Show of hands, how many of you reading this article go out and watch foreign cinema or at least attempt to? When we think of movies, some may think of epic Hollywood blockbusters with well-known celebrities and glorious action scenes while others could visualize smaller more intimate dramas inspired by true events. In picturing those movies, one element usually stands out: the movie is shot in English.
Actors speak English, the director may or may not speak a second language, and the intended audience is more often than not, English speakers. Sure, more movies today are catering to the Chinese market with more Chinese actors, settings, and iconography, but how many of those movies were actually shot with the actors speaking Chinese? Furthermore, how many Chinese movies have you seen this past year? Last year gave us massive box office hits like The Wandering Earth that did release in the States, albeit through Netflix, but how many people put foreign cinema into their purview?
Understandably so, the film industry today as we know it is built upon American influences. While there have been fundamentally important films in the history of the medium that have taken place outside of America -most notably the film industry of Germany in the 1930s prior to and during Adolf Hitler’s reign-, we tend to think of the modern industry as an American invention. This is thanks in part to the genesis of the studio system in the early days of Hollywood. While many people would like to believe that they are culturally educated and expose themselves to different cultures, there are a plethora of countries whose contributions to the art form go unnoticed simply because they’re not in English.
Case in point, anime. A common debate that pops up within the genre is whether a movie or show should retain its original Japanese voice actors with English subtitles or feature an entirely rewritten script for English speaking actors to dub. The later can sometimes wildly change the intended meaning of scenes, not to mention have studios put in extra work to create a different soundtrack. In other words, sub or dub? Should you watch the film in its intended language (therefore requiring more effort on the viewer’s behalf), or should you watch it in a language you already understand (making viewing easier, but possibly deviating from its authorial intent)?
This was the debate that went on through my head as I began to watch the new dub for Tokyo Godfathers, the latest remaster from anime legend Satoshi Kon.
The plot of Tokyo Godfathers is a bit of an anomaly, both in the context of Japanese animation as well as in the luminary director’s body of work. The story of the movie is that three homeless people, Gin (an old surly man whose family has died), Hana (a transgender woman whose lost her job), and Miyuki (a schoolgirl who ran away from home), discover an abandoned baby, whom they all name Kiyoko, on Christmas.
The three of them argue about what to do with her, debating whether to turn her over to the police or raise her on their own, and eventually decide to try and find the baby’s parents and question why they abandoned her in the first place. As the movie goes on, we learn about the circumstances for why these three people live on the streets and the strange little miracles that happen to each of them while taking care of Kiyoko.
Full disclosure here, I was thankful enough to receive a screener from the film’s distributor, GKIDS, for review purposes. Before getting that, I was given a choice when I received it. I could either watch the original Japanese version -which had a global release back in 2003 with subtitles only-, or I could watch the dub created by GKIDS, making this the first time Tokyo Godfathers was fully translated and performed in English.
I hit a crossroads with that decision because I didn’t know which option I should choose. Do I choose the original version that Satoshi Kon and his team at Madhouse created, or do I watch the recreation done by GKIDS? The animation may still be the same, but the context behind each version is vastly different.
Tokyo Godfathers stands out as an odd movie to be released in Japan, both due to its cultural significance as well as its place in Kon’s body of work. For the uninitiated, Christmas in Japan is far less culturally significant than it is here in the West. While there are some people in Japan who do celebrate it as a religious holiday, a vast majority of people don’t celebrate it for similar reasons.
Christianity in Japan has had a long, very complicated history, but all that matters here is that people in Japan celebrate it more like how we celebrate Valentine’s Day. People use it as a chance to profess their love for one another or just generally spread love and kindness. In fact, there’s more significance put on New Year’s Eve than there is on Christmas in Japan.
I bring this up because Tokyo Godfathers occupies a weird place as being a movie about Christmas set in a country where Christmas has a different intended meaning. In America, where Christianity is prevalent, we as a country stop for an entire month to celebrate a holiday in an all-consuming mass. Even if you aren’t Christian, there’s no escaping it. In Tokyo Godfathers, while it does have several factors that make it stand out towards Western audiences (such as featuring a sermon early in the film as well as angel/Jesus iconography), it never tries to align with Western depictions of Christmas.
It’s a movie about Christmas, but one that we as Americans can only partially identify with. While there are plenty of Christmas tunes that play incessantly over the holidays here in the States, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is not one of them. In Japan, that’s one of the most beloved songs for the holidays -and yes, it makes appearances in Tokyo Godfathers-. Despite that, there are Western elements and themes that do creep in to the movie in relation to the holiday.
