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The Dreams of Satoshi Kon: Chapter IV - Warmth

by Tim Maughan,

This is the fourth in a 6-part weeklong tribute to the work of Satoshi Kon (1963-2010). His filmography will be covered in chronological order by a series of different authors.

“I've never seen so many coincidences and events falling into place so neatly in real life, I could barely believe it. This wasn't Tokyo Godfathers after all.”
- excerpt from Satoshi Kon's final blog post

Christmas in Japan is a strange phenomenon. The one time I had the pleasure of visiting Tokyo it was for the last two weeks in November, and to a foreign eye little seemed different from home. Lights and decorations filled the air above  the streets, and the retail districts of Shinjuku and Shibuya boasted some of the most elaborate and impressive shop window displays I had ever seen.

But with a Christian population of less than two million there seems to be little more to Christmas in Japan than a marketing opportunity. Christmas day itself is not even a national holiday, and for the majority of Tokyo residents it marks little more than an excuse to exchange gifts and eat cake, the real celebrations being reserved for New Year's Eve.  There is none of the tradition, spiritualism or sentimentality that we in the west celebrate over the holiday period – or at least like to romantically pretend we do.

Which is why it is so remarkable that with Tokyo Godfathers Satoshi Kon made what is considered by many critics and fans in the west to be a perfect Christmas movie. It is not only the most accessible and light-hearted of his famously challenging works, but one of the few mature, adult anime films that you can show to anyone  - over the years I've bought copies for friends and family as Christmas presents – and it nearly guarantees a positive response. At times it feels like it could be a Hollywood feel-good hit; you could just film it in live action, re-locate it to Brooklyn and watch the Oscars come rolling in.

At its heart, it's a classically simple premise, and one that Kon openly borrowed from countless Hollywood movies and in particular John Ford's 1948 Western 3 Godfathers. Opening on Christmas Eve, it tells the tale of three homeless down and outs – aging alcoholic Gin, transvestite Hana and runaway teenage girl Miyuki – who stumble across a newborn child abandoned amongst some trash. Vowing to return the baby to its parents, they set out on a journey across Tokyo and find themselves embroiled in a sequence of events and unlikely coincidences.

On first viewing Tokyo Godfathers seems so straightforward and accessible that on its original release some critics attacked it for lacking the medium-pushing experimentation and reality-twisting visuals of Kon's preceding works. And to a certain extent they were right; the movie takes a far more conventional approach to storytelling than Perfect Blue or Millennium Actress. But to attack Tokyo Godfathers for this seems not only an unfair attempt to pigeonhole Kon as a director, but also to miss what is some of the most subtle yet rewarding visual storytelling that anime has to offer.

Much of the film's magic comes from its fourth, silent key player: Tokyo itself. While depicted largely in an infinitely detailed, almost photorealistic manner, Kon exerts his reality skewing approach in ways that are so subtle they can be easily missed on a first viewing. There is a clue to one of his tricks in the opening title sequence however, as cast credits are displayed on street signs, advertising, and the sides of passing trucks. Kon is clearly obsessed with Tokyo's signage throughout the film, and anyone that has even glanced at images of the city's neon lit streets at night can understand why. But Kon's focus here goes beyond an appreciation of mere aesthetics and design, and into an exploration of the divergence between the real and the advertised. At several points, as the characters discuss their lost families, they do so against a background of ads that present stereotypically shallow depictions of faux domestic bliss, and we are subtly reminded how an unconventional family can be just as warm and effective as the nuclear family can be destructive and suffocating. Not that Kon is anti-family in any way, far from it in fact – Tokyo Godfathers succeeds so well as a Christmas movie because it reminds us how important it is to be part of a group where you feel you belong - he just questions whether this group must always be the illusion of family we are sold as being “normal” through advertising and the media.  This idea of electric media lighting and coloring our emotions is taken to an extreme near the movie's climax, when two characters’ discussions and arguments are lit merely by an off-screen television set – the colors it casts across the room changing to match what is said. It's a very subtle effect, but a highly effective one at heightening the scene's atmosphere and urgency, with pale shades switching to harsh reds as voices rise and tempers flare.

In fact, Kon's Tokyo seems warmest and most inviting at night, when bathed in these multicolored artificial lights. In daylight it is cold and harsh, especially in one inventive sequence where our three heroes try to find the location of the missing parents by looking at the positioning of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in a photo left with the child. The building's distinct twin tower design is perhaps most recognizable to anime fans from Mamoru Oshii's Patlabor 2 – which Kon worked on as a layout artist – and just as in that movie it is depicted as a striking, almost eerily still structure, surrounded by swirling snowfall.

Perhaps the reason Tokyo Godfathers daytime sequences are so harsh and foreboding is because they throw a clear light on to a world where the protagonists are outcasts and no longer able to hide in the shadows from the shame and regret that haunt their pasts. It's here, with the gradual reveal of our three heroes’ back-stories, that the film so efficiently touches us as viewers.  We realize that these so-called drop-outs – representative of so many that we pass without a moment's thought every day of our lives – are never that dissimilar to ourselves.  All it could take is a spiral of debt, a lost lover or even an argument with our parents that goes too far for any of us to potentially find ourselves in their position. It might seem like an obvious message, but it is one Kon delivers so powerfully by never laboring the point. Despite its seasonal setting and western influences we are reminded that this is not a Hollywood movie, and its final moments give us a warm but uncertain ending instead of an obvious and sugar-sweet one.  Accessible and light-hearted as it might be, Tokyo Godfathers is still a Satoshi Kon film after all, and yet another example of his unique - and sorely missed - genius for manipulation through ambiguity and uncertainty.

Tokyo Godfathers is out of print, but it can still be found in stock (at out-of-print prices) at Amazon. A blu-ray has been released in Japan.

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