Are there any Christmas movies that aren’t about family in some shape or form? I’m sure there must be, but they normally are, especially the best ones. It’s just quite a natural thing to focus on, given that it’s meant to be the time of year that families come together, for better or worse. For the most part a lot of classics do focus on the nuclear family, as if there could be any other structure, which can make some films feel a bit samey in places. But there’s one film in particular that I think expertly captures the spirit of Christmas through the lens of an unconventional, seldom seen on screen found family; Satoshi Kon’s penultimate feature film, Tokyo Godfathers.
This 2003 anime film doesn’t follow your typical Christmas film beats in a few distinctive ways. First of all, the central three characters are homeless, something we still rarely see in film and television even now. Surprisingly this is probably the least dated aspect, as while the three of them, the teenage runaway Miyuki, alcoholic Gin, and trans woman Hana, are treated poorly by several characters in the film, it’s clearly meant to be sympathetic towards them; none of these people that treat our protagonists poorly are viewed as morally correct.
The dated aspects come in relation to Hana, who as I mentioned is a trans woman, repeatedly the victim of transphobia and homophobia, which is sometimes presented in a difficult to watch but critical manner, other times just kind of being plain offensive. Yet, for a film that’s 20 years old now, it also has a trans character who’s complicated, garish, loud, loveable, caring, and imperfect, which I appreciate more than a portrayal that seeks to be perfect.
As you can tell, they’re a bit of an odd bunch to be paired up together, but that’s kind of the point. It’s a story about found family, both in an emotional sense, as well as a literal one, because the start of the film has the trio discovering an abandoned baby that they (or moreso Hana) decide to take care of.
Of course, they do then make the decision to return the baby to her parents, which in turn morphs the film into a story about coincidence. Where Kon’s other works play around with reality through dream-like imagery, and occasionally outright dreams, Tokyo Godfathers is much more grounded in reality. Yet he still manages to put a twist on that, wrapping up the three characters in all sorts of odd events, including a run in with yakuza, a near-miss from an ambulance, and more than one hostage situation.
All of these moments lead into one other by chance, just believable enough for you to think that this could actually happen, even if it is a bit far-fetched. What really sells you is the fact that both Miyuki, Gin, and Hana are kind of terrible in their own way, each of them offering a different flavour of selfishness that honestly feels earned given the hand they’ve been dealt in life. These people feel real, and messy, and it makes them figuring out their emotions, and one another, worth investing in.
Their imperfections feel reflective of Kon’s own work, which often feels like it has glaring flaws, but man, you just can’t help but look past them because of how much care has been put into everything and everyone on screen. As I’ve already explained, Tokyo Godfathers is plenty dated, but our heroes are presented in an affectionate light much more often than they are an accidentally mean one.
Most importantly though, there just really isn’t a Christmas film like it. Sure, there are a number of titles that don’t focus on a nuclear family, but none throws such a concept to the trash quite like Tokyo Godfathers does. You’ve watched A Muppets Christmas Carol enough times now, let’s pop something different on for a change.