Beautiful Dreamers: Remembering Satoshi Kon

By: Jordan Ferguson

If we’re being honest, it’s not always easy being an anime fan past the age of, say, 25. Don’t get me wrong, once I realized most dedicated streaming services offered a free option, I dove back in with abandon and have kept at least three shows in the rotation every season[1], but it’s not the sort of thing I’d share on a first date. Because if we’re being honest, a lot of anime is terrible. It’s repetitive, and trope-filled, and often kind of skeevy, something a lot of fans seem to gloss over as the product of different cultural sensibilities, but has never really sat right with me,[2] to the point where I’ve abandoned the hobby altogether.

The last time I dropped it, instigated by fanboy burnout, encouraged by a need to cull my collections and ultimately mandated by the death of the VHS format, I disposed of hundreds of anime videos and DVDs either sold to second hand shops or abandoned in the basement of my first Toronto apartment[3]. As I divided the discs into “keep” and “toss” piles, the work of two men immediately went to the former stack: Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon.

The man and his movies.

The man and his movies.

This week marks the fifth anniversary of Kon’s death at the tragically young age of 46 following an aggressive case of pancreatic cancer. After coming up as an assistant to acclaimed director Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) he debuted as a director in 1997. In the ten short years that followed, working primarily with the animators at Studio Madhouse, he grew into a giant of his industry on both sides of the Pacific, producing a slim but intensely influential body of work that pushed every boundary of the artform and left a noticeable influence on acclaimed directors like Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky[4].

Kon’s name often gets paired with Miyazaki’s, and they do share some similarities: both often chose girls or women as protagonists, and both are wildly known and popular in the West among a certain segment of freaks and geeks. But despite their shared cultural importance to the medium, it’s ultimately an unfair comparison considering how thematically and aesthetically dissimilar their art is.

With rare exception, Miyazaki movies are contemplative fantasy films for children, where Kon’s are more narratively sophisticated works that toy with the notion of reality, and the duality of the self: consider Mima attempting to transition from an idol star to serious actress in Perfect Blue, Chiyoko slipping in and out of her roles as she recounts the story of her life in Millennium Actress, or Dr. Chiba transforming into the titular alter ego of Paprika, who helps psychiatric patients lucidly engage with their dreams.  Even his earliest work, as the screenwriter on the “Magnetic Rose” portion of the 1995 anthology film Memories, probes the nature of what reality is, and the intoxicating and crippling properties of nostalgia. He developed a signature style of similar visual composition and atypical editing techniques to disorient viewers while leaving them a map to follow, jarring but never abstruse. Film blogger and commentator Tony Zhou did a fantastic breakdown of all the things that make Kon exceptional in a 2014 video you can check out below.

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He was utterly devoted to his art, he had no ambitions to be a live-action director, but the things he made are so far removed from what people think of when they think, “anime,” classifying his films as such almost seems unfair. There are no wildly-coloured hairstyles or large, glistening eyes. “Moe” is not a style he ever indulged in; his characters are less cartoonish, almost ugly at times.  His work is also consistently more violent than Miyazaki’s, he never ignored humanity’s capacity for self-interest and the destruction that could bring.

But he was no nihilist, as evidenced by his third film, 2003’s Tokyo Godfathers[5]. Set on Christmas Eve, it follows three homeless people (a young girl, an older man, and a middle-aged transgendered woman) who find an abandoned baby and pledge to reunite the child with its mother. Over the course of the night a series of implausible but charming coincidences force the trio to confront the aspects of their past that pushed them onto the streets and reckon with the choices that kept them there. It’s a total shift from the psychological thrills of his previous works and demonstrates his versatility as a director while still maintaining the approach to editing that by that point had become a trademark. It’s a beautiful film, heartwarming without being saccharine, and another sparkling angle on the multifaceted diamond of Kon’s filmmaking intellect.

Last week Dark Horse Comics released a striking hardcover of Kon’s artwork, including stills from his last film, Dreaming Machine, unfinished at the time of his death. Described by Kon as a “road movie for robots,” and his first feature targeted at a younger audience, it could have been the movie that pulled him in from the art house and made those Miyazaki comparisons a little more apt. Budgetary concerns halted production in 2012,[6] but Kon’s producers have frequently pledged to finish the film as tribute to their colleague. Hopefully they figure it out, if it means a final trip through one of Kon’s richly realized worlds.

Ten years. That’s it.  Four films, one TV series, and a handful of shorts. Each speaking differing dialects of the same language. Satoshi Kon accomplished more in that handful of projects than some artists do during careers twice as long. He reveled in the freedom afforded him by animation, the things it allowed him to do that live-action could never hope to mimic.  Not just anime, but filmmaking as a whole is poorer for his absence. If you fancy yourself an aficionado but have never seen any of his work, you owe it to yourself to correct that as soon as possible. He was one of the best to ever do it, and while it saddens me to think what we might have seen from him as he entered his peak, he left a legacy that is nearly unmatched by any other filmmaker, one that will continue to burrow its way into the minds of generations of artists to come as he, like Paprika, guides their dreams into the real world.

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[1] Current favourites! Food Wars, My Love Story and Homoutu! Umaru-chan.

[2] I say this as a guy who’s enjoying Monster Musume far more than I have any right to. Prison School, not so much.

[3] You’re welcome, subsequent tenants.

[4] One popular and unverified rumour is that Aronofsky allegedly bought the film rights to Kon’s debut  Perfect Blue so he could use one of the shots in Requiem for a Dream.

[5] Which also happens to be my favourite.

[6] KICKSTARTER. NOW. TAKE ALL MY MONEY.

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