“Satoshi Kon: Beyond Imagination” opens today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and runs through July 1st. In anticipation of the retrospective, Brendon Bouzard, John Lichman, and Keith Uhlich gathered at Grassroots Tavern to discuss Kon and his work. See after the break for their podcast conversation and a transcript, slightly edited for clarity.
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JOHN LICHMAN: Hello and welcome to a House Next Door podcast featuring myself, John Lichman, contributor and author of “Idiot Savant Japan,” the somewhat bi-weekly column if I remember to write it. Joined here with Keith Uhlich, editor of The House.
KEITH UHLICH: Howdy, howdy John.
BRENDON BOUZARD: Yes! Just entered my third year on the five year plan.
KU: And we’re here today to talk about…
BB: ... the films of Satoshi Kon. As well as his television series, Paranoia Agent.
KU: And this is because of an upcoming retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
KU: And before we do, I should say that where I’m currently coming from is I’ve watched all of Kon’s movies, but I haven’t watched them recently. So I’m going mainly by memory on everything, and what I’m actually is that the movies are pretty fresh in my memory in spite of having some distance from them. Brendon, what about you?
BB: I just rewatched all of the features. I have not seen Paranoia Agent, but I rewatched all the features over the past couple of weeks so they’re relatively fresh in my mind. And being able to see them all together at a clip allowed me to see a lot of the similarities and some of the subtle differences between the films, which I really appreciated.
KU: And John?
KU: Coming from where?
KU: That’s fine. You’re the middle ground.
BB: I think Kon is up there with De Palma and a few other filmmakers working today whose films are grounded in a very strong understanding of theory and, specifically, of the means by which film communicates, theoretically, as a medium. I think that three of his films—Paprika, Millennium Actress, and Perfect Blue all sort of work together. Obviously two of them are specifically about filmmaking in one way or another. But they all sort of comment on the relationship between the spectator and the onscreen figure—the female onscreen figure—in a way that is really compelling.
KU: And always a female onscreen figure?
KU: Which is something that De Palma actually has echoed in his own filmmaking as well—an interesting point of comparison.
BB: Both of them are extremely intelligent about film. Both of them have seen a lot of films, obviously, and they both draw a lot on the same filmmakers. Both have been compared to Hitchcock. Perfect Blue has gotten the Hitchcock comparison quite a few times and of course De Palma can’t quite escape that in criticism. But I think the two are very similar, at least in terms of their understanding of the female figure as relates to the audience.
KU: This brings up a point: in anime I know the portrayal of women is something that’s often discussed, sometimes disparaged. John, I’d turn to you on that and say does Kon bring a different perspective on the female form to his movies than is traditional in anime or does he tweak it in some way?
KU: Where they have alter-egos.
BB: They’re the three that have sort of crossed over to Western audiences on that level. I think it’s interesting though that Kon’s treatment of women has developed over the course of his career. If you look at something like Perfect Blue and the treatment of Mima: to a certain extent, one could make the argument that he includes a few fan service shots of Mima over the course of the film. Mima is of course nude at various points, but I think that even then he’s very intelligent about how he does that. Perfect Blue is so much about spectatorship that it makes the audience complicit in the exploitation of Mima when, for instance, she’s being photographed by that photographer who basically takes advantage of her and sort of elevates the stalker’s insanity to the next level. Whereas later Kon films, I think, go more towards a level of respect and understanding of femininity.
KU: Oshii, Miyazaki, and Kon.
BB: Well the thing about Tokyo Godfathers: on so many levels that is a film that can be appreciated by pretty much anyone. It’s a very heartwarming film. It’s got a lot of extremely funny stuff in it. The characters are extraordinarily likable. And yet there’s this darkness to it that I feel nevertheless would prevent its reception by a large cross-section of the audience. And so in terms of it being a middle ground—I feel Kon really is a middle ground. He blends elements in Tokyo Godfathers and the art of the film reflects this in the very realistic portrayal of these three homeless people in Tokyo.
BB: Especially with what I’d say is probably his most difficult film, Paprika. It’s probably the hardest to glean a lot of meaning from, at least on a first viewing.
KU: And especially if you’re not familiar with some of the earlier works because it really does grow out of them. (As you were pointing out, John, the ending of Paprika with the three movie posters of the films that Kon had directed previous on the marquee—that sort of cyclical thing that’s there in pretty much everything he’s done). Just to go on something with the middlebrow idea.
