The Warped Genius of Satoshi Kon
Review by Natasha P.
Perfect Blue

During a career spanning two decades, Japanese film-maker Satoshi Kon made international waves and today he is openly acknowledged as an inspiration to very prominent directorial names in Hollywood like Darren Arofonofsky and Christopher Nolan. With a very distinct editing style, he managed to bend viewers’ minds through his cult classics Perfect Blue (1997) and Paprika (2006).

The late anime director used the tool of film to present his commentary of society - Japanese society, in particular. During the time his works were created, he pushed the boundaries of animation and his films remain culturally relevant to this day. Kon’s films were the best thing to come out of Madhouse, the studio in which his films were produced.


Millenium Actress

Kon’s work is centred around a few prominent themes that appear throughout his animations, blending real life with dreams and hallucinations. In Paprika, which is premised on an invention that allows people to enter a dreamscape, we see how he masterfully uses his editing style to blend realities, creating a dream-within-dream whirlwind. To reinforce this alternate reality, Kon utilises time-jumping moments and rotating hallways, which kept me on the edge of my seat. The impact was so strong that to this day, years after I first watched the film, a few particular scenes still stay in my mind.

Kon revisits these elements in his horror-thriller Perfect Blue, the film that earned him a cult following. In the movie, a disturbed idol Mima is haunted by the weight of the entertainment industry and makes questionable decisions to maintain her comfortable position in the limelight. As her mental health deteriorates, her hallucinations become more and more outrageous. At many points the viewer isn’t able to tell apart reality from fantasy, leading to many nightmare-inducing moments.


Paprika

His other recurring theme is how people live multiple lives. In Tokyo Godfathers (2003), one of his more “cheerful” creations for Christmas, we see how three different homeless rejects of society band together to take care of a baby. The movie lacks the trippy visuals of the other two prior mentioned movies, being one of his more family-friendly animations. One of the three main characters, a transwoman named Hana who becomes obsessed with the idea of motherhood and keeping the babe, is the movie’s most intriguing character. She represents a harsh commentary of Japan’s brutal socio-political sanctioning of the queer community. She is forced to live multiple lives as a survivor, a homeless person, a societal reject. Here, we see her as a motherly figure. Each of his characters struggles with accepting reality because it doesn’t live up to the dreams they conjured up for themselves. In Millenium Actress (2001), protagonist Chiyoko, in her search for an old lover, blends the fictitious realities of her roles in romance films and real life.

Every prominent story-teller in history has used a specific formula to convey their unique messages. For Kon, he used editing to bend the minds of his audience, using transitions that, until then, were only seen in live-action cinema. For Paprika, he took inspiration from George Roy Hill’s 1970s film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five which used general match-cuts and exact graphic matches to switch scenes and demonstrate an intercut of differing time-frames that match each other. Kon used matching images to link different worlds, realities and hallucinations. A scene from Paprika that shook me to my core was when doctor Chiba jumped a theme park fence only to find out she was actually jumping off a balcony. His grip on the viewer's psyche is unreal, with a God-given ability to create such visceral reactions and experiences. We never know when we are being thrown into a different reality and if we blinked even twice we would miss it.

Satoshi Kon.

But this blending of realities is not unique to Kon. Edgar Wright also does this, but to enhance comedic timing. It’s also a renown tradition in the sci-fi cineverse and can be seen in the works of Philip K Dick and Terry Gilliam. However, even within the sphere of these prominent names, Kon pushed the boundaries. He would use rewinds, cross lines into a new scene, zoom out from digital screens, use black frames to jump-cut between scenes, or use objects to wipe the frame and introduce a new scene using a random feature on an inanimate object. We can use the movie Inception, which was primarily inspired by Paprika, as a side-by-side comparison. The first 15 minutes of the movie has four interconnected dreams with only a single match-cut.

In 2010, Kon died during the course of making The Dream Machine, leaving behind a legacy that is unmatched. Following Kon’s death, Madhouse founder Masao Murayama searched for four years to find a suitable director to complete the movie, but did not succeed. In an Akiba Magazine interview, Murayama said “Before his death, the storyboard and script, even part of the keyframe of the film, was already completed. Even if someone can mimic Kon’s work, it would still be clear that it’s only an imitation.”

Satoshi Kon’s death shook the world of cinema and animation. In his farewell letter addressed to the masses, his last words were melancholic and, sadly, even regretful. He said that he regretted that his films didn’t make a lot of money, but he was satisfied that they got what they deserved. Over a decade has passed since his death and people like myself are still raving about his unmatched talent and skill in being able to visually and psychologically tell a story. There will never be another. Rest in peace, sir.


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Natasha P. is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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