The Magical Characters of 'Tokyo Godfathers'
Plus: global animation news and a fun student film.
Welcome back! We’re here with another issue of the Animation Obsessive newsletter. Thanks for joining us. And this is what we’re doing today:
One — how the classic characters of Tokyo Godfathers came to be.
Two — animation news from all around the world.
Three — wild student animation from Japan.
Four — the last word.
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Now, here we go!
1. Giving Tokyo Godfathers character
In the history of Japanese anime, a few directors stand apart. Satoshi Kon is one of them. Best known for Perfect Blue and Paprika, he was a filmmaker’s filmmaker — widely imitated but rarely surpassed. Other directors swipe the eye-popping images he painstakingly storyboarded by himself, but they miss Kon’s fundamentals: the man could direct.
Look no further than Tokyo Godfathers (2003), Kon’s third, least flashy and possibly best film. It’s a comedy, and a portrait of three homeless people on Tokyo’s streets. On Christmas Eve, they find a baby in the garbage — and they decide to take her home to her mother. What follows is a master class in characterization.
That was the point. During production, Kon wrote that “the biggest difference” between Tokyo Godfathers and his past work was that it centered on “character performance.”1 It was about getting these animated people to act, and to carry the film.
To do that, Kon had to rethink the way he made animation. He was, he wrote, someone who allowed plot to control characters. Kon needed to build a team that would let the characters lead. An early member of that team was screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto (Cowboy Bebop).
Nobumoto, who sadly passed away this month, had collaborated a bit with Kon before. But Kon described them as mainly “drinking friends.” In his eyes, she was his polar opposite as a writer, and that’s why he wanted her for Tokyo Godfathers. She allowed her characters to create their own stories — in fact, she said that she couldn’t write plots.
“Nobumoto thinks from the side of character personalities,” Kon wrote, “and I think from the side that overlooks the characters, like composition and development.”
Kon already had a skeleton of the film before Nobumoto came aboard. The idea developed out of Tokyo Ghost, a failed project of Kon’s about a homeless person and a spirit. From there, Kon pivoted to the idea of a homeless person finding a baby, which he mashed up with John Ford’s film 3 Godfathers. That meant three protagonists. Kon roughed them out based on true stories of homelessness he’d studied.
This is where the leads Hana, Miyuki and Gin first emerged. In his early designs, Kon tried to make the three look as different from each other as possible — he hated the trend of using only hair and clothing to separate characters who had similar faces and body shapes. “I’m the kind of person who gets angry as soon as I see something like that,” he wrote.
Instead, his goal was to help you “imagine what kind of person this is just by looking.” He color-coded the characters red, blue and yellow, and leaned into caricature and shape language. According to Kon, “Roughly speaking, the face shape is ▽ for Gin-chan, ○ for Miyuki and a long □ (square) for Hana-chan.”
Nobumoto took this raw material and ran with it, turning the trio into fleshed-out characters. Kon loved her work. “For me,” he wrote, “it seems that I drew the storyboard while feeling for the characters in a way I never have before.”
Then there was the cosplay footage that the team shot as reference for the animators:
The characters’ complex outfits, much bulkier than usual, gave the animators trouble. This footage was key to overcoming that problem. It also made the character personalities clearer — like Gin as the hardened veteran, played here by producer Satoki Toyoda.
Kon himself played Hana, the character he called the driving force in Tokyo Godfathers. She intrigued him. To describe her, Kon once cited the dictionary definition of a mythological trickster character — beings who “disturb the morality and order of society, but also play a role in revitalizing culture.” Plus, for Kon, Hana’s glam sensibility supported one of the film’s main points: heightened, exaggerated acting.
Although Kon wanted the characters to look and feel real, he made the paradoxical choice to add “a lot of manga-like deformed expressions into the performances.” That included squash and stretch — abnormal in anime. It was all to push acting to the front.