KU: Yeah, I know what you mean, but it just brought up something in my mind about my first reaction to Paprika. I liked it more on the second viewing, but the first time out… I’ve always found that Kon’s apocalypse’s, and there are a few, save for Millennium Actress which I actually think does that more psychologically and emotionally than the others. Yet I felt like the ones in Paranoia Agent and Paprika kind of paled in comparison to what I feel is the definitive anime apocalypse, which is Evangelion by Hideaki Anno.
KU: I’m sure it is and that’s why it’s probably something of an unfair comparison. Kon approaches it differently than Anno does, but I’m just saying purely from the visceral sense of apocalypse portrayed, I’ve always felt like that’s one of the weaker aspects of Kon because it seems so tossed off and thrown away to me. And maybe that’s the point. If we’re talking about getting the anime out of the ghetto, maybe it’s getting it out of the “we’re influenced by the atomic bomb” ghetto.
KU: Right, but what you’re saying is that Kon is appealing to a more Western audience.
KU: But then there’s the guy, her assistant, the big portly assistant…
KU: But I’m just thinking of this appeal to Western sensibilities as much as Eastern because there’s even history of that in, say, Iranian culture with Kiarostami or Majidi or Panahi. I would say at their worst they play to prejudices that Westerners harbor about Easterners. Because they know that will get them more exposure. And I’m not saying they always do that. And I’m not necessarily saying Kon is doing that, but just because of his appeal, do you see anything of that in his work?
KU: Oshii’s Fast Food Grifters movie is very much about that.
KU: Well bringing up this idea of the trickster is interesting because that really is ingrained in a lot of his work. And I’m thinking especially of Paprika when Kon is actually in the movie as one of the cyberbar bartenders who help out the detective. And he’s sort of copping to the fact that he’s playing with your mind and such.
KU: They really do, yeah.
KU: No it’s only…
BB: ...13. A 13 episode series.
KU: There’s basically this figure attacking people in Tokyo, and he’s this kid on rollerblades with a cap down over his eyes, and he has a hockey stick, and he comes at you, and he basically hits you…
KU: Right. Right. It’s a crooked baseball bat. This is why I need to have seen it more recently, but yeah, it’s a crooked baseball bat, essentially I assume from all the people he’s hit—it’s just gotten that shape. And once you’re hit you become part of this shared madness in the city…
KU: Right, exactly. When that’s first happening, it seems like madness because it’s only affecting a few people, but the minute madness tips into the majority, it can become sanity. And the whole opening of Paranoia Agent is everyone in the series laughing in maniacal unison while the city around them moves in fast motion. And that’s definitely a Kon image in that it’s an image of shared madness.
KU: It’s an image of unitedness. And I’m remembering this one episode of the series (“ETC”), which basically takes place among these ladies in an apartment complex who gossip to each other, and each of their stories that they tell about Little Slugger is shown as a five minute interlude. At the end, Kon zooms up above the apartment complex and you see the buildings themselves are shaped into either a number or a symbol that specifically refers to Little Slugger. So it’s like they’re gossiping about it, but they’re also being affected by it without even really knowing it. And that’s later in the series, so at that point Little Slugger is infecting the populace whether or not he’s actually hit you.
BB: The collective experience of madness comes up again and again in Kon’s films. And I think the example that stands out strongest for me is in Millennium Actress. The way that the three figures of the actress as well as the documentarian and his cameraman all find themselves collectively in this world that exists between her memories of the past and her films, sort of blending the two together. And in a way it represents the collective memory of the audience—the filmgoing audience of Japan over this very historically specific period—and it regards collective historical memory as a sort of shared delusion. Of all his films, I think Millennium Actress is the one that’s the most grounded in reality, and yet it’s the one that I think formally interrogates that question of where reality and fantasy blend together in the strongest sense.
KU: They won’t get it, but they will. I think that’s probably the key.
BB: Yeah, he draws on images that are part of the collective visual culture of Japan, but also more, in Paprika, of the West.
KU: Really? Hm. I seem to recall Oshii put him in a movie.
