One could write entire volumes or talk for hours about Satoshi Kon (1963-2010), and the subject would still be far from exhausted! Even after hours and hours of watching and re-watching, his works never cease to amaze. Even after his tragic and painful early passing, he remains one of the most original, innovative and creative animation artists. His movies, diverse through genre and approach, amaze, hypnotize, sometimes even frighten the viewer; nevertheless, once within the universe of his works, one can’t hold back from wanting to revisit them. Especially since his movies – too few, unfortunately – open up to us only after several viewings, after the first impression – sometimes shocking because of artistic style, realism of image and even narrative style – is gone, revealing an amazing richness of meanings, metaphors, and serious issues of the contemporary world.
Andrew Osmond considers that, due to his way of juggling with ideas and images, Satoshi Kon was an illusionist, rather than a magician. The journalist had the opportunity to meet the artist in person, which gave him a special, distinctive view. However, in my opinion, Satoshi Kon reaches beyond the cold rationality of the illusionist, entering the realm of magician directors, who enrich the charm of cinema with a certain note of magic and fantasy. Alongside Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton, Satoshi Kon is – before anything else – magical, with all the elements of magic: illusion, light, fear, darkness, irony, all of them bathed in the love for performing arts. And this is because Satoshi Kon’s movies are a manifesto for performance, a manifesto for the art of cinema. Sennen Joyū (Millenium Actress – 2001) is a direct tribute to cinema, especially Japanese cinema. In the love story of the actress who is stubbornly searching for her lover, the rebel and revolted artist, one can recognize a tribute to the artistry of Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi. Later, in Papurika (Paprika, 2006), the cinema is seen as a reconciliation with the memory, past and subconscious of a character who had previously stated that I am not interested in movies; in the end, we see him entering a cinema hall where movies were shown – and his irony is perfect – precisely Satoshi Kon’s movies.
Fascinated since childhood by the universe of anime and manga, he recalls that ”I’ve been involved with manga and animation since I was a child. I was crazy about Uchu senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato) and looked forward to Arupusu no shojo Haiji (Heidi: Girl of the Alps). However, ever since I started to work on animation myself, I watch fewer animations”. (Aimee Giron, HT Talks To… FilmMaker Satoshi Kon, December 7th, 2005, http://goo.gl/0lVQ2 accessed on May 03rd, 2012).
The beginnings of his career are linked to the manga universe (he started off as a drawing artist). ”I didn’t want to just read manga (comic books), but have a go at writing them myself. I was heavily influenced by Katsuhiro Otomo’s Domu (1980) and Akira (1982). I especially liked Domu, and I figured that if I were allowed to make just one movie from among all the manga I’d read, that would be it” (Interview with Satoshi Kon, Director of Perfect Blue, September 4, 1998, http://goo.gl/cm97J, accessed on May 1st, 2012). The movie Perfect Blue (1997) marked the beginning of Satoshi Kon’s career as an animation film director. He admitted that “… animation is really my language, so I would like to express what I can express in my language” (http://goo.gl/5OYBc, accessed on May 5th 2012, interview from 2003). And also further explained his choice: “I have no interest in making a live action movie at all, in part because I like drawing so much. Although I understand that directing means creating mise-en-scene, whether with real actors or CG, personally I don’t think it’s something I’d do because I’m not adept at it. I’m much better at drawing” (http://goo.gl/vkFHN, 20.11.2006, accessed on May 1st, 2012).
After Perfect Blue, the movies that follow branch out in a great diversity of genres and Satoshi Kon heavily involves himself in their making, as he was not only director and drawing artist, but also script writer or co-script writer: Sennen Joyū (Millennium Actress, 2001), Tōkyō Goddofāzāzu (Tokyo Godfathers, 2003), Papurika (Paprika, 2006), the 13 episodes series Mōsō Dairinin (Paranoia Agent, 2004), the short movie Ohayo (2008); in 2010 he was working on Yume Miru Kikai (Dreaming Machine/The Dream Machine), a robot movie, aimed at a younger audience, for which he hadn’t made any movies until then. Unfortunately, the movie remained unfinished.
The genres he dealt with vary, easily switching from thriller to horror, to psychological movie, drama, comedy, fantasy, romance; and they interlace even within the same movie. Therefore some critics consider them “layered movies”, while others see them as “puzzle movies”, because they never have only one meaning or implication. When commenting Sennen Joyū (Millennium Actress), Satoshi Kon stated that ”There are many, many, many messages. So, it depends on the person who sees the film. So some people see it as a melodrama and an accomplished love, like a real pure love. Some people see it as a depiction of Japanese history and culture. Some people see it as pursuit by a man who cannot get the girl, cannot get the love he really loved. It depends on the person who sees the film and they get different kinds of messages. As a director, if I were asked, “Mr. Kon, what’s your message?” I wouldn’t say. It’s probably better that way. They can enjoy the film more and find many layers and many messages. Personally I got to discover a lot of things. I got to know what was happening 50 years ago and that was a surprise for me. My wish is that that kind of surprise could be conveyed to the audience but that doesn’t mean the message is the surprise of our rediscovery. In terms of the message, I wouldn’t say, and that’s probably the best way to enjoy the film. (http://goo.gl/j79Hx, interview from 2003, Big Apple Anime Festival, New York City).
