This was to be my fourth entry in my summer reading section, but right now I don’t feel like writing it. Today has brought some very sad news indeed, as I have just learnt that one of my absolute favourite film makers has passed away.
The work Satoshi Kon leaves behind, while not immense, is so impressive that we must rage against his passing, for the world is a poorer place now. While I am uncomfortable eulogising someone known, as if saying that this person deserves more than the next man, I can’t help but give Kon-san some words now. He has through his art arrested my attention for countless hours, and in consequence made my life richer, better. I am grateful to him.
I am sure that Satoshi Kon himself would be bothered by too much attention on his person. From all the interviews I’ve seen and read with him, I’ve perceived him as a modest man, downplaying his own importance and achievements. I’ve watched the commentary-tracks to all his films. There he always focused on his collaborators, never drawing attention to himself or his own role.
The field of Anime, in which Kon-san made his art, is extremely stressful. Fifteen hour work days is almost the norm. For the talented, there is better money and working conditions in other pastures. As a consequence there are fewer professionals working actively in Anime than ever. The shows produced are often cheap TV-productions without any artistic merit, and it is difficult to find capable Anime directors under the age of fifty.
A brief example: In 1994, Hayao Miyazaki finally found someone younger to groom for directorial work in his Studio Ghibli, planning for him to take over as the head director of Ghibli films. He chose Yoshifumi Kondo, then 44 years of age. Kondo-san made one very good film, Whisper of the Heart, before passing away at the age of 47. The reason was said to be work excess, causing Miyazaki to announce his own retirement from the field, a threat he luckily didn’t follow up on.
Still, even with financial problems and a scarcity of talent, the Japanese Anime field manages to produce some of the best cinematic art in the world.
Satoshi Kon made his directorial debut in 1997 with the thriller Perfect Blue. It is the only of his films which he didn’t write himself, but that he is not given a writing credit might as well be a result of his modesty. A word like Hitchcockian was often used in contemporary reviews of the film, but like all stock phrases, it is used altogether too often.
Perfect Blue is not a perfect film, the animation is at times crude, but where the film shines is in the direction, the choices of angles and building of suspense. I detect more of David Lynch in the film than Hitchcock. The way the female protagonist sacrifices personal dignity for what she thinks is her art, to make it as a film star, is at times reminiscent of Lynches later Inland Empire. The fusion of dreams and reality, the dissolution of the borders between the waking world and one’s subconscious, is also very much Lynchian. In many of his films, it is clear that Kon-san was influenced by the American director, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Lynch was inspired by Satoshi Kon in return.
My first experience with Satoshi Kon was through what I still consider his absolute masterpiece, Millennium Actress from 2002. It is impossible to give justice to the film by any mere description. A TV interviewer who is a big fan of a classic Japanese film actress visits the actress in her later age. It has been some thirty years since she withdrew from the silver screen, but now her old movie studio has been torn down. The journalist comes to give her back a key once given her as a teenager by a young revolutionary. As she tells the tale of how she came to possess the key in the first place, and later spent her life looking for the young man who had given it to her, her story comes alive for the journalist and for us. This gives Kon-san the opportunity to jump between realities and genres.
It also gives him a marvellous opportunity to show us glimpses of Japanese cinema history. At one moment the eponymous actress is in a Jidaigeki film, for example something by Kenji Mizoguchi, the next in a Chanbara, like a Samurai drama by Kurosawa, then in a science fiction film or in a Gendaigeki, or Shomingeki, like a contemporary Ozu-film. At the time I first watched the film I wasn’t all that familiar with these different genres, but that is not a requisite to appreciate the film, not at all. I’ve later rewatched it many times, and I always find something new there, something I hadn’t noticed before.
Let me stress in case someone would think this film is only for the specially interested, that first and foremost Millennium Actress is a great work of cinema, period. Anyone should be able to find something to enjoy here. This was incidentally the first film in which Kon-san collaborated with Susumu Hirasawa, who has made the sound tracks to all his best films. It is hard to overstate the importance of Hirasawa-san’s contributions.