Hana, who fancies herself as Kiyoko’s mother as a means of becoming a mother herself, makes frequent mentions of miracles and how Kiyoko is a blessing from God. Kiyoko can be viewed as a Jesus allegory of sorts. She was discovered in a manger (dumpster) and is seen as a perfect birth (her parents abandoned her) being left to three wise men (Gin, Hana, and Miyuki). Granted, our heroes are most certainly not wise men. They’re all actually broken individuals, wracked by guilt, regret, loneliness, or their own inadequacies.
All three of them display something that is common for the holidays as well: selflessness. We see them bicker at each other constantly at the beginning of the film but as the movie progresses, they try valiantly to help others in need despite the risk to their own well being. Who can say that during the holidays, a person isn’t at least a bit more contemplative and caring to others in spirit with the season?
However, the movie isn’t a drama, or at least not completely a drama. It’s actually a pretty frenetic comedy, almost a comedy of errors at points. One thing leads to another and everything builds accordingly. While trying to find Kiyoko’s parents, they come across a high ranking yakuza who offers them food at his daughter’s wedding, only for the groom to end up being the person that put Gin into debt. An assassination attempt is made on the mob boss, resulting in Miyuki and Kiyoko being kidnapped, which causes Hana to threaten a cab driver to track them down. All of these elements are built upon as the story progresses and moment crop up when you least expect it. There are absolutely more quiet and introspective moments, but Tokyo Godfathers is a lot louder and brasher then Kon’s previous work.
In all of Kon’s filmography, Tokyo Godfathers is the odd one out. Nearly all of his films feature some kind of psychological deconstruction of his leads. Be it the lifelong journey that is Millenium Actress, or a deep dive into the nature of dreams and consciousness like in Paprika, Kon’s work is usually deeper than surface-level antics. He also tends to design most of his projects as thrillers, like where a pop star is harassed by a fan to the point of delusions in Perfect Blue, or in Paranoia Agent where people under heavy stress and duress are hunted by a child named Lil’ Slugger who beats them into contentment. Tokyo Godfathers has no such elements in it.
There is no great deconstruction of its trio of protagonists or any psychological turmoil they all undergo. Yes, they have problems they need to overcome, but character flaws do not a psychological thriller make: they just create more fleshed out characters. For Tokyo Godfathers, it’s a fairly simple adventure. Find Kiyoko’s parents and watch all of the hijinks they get into along the way.
If there is one unifying theme within Kon’s works, it’s how all of his movies are distinctly Japanese. While our music industry is far from healthy, the problems that the main character in Perfect Blue face apply only to the Japanese idol industry. Millennium Actress is about an actress, but a Japanese actress and her experiences within the Japanese film industry. Even Paprika, for all of its insights into dreams as a means to solve problems -which goes against the Freudian representation of dreams as a means of staring into the unconscious-, is based on a Japanese novel of the same name. Tokyo Godfathers still adheres to those Japanese roots, becoming a Japanese depiction of a Western holiday that tries to cater to Western depictions as well.
If that’s the case, why did it take 17 years for it to receive a proper English dub? Out of all of Kon’s work, Tokyo Godfathers is by far his most accessible work for Westerners. It’s a fun and meaningful look into how we can create our own happiness around us, whether it’s through good deeds or through the bonds we make with family and friends. It’s not terribly complicated and I can imagine placing Tokyo Godfathers in front of anyone and them having a good time.
With Parasite recently winning Best Picture at the Oscars, the importance of foreign cinema is once again a touchstone in the film community. For many people, Parasite was their first real exposure to foreign cinema and that it can be just as good, if not better, then American cinema. The biggest hurdle that people have to face when enjoying foreign cinema, usually, is having to read subtitles. This is slowly becoming a more obsolete excuse as the years go on. To quote Parasite’s director Bong Joon-Ho, “once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
But does dubbing a movie count? If you release a dub of a movie originally released in a foreign language, are you still being introduced to that wonderful world of foreign feature films? Hollywood has famously taken foreign features and dubbed over them with American actors and even spliced in footage of American actors to make movies more palatable towards Western sensibilities. There’s an entire genre dedicated to Italian movies that were redubbed when brought over to Western theaters in the 70s.
More famously, the original Western release of Godzilla was actually titled Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and featured actors dubbing over the original Japanese in English as well including a subplot about an American reporter that wasn’t in the official release. From its original release in 1956, Americans would only know of that version of the movie, as the Japanese original was never officially released in the West until 2004. In that case, can the revised movie be counted as watching foreign cinema?
So what is the correct way to watch Tokyo Godfathers? Is it with the original Japanese version where the characters stay true to their national heritage with the performances and production kept intact as originally intended? Or is it with the GKIDS dub which adds credence to the Western influences and the religious iconography that can be more identified and appreciated for Western viewers?
No matter which version you choose you’ll get to watch a fun and sometimes moving movie about the bonds that bring people together over the holidays. Plus name me one Christmas movie that features homeless people getting into fights with each other, mobsters, high-speed car chases, and the warm and loving hospitality of a group of drag queens?