish thing rather than the right thing – they’re not even sure what the ‘right thing’ IS, all things considered. For example, Gin and Miyuki both want to give the child over to the cops and have done, while Hana sees the baby as a way to heal her own childhood abandonment and avoid putting the child through the harshness of the foster care system. One’s a pragmatist view and the other a sentimentalist one, and the film never comes down staunchly on either side. They just sort of go along with what they’re doing, fighting and searching learning bits and pieces about each other that they’d ignored up to this point. They’re the most accidental Samaritans you’ll ever see, and their actions both embody the lessons that Christmas is supposedly meant to embody while flowering diegetically from the world of the story. It’s heartwarming and inspiring without ever feeling preachy, a story that plays to the ideas of Christmas while having a far wider reach. Maybe it’s the outsider’s viewpoint, since Japan was a late adopter of the holiday. Maybe it’s the deft hand of the filmmaker and the script elevating the material. Maybe it’s just a damn good movie, one I hope to go on sharing for as long as I can. A happy holidays to you all, and may it be one full of fond companionship. Yes, I promise to stop being sappy now.

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