BB: He died young. He was a very telegenic figure. A lot of the myth of Kennedy comes from the whole idea of the television age and people being able to see him, which helped him win the debates against Nixon. So I think the iconic image of Kennedy is one that’s very strong for all viewers.
KU: Kennedy was coming up during a time when televisions were really, really infiltrating worldwide. Moreso than with Ike. And so I wouldn’t be surprised if, in Japanese culture, especially post-war, he was the first American president that the masses of Japan had a collective image of. That’s a proposition. I’m not entirely certain.
KU: See middle ground just sounds so negative to me…
KU: Maybe it’s because I don’t necessarily think of movies in terms of art-house and mainstream that I’m resisting that. I think that there are just figures who are more polarizing to people than others. Oshii I can absolutely see why because his movies can be very lethargic and really disturbingly hypnotic, and—I don’t mean this as a criticism—incoherent. There’s an incoherence to Oshii that actually works on the level of a dream. I think Kon is a bit more coherent. I think you can read a Kon film with story. You can read it as a dream. There are a lot of elements and layers that he works on for different people and I can see why because if you go to it as, say, a fanboy I think you’ll get your anime fix. If you go to it as, “Oh, I want to see something at the art-house” I think you’ll get that with Kon. If you even just want to see a kind of mainstream, plot-driven whatever, I think you can get that out of him as well. Again, I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism, I just believe there’s something of an incoherent dream logic to a lot of anime. But in Paprika I think you can pretty much figure out what the story is. I don’t think that it’s that hard to figure out for anybody. I think he delineates what the dream space and the real space are enough that people get it.
BB: The word that you use that I think is really good is “delineate.” “Linear.” There’s a linearity to Miyazaki that is part of what I think makes him so accessible to people and I think part of what makes Kon accessible to people is that there’s a basic linearity to the narrative, vs. what you see as the incoherence of Oshii. The fact that there’s this sort of through-line temporally, even though his films blend fantasy and reality, and even venture into the past. I feel as though there’s a definite through-line that you can follow in any of Kon’s films. And yet they do sort of fold in fantasy and the past. And if you can say he’s a middle ground between the two, I think it’s in the degree to which he relies on linear storytelling. John. you brought up the issue of “Is Kon television?” I would actually say he’s the Internet. You can follow the pathway between various hyperlinks and you can find a coherent narrative, but there’s also so many other tangents that are being drawn into every moment. He uses the Internet motif so often in his films.
KU: And I think that this differentiates him from Miyazaki as well. Brendon, you were positing him as something of a more popular figure than Miyazaki. Certainly Miyazaki’s films have made a lot of money in this country, but at the same time there’s also a kind of antiquated fairytale aspect to his films, whereas Kon is engaging in the present tense and the present moment. I would say Miyazaki tends to model his characters, at least to Western eyes, and maybe he’s not doing this consciously, but I think his characters would appeal more immediately to children. Or those, let’s say, with younger eyes. Whereas Kon is drawing adults in animation realistically.
KU: Do you think Kon is championing technology or that he just accepts that it’s there and he looks at it in all its complexity?
KU: Now that I think about it, when I look at the apocalypses in Kon, maybe what is bothering me that I’m now starting to put together is I don’t necessarily find them horrifying. In Anno’s Evangelion, it’s horrifying and legitimately like a psychological scar, a wound being ripped into your brain. Whereas in Kon, you look at it and it’s just a fact. It’s a fact and it’s there. Technology can lead to this, but it can also lead to Paprika (the doctor who is Paprika) and her assistant connecting on a very human level. So he sees the beauty and the horror at the same emotional level.
BB: And, of course, Ôtomo was Kon’s mentor.
BB: I think they’re two sides of the same coin. Both of them are essentially about the relationship between a woman and her audience, specifically a fan. In Perfect Blue it’s this extremely dangerous relationship between Mima and her stalker, as well as her other stalker as it turns out. And in Millennium Actress, it’s the documentarian who’s been a lifelong fan of the actress Chiyoko Fujiwara. And throughout the film, as she’s reliving these moments from her various films, or these moments from her life, the documentarian consistently reinvents himself as this knight in shining armor who rushes in and saves her at the last moment. To a certain extent, I think both of the films are about the way that the audience injects themself into a narrative. The way that they relate to the onscreen figures. And the way that they project themselves into these stories. In the same way that Paprika shows you the apocalypse, but then pulls back and says, “But this isn’t gonna happen,” I think that Perfect Blue shows you an extremely dangerous relationship between a performer and her fan and then Millennium Actress pulls back and says “Okay, but this is more likely.”
