For Alternative Christmas Viewing, Check Out Tokyo Godfathers
I've found that in recent years if you ask someone what their favourite Christmas film is, an increasing number will respond with Die Hard. In a similar vein to proudly proclaiming that 'Fairytale of New York' is your favourite holiday song, what was once subversive and unusual now seems commonplace and mainstream. So this Christmas, allow me to advocate for a new option: Satoshi Kon's fantastically strange Tokyo Godfathers, an ode to outsiders and redemption told by the most down and out people in society - what could possibly be more Christmassy than that?
A Nativity... of Sorts
Satoshi Kon isn't a stranger to bold storytelling, and this extends to a secular almost-retelling of the Christmas story in Tokyo Godfathers. Three homeless people in the streets of Tokyo - a 16-year-old runaway, a grizzled older man, and an optimistic transgender woman - find a baby amongst the garbage, beginning the redemption of them and others. The child, who they name Kiyoko after the Japanese translation of 'Silent Night', has been seemingly abandoned by her mother, but comes to find love and care in the form of this unusual family unit. By extension, this newfound sense of purpose encourages them to discover truths about each other that would have otherwise gone left unsaid, while a series of coincidences brought on by finding the child brings a new meaning to the term 'miracle'.
If you've seen any of Satoshi Kon's other films, you may think this all seems rather saccharine and out of character. After all, the man is arguably best known for making Perfect Blue and Paprika, two films that definitely don't bring about feelings of joy or cheer. But it's in this unique perspective that Tokyo Godfathers shines; instead of blending into a neutral Christmas aesthetic, it's one of the few examples I can think of where holiday concepts are filtered through the lens of a particular auteur. The classic story of a newborn baby with humble beginnings bringing unprecedented change has never looked or felt so different.
Christmas in Japan
Though you may not consider it regularly if you live in Europe or North America, Christmas in Japan and other countries isn't the unavoidable festival that it is where you might be. Christmas Eve is actually more widely celebrated than Christmas Day there, though as a day for couples akin to Valentines, and it isn't considered a national holiday - many people work on the 25th, and schools are only shut for the sake of the Emperor's birthday on the 23rd. Family gatherings and the exchanging of gifts and well wishes tend to be reserved for New Years, while Christmas is seen more as a novelty than a full-on religious festival. With this in mind, you can view Kon's take on the holiday in this film is less as a celebratory take on a widely known event, and more as an outsider's perspective on the holiday - something rarely afforded in Christmas movies.
By treating Christmas as a foreign celebration, both literally and figuratively, the elusive 'meaning of Christmas' that so many movies seek to find can be tackled from a different angle that avoids the usual cliches. There's little solace to be found in romance or childish naivety, and instead the directionless protagonists find comfort in their newfound family, capturing the holiday spirit almost inadvertently. Whether the coincidences that occur in the plot are from a higher power or simply happy accidents, seeing these people able to catch a break and effectively help one another against the backdrop of Christmas reinforces it as a time of happiness - less because of ingrained tradition and mysticism, and more because we make it that way every year through our current actions.
A Different Humour
As you can imagine from the plot synopsis above, the comedy in Tokyo Godfathers, in true Kon fashion, is a little strange. The characters are constantly at each other's throats, and you occasionally wonder whether they'll make it through the movie without killing one another, accidentally or otherwise. One of the best moments in the film for me actually centres around this kind of comedy, when two of the characters finds out that another has lied about their past: the anger with which they are told off meets at the perfect intersection of humour and terror that characterises so much of Kon's work. In a way, this captures an uncomfortable part of Christmas that so many of us complain about and that almost never makes it into film and TV: the petty family bickering.
I'm lucky enough to have a close enough relationship with my immediate family that this rarely proves to be an issue, but I think anyone who says that Christmas is entirely a period of harmony and understanding would be lying to themselves. Families fight over everything and nothing. They bicker over what time Christmas dinner is being served, argue over control of the remote, and complain to each other about their lives beyond the holidays. In showing this uglier side of Christmas in this exaggerated light, Kon ironically manages to cement the characters as more of a believable family than what is shown in movies like Christmas with the Kranks, and is far funnier in the process.
