Satoshi Kon (1963-2010): Saying Goodbye to a Godfather

satoshikon

Yesterday afternoon, I heard the news that filmmaker Satoshi Kon had passed away. This information came hard, hitting me on the head like a mischievous little boy's baseball bat. The shocking news spread, at first, through Twitter. Hoped by fans to be nothing but a rumor, it was then confirmed by Kon’s co-workers at his Madhouse animation studio.

After the initial surprise of this news coming out of nowhere (the man was only 47 and was in the middle of completing yet another highly anticipated film), I had to come to terms with what about this news made me so angry: Kon was an amazing talent, not just in his field but in cinema in general, and the sadness of his passing comes not just from the fact that a man’s life has been cut so short—important as that must be to his personal friends and family—but that he had plenty more to offer that he could no longer deliver.

It’s different when a legendary figure passed away, leaving behind an extensive and proud legacy a fan can be content with. I realized that I hadn’t been this upset at a celebrity death since Heath Ledger’s back in 2008, perhaps for this very same reason. I believe that these guys still had their glory years ahead of them, despite the accomplishments they’ve already achieved, and it’s sad, very sad, to know that we’ll never get to see those years, including the film Kon's working on at the time of his death, a kid-oriented robot movie called The Dream Machine. The completion of that project is now uncertain.

Here—I can moan about the loss of cinematic brilliance, which I’m sure at this time sounds like a selfish reaction, or I can be thankful of the few that Satoshi Kon did leave behind, by celebrating them. Having seen all of his work and being a wide-eyed admirer of every single one, I will now recall these feats, in the order that I discovered them, which just so happened to be the order that he made them. I'd be very pleased if you could join me.

 

Perfect Blue

kon_perfectblueI remember watching Perfect Blue for the first time. It was luck that Kon’s first film is the first film of his that I watched—I discovered it just before he’d done anything else. I was in high school and very much into David Lynch at the time, convinced that Lynch may be my favorite director working, with thoughts of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks often crawling in my young mind. Craving for more of that sense of unsettling, darkly humorous drama, I was drawn to an anime I’d heard about called Perfect Blue, partly intrigued by the prospect of an animated psychological thriller, delighted to discover this kind of Mulholland Drive in anime form.

To this day, Perfect Blue remains Kon’s most polarizing film, the story of a pop idol's mental breakdown following a seedy career change, the threat of a stalker fan and a series of grisly murders around her. The dark subject matter, the near-perverse treatment of its female main character, along with its 90’s erotic thriller feel—almost like a cross between Silk Stalking and The X-Files—often alienates unprepared viewers as much as it impresses.

Even so, I maintain that it’s the best film to use as an entry point to his filmography. It’s his roughest work, but it sets the tone for the type of stories he wanted to tell, as well as a good basis for his approach to using the animated form. Kon’s films maintain a pretense of reality, at least at first. His animated characters don’t break into physical impossibilities or fantastical actions until the story calls for it (which makes sense when you know that it was originally intended to be a live-action film before a quake destroyed the production studio). In Perfect Blue, we are treated to surreal images that come from a woman no longer able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. This motif appears several more times in Kon's work.

Darren Aronofsky paying homage to Perfect Blue in Requiem for a Dream

 

Millennium Actress

kon_millenniumIt's kind of serendipitous that I discovered this film when I did. The year Millennium Actress was released, I'd just started film school. Satoshi Kon was not a name to revere yet, but I'd remembered Perfect Blue and knew it was from the same guy. Naturally, as it is partly about filmmaking and the celebration of film history, it made a big dent on my film-eager college self.

If this is all the Kon we’re ever going to get, then I contend that Millennium Actress is his masterpiece. It’s a film so astonishingly confident of itself that it’s kind of remarkable that it was only his second, given how complex the narrative is; dealing with immense themes like the chase of eternal love and distinctive truth in a lifetime of memories. Here, Kon once again creates a barrier between a dictated reality and imagination. The film is centered on an aging actress remembering the man she’d been hoping to reunite with for decades, but her memory of her life bleeds into the memory of her film career, creating a dreamy memory in which she lived an exciting life steeped in multiple cinematic genres.