Millennium Actress works on many levels, all of them worthwhile. It is a love story in more ways than one. It is at times tragic, but often very funny; it has adventure, but dares to dwell on serious matters. The film also does more for female empowerment than any feminist tract could ever hope for. It can be heartbreaking in one moment, only for the viewer to be thunderstruck by its inventiveness in the next, followed by a heartfelt laugh. Most of all, it is a great example of what the medium is capable of.
His next film was the well received Tokyo Godfathers. It is by far his most conventional film, with few of the jumps between realities that has been one of his stylistic and thematic main concerns. It takes its title and initial idea from the 1948 John Ford film 3 Godfathers. The Godfathers of Kon’s film are outsiders, to say the least: a young runaway girl, a transvestite and a former professional cyclist turned hobo. They find a baby in the trash as they scrounge for food, and decide to track down its parents. This is very much like one of those classic Hollywood films where everything can happen on a Christmas Eve, as long as it all turns out well in the end. I could well see Frank Capra concoct something like this, and that I mean as high praise indeed. The animation is just beautiful, the characters extremely well written. This is the closest Kon-san has come to making a true family film, and indeed it can stand proudly with the best of them.
Immediately after Tokyo Godfathers, Kon-san began working on perhaps his most ambitious project: a TV series of 13 episodes called Paranoia Agent. Again, it is almost impossible to give a concise description of what it is about. In some ways, this is Kon-san’s Twin Peaks, but without the filler epsiodes of that series. The use of some genuinely weird characters, and especially how they are made to grin maniacally from ear to ear at the opening credits of each episode, is pure Lynch. Paranoia Agent, though, wants much more than anything Lynch has made. It is at one time an attempt to define the Japanese psyche, at another an examination of the power of the media. It shows how stories begin and how they are changed into myth and legend, and thus changing reality itself, making reality just another story among many.
Needless to say, this is ambitious stuff, but Kon-san never makes the series into a mental exercise, focusing instead on simple human stories within the larger picture he draws for us bit by bit through the various episodes. Writing this now, I feel I must watch the series again, even though it is only a couple of months since I saw the last episode. Paranoia Agent manages to be a collection of short stories that turn out to be chapters of a novel. Each story is excellent, the novel very satisfying. Again it is Susumu Hirasawa who makes the music, giving the episodes his inimitable stamp. The full fruition of their collaboration comes first with their next film: Paprika.
Paprika, made in 2006, so unfortunately turned out to be Satoshi Kon’s last film. I say unfortunately, not because the film is bad, on the contrary, it is an unmitigated masterpiece. Rather, it shows us what Kon-san was capable of, his rich imagination and understanding of how to tell a very difficult narrative in an immediately understandable way. Without Paprika, I doubt that Christopher Nolan’s current worldwide hit Inception would have been made.
Paprika is again about different realities, about the relationship between dreams and reality. Here as well, the seriousness is offset by generous amounts of humour, which has been a trademark of Kon-san in all his films except Perfect Blue. Paprika is the character the heroine Chiba Atsuka becomes as she enters the dreams of others. She works for an agency specialising in a form of dream therapy that they perform by enabling her to enter other people’s dreams. There is a ghost in the machine, however, and soon the dreaming world, unbridled imagination, enters the waking world with potentially catastrophic consequences.
While one can detect inspiration from Lynch and Philip K. Dick in the narrative, the execution of the story is all Satoshi Kon. This must have been a labour of love for him, in which he could inject all the elements only hinted at in his earlier animation, and make a kind of hyper-Satoshi Kon film.
As an example of how well his collaboration with Susumu Hirasawa could be, one should check out the first parade of the dream creatures with its myriad of inhuman participants. While they walk merrily towards reality’s border, Hirasawa-san accompanies them with a nonsensical but highly addictive marching tune that seems absolutely perfect for the action taking place. It would be a fitting tune to play now, as Satoshi Kon is himself marching from this reality towards the big sleep, perchance to dream. If anyone will, it is him.
At times like this, I often think of Laurie Anderson’s words in the song World Without End: “When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned down.”
Satoshi Kon loved film and film history. He had an innate understanding of the particular art of Anime, and how anime can do things live action can not. In this art he excelled. He passed away some hours ago. He was 46 years.