I’ve read numerous obituaries and tributes to director Satoshi Kon, who lost his battle with pancreatic cancer on August 24th, which begin along the lines of “the anime community has lost of one its greatest directors.” Of course it has, I wouldn’t dream of disputing that. But to restrict Kon’s legacy exclusively to the anime community deprives him of the credit his phenomenal body of work deserves. His pictures were of such a quality—renowned for their byzantine plot structures and complete disregard for the boundaries of what we perceive as reality and fantasy—that they could never be pigeonholed as strictly anime. From Millennium Actress to Paprika, the works of Satoshi Kon were never anything short of challenging yet ceaselessly rewarding viewing, blessed with a rich complexity that completely overturned the “Japanese cartoons” stereotype.
After scoring a cult hit with his directorial debut, the dark thriller Perfect Blue, the world at large began taking notice of Kon’s outrageous talent upon the release of Millennium Actress (2001). A touching romance and a Lynchian love-letter to the history of cinema rolled into one, it earned Kon scores of awards and was showered with critical acclaim despite its modest box office performance outside of Japan. The film’s heroine—a wistful actress named Chiyoko, who recounts her life story to a team of reporters—sashays through fantasy and reality, through past and present in search of an artist whom she had spectacularly fallen for. It’s a journey littered with flashbacks that merge her own memories with scenes from the films she starred in, a device which Kon uses with great style and poise: even when events are at their most disordered, Millennium Actress is compelling and engaging.
Paprika (2006) is a similarly complex story, following a dream therapist’s forays into her patients’ subconscious in what the director described as his attempt to capture “nonlinear ways of thinking” on film. The elfin female lead and her supporting cast take on numerous forms throughout, skipping through a series of fantastic dream sequences much like Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and setting up a number of stunning visual setpieces. Kon had always maintained he wasn’t interested in directing live-action features, preferring the control he had over what was animated. He once said, “In animation, only what is intended to be communicated is there. If I had a chance to edit live-action, it would be too fast for audiences to follow.”
Regardless of his modus operandi, Satoshi Kon will be remembered as a visionary and an unrivaled animation director. His next feature was to be a “road movie for robots” which has tentatively been translated as The Dream Machine; it will most likely be completed posthumously through Madhouse, the studio with whom the director forged a fantastic working relationship throughout his career. On the day after his death, an extraordinary post surfaced on Kon’s blog (translation here) in which he apologizes to friends, fans and family and provides an astonishingly candid insight to his illness and his last months. A wonderful talent whose career has been cut tragically short, Satoshi Kon will be dearly missed. He is survived by his wife, Kyoko.
Huw Jones is a post-graduate from Cardiff University, where he studied Journalism, Film & Media