Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Remembering Satoshi Kon, 1963-2010

On August 24th of 2010, Satoshi Kon succumbed to pancreatic cancer. He was 46, and with only four feature films under his belt he was probably my favorite living filmmaker. Most Americans don’t recognize his name. You’re lucky if somebody knows who Hayao Miyazaki is; a second anime director would be pushing it. But Kon was just as much a student of Terry Gilliam as he was of Gundam. There was no one so maddeningly versatile, and certainly not in the anime space. Kon was fascinated with trash and the homeless, wrought dream stories that were actually dreamlike, and brought actual Horror to cartoons.

His most infamous movie is Perfect Blue (1998). Recognition glimmers in the most eyes when I mention it among Kon’s movies. That recognition is typically followed by a tip of the chin and a narrowing of the eyes. Those people are not interested in anymore Kon movies; they presume the rest are like that. They aren’t. He never did another movie like it. Arguably nobody else has, either. It’s animated Psychological Horror. Take a moment to count how many animated Horror movies you’ve ever seen.

Didn’t get beyond the fingers of one hand, right?

Perfect Blue isn’t a slasher. It focuses on a young pop singer who wants to move on with her life. She’s matured and wants to expand as a solo act or an actress. But having grown up as a pre-packaged superstar, she has little direction or self-identity. Her fans turn violent with perceived betrayal. A photographer talks her into a risky photo-shoot. She begins seeing things, perhaps visions of the self she was or wants to be. She gets threats, fumbles for work, and as sleep ebbs, winds up chasing a hallucination of herself down a city street. Then the murders begin.

That photographer? We guessed he was doomed, but we don’t know if she did it. Both the pop star and the audience wonder if she’s so lost that she’s unconsciously active. Maybe the images she’s chasing are the real her, or one of her psychotic fans is doing the dirty work. It’s a stark reflection on celebrity culture and identity within fame. Darren Aronofsky was attached to adapt and remake it for American audiences before Kon passed. He made Black Swan instead, and that movie feels overwhelmingly imitative. It’s downright funny, too, to think that American cinema only now has the guts to try to do what Kon did in cartoons a decade ago.

After the intensity of Perfect Blue, the average audience member figures his next movie would be more Horror. Yet the closest thing is Millennium Actress (2001). That movie follows a two-man documentary team as they explore the life of one of Japan’s most iconic actresses. Her life’s work has spanned most of Japanese cinema. Now in old age and addled by senility, her life story blends with the stories she starred in. So she was a timid schoolgirl, and a woman searching for love in World War II, and an astronaut. As her narrative unfolds, the documentarians are drawn into her delusions, actually taking part in her memories. As opposed to Perfect Blue, this lady has so much sense of self that other people get lost in it.

It’s not Horror at all. The old woman is wistful. Her stories are romantic, sometimes bittersweet like when we watch her separate from a fictional lover, or harrowing in escaping wartime Japan. She pursues the same enigmatic man through several movie realities, giving us both a glimpse at the life she wanted and film history itself. We are there live for Japanese cinema’s most famous kiss, for the political struggles of a Kurosawa screenplay, and for a brief instant, an attack by Godzilla. It’s a biography of national film.

My personal favorite Kon movie is Tokyo Godfathers (2003). I don’t know how you sell that movie, unless you’ve already got considerable friends in your industry. Imagine: a comedy about three homeless people, one a transvestite who fashions “herself” the den mother, who find an abandoned baby on Christmas, and while inexplicable miracles blossom around the child, they search for its mother and deliberate on the tragedies that took them from home. It’s a Comedy.

Our transvestite believes God can deliver her a child since He did it for Mary. That’s only trumped when she shows up the next day with the lost infant, and the slackjawed look on a soup worker’s face believing it’s a Christmas miracle. As much as I enjoy shows like Archer and Venture Brothers, they peddle shock with their mature subject matters. All of the jarring content in Tokyo Godfathers feels like it belongs there. It is simply so idiosyncratic a world, right to the moment before the credits roll.