Comfort as a Privilege
There are a few clichés that appear in the bulk of conventional Christmas films, especially those of the romantic comedy sort. Steaming mugs of hot chocolate, plush red and green interior design, and presents piled higher than they could ever be for the majority of people in real life are all visual hallmarks of a certain kind of holiday movie, the kind that Tokyo Godfathers is entirely not. The visuals, though not to the extent of Kon's more surreal work, are arrestingly strange, especially in terms of character design. The lead three contort and morph to match their energy and expressions, allowing for some hilarious and oddly frightening visuals. This is especially true of Hana, whose gurning made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion.
The range of settings - the slums, a wedding, a drag club, multiple car chases - give a more nomadic, dynamic feeling than the cozy homes and stores that usually make up the bulk of Christmas movie environments. The occasional candle or apartment provides some warmth and respite, but the colour palette of the film tends towards the harsh, cold tones you'd expect of Tokyo in the dead of winter. The snow isn't there to tempt the characters into snowman building or a snowball fight either, instead reinforcing the constant danger of the cold nights the lead characters have to endure. Simultaneously with the visuals in this film, Kon both reminds you of your own fortune and encourages you to more actively consider the assumption of privilege that lives within the cinematic Christmas aesthetic.
Many Christmas movies try to impart a message of kindness towards those less fortunate; fewer of them actually make the less fortunate the protagonists. From a filmmaking standpoint, it's easier to create a protagonist that the privileged can view as an 'everyman', feeling better about their own vague awareness of the homeless by vicariously living through the saintly actions of the middle-class charity worker. Think Santa characters in endless iterations and Scrooge at the close of every known version of A Christmas Carol, ending their stories by giving out good to the needy. In these movies, the homeless are often the objects upon which the hero acts - in Tokyo Godfathers, they are given the elusive position of subjectivity, and therefore a voice beyond a perspective of comfort.
The social categories that the protagonists fall into feel undeniably intentional as well. As a young runaway, Miyuki is unable to create the comforts of home for herself, having been let down by the family that were supposed to unconditionally support her. Gin's past mistakes have brought him to alcoholism, a disease that creates a vicious cycle, soaking up any money he can potentially make that would allow him to escape his situation. But the most tragic character, to me at least, is Hana, whose depiction as a trans woman is surprisingly kind and thoughtful considering its 2003 release. A caring soul who always wanted to be a mother, Hana is looked down upon in almost every respect by those who surround her (even her closest friends at times), her gender identity, sexuality, and poverty all keeping her from the life of comfort and happiness that she wholeheartedly deserves. Their homelessness is no accident, and Kon wants you to understand that Christmas isn't always a time of joy for those most vulnerable in our societies.
I get it - Christmas is a time where you want to veg out, stick on a comforting movie, and get away from the harsher realities of life (as much as political arguments over dinner will allow you to). But if you find yourself getting tired of Netflix fare like The Knight Before Christmas and The Christmas Prince 3: A Royal Baby by the time evening rolls around on the 25th, try Tokyo Godfathers for a breath of fresh air; I promise you won't regret it.
Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
Dir: Satoshi Kon, Shôgo Furuya(co-director) | Cast: Aya Okamoto, Shôzô Îzuka, Tôru Emori, Yoshiaki Umegaki | Writers: Keiko Nobumoto (screenplay), Satoshi Kon (screenplay), Satoshi Kon (story)
Perfect Blue (1997)
Dir: Satoshi Kon | Cast: Junko Iwao, Masaaki Ôkura, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji | Writers: Lia Sargent (adaptation), Rika Takahashi (translation), Sadayuki Murai (screenplay), Yoshikazu Takeuchi (novel)