KU: So those two films engage in the dialectic that then in subsequent films he blends into a single story.
BB: Absolutely. And I think Paprika is where he blends that most cogently. Tokyo Godfathers I consider a bit of an anomaly.
KU: What is it called?
KU: I would just say that in terms of Tokyo Godfathers: it does fit in with his other films in terms of people living as a collective mind. Having their own very defined individual personalities in Tokyo Godfathers, and very disparate personalities in a lot of ways, and then having that thing, essentially, that brings them together. Paprika, as you say, bringing the darkness and the light together in harmony. As the baby in Tokyo Godfathers bring this trio together. I think the trio… it’s taken from John Ford, but certainly I think there’s a Catholic reading, or a Christian reading to be given to it.
BB: A very explicit one because in the beginning of the film, the first images are of the three wise men showing up at a Nativity scene.
KU: Indeed. But also acknowledging the present day in the sense of: there’s a transsexual, there’s a girl, there’s a man. They all have their traumas. One of the things I’d actually like to get into, and this is a comparison between Tokyo Godfathers and Paranoia Agent, is that both that film and that TV series hinge around a character’s relationship to a pet that died when they were a kid. This is something that a lot of people were nonplussed by… that the pet was the cause of this girl’s psychological grief. As it is in Paranoia Agent. I have this feeling that that is something that’s very specifically Japanese, this worshiping of a pet or an animal. I wonder if either of you might be able to expound on that.
KU: Right. But in hearing and reading about Japanese culture, in seeing that most signs and other public spaces have cartoon animals that are everywhere telling you what to do and where to go, I don’t think of it just as a childhood thing. There’s something about the way Kon puts those two incidents across. He portrays it very seriously. It’s not just flippant: “Oh, the reason she’s fucked up is because her dog died.” No. It’s a real big trauma. And yes it happened during childhood, but it’s still rooted in the culture in some way. Or so it seems, from what I understand about Japanese culture, the place animals have in it, and the way that’s it’s portrayed in Kon’s films, those two specifically.
KU: In Paranoia Agent, it’s essentially the catalyst for the entire series. The reason the whole city is going mad is because this girl created a toy based on her dead dog. Her emotion surrounding that event, of that dog getting run over, infects the populace. And they all react to varying degrees in shared emotionalism, in shared madness.
KU: So do you think it’s more metaphorical?
BB: I’m not of an opinion either way on this animal issue, although I do remember in Perfect Blue one of Mima’s obsessions are these pet fish that she has. And she has a traumatic vision of all her pet fish dying.
KU: I remember thinking about it just because I saw Paranoia Agent and Tokyo Godfathers in close succession and it was striking to me ’cause it seemed to tap into something very much of Eastern culture. When I first saw it I didn’t quite know how to react to it. It didn’t really touch me that deeply on any level. But then when I saw other critics writing from a Western perspective and saying, “Oh, it all comes down to that?” I thought, “Well why not.” And I don’t think Kon’s necessarily saying it all comes down to that. But he is portraying something that’s very ingrained and deeply traumatic to these particular characters. I can’t think of anything comparable in Millennium Actress or Paprika necessarily, but it seems like these are driving psychological stressors in the other films, just another avenue of exploration.
KU: Well… Film Comment I hope you come calling after you hear this. If you’ve listened to the end, as Vadim says. Any final thoughts on Kon?
BB: Otomo was his mentor and I think Kon did scene design for one or two of Otomo’s projects, but yeah he didn’t have to pay that many dues in order to get his directing position.
KU: His hands are all over everything.
KU: And it should be seen on the big screen on Walter Reade.
KU: So everybody get there because he’s well worth it.
KU: I’m Keith Uhlich.
BB: I’m Brendon Bouzard.
Brendon Bouzard is author of the blog My Five Year Plan.
John Lichman is a freelance writer who contributes to The Reeler, Primetime A&E [print only] and anyone with cash. He works odd jobs to afford his vices, sleeps on couches and can drink Vadim Rizov under a table.
Keith Uhlich is Editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.