Paprika (2006) wound up being Kon’s final feature film. It has the strongest mass appeal and is the most successful. In it, researchers invent two machines that allow us to enter dreams. One device goes missing, and we pursue the thief through both the real world and the pell-mell dreamscape. Our protagonist is split in two, into the more reserved real woman, and the wilder free spirit that can jump between imagined skyscrapers. Paprika has plenty of crazy dreamworld events, like an army of toys or a psychosexual interrogation. There’s more creativity in its opening credit sequence than in most whole movies you’ll see this year.

But outlandishness isn’t surprising in dream movies. Very few movies actually attempt to feel dreamlike. They simply do weird things and then have somebody wake up. Yet you know almost every nightmare you ever had went nothing like Nightmare On Elm Street. They’re seldom so coherent, consistent or direct.

Paprika offers us something more: some of the most dreamlike moments in cinema history. At one point our heroine is in pursuit and leaps over a guardrail. The camera veers, and suddenly there is no concrete on which to land. She’s now falling through the sky. The first time I saw it, I was jarred in my chair. I’d never seen the betrayal of momentum portrayed like that, though I’d felt it in thousands of nights. I tensed up in my chair, not feeling her descent, but the surprise of finally seeing this sort of thing done on my television. It was the same unusual feeling I’d gotten watching a Psychological Horror anime, and a Comedy about homelessness.

What remains most striking is how irreconcilable the four movies are. The verisimilitude of Paprika’s dream moments could not happen in Tokyo Godfathers. The astonishing humor of Tokyo Godfathers could not happen in Perfect Blue. And Perfect Blue’s identity crisis? Couldn’t last a day in Millennium Actress’s dementia.

His next film was only a third of the way through its shots. “The Dreaming Machine” sounded like an alternate title for Paprika. I was almost disappointed. But the synopsis? In a 2008 interview he said, “It'll be like a "road movie" for robots.”

Well, God damn it. I wanted that. And after an artist you enjoy passes, it’s easy to feel greedy. He should have done more. But Kon took years to get movies right, and get unusual movies through Japan’s systems. A year later, I’m only grateful he gave us those four. It’d be thrilling to create four so dynamic works myself, in any medium.


  1. I enjoyed his films very much, shame he didn't have time to make a few more.

    Moody Writing

  2. Thanks for introducing me to Kon. I'd like to see some of these that you described so I'm taking notes.

  3. When genius speaks to you, it's great to be able to look at it over and over. We're lucky to live in a time where we can bring it right into our homes and sit around in our underwear whilst enjoying it.

    Great tribute.

  4. Hi there John -- I didn't know anything about Kon until you filled me in, but I'll definitely keep an eye open for his stuff. Had seen the Perfect Blue box art around somewhere, that was about it. Loved that bit in the Paprika opening where she hops into and out of the guy's T-shirt. Of course, you know I'm going to see his stuff everywhere now you've mentioned it...;) St.

  5. Good enough for me. On the queue they go.

  6. I'm reading this very late, but man, I agree with everything you say. I think what I find most impressive about Kon's work is that he didn't just do what a lot of anime series do, throw symbolism at the wall and see what sticks. (Evangelion, Utena, Lain, I'm looking at you). There's a deliberateness to everything he does that you have to respect, even in those (rare) moments when you don't understand its intent.

    I still think my favorite Satoshi Kon, however, is the TV series Paranoia Agent. Have you seen that?

    Also, Aronofsky wasn't just inspired by Perfect Blue. There are scenes in both Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan that he ripped off, "shot" for shot, from Perfect Blue. I have so little respect for his stuff -- because to me it feels so derivative and over the top that I want to laugh instead of cry.

    1. I loved Paranoia Agent! Originally I would catch it on Adult Swim every Saturday in the dub. It's been years since I've seen it, but I'd happily revisit it. It's not a terribly long series. Even the intro was great, gradually making more sense across the series.


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