The world lost an amazing director this August, one who will not be mourned by legions of American fans, Hollywood stars on the Walk of Fame, or an Oscar telecast but who nonetheless deserves all of these remembrances. Japanese director Satoshi Kon is responsible for some of the most original works of the past ten years. His dream-stealing sci-fi movie Paprika predated Inception by four years. And Perfect Blue is an original psychological thriller that sadly fell below the radar here. A movie like Tokyo Godfathers, with an affecting story that isn’t quite any genre, proves his canny eye, empathy, and savant-like vision.
Godfathers is an engrossing tale of a homeless trio who find an infant in a dumpster and decide to raise her. Like Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Kon reveals the post-industrial, gritty city behind the glimmer and glint of something like Coppola’s Lost in Translation Tokyo. The only sign of progress here are better advertisements.
Kon may deceive us in the opening by first showing a Christmas pageant, but quickly pulls away to show the rude and crude protagonist Gin heckling the elementary school singers. At the edges of one Tokyo drama, Christmas shopping and more commerce, we see an equally authentic story unfold as the bums try to find the infant’s mother. Kon reminds us of the city’s technological and economic maturity as well as its depressing inequities.
The Christmas theme works in other ways. The Christian imagery, whether the abandoned baby found in a trash manger or the nightclub sanctuary aptly titled Angel Tower, is so beautifully integrated into the story that it never takes over, only underpinning the characters’ uneven redemption in the final act. Odd miracles haunt this Tokyo underworld. In one scene, an ambulance runs full steam into a candy store, barely missing transvestite Hana and the baby. The driver stumbles out and calls for an ambulance. It’s unbelievable, unsettling, and kind of funny at the same time. Kon’s religious instincts are not quite the canon, yet are clever and even sweetly timed.
I call the redemption uneven because like in all good, true movies, the resolution is not complete—there isn’t closure. No spoiler alerts, but Gin is homeless and stays homeless. In many ways, offering these characters their just desserts would ruin the honesty of Kon’s message. Life sucks. Life is not going to get better. All of the players’ sob stories are pretexts. In one scene, which you should see, Gin tells his daughter, a nurse he met for the first time in years at the hospital, “I’m in the recycling business” and we kind of believe him. After all, he just paid his savings toward Hana’s medical bill. She may not understand, but Kon is telling us that those small kindnesses are what sustain us; they make up the true beauty of the holiday season. Quirky, often confusing, but always beautiful, Kon’s vision of an imperfect, self-impressed world and its small heroics and strange miracles will be sorely missed.