That idea, centering character performance, originally came to Kon during the production of Millennium Actress (2001). A few of that film’s scenes by animator Shinji Ôtsuka, famous for his work at Studio Ghibli, fascinated Kon so much that he planned Tokyo Godfathers specifically with Ôtsuka in mind. Kon called it “scary to think what would have happened if Ôtsuka-san had not participated.”
Ôtsuka joined Tokyo Godfathers early, even before Kon had finished the storyboards, and animated a moment to test Kon’s ideas (see it here). It was cartoonish and pushed — and brilliant. According to Kon, it set the tone for the whole production, right down to the rest of Kon’s storyboards.
Ôtsuka ended up key-animating around a tenth of Tokyo Godfathers, Kon wrote. Kenichi Konishi, the chief animation director, said that Kon wanted to “make a movie that makes the most of Ôtsuka-san.”2
One thing that helped to make a name for Ôtsuka on the production was that he, at least at times, animated whole sections by himself — without an inbetweener. That’s how he handled the sequence where Hana chews out Gin, which Kon cited as a masterwork:
Ôtsuka let characters drift off-model and emote to the point of distortion. The other animators followed his lead. Kon noted that a lot of Tokyo Godfathers’ core talents, including Kenichi Konishi, were Ghibli veterans. That skill level came through.
Each key animator was given leeway to be wild and let their uniqueness soar — the clean-up stage didn’t eliminate the differences in how they drew. Konishi, who oversaw much of the animation, said that he wanted to ensure that “the key animator’s personality was revealed and preserved.”
In turn, those personalities added to the richness of the characters’ own personalities. Every moment in Tokyo Godfathers feels intensely alive and real, even though the characters break the boundaries of realism whenever they speak. It comes down to the genius of Kon’s direction, pushing animation into new forms.
2. News around the world
Wage transparency comes to animation
Wage transparency is a growing movement that’s touched sectors like publishing in recent years. As members of The Animation Guild continue to fight for a better deal, they’ve been sharing their salaries on Twitter to raise awareness.
We want to highlight a few tweets that have shocked younger members of the industry. They came from artist and director John Sanford (DC Super Hero Girls, Home on the Range), who explained just how much money he used to make at Disney from the 1990s through the mid-2000s. Sanford wrote:
I started at $642 a week as a feature story trainee at Disney in ‘93, made $932 in ‘95. Then made between $3k and $5k a week as a story artist, $400k a year as a feature director. All this before ‘05.
He followed up:
I almost didn’t share these figures, but I wanted everyone to see just how far wages had fallen. Another thing, from my experience, [is that] the overages on movies back then happened due to poor planning and indecision, not artists’ salaries.
The tweets sparked a lively discussion. When one artist asked how salaries had gotten so high back in the ‘90s, Sanford offered a clear answer. “We were open and transparent about our wages and we openly played the studios against each other,” he wrote, “which is as it should be.”
BUSINESS: An update from Europe
Europe is increasingly an animation powerhouse. Boosted by the co-production system, which has become a well-oiled machine since the harrowing days of The Secret of Kells, it supports a thriving ecosystem of animation houses. According to a new report:
Europe produces around 55 animation films and 830 hours of animation TV content each year, with France and the United Kingdom dominating the European animation scene.
This week brought another example of the system at work. The Eurimages Fund just infused five animated features, co-productions spread from France to Slovakia, with hundreds of thousands of euro. These are projects like Chicken for Linda, an artful comedy about a mother’s quest to cook “chicken with peppers, even though she cannot cook at all.”
The co-production system continues to fund films like these in creative ways. Case in point: this week, the French Broadcasting Authority (CSA) signed a deal with Netflix, Prime Video and Disney+ that forces the streamers to “contribute up to 20% of their turnover in France to French creation,” Cineuropa reports. In other words:
The overall sum expected to be paid towards audiovisual and film production by Audiovisual Media Service Providers is €250 to €300m per year, according to the calculations of the CSA, who are congratulating themselves on this huge step forwards: “until now, national broadcasters were the only parties expected to contribute towards the creation funding system. […] This is a huge step forwards for the French and European cultural model.”
