Awhile ago I set out to do a career long exhibition on the feature films of Satoshi Kon, however due to a mix of personal problems, creative fatigue and being somewhat intimidated by the task I let it simmer in the background. I thought for the longest time that trying to reduce my appreciation for one of the greatest artists of the 21st century to a series of paragraphs was simply too daunting, especially when said artist is one of very few that I have such a deep personal admiration for. The work of Satoshi Kon means as much to me if not more than any other creator I've been exposed to. So when the opportunity to view his work all in one place arose thanks to the National Museum of Asian Art I jumped on it and through the weekend found an even greater appreciation for Mr. Kon's work, his love of film and a greater sense of maturity with how I assess art. I don't think I would be writing this article without going through this marathon, so while I am not endorsed by them I do ask if you are able to please make a donation to the National Museum of Asian Art so that events like this can continue for the general public.
While it was not the first time viewing any of the films in question, perhaps none impressed me more upon my most recent viewing than Perfect Blue. Part of the intimidation factor when covering these films is simply what more do you say? What can you add? I don't feel there's much else I can say regarding Satoshi Kon's feature debut other than simply how impressive it was considering his limited experience as an animator at the time and his lone credits as a director being a few episodes of a Jojo's Bizarre Adventure OVA. To have a debut as, pardon the pun, perfect as Perfect Blue is a rarity so few directors can touch and I don't feel at all disingenuous in saying that while nowhere near as celebrated or culturally impactful, it is as great a feature debut as Citizen Kane. It amazes me how influential it remains in the thriller genre some 25 years after its release and it's the first film I thought of when seeing the mirror motif in Last Night in Soho. In many ways I think Perfect Blue is to its generation what Deep Red was to its. I was truly taken aback by how ingenious the sound design in the film was as I've seen so few films that weave the cutting and score together as seamlessly the way Perfect Blue does. It's probably been said a hundred times by a hundred other people but the parking lot scene is one of the most tense and surreal death scenes in any horror film. Perhaps my biggest takeaway from this recent viewing was how much more ambiguous the ending felt compared to my previous watches. This is a film that I simply need to watch more of and after watching the documentary on his works The Illusionist it was extremely insightful to learn of Kon's creative process during this time and how he identified with the lead character of Mima.
If there exists a film that is guaranteed to make me uncontrollably and unequivocally sob to the point of near hysteria it's Millennium Actress. In what may be my favorite film of Satoshi Kon's short but storied career, Kon once again explores the life of an actress whilst exploring the great mystery of her life and the disappearance of her first love. If Perfect Blue was Satoshi Kon creating his style, Millennium Actress is him beginning to solidify it, both as an animator and a storyteller. While you could almost certainly make Perfect Blue as a live action feature, I could never envision the same for Millennium Actress, in a loaded year for animation that included the likes of Spirited Away, Atlantis and Metropolis, you could make a strong argument that Millennium Actress is the greatest of the bunch. In a lot of ways this film the most personal of Kon's films, especially with the perspective that this film was after the financial failure of Perfect Blue and well over a decade in the Japanese entertainment industry. You could in a way see Kon searching for something greater with this film the same way Chiyoko is searching for her lost love all whilst wearing his love of classic film on his sleeve whilst providing a commentary on Japanese history and society at large. Kon like the character of Chiyoko was someone who challenged the norms of his era and it's probably why woman were at the forefront of his films. At some point I think I'm going to do a review proper for this film, though that might be sometime from now because the film is almost certainly to leave me in a devastated fashion after viewing it, for a variety of reasons. Be forewarned if you're gonna watch this film keep a box of tissues close by.
