by Stephen Russell-Gebbett
Satoshi Kon was one of the great Japanese Animators whose combined work at the turn of the Century represented a creative wave as strong as that felt in France in the late 50s or Hollywood in the 1970s. With Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro), Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday) and Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) he revolutionised the medium not so much in form but in emotional depth and artistic subtlety. Animation had never been more serious or been taken more seriously.
Beginning his career as a Manga artist, Kon developed a relationship with Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator of Akira, and wrote his first anime Magnetic Rose as part of Otomo-helmed portmanteau film Memories. Magnetic Rose, about a couple of men in space seduced and tormented by traumatic visions of the past, contained much of the themes that would dominate his later career – the fine line between the real and the unreal, the shearing off of personalities, a sick emotional malaise that lies at the heart of society.
The loss of certainty and the obsessive consumption of pop culture were explored in his first two films Perfect Blue (1998) and Millennium Actress (2001). They were two sides of the same coin, with Perfect Blue harbouring an intensely pessimistic outlook (the title itself could translate as ‘complete unhappiness’) and Millennium Actress an open optimistic fable.
Perfect Blue is the disturbing story of a pop star actress losing a hold of herself. Not only is she stalked by a crazed fan but she is almost torn apart by the increasingly demeaning, difficult acting roles that she undertakes. Millennium Actress is the more optimistic tale of an old movie star looking back on her career and life and on the man she loved and lost. Here her admirer is a perfectly decent documentary maker. Both films are about personas, real or imagined, healthy or damaging. In Satoshi Kon’s world it is difficult to distinguish between what is true and what isn’t.
Paprika, his last film, took the distorting nature of the mind to a new level. Garishly colourful and hypnotically absurd, Paprika put the power of creating and hijacking dreams in the hands of the insecure and depraved. Here again the main character would split in two to deal with the real and the unreal planes, an illusion that would be brutally violated. The film wears the manic laughing face of a clown and shows people on the brink of madness, on the edge of the abyss.
The love of playing games and laying puzzles, psychology and the psychology of storytelling is the strongest thread that runs through his work and yet his films are not cold intellectual exercises. They are rich and human adventures, a fact perhaps easily lost in the same way the people of his films lose themselves. Tokyo Godfathers (2003) is a reworking (via two Western adaptations) of a 1913 novel by Peter B Kyne. Instead of bank robbers or sharp-shooters, three down-and-outs find an abandoned baby. They decide to look after it whilst trying to reunite her with her mother. A film of great compassion, showcasing his warmly sharp and fluid animation style, it seems to represent Kon’s wishes and hopes for a damaged world rather than a distanced observation of our doom.
Satoshi Kon’s greatest achievement was a television series, “Paranoia Agent,” a masterpiece that fused his particular sense of irony and loss with an edge of anime cuteness. In “Paranoia Agent” the individual traumas of his feature films have become a mass psychosoma. When people can no longer face their troubles a boy with a demented smile assaults them with a golden bat. When he swings his bat with vicious force he offers an escape – to a hospital bed and to a place outside of the system. Is he real? He is a hologram that no-one gets close enough to pass their hand through who becomes an agent of paranoia akin to a chemical agent.
The series asks what fear looks like. Fear of fear itself embraces myth and goes viral, eventually consuming the whole city. “Paranoia Agent” addresses disrespect, fear, loneliness, the over-sexualisation of the young, the mirage of fame and the still-heard echo of the Atomic Bomb.
Satoshi Kon’s work was part of a trend in Japanese TV and film – examples of which were Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse and Anime series “Serial Experiments Lain” – depicting a generation of people with little stake in life, eaten from within and attacked from without. These shows were characterised by nihilism but a nihilism mollified by empathy and you could tell that Satoshi Kon’s wonderful work came from a deep-rooted honesty and drive to shine a light on the worst that modern life, as he saw it, could offer.
Kon declared himself “influenced by all” the films he’d seen and elements of Hitchcock and Cronenberg come to the surface but the strongest of all influences is undoubtedly his own Japanese culture. Millennium Actress is testament to that, serving as a charming and exhilarating whistle-stop tour of Japanese cinema history – Kurosawa-esque Samurai epic, romantic saga, martial arts extravaganza.
His own influence, despite participating in the introduction of computer animation into anime, is still to be fully felt. Upon his death he was working on Dream Machine, a children’s film he described as a “road movie for robots”. He was one of those rare directors who could get you excited with his ideas and with their realisation.
He died when he had so much more to give but he had already left a tremendous legacy of beautifully unsettling films.
Stephen Russell-Gebbett also writes for Checking on My Sausages; this is his first piece for Wonders in the Dark.)