Nontraditional Family in Tokyo Godfathers
By Erin C.
Satoshi Kon was a master of Japanese animation before his death in 2010. Most of his work are psychological thrillers that dwell on the ideas of dreams, reality, and identity. Tokyo Godfathers, released in 2003, is the only film in his catalogue to have been a comedy. Despite this, it still features heavy themes of identity, spirituality, and familial connections that extend beyond blood. Though it was initially a financial failure, Tokyo Godfathers has since become a cult classic of both fans of Japanese animation and Kon’s work specifically. The film was even released in theaters in early 2020 with a full English voice cast. Notably among the people who lent their voices was Shakina Nayfack, a transgender voice actress who played the role of Hana, who herself is a transwoman living on the streets of Tokyo. Despite these two elements putting her at the fringes of Japanese society, Hana is shown as both the moral center of the film as well as that she is deserving of familial love, even if it comes from a non-traditional source.
Tokyo Godfathers is the story of three homeless runaways searching for the family of a baby they find in a pile of garbage on Christmas Eve. Gin, an older alcoholic man who left his home due to extensive gambling debts, Hana, a trans woman whose partner passed and ran from her old family of fellow drag queens, and Miyuki, a teenager who ran away after stabbing her father. Hana names the baby Kiyoko and the three travel across Tokyo in search of her parents. The journey takes them through a series of ridiculous coincidences, such as rescuing a yakuza boss from his car and being subsequently invited to his daughter, also named Kiyoko’s, wedding. There, they find the address of the woman they believe to be baby Kiyoko’s mother.
During the wedding, an accident happens that causes Miyuki and baby Kiyoko to be abducted by a hitman. Gin and Hana have an argument, and Hana runs to find Miyuki. Later, Gin is staying with another homeless man as he seems to be dying. They are subsequently beaten up by a group of teenagers, but Gin is seemingly rescued by an angel. Meanwhile, after Hana finds Miyuki and Kiyoko, she decides it’s best for them to go back to her old home at a drag bar. When they arrive, Hana is tearfully reunited with the owner of the bar, whom she refers to as Mother, and they see that the angel that rescued Gin was actually one of the hostesses of the bar, and the employees have patched him up. This leads into a scene in which Hana talks with Mother about why she never came back to the bar after her partner died.
The scene is mostly a shot of Hana and Mother in a profile wideshot talking with each other. When Mother asks how Hana knows Gin, as he appeared to be homeless, Hana confesses that she is also homeless. Mother reacts in shock, asking what could’ve caused this to happen, as she last knew Hana had been in a relationship and was living with her partner. Mother hesitantly asks if he died from AIDS, but Hana says he simply slipped on a bar of soap. Mother then asks why Hana didn’t return to the bar if she needed a place to go. The scene then cuts to a flashback showing Hana in her full makeup and in a shimmering red dress singing for the patrons. As she does, a particularly drunk guest starts to heckle at her, and one insult, in particular, gets so under her skin that she attacks him. The attack is shown in three still images. The first is of the patron being kicked in the face, followed by a close-up of Mother’s horrified shock, and finished with Hana’s furious expression. When Hana says she didn’t think she could come back from that, Mother comments how it was nothing money couldn’t solve. Mother then asks about the baby, first assuming Kiyoko was Miyuki’s, but after Hana tells her that Kiyoko was found abandoned, she confesses she felt a connection with her. She, too, was abandoned and left to live on the streets, and she wants to find Kiyoko a safe, loving home so she doesn’t endure the same hardships she has. As she describes these feelings, the film stays on a single medium close-up shot of Hana so the audience can see her emotions as she describes how she feels, and how it causes her entire upper body to emote.
There are a lot of moments that solidify both Hana’s queer identity and how others might react to her homeless status. First and foremost, there are multiple characters who make derogatory comments about her queerness, including both Gin and Miyuki. Miyuki notably refers to Hana as “Uncle Bag”, at least in the subtitle translation. This, however, changes after Hana finds Miyuki staying with the wife of the hitman that abducted her, and she starts to refer to her as Hana-san, or Miss Hana, though it’s worth noting that the suffix “san” is gender neutral. Early in the film, Gin also makes several offensive comments towards Hana, jabbing at her flamboyance and overly-happy attitude. This does change, and Gin starts to see Hana as someone he both cares about and respects. He even gives up 30,000 yen to pay for medical bills for her later in the film, which leads to him reuniting with his estranged daughter, also named Kiyoko. In Japanese media, “queer issues are often ignored and representations are usually limited to comic relief” [Nichols], according to Graham Kolbeins and Anne Ishii, the filmmakers behind the documentary Queer Japan. As Tokyo Godfathers is a comedy, it does make more than a few jokes at Hana’s expense that can be seen as coming from her stereotypical mannerisms. However, despite this, the film also frames her as kind to those around her. Her identity is framed as just one aspect of her life, and she can’t be reduced to simple stereotyping without losing the nuances that make her human.
