If Anglo-Saxon Yuletide schmaltz has a final boss, it is the Christmas film. Christmas songs may provide infinite fodder for controversy, eye rolling, and general saccharine earwormitude, but those three-minute, jingly soundbites have nothing on the film-length advertisements for holiday spirit that most famously Hallmark and most recently Netflix cough up to close out the year. American pop culture seems willing to give most Christmas movies a pass; either they’re memey enough to be stitched into ironically ugly sweaters and plastered on nostalgia-bait merch or they’re excused because, well, they’re dumb Christmas movies. As one New York Times article puts it, “No one watches these movies for the acting or the plots, which are usually pretty bad. You are watching them for Christmas spirit.”
But wouldn’t it be wonderful (as wonderful, perhaps, as the life of George Bailey) if we could have it both ways; if we could have acting and plot with that mystical Christmas feeling still craved by those of us who, despite how in vogue cynicism is these days, unironically love Christmas but don’t love it enough to love Hallmark movies? Is there a Christmas film able to scratch that deep-seated itch for holiday cheer without messianic platitudes, cookie-cutter romances, and characters that are generic as they are white-as-snow? Fear not, all ye faithful; there is, and it’s called Tokyo Godfathers.
For those unfamiliar (which, unless you happen to be a truly dedicated cinephile or a closeted anime fan, is probably most of you), Tokyo Godfathers is a 2003 film written and directed by Satoshi Kon, the late Japanese filmmaker widely known (in the right circles) for more disconcerting projects like Perfect Blue, Paranoia Agent, and Paprika. Tokyo Godfathers, however, is a departure from his usual fare (no serial battery, psychedelic imagery, or abandonment complexes here, folks! …Okay, maybe it has a little of those things); instead, it is the story of how a trio of three homeless misfits—Gin, a middle-aged alcoholic; Hana, a transgender woman and former drag performer; and Miyuki, a teenage runaway—find an infant abandoned on Christmas Eve and journey to return baby Kiyoko to her family.
From a technical standpoint, Tokyo Godfathers is a masterpiece, produced by top-tier animation studio Madhouse and animated in a loose-yet-realistic style that allows for both comically and dramatically exaggerated character expressions as well as gritty depictions of homeless life in a mega-metropolis. And while Tokyo Godfathers is an excellent film in its own right, it also manages to be a near-perfect Christmas movie, despite originating in a country that largely associates the holiday with Valentine’s-style romance and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
As with many festive films, family is the crowning star atop Tokyo Godfathers’ thematic tanenbaum. But unlike the cute, pinnacles of genericness that pass for couples and the nothing-a-dash-of-holiday-cheer-won’t-fix families of Christmas kitsch films, every family in Tokyo Godfathers is messy or broken. Gin ruined his family life with gambling and alcoholism. Hana feels she can’t face her drag mother and sisters after throwing a drink at a club patron. Miyuki ran away from her parents after she stabbed her father over a missing cat. On their way to return Kiyoko to what they believe is her own troubled family, the three meet other families in various states of disrepair, from a yakuza boss whose daughter is marrying a scumbag to a Latin-American hitman whose work threatens his wife and newborn child.
Perhaps even more powerful than its familial themes and more impressive than its artwork and animation is how Tokyo Godfathers twists the rules of good story writing and bends them to its thematic will. As its three not-so-wise not-so-men traverse the snowy streets in search of Kiyoko’s mother, the only thing that keeps them on the right track is a series of completely inexplicable coincidences—a series of coincidences that, in any other movie about any other season, would break the viewer’s suspension of disbelief faster and into more pieces than glass ornaments on a crazy cat lady’s tree.
But therein lies Tokyo Godfathers’ Christmas magic: its miraculous coincidences manage to never blunder into the realm of contrivance. The film achieves this by both maintaining a consistent internal logic and making the viewer want to suspend his or her disbelief. The movie is not religious—its opening scene is particularly critical of the plasticy Christmas program and sermon-first, dinner-second charity its titular characters experience—but Tokyo Godfathers is still full to the brim with belief. It believes in happy chance. It believes in the human spirit. It believes in the world’s capacity for purity even as it presents its ugliness. It believes that family is worth searching for and isn’t just found through the bonds of blood and marriage.
At its core, Christmas is a holiday celebrating belief, whether its celebrants believe in Christ or community or capitalism. Tokyo Godfathers is an excellent Christmas film not only because it understands that unironically and unsentimentally, but because the things it believes in are worth celebrating.