Three Modern Heroes- A Review of Tokyo Godfathers


root - Posted on 21 July 2004

A PNN ReViEwsForTheReVoLuTiOn of the Anime Film Tokyo Godfathers

by Alex Flynn/Poverty Studies Intern, Dee Gray/Mentor

As I sit in my living room on this Sunday morning, I am having trouble remembering who my personal heroes were. When I was little I didn’t get wrapped up with questions like “what is a hero?” as I am apt to do these days. My heroes were probably the kind that most people think of: brave, determined, and untouchable.


The idea of who gets the “hero” title has evolved over time. In the Greek tradition, a hero was a famous person who after his or her death was worshipped as quasi-divine. In classical English literature, heroes were created as mythical warriors capable of bravery and gallantry. In the United States, Hemingway created the idea of a hero as a man who lives correctly following the ideals of honor, courage, and endurance amid chaos, stress, and pain. Our society reveres those who fit these classical definitions of “hero,” people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, usually after they have died or changed public opinion, but not while they are in the process of enduring.


“The Tokyo Godfathers” is a film about two different meanings of heroism. Set in Japan over a week-long period between Christmas and New Year’s, the anime movie follows the lives of three homeless characters as they try to find the parents of an abandoned baby. Our heroes are Gin, a middle-aged alcoholic man who lost his wife and daughter; Hana, a transvestite who escaped her life in a brothel; and Miyuki, a teenaged girl who fled her family out of shame for having stabbed her father. When Hana finds a baby on Christmas Eve, she decides that she can’t return her until she tracks down the baby’s mother. Hana was also abandoned as a child, and she needs to understand from another parent how such a choice could be made.


As I sit here typing out this review, those I admired are trickling back into my consciousness. As silly as it may sound, I remember Drew Barrymore being a hero for me when I was little. Like many others, I found Drew’s portrayal of “ET”’s Gertie enchanting. But she became super human when I discovered that she was struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. I found it incredible that, at age 13, she was trying to find a way out of misery.


Our “Tokyo Godfathers” heroes are, like many others, putting the pieces of their lives together. What sets them apart is their ability to help themselves and others, even while struggling to survive without food or shelter. In the first part of their journey, they save a wealthy man’s life and end up as guests at his daughter’s wedding. There they get their first clue as to who the baby’s parents are and later get separated when a shoot out occurs. Miyuki ends up at the shooter’s home with the abandoned baby; Gin comforts an old homeless man in his last hours; and Hana returns to the brothel where she worked before she became homeless to confront her mother. After Gin is attacked by a gang of young boys for no reason other than that he is homeless, he goes to the brothel because he knows that Hana will find him.


When I was a young teenager, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and shortly afterwards became President of South Africa. He was – and remains – a personal hero. I have always found it amazing that he could spend such a long time in prison without becoming embittered or self-destructive, that he remained firm in his belief that he had grounds for dissent. For decades, he had the power of an entire country against him, but didn’t waver. I don’t know what I admire more: that he had such a strong sense of survival or that he could stand by his convictions.


For most of the film we are seeing heroism in its first sense. Gin, Hana, and Miyuki have saved lives, survived attacks, and endured frosty winter nights. At the same time, we are learning more about them. We find out that Gin lost his wife and daughter not because they had died (which was the story he had been telling), but because of a gambling problem that led him to seclusion. Even though she had food and shelter, Hana left the brothel because she couldn’t face the ridicule of those who knew she was a man. Miyuki stabbed her father because she thought that he had let her cat (the only creature who she could rely on) disappear. The film is showing Gin, Hana, and Miyuko as “poverty heroes.”


There is a kind of hero that goes beyond the traditional Greek, English, and American definitions. This hero is one that withstands overwhelming obstacles -- like having civil rights denied, living in poverty, facing evictions, and surviving without a living wage or adequate health care -- and still manages to survive, raise children, create art, and form friendships. A “Povery Hero” is where the heroism is survival itself.


Gin, Hana, and Miyuki’s adventure leads them to the people they believe are the baby’s parents. While Hana is handing the baby to the woman she believes is the mother, Gin is finding out that the baby had been taken from the hospital by a woman who had lost her child at birth. This is when the second kind of heroism steps up, the “Die Hard” style: in leaping off careening trucks, balancing on steep roofs, and bypassing intolerant but determined officials, our characters risk their lives countless times to save the baby. And, like the heroes of our imaginations, after it is all over, our heroes are recognized by everyone else for their bravery and selflessness.


As I sit here on my couch, I realize that my heroes tend to be those who take life’s challenges and confront them with honesty and optimism. I guess that is what I admire about Nelson Mandela (and even Drew); this ability to believe and try and trust, as hard as it is to do. I am in awe of those who are in the process of confronting, not simply those who have succeeded in the traditional sense.


“The Tokyo Godfathers” is a film that presents both traditional heroes and poverty heroes. Gin, Hana, and Miyuki are ultimately acknowledged as traditional heroes by the wider community when they return the baby to her parents after speedy car chases and falling off of tall buildings. But the film points to poverty heroism too. At one point Gin says, “I guess I’m not an action hero, just homeless.” Our heroes didn’t see the many lives they have saved (like the wealthy man’s), touched (like the dying homeless man’s), or shared (like each other’s). The power of this film is that it shines a light on poverty heroes, those who survive and reach out despite being cast out, even if they are never acknowledged in a history book or with a medal.

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