It’s a beautiful film, both aesthetically and emotionally, and cemented Satoshi Kon as not just a talented filmmaker, but also one of the future leaders of his profession.

A dynamic scene showing the film's bubbling energy

 

Tokyo Godfathers

kon_tokyoBeing a leader of cinema does have its requirements, and versatility is arguably one of them. Despite the sharp difference in tone between Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress, they did share a similar theme and the same style of movement. Kon broke the motif for his third film with a quirky Christmas story, which shows how well he could also pull off a comedy.

In his lightest film, full of slapstick gags and oddball situations, Kon poked fun at the Three Wise Men/Baby Jesus myth by transplanting it into contemporary Tokyo's underbelly, with three damaged homeless people taking care of an abandoned newborn, and through this adventure they come to terms with their individual issues. It's easily Kon's most maudlin film—how can it not, with that premise?—but through the film's sweet optimism, there's something poignant and perceptive in how Kon handled each character's coming realization. It also helps that the film is constantly moving at breakneck pace, unintentionally paying homage to those great 80's "one bad night out on the town" movies.

This one honestly surprised me, because it's such a far cry from Perfect Blue and effectively erased my initial narrow pegging of Kon as a surrealist. It's this movie that made me realize what a long and illustrious career he was going to have.

Or supposed to have, anyway.

Cheerful Japanese version of "Ode to Joy" from the end credits

 

Paranoia Agent

kon_paranoiaI was a voracious anime series watcher when I was a kid, having seen all the big names and then some, but by this point in time I had all but given up on them, my thin connection to that world sustained only by lazy late-night views of Cowboy Bebop on Adult Swim. When they started airing Paranoia Agent, I knew nothing about it—and in fact didn't need to—other than that it's made by Satoshi Kon.

Imagine my delight finding out that he decided to make a television series. 13 episodes of Satoshi Kon madness is six times what a single movie would've given me, and I was already a big enough fan at the time to hunger for more. The series was a product of leftover imagination (envy that for a second); Kon pooled together unused ideas from his three movies and, rather bravely, constructed an experimental series around them. Paranoia Agent is mysterious, excitingly weird and often abstract. The main premise is that a supernatural entity in the form of a little boy on inline skates carrying a golden baseball bat attacks the residents of a Japanese town, but whenever he does, the already-in-crisis victims suddenly find their lives improving in surprising ways.

Kon utilized the television format surprisingly well, with the episodes offering a standalone story, but not forgetting an overall arc with recurring characters that eventually explain the show's big mystery. It's one of those rare shows that, despite how wonderful it is, you feel content with it shutting down at the end and you don't really think a second season is even necessary.

The show's haunting opening title sequence

 

Paprika

kon_paprikaAnd so we've come to the end. The movie that film buffs joke is the better version of Inception. I'm burdened by the fact that it is the first and last Satoshi Kon film I'd reviewed as a professional film critic.

Paprika is a return to basics for Kon; it's the only one besides Perfect Blue to get an R rating. It's a thriller, it contains pretty dark ideas, murders are involved, and once again we have the motif of a woman blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Paprika is the name of a dream persona, whose specialty is psychotherapy through the dream world, but finds that she must now stop a so-called "dream terrorist." Yet all that is just a cypher for Kon to express more of his love for film as an art medium. If Millennium Actress was about the legacy of films, here it's about the making of them, as well as their effect on our subconscious. After all, our dreams are a mixture of memory and fiction, the latter of which we often pull from pop culture.

In my original review from three years ago, I wrote this paragraph: "Fans familiar with Satoshi Kon’s previous animes will find this film to be a culmination of his body of work. It has Perfect Blue’s schizophrenia, Millennium Actress’ slippery reality, Paranoia Agent’s philosophical questions, and Tokyo Godfather’s warm sense of humanity."

At the time, I couldn't have known how appropriate that ended up being.

A parade for Satoshi Kon

Aug
25
2010
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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