I'm tempted to call Tokyo Godfathers the most conventional movie Satoshi Kon ever made, but a) that doesn't mean it's a lesser entry compared to his other, more fantastic work, and b) "conventional" by Kon's standards still means something pretty far out on a limb. It's certainly the funniest thing he ever did, a story so driven by preposterous coincidence and chance that those things end up becoming themes instead of mere ingredients. And despite being a loosey-goosey remake of a novel that inspired many other remakes over the years (e.g., Three Godfathers with John Wayne), there's nothing about it that feels second-hand; it's Kon at his wooliest, most improvisational, and also heartfelt.
The lower depths
One of the banes of modernity is how Christmastime ends up being such a stressful event for all concerned. It's far worse if you're homeless and the most you can look forward to is a sermon and some soup-line grub. Such is the case for a rag-bag pseudo-family of lower-depths tent-city dwellers: former bicycle racer and drunk Gin; transvestite ex-club-hostess Hana; and Miyuki, a teen runaway. They hang together mostly out of shared need: given a choice between starving alone, or starving together a little less slowly, they'll take #2, even if it means they spend most of their time snarling at each other.
On Christmas night, while picking through a trash drop for anything halfway salvageable, their bickering's interrupted by a bawling from inside a bundle. It's an abandoned baby, complete with a note, a CARE package of diapers and formula, and a key to a coin locker. Hana's overjoyed: for the first time, she has a chance of being something like an actual mother. Gin has no patience for having yet another mouth to feed, and besides, if the baby's been ditched, it's a matter for the cops, isn't it?
Hana can't abide the thought of the baby being passed callously through the foster system; after all, she never knew her own parents, and this feels to her like a chance to get things right. Her inclination is to piece together what clues they can from what they find in the coin locker to find the real mother and get her to take responsibility for her child. In truth, all of them have feelings in the game: Miyuki feels guilty for having abandoned her own family deliberately (although the details turn out to be quite messy), and Gin hates himself for the way he tried to do right by his family and failed (or so he says). And so off they go to see if the baby can be reunited with her mother.
Then, one thing leads to another, and another, and another. Every time the three take a step closer to what they think is the resolution of the mystery, they end up taking a step sideways and doing a pratfall, too. When the trio find themselves attending a gangster wedding after saving a kingpin trapped under his car, they're separated when a gun-wielding assassin breaks up the party. When they find — by way of some visual forensics worthy of Blow-Up — the house where the baby's mother might have lived, they find a burned-out husk that leads them even deeper down multiple rabbit holes. And finally, when they do patch all the pieces together and see how they fit, there's yet another set of surprises waiting to be unpacked about everyone's motives.
Coincidence and consequence
Most sophisticated readers or viewers are taught that it's unwise to make a story run on coincidences, because we're too busy rolling our eyes to care. Tokyo Godfathers runs shamelessly on coincidence. The yakuza's daughter is marrying the owner of the club where the absent mother might have worked; when Hana collapses of exhaustion at one point and ends up in the hospital, the nurse is someone of pivotal importance to one of them; a climatic scene requires that someone's apartment be directly across the street from the scene of the action. And so on.
But there are, I think, a few reasons why all this actually works in service of the film and not against it. One is, again, the sheer brazenness of the whole thing: I love it when a movie throws down a gauntlet of plausibility in front of me and dares me to make something of it, because I'm having too much fun to care (see also: Martin Scorsese's underappreciated After Hours). Another is how the coincidence- and chance-driven plotting only really kicks in after we get to know everyone. By that point all this crazy stuff is happening to people we give a darn about, and both their existing personalities and their responses to all that happens are credible. Third is how masterfully all these coincidences lock together into the finished story; there isn't a single wasted element. In a lesser movie we would just say that everything has been "tied up", but here it feels more like the culmination of a performance, where all the juggled balls in flight have been caught.
Last, and for me most crucially, all this is a reflection of a theme that emerges over time: if life's a matter of luck, then we need to be nicer to each other as a general rule to offset all the time's the odds aren't in our favor. What I struggled with at first was how the movie makes it clear that the protagonists ended up homeless chiefly because of decisions they made: Miyuki chose to leave home (and actually chose to do a good deal more than that); Hana chose to punch a drunk customer who sassed her; and the less said about Gin's mistakes here, the better. This made it feel like the movie was taking an unlearned stance on homelessness: see, it's not really because of systematic failures, it's because people do dumb things with their lives.
But nobody deserves to be wholly destitute because of bad choices. Even these three, whatever they did, deserve more than just soup at Christmastime and a tent village in a park, and the movie makes it clear it knows that too. The big failure of our world isn't just that people with drug and alcohol addictions can fall through the cracks, but so can anyone else if no one's looking. And if you're a cross-dresser who hasn't bathed in a week, or you're missing teeth, or you're a filthy teen in ragged winter clothes, most anyone will find a reason to avert their eyes.
Sleight of hand
The one book-length study of Satoshi Kon's work published thus far is titled The Illusionist, a nod to the way his movies have used deception and visual sleight-of-hand. Tokyo Godfathers is the least mindbending movie by a man who made a career out of being a mindbender, but maybe only because this time out he wanted to flex different muscles. Here, he mostly plays with reality by way of the coincidences and surprises that make up the plot; by the end of every scene we've had at least one assumption about the goings-on yanked out from under us. But occasionally Kon pulls a trademark stunt. At one point Miyuki flashes back to her "old" family life, only to have her "new" family bleed in to replace it detail by detail. And at another point Gin collapses in an alley and has a vision of an angel coming to rescue him (although she has a real mouth on her). Cut to the gay bar where Hana used to work, where Gin is now convalescing. The "angel" was one of the bar hostesses, in costume. No wonder she was so salty.
Kon was also a skilled director of action, not just in the sense that he knew how to block and stage a scene, but how to get us to believe in it. For the climax of Tokyo Godfathers Kon delivers a sequence so unhinged, so far over the top, it only functions at all because we had the wacky logic of the entire rest of the movie to pave the way to it. It involves a car chase — one that enters a building, mind you — a rooftop confrontation, four characters almost falling from that rooftop, and something I can only describe as a miracle in a movie that's been building up to one all along. And then there's the conclusion, where Kon hurls not just one but two more curve balls at us, neither of which we mind being beaned in the head with.
The downside of talking about someone with as brief but intense a career as Kon's is how every choice he made and every work he completed comes under closer scrutiny than it might for someone with a far larger career. What else might he have done? I think Kon would have found room for more realistic, light-hearted projects like this, and without making us feel like he was snubbing the more adventurous sides of himself. The more you think about how much he gets away with here, and in what way, the less it feels like he was shirking his best qualities.