Similar to how the film frames Hana’s queer identity as simply a part of her life, it also frames her homeless status as a matter of unfortunate circumstances, just like the other two. According to World Atlas, “In 2001, Japan reported over 25,000 individuals living in a state of homelessness” [Pariona]. Though that number has since decreased, the general public’s attitude towards the homeless has improved very little. This is first exemplified in the film when Gin, Hana, and Miyuki are on a train and the people around them are all visibly pinching their noses and scrunching their faces. This display sets an interesting standard for the audience in how to anticipate further reactions to the three’s homeless status. It is clear that each of the characters does have a place they could go home to, but none feel that they can. For Gin, his gambling debts and alcoholism tore him away from his wife and daughter. For Miyuki, she stabbed her father and feels like her parents wouldn’t love and accept her anymore. And for Hana, she fears that her Mother would still be angry about her attacking a customer. Throughout the film, though, it becomes clear that their fears, while not invalid, are ultimately untrue. Hana is the first to experience this acceptance, but both Gin and Miyuki are confronted by the people from their pasts that they hurt, and are loved anyway.
The representation within Tokyo Godfathers is not without some criticism. The homophobic and transphobic language directed at Hana can be deeply uncomfortable to watch, and she was ultimately written by two cisgender writers. The way the film also frames her mannerisms as comedic can also be taken as, at best, misguided. Furthermore, the characters are each homeless because of their decisions rather than by circumstances beyond their control. Each one chose to run away from their lives. All three chose to run away from their families, and that can feel disingenuous when the cause for most homelessness in Japan is financial hardship. There may be some people, particularly teenagers, who are runaways, but most around 2003 would be homeless because of the then-recent financial crisis the country was experiencing. On top of that, on a technical level, the film may not appeal to people because of the way it relies on coincidence to further the narrative. The characters tend to get into trouble because of the choices they make and escape it by luck. Film critic Roger Ebert described it as a “melodrama crossed with pathos, sometimes startling hard-boiled action, and enormous coincidence” [Ebert].
Even with these criticisms, Tokyo Godfathers story is one worth experiencing. Though it is told in an unconventional way, the coincidences are there to emphasize the point made by Hana about baby Kiyoko; that she is a gift from God. The film includes a lot of visual references to Christmas and religion. The drag queen who saved Gin dressed as an angel, a taxi with the number 12-25 and a light with wings and the letter A, and the bar Hana worked at called the Angel Tower. All of these little details in the background serve to inform the audience that the things that are happening are likely the result of divine intervention. Furthermore, the flaws within the film, from the mishandling of the characters’ homelessness to the treatment of Hana’s identity, serve to make the film feel more grounded in light of all that coincidence. Each one is a flawed human, just like the people who wrote the film. While these elements should be acknowledged, removing them or pretending they are not there doesn’t necessarily improve the viewing experience.
Ultimately, while Tokyo Godfathers is a flawed film, it presents the life of those on the fringes of society in a way that is grounded in its framing as they experience increasingly ridiculous events. It shows Hana as a sympathetic character that deserves respect for who she is. It also shows that it’s homeless characters are deserving of decency and respect, even if they created their own problems. All three form a familial connection with one another while also reconnecting with their pasts. They show how families don’t have to be from blood, and that all people, regardless of preconceived notions, are deserving of dignity so long as they continue to be kind and good to others.
Ebert, Rodger. “Tokyo Godfathers”, RogerEbert.com, 2004, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/tokyo-godfathers-2004, Accessed 28 Feb. 2021.
Pariona, Amber. “An Overview of Homelessness in Japan.” WorldAtlas.com. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/an-overview-of-homelessness-in-japan.html. 2020
Nichols, James Michael. “Get An Intimate Look At Queer Life In Japan”. Huffington Post. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-queer-japan-project_n_56bcf9bae4b0b40245c5dcbf. 2016