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‘Tokyo Godfathers’ Explores the Adventures of a Trans Anime Hero Way Ahead of Her Time

‘Tokyo Godfathers’ Explores the Adventures of a Trans Anime Hero Way Ahead of Her Time

Gin is a loudmouth drunk prone to fits of rage and sorrow. Miyuki is a rebellious teen with a fearsome angry streak. And Hana is a trans woman desperate for love and companionship. Brought together by happenstance and need, they’re a motley homeless trio whose wayward lives in Tokyo are forever altered by a Christmas miracle in Tokyo Godfathers, the late animation great Satoshi Kon’s 2003 fable, which—for the first time since its debut—is returning to American shores this Tuesday (May 19 via on-demand) with a spiffy 4K remaster and a new English-language dub courtesy of GKIDS. A humorous and heartwarming saga about the preeminent value of family, as well as fate’s alternately cruel and compassionate hand, it’s a modern animé classic fit for rediscovery by both adults and kids—not to mention a stirring celebration of inclusivity that remains ahead of its time.

Kon’s third directorial effort isn’t quite as daring as his prior Perfect Blue and Millennium Actresses, two psychological dramas renowned for their thematic and structural complexity (the former received a similar GKIDS rerelease in 2018), but that doesn’t mean Tokyo Godfathers is simplistic in any way. Inspired by Peter B. Kyne’s 1913 novel, which was also the basis for John Ford’s John Wayne-headlined 1948 Western Three Godfathers, and co-written by Cowboy Bebop scribe Keiko Nobumoto, Kon’s film is a rollicking, poignant story about personal failings, regrets and fears, and overcoming those impediments to happiness through togetherness and kindness. At every one of its high-strung turns, comforting domesticity has been torn asunder. And yet over the course of the snowy week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, its central trio manages to lay the groundwork for rebuilding that which was destroyed—both for themselves, and for the small infant child whose path they accidentally cross.

The baby in question is found by Gin, Hana and Miyuki in a pile of garbage shortly after the threesome attend a youth performance of a Nativity play. Gin, who claims that his wife and daughter died shortly after he threw a professional bicycle race to pay off his gambling debts, wants to take the kid to the police—a plan seconded by Miyuki, who landed on the streets after a violent altercation with her police-officer father. Hana, however, assesses their situation quite differently. “I am a mistake from God. I am a woman,” she tells Gin in a soup-kitchen line. To her, the little girl is an answer to her prayers for a baby of her own, and though she considers the parents who threw their child away to be akin to devils, she decides that they should find the couple who abandoned the tyke, whom Hana dubs Kiyoko, a name derived from the Japanese word for “pure.”

Slandered as “queer” and mocked for her appearance, Hana is a trans heroine grappling with not only personal loss but also social ostracization, and Kon infuses her with the same bedraggled nobility he bestows upon his other two protagonists. Performed in the original Japanese iteration by male actor Yoshiaki Umegaki, and described during the film’s initial U.S. bow as a “former drag queen,” this updated English-language version treats her with the full respect she’s due, tossing away that truth-skirting label and having trans actress Shakina Nayfack provide her boisterous voice. These updates are wholly in keeping with Kon’s intent, and further underline the progressiveness of his film’s vision, in which Hana is the maternal linchpin (and moral backbone) of this surrogate clan. That forward-thinking attitude extends throughout the story, be it a scene in which a nightclub owner wonders aloud if Hana’s lover’s demise was due to AIDS (it was not), or an encounter with a Latin-American woman whose inability to speak Japanese in no way prevents her from bonding, deeply and movingly, with traumatized Miyuki.

Kon’s open-mindedness is melded to a rambunctious narrative of heavenly coincidences, criminal suspense, and wrenching reunions. While using a photograph to track down Kiyoko’s mother and father, whose own circumstances were destroyed by many of the same mistakes they themselves made, Gin, Miyuki and Hana come face-to-face with the beloved individuals they left behind for skid row. Tokyo Godfathers’ heroes see their own plights reflected in that of their newborn charge (and its parents), and that connection guides them forward through a host of wild ups and downs, including a gangland assassination, a frantic chase in nighttime traffic, and a pair of perilous suicide attempts. All the while, Kon scores his material to Keiichi Suzuki’s holiday-ish tunes and peppers it with rat-a-tat-tat dialogue rife with amusing asides, be it a soup-kitchen worker expressing astonishment at the sight of Hana with a child (perhaps she really was eating for two!), or Gin summoning the wrath of Miyuki (who misses her kitty Angel) by expressing his hunger for meat while surrounded by a gaggle of stray felines.

Kon’s open-mindedness is melded to a rambunctious narrative of heavenly coincidences, criminal suspense, and wrenching reunions.

As in his prior works, reality and memory collide in Tokyo Godfathers, with Gin, Miyuki and Hana’s backstories materializing at key moments along their journey, and then mutating in symbolic ways that speak to their underlying hopes and desires. Kon’s direction is dynamic, whether he’s conveying propulsive tension and movement by focusing on the lower halves of his running characters, or tenderly dramatizing an elderly man’s demise by cutting away from his final moments to the collection of spinning, and then stationary, pinwheels decorating the outside of his makeshift abode—and then repeating that sequence when the old fogey decides he needs another sip of hooch before he shuffles off his mortal coil. Touching echoes and amusing asides abound in the film, all of them enhanced by Kon’s striking animation of his characters, whose giant mouths, big eyes, and cartoonishly overdone expressions come to life in great, urgent, streaking motions that are enhanced by GKIDS’ 4K overhaul.

Tokyo Godfathers is so full of warm, rowdy Christmas spirit—paying tribute to the virtues of sacrifice, selflessness and kinship—that it’s a minor shame it’s returning to domestic shores at the onset of summer, rather than in the more atmospherically appropriate winter. Still, no matter the season, Kon’s triumphant feature remains a joyful portrait of individual and familial self-definition—no matter what form the end result takes.

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