After being somewhat emotionally devastated by Millennium actress, Tokyo Godfathers was a perfect rebound. The seminal holiday classic that can be appreciated at any time of year maybe the most straight forward of Kon's works from a narrative stand point, but that by no means it is lacking in depth. In a film whose plot in its simplest form sounds like a bad off color bar joke "A drunk, a cross dresser and a runaway find a baby....." is one of the most heart warming and charming films I have ever seen. Tokyo Godfathers is a regular Christmas watch for yours truly and my opinion there are very few films able to capture the holiday spirit in the same shining light that Tokyo Godfathers does. The idea that even the most irredeemable of people are worthy of redemption, that the downtrodden are worthy of having their stories told and the humanity Kon shows while doing so is a level of maturity that so few creators are ever able to reach in their art. The treatment of marginalized people in his work as human beings is one of his greatest strengths as a storyteller and one that I feel is sadly not brought up enough when discussing his work, especially in consideration to how they are represented Japanese media even now and the let's say more "conservative" attitudes Japanese society holds towards gay people in particular. In addition his love of film is once again on display, though not quite as in the forefront as it is in his other works, if I had to pick one film to show a stranger who Satoshi Kon was as an artist it would either be this or Perfect Blue, simply put a viewing Tokyo Godfathers is like a visit from an old friend or loved one, a loved one who takes you on an adventure that leads to multiple near death experiences and a run in with the mob, but a loved one none the less.
The last and perhaps most self referential of Kon's work, Paprika was the first film of Satoshi Kon I was exposed to as a teenager and in a way it was the most fitting film to end my marathon on. With the context of his other work Paprika is perhaps the most complete of his works, it has the tributes to classical film presented by the likes of Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers, the dual identity of Perfect Blue wrapped in a surrealist narrative that is quite frankly unmatched. When first undertaking this marathon I thought that this would be the film I have the least to say about given both the subject matter and ultimately its finality within the career of Kon. However upon my most recent watch I once again feel like I have been visited by a long lost companion, that teenage boy who watched Paprika on his laptop while home alone with nothing but his pooch and an empty afternoon to keep him company, someone who needed the warmth of a film about dreams to uplift him from such a state. I can go on about this film's surrealism or how it influenced the art of others, I can regale you with more personal anecdotes about what a treasured work this is or in a series of flowery statements express how immaculate the animation is, however I feel the greatest praise I can give Paprika is the following. If you haven't seen Paprika, go watch it! If you haven't witnessed in in a few years watch it again! If it has only been a short time since your last viewing and you are in the mood for the spectacular watch it! Throughout my years I have always referred to the various works of Kon as "Cafe Films" for lack of a better description, I always felt that the description was somewhat vague and that I didn't quite understand what I was saying in such an assertion. That is until this most recent viewing of Paprika, the films of Kon are like the novels or albums you see whilst checking out at a Starbucks or being consumed by the establishments patrons along with their twelve and a half dollar, sixteen fluid ounce caffeinated beverage. The type of art you at first dismiss as "pretentious" until you are forced to be confronted with experiencing it and realize that the pretentious one is in fact you and you regret not discovering it for yourself sooner. The type of art that art brings a warmth to you no matter the circumstance and can be rediscovered countless times, that is the art of Mr. Satoshi Kon and I'm quite thankful that I was privileged to experience it, even if the moment was quite brief, I do believe it has altered the way I'll review going forward.
Brief Thoughts on The Illusionist
Without going into to much detail, there are probably others better suited to do so, I felt that Satoshi Kon the Illusionist was as perfect film as we are ever going to get on the life of Mr.Kon. While I would have enjoyed learning about the process of creating his films in greater detail it was nice to see many of his friends and former colleagues offer intimate details about the man and his approach to his art. This by no means is a complete career retrospective but what's there is great even if like his career you wish there were more. It was also nice to learn that while being cast with the label of auteur, his work was often quite collaborative even if he was at times a difficult person to work with due to his assertive nature, as well as seeing some of the work that was done on his final project "Dreaming Machine" before his untimely passing. It was also really cool seeing foreign filmmakers detail their love for his work and the influence it had on their art, even if one of them doesn't really come off in a better light.........cough..........Aronofsky.........cough.....cough. But all and all definitely worth the watch.