The themes of his movies are no less diverse. Satoshi Kon easily juggles with very delicate and sensitive themes, such as memory and remembrance (Paprika); the double (Perfect Blue, Paprika); forgiveness and guilt (Paranoia Agent); the dream (Paprika); the border between reality and fiction (Paprika, Perfect Blue). Satoshi Kon’s heroes are complex characters, dominated by various dreams and egos, and the moral of his stories is that happiness comes through the reconciliation with the self and with the past. The mental horizons are doubled by social realities. Satoshi Kon is a refined observer of the contemporary society, which he depicts in its most sensitive aspects. In Perfect Blue, the viewer is faced with the psychosis of the present world: obsessions, voyeurism, aggressiveness, the race for rating, eroticism (various kinds of eroticism, from that of the J-Pop band, to the nude pictorials and the spicy scenes that Mima Kigigoe – the main heroine – must accept as part of promotion and attracting the audience).
The world of the Internet, which is increasingly invading personal privacy, is thematised in Paranoia Agent, as well as in Perfect Blue. Tokyo Godfathers is a parable à la Satoshi Kon about the meanings of Christmas, and also the movie with the most powerful social background: a dark Tokyo of deserted side streets, populated by homeless people, mafia, and groups that are violent for no reason. On this somber background, three characters start on an initiating path, to find the mother of an abandoned child. In an interview for Andrew Osmond, Satoshi Kon recalled that the audience in New York was surprised that there were homeless people in Tokyo, as the stereotypical image was one of an extremely wealthy society, in which homeless people can’t exist. And if watching or re-watching the movie will remind you of Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), then this is no coincidence, as the movie is a hommage to the wonderful film poem made by Gilliam about one again finding the joy in living, responsibility and forgiveness.
Tokyo Godfathers is also a way to relate to the hardships of the contemporary world’s realities, but in a different way than in Paranoia Agent. In the 13 episodes of the series, Satoshi Kon proposes an acid and tough radiography of contemporary culture and media phenomena, both aggressive and dehumanizing. At the same time, beyond the violence of images and of the storyline (the baseball bat wielding teenager on roller skates who attacks the characters, apparently illogically), the story/stories reveal in the end a philosophical and psychological meaning, as Shōnen Batto (Lil’ Slugger) is a hidden part of each of us, the nightmare within us, that sometimes succeeds in killing or tearing us down).
Another theme present in Paprika is related to the role of technology and science in un-enchanting the modern world. A character considers that technology kills dreams, charms and spells.
Critics have searched for his sources of influences and artistic models. With modesty, he admits that ”My ideas come from ordinary day-to-day living, such as watching movies, reading books, listening to music, and talking with friends. I get ideas that are linked to trends around the world, but I just take in information from TV, newspapers, and the Internet in a normal way, and I don’t conscientiously conduct any information gathering. The particular moments when I come up with ideas really vary. However, I feel the easiest moment to extract an idea is when I’m talking with someone” (Aimee Giron, HomeTheater Talks To… FilmMaker Satoshi Kon, December 7th, 2005, http://goo.gl/GSY5J, accessed on May 3rd, 2012). And among the artists who influenced his career he doesn’t hesitate to mention Katsuhiro Otomo (the father of the phenomenon Akira), director Akira Kurosawa, and last, but not least, Terry Gilliam. ”The most important influence on me at the time, I think, wasn’t a single film, but the works of Terry Gilliam. Despite being fantasy, his depictions are quite bitter, his narration also throws ‘curve-balls’, and rather than covering every point in detail, he takes the staging off to a completely different point and plucks out a single, vivid theme. I especially like Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) (Interview with Satoshi Kon, Director of Perfect Blue, September 4th, 1998, http://goo.gl/A5P8d, accessed on May 1st, 2012)
Beyond all these, Satoshi Kon remains an artist of amazing and oveflowing originality and inventiveness. “When I draw myself, I am quite naturally interested in whatever’s around me, so that there’s a feeling of starting from a realistic point of view, with which fantasy is then mixed, and finally finishing with pure fantasy” (Interview with Satoshi Kon, Director of Perfect Blue, September 4th, 1998, http://goo.gl/bi8yu, accessed on May 1st, 2012).
And the moral of Satoshi Kon’s stories is best expressed in his jewel Ohayo: the joy of welcoming every new day with a broad Good morning!
– Enrico Azzano. Andreea Fontana, Davide Taro, Satoshi Kon, – Il cinema attraveso lo specchio, Edizione Il Foglio, Piombino, 2009.
– Dani Cavallaro, Anime and Memory: Aesthetic, Cultural and Thematic Perspectives, McFarland. Jefferson, 2009.
– Andrew Osmond, Satoshi Kon. The Illusionist, Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, 2009.
– Mark W. Macilliams, Japanese Visual Culture, Explorations in rthe World of Anime and Manga, M.E. Shape, New York, 2008.
By Mirela-Luminița Murgescu
published in Otaku: Sapporo (2012)