Why Tokyo Godfathers is my favourite Christmas movie

We all know the “is Die Hard a Christmas movie?” meme, but I find it more fun to ask for recommendations of other “alternative” festive films. While The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life and (heaven knows why, given the subject matter) The Great Escape are – at least here in the UK – shown on TV at some point during the festive period, I have a few others that I’d personally recommend, and I wish were on our screens more often.

The anarchic 1984 cult classic Gremlins immediately springs to mind, but a more contemporary example in that vein is 2015’s Krampus. This looks at a darker, older, side to Christmas by following a dysfunctional family who are tormented by the European folk character of the title that punishes those who have forgotten the true meaning of the Season of Goodwill.

Another satirical take on the figure of Santa Claus and everything he represents is the 2006 adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s novel Hogfather, which transposes the legend into the fictional Discworld. Again: it’s riotously funny in a subversive sort of way, drawing on the pre-Christian imagery that has become seamlessly absorbed into modern culture, and questioning what that tells us about human nature. It’s strictly speaking a made-for TV production, but I remember watching both parts back-to-back with my family, so it’s effectively a Christmas movie to me.

My personal favourite “alternative” Christmas movie though is Tokyo Godfathers, directed by the much-missed Satoshi Kon and co-written by the brilliant but less well-known Keiko Nobumoto, who sadly passed away earlier this year. This wintertime comedy-drama follows a group of homeless people around the streets of Tokyo, as they try to reunite an abandoned baby with her parents over the festive season.

In some ways, Kon’s approach to storytelling is similar to Pratchett’s; evident in Hogfather and Tokyo Godfathers but central to both of their careers overall. I don’t mean this purely because of their cult status and the fact that their lives were cut tragically short by illness: what fascinates me is how they deliberately avoided or played with the tropes and genre conventions in their respective fields, instead choosing to subvert and add their own spin to them. This required them to be extraordinarily well-read and to incorporate themes, concepts and references from fields outside of genre boundaries, in a way that set them apart from their peers.

Both also employed surreal humour and similarly dry, witty brands of social commentary. It’s easy to interpret this playful fondness of Python-esque absurdity for hard-boiled cynicism, but while it might seem irreverent they both exhibited a strong social conscience in the stories that they told: these tales are mercilessly critical of the powerful, influential and privileged while having a real fondness for the ordinary members of society. Pitting a fearless and capable hero against the ignorance, ineptitude or corruption of those in authority is one thing, but sometimes a story is more powerful and inspiring when it shows flawed and relatively powerless “little people” going out of their way to make a difference on a more everyday level.

Tokyo Godfathers is perhaps the best example of Kon’s unflinching critique of social issues, and his desire to ensure that it’s not so heavy-handed that it comes across as nihilistic or preachy to its viewers. In some ways, it’s very brave to focus a story on people who are so marginalised and misunderstood. Homelessness isn’t quite a taboo subject, but it’s certainly one that many people aren’t comfortable thinking about, especially during the festive season when we’re supposed to be preoccupied with more cheery matters.

It’s also relatively rare for a filmmaker – especially when telling a feelgood comedy story – to aim their metaphorical camera lens downwards and away from the photogenic snow, twinkling lights and gleaming skyscrapers of Tokyo and instead follow the lives of people who have so little in their lives that they don’t even have a roof over their heads, and whose defining characteristics don’t fit the standard archetypes of movie protagonists.

In many ways then, Tokyo Godfathers shouldn’t really work at all: the protagonists don't fit the mould, the premise isn't cheery, and although the story isn’t quite supernatural the series of coincidences and chance meetings that propels the screenplay are hilariously improbable. In keeping with its festive theme, they’re all implied to be some sort of Christmas miracle: things that aren’t necessarily impossible, but are highly unlikely.

What I also find telling is that the central characters of the movie, collected together in an uneasy surrogate family, aren’t completely trapped in their predicament either. A combination of bad decisions and misfortune resulted in their respective lives on the streets, but we also see chance encounters with people from their old lives that hint that there are potential ways back. Again: this isn’t representative of everyone suffering from homelessness, but it adds an element of hope and redemption to what would otherwise be a rather miserable premise. In keeping with the film’s central message, the option of returning to their old lives is very much there if they truly feel that it would lead to contentment for them.

I daresay that this is also Kon’s most “accessible” work. Not just because of its uplifting message and grounded setting, but because it’s not culturally-specific. The issue of homelessness, the socio-economic conditions that contribute to it, and the contrasting concepts of togetherness, kindness and redemption are universal. Tokyo’s skyline might be distinctive in some aspects, but in a more general sense the cardboard jungle of the homeless, the impoverished and misunderstood immigrant communities, and the ordinary folks just going around their daily business in the festive season portrayed here can be found in any city on Earth.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the film – introduced as a joke, but lands with such earnest sincerity that you wholeheartedly believe it by the end – is that anyone, no matter how unsuited they may appear, can be a hero…if they choose to do the right thing.

“The phrase ‘Someone ought to do something’ was not, by itself, a helpful one. People who used it never added the rider ‘and that someone is me’.”

It doesn’t normally happen, because the messiness and cruelty of Real Life usually prevent it from doing so. But what if it did? I suppose that is the magic of stories: profound truths woven into pieces of fiction. And the likes of Pratchett, Kon and Nobumoto seemed to understand this as keenly as anyone.

Happy holidays everyone!

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