Revisiting Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers & the legacy of Keiko Nobumoto

Since Netflix is adding the movie to its catalogue in time for the season, i figured it was an excuse good as any to rewatch it, and yes, i’m totally gonna say you’re doing yourself a disservice by NOT watching it, especially since it’s available on the biggest streaming service worlwide.

You’ve got no excuse, so just go and watch/rewatch it, i’m not here trying to convince you if you should or should not do that. After all, this isn’t a review.

Actually, it’s sad how i planned to do this piece after seeing Netflix was making it available soon on the platform, and some days ago i discovered Keiko Nobumoto, the screenwriter for such works as Cowboy Bebop, Wolf’s Rain and Tokyo Godfathers passed away this December 1st, after battling esophageal cancer (coincidental but still ominously familiar), so this is now a small tribute to her memory, as well as Kon’s, as if we needed to cry more.

I’ve gotta admit, it had been a few years since i saw Tokyo Godfathers, and i’d usually say i’d cherish Millennium Actress way more, because i do absolutely love that one… and personally still prefer it over this one, in all honesty.

But still, Tokyo Godfathers it’s an interesting thematical deviation, as it does not lean heavily into the “reality-fiction” merging & disassembling usually at the core of his movies, being an adult fable about three homeless persons that on Christmas’ eve stumble upon a lost baby and set out on a picaresque adventure to search for her parents, a plot inspired – as Satoshi Kon himself said – by the 1948 american movie “3 Godfathers”, the film itself based on a 1918 novel of the same name.

And yes, for the most part it’s actually a pretty straightforward comedy-drama, leaning heavily on the former, and it’s devoid of fantasy or supernatural elements, but it still plays with the perceptions of reality and fiction via visual devices and frames the “reality-fiction” motif as “miracle”, a series of convenient coincidences that are not realistic but mirror the absurdity of what could possibly happen in reality itself.

Also, it’s about family and homelessness, with the hobo trio performing a “reality shift” of their own into a Tokyo that they are usually shunned or unwelcomed to, and it being set at Christmas help feeding into the “miracle coincidences cascade”, that feeling that it’s unlikely and unrealistic, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it is or should be impossible, and it’s also a story about personal healing, one that doesn’t shit on the homeless or uses them as “pity patrons” because they just happen to be homeless (or queer, in the case of Hana).

Which leads us to the “other” main strong point, the writing by Keiko Nobumoto (to which this small editorial-of-sorts it’s a tribute, small and unworthy as it is), which prior to Tokyo Godfathers gave us so many great and varied characters, almost exclusively in tandem with Shinichiro Watanabe, and this is no exception.

Her penship is also recognizable in the crafting of family-like groups of rejects, of pariahs, and her not being afraid of actually having black people in anime written as actual people and not just zany walking stereotypes (they can be both, see the Mermaid Sisters’ song from Carole & Tuesday, for reference and a good laugh), or depicting queer (or otherwise non-binary/straying from the norm) people, in this case the trans character of Hana, impoverished after leaving her job as a drag queen (and he’s indeed a flamboyant type of gay-trans archetype, but i’d say quite a benign one). But as i said before, the writing is excellent and does not make each character being defined just by their sexual orientation, age, or their lack of tenure.

And this also blends perfectly with Kon’s (who co-writes as well as directing) variety in its cast of characters, and their designs avoiding the cliches of fat or ugly people just being there to be the butt of a visual joke or to be laughed at because they’re fat or ugly, designs that gravitate more toward a realistic feel, as it’s always the case with Kon’s works animated by Madhouse.

Even better, the characters are also they are quite funny, which is not something you’d think about when talking about Satoshi Kon’s directed films, but that’s how good Keiko Nobumoto really was, as this is indeed a comedy and – in retrospect – a distinct piece of Kon’s filmography, even more since it doesn’t have the usual collaboration with Susumu Hirasawa on the soundtrack, here performed by Keiichi Suzuki, another legendary composer, mostly known for his works on the Mother videogame series, the Kitano’s Outrage trilogy, and even for the soundtrack to 2000’s Uzumaki live action adaptation.

This is really an improptu editorial, so before i say something stupid – or i wet the keyboard by crying again – i’m concluding here.

Requiescat in pace, both of you legends.

And thank you once again.

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