Best of the rest
As mentioned above, we’ve lost the legendary screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto. She was 57. Alongside her time on Cowboy Bebop and Tokyo Godfathers, she created Wolf’s Rain and worked on series like Space Dandy and Carole & Tuesday.
Britain’s Magic Light Pictures, one of our favorite animation companies right now, is premiering a new special called Superworm on Christmas Day.
In Italy, the studio Gruppo Alcuni is planning an ambitious training program.
One of the big trends this year? According to Kidscreen, it was real-time animation — spearheaded by the Epic MegaGrant in America.
Australian animation has been devastated by the end of laws that favored local animators. But hope remains — months after selling to an Indian animation giant, Xentrix Studios Australia just revealed “nine new animated kids’ shows.”
Studio Ponoc in Japan, known for Modest Heroes and Mary and the Witch’s Flower, has dropped a teaser for its next film. It’s called The Imaginary, and it’s directed by Yoshiyuki Momose — formerly a top artist at Ghibli.
Green Snake, the breakout animated hit from China this year, made its international debut on Netflix this month and pulled in impressive numbers.
Choi Jae-Ho, a Korean voice actor on series like Detective Conan, has accused Netflix of predatory contracts and disallowing actors from taking credit for their roles. Streamers’ treatment of voice actors is a growing concern in Korea.
With his bizarre feature film Junk Head, the self-taught filmmaker Takahide Hori has won the newcomer prize at Japan’s 46th Hochi Film Awards.
One more from America — there are 26 animated features under Oscar consideration this year. That includes The Summit of the Gods, one of the best films we’ve seen in 2021.
Lastly, the daughter of Makoto Shinkai (Your Name) voices Meghan in the upcoming Japanese release of The Boss Baby: Family Business.
3. Indie spotlight — A Gum Boy
To the outside world, the impact of animation teachers can be invisible. The public doesn’t see the moments when mentors form artists — the courses, the one-on-one conversations, the ideas and anecdotes passed down once and maybe never again. Those uncaptured moments, though, are often central to an animator’s legacy.
In Japan, Kōji Yamamura is that kind of animator. His films, like A Country Doctor, are already influential. But he’s reached a new level of importance to young artists since 2008, when he started teaching graduate students at Tokyo University of the Arts. His animation classes have turned out promising new voices, and inspiring student films, for years.
See: Masaki Okuda and his marvelously weird piece A Gum Boy (2010).
A Gum Boy is a film from Okuda’s first year under Yamamura. It tells an absurd story about a schoolboy who loves to chew. What sells it is the execution — it’s funny, manic, disorienting and technically striking. It also owes a noticeable debt to Yamamura, Nishikata Film Review has correctly noted, from its warping animation to its use of shamisen music and traditional storytelling.
Despite that, A Gum Boy has so much fun and energy packed into it that it doesn’t feel derivative. When it traveled around the world, it impressed juries and even picked up a special mention at Animafest in Zagreb. On his old blog, Okuda wrote that he especially enjoyed the screenings for kids — A Gum Boy wasn’t made for children, but it still engaged them. With joys this clear and undeniable, it’s easy to see why.
Find A Gum Boy in full below:
4. Last word
And that’s a wrap for today’s issue! Thanks for reading to the end. We’ll be back next Sunday — but members can catch our Thursday issue as well:
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One last thing. Recently, we were fortunate enough to have been accepted into Substack’s Grow Fellowship, a grant and mentorship program. It’s an honor to have made the cut alongside publications like The SneakyArt Post. The program allows us to pursue a few of our ideas that were previously too ambitious to try. We’re excited to make our newsletter even better in the coming months!
See you again soon!
From Kon’s incredibly detailed production notes for Tokyo Godfathers, our main source for the article.