Our first Master Director, Satoshi Kon, was a visually gifted director who produced 4 very interesting films and a tv series. Each has a unique use of direction and story to delve into social ideals and reality bending fun.
Kon’s visual and layout centered directing made each series he worked on feel very dynamic. The animation in scenes often let small details carry the story, making the audience more engrossed in the experience. He would also champion the older character designs of the 80’s that made his films stand above the crowd in look, much like Ghibli’s designs.
Mixing this all with Kon’s wonderful ideas on reality and perception, and he becomes the banner child that carried the torch of Akira and the grand psychological stories that made his home studio MadHouse famous. A Master Director that is sorely missed.
Kon was a visually connective guy, his storyboard and layout work would blend the visuals to remove the idea of a show. He wanted to suck you into the story and forget that it was shifting images. This translated into very creative transitions and cuts that became his signature style by the later films.
Each of Kon’s films explore fantastic characters on their own unique journey. A lot of his work has a commentary on the “chosen fate” of each person, and is an exploration into how our reality is in constant flux around us. What we decide to see and experience becomes reality, but it is not the only one or even the right one. Kon’s belief that reality was just a facade that hid the true world from us would set his design philosophy for his 4 films.
The fantastic Tony made an Every Frame a Painting video on Kon’s style that really breaks it down. At the end of the video is episode 15 of Ani*Kuri15 ‘Ohayo’ which Kon directed in his later years, it’s a great example of his ambition and style. (Skip to 6:22 for the 1 minute short)
Kon’s inspiration and favorite series as a child lists Heidi of the Alps and Future Boy Conan by Miyazaki and Takahata in the pre-Ghibli days, Mobile Suit Gundam by Tomino, and Ishuguro’s Space Battleship Yamato. One major influence above the rest was Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of Akira, and fittingly that is where Kon started his career.
At university I was drawing mangas for fun, but then Kodansha’s “Young Magazine” gave me a newcomer prize, and that made me think of manga artist as another option. At the awards’ presentation party I met Katsuhiro Otomo, and I ended up assisting him with “AKIRA” later when he needed help.
— Satoshi Kon
His first professional release was a one-shot manga called Toriko, now part of his Dream Fossil, a collection of 15 short manga series. It won an award and landed Kon a job as assistant on Otomo’s Akira manga. Kon would release his own full manga, Tropic of the Sea, before writing a second story called World Apartment Horror that Otomo would direct into a Live Action film and Kon would turn into a Manga.
Kon then worked on storyboard, layout, and key animation for the very interesting film Roujin Z. A spiritual successor to Akira, the film is a nice gem to catch from a great era. He would follow this up with more storyboard and layout work on various series including Run Melos! and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, directing episode 5 of the latter.
Kon would work with the amazing Oshii on Patlabor 2, and they would make a manga together called Seraphim. Patlabor 2 can be seen as a blueprint towards Oshii’s most famous work Ghost in the Shell, and the induction of detailed backgrounds with dynamic layout surely came from Kon’s influence. Seraphim, in the same vein, features a lot of the iconography that Oshii would feature in his later masterpiece Angel’s Egg.
Kon would produce his second independant work, the manga OPUS, that explored a manga artist taken into his own world. A few years later he would animate episode 15 of Master Keaton, and part of Akiyuki Shinbo‘s Suddenly Princess. Shinbo would follow up with SoulTaker and it set the tone for the eventual Shaft studio design philosophy based around Kon’s layout among many other influences.
Kon would do the script, layout, art direction, and setting for Magnetic Rose, the first of 3 shorts in Memories. Stink Bomb and Cannon Fodder are the other 2 shorts.
All three expand on the ideas of the greatest artists of the time and feature amazing animation. The best film in this spotlight, Magnetic Rose was the birth of Kon’s career and one of the best anime films ever.
This scene features Hiroyuki Okiura, a prolific animator and long time animator for Kon’s later films. Already you can see Kon’s transitions and scene layer technique at work.
Satoshi Kon would release his first film with Otomo listed as Special Supervisor on the film to help spread the word. This led to a big showing in the Film Festival circut and Kon’s name would reach the world in spectacular fashion.
The film is a tense horror wrapped around Japan’s infatuation with Idols and the darkest reaches of that idea. The blurs, transitions, and cuts of the show are so important to the presentation and the characters feel tied to the world, blending in with the jumps and changes of tone as if they’re part of the scenery. (Sometimes literally)
Perfect Blue would put Kon on the radar for a lot of people, notably Aronofsky, who would make reference to Kon’s film in Requiem for a Dream.
Later Aronofsky would buy the rights to adapt Perfect Blue. Requiem conveyed a lot of the mindful ideas from Kon’s first film, but Black Swan was the real adaption. The film changed focus from the society based fans, and to the individuality of artisanship. The more Western centered belief in the personal, managed to convey the struggle of our main character while keeping the film nearly shot for shot repurposed.
Kon always focused on the societies involvement within his stories, and I prefer the social commentary of Perfect Blue, but it’s nice to see a really good adaptation when they come along.
Like in a play within a play, I’m bringing together time-lines that in reality couldn’t exist next to each other. All I’m actually trying to do is create something like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five”..
— Satoshi Kon
Satoshi Kon returned 4 years later with Millennium Actress, a heartwarming tale of romance and film. Based on the lives of Japanese Actress Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine, Kon’s film sets out to prove that Perfect Blue was no fluke. Speaking to it’s greatness, the film would win a tie with Spirited Away for top honors at the JMAF awards in the year they were released. For a second film to live in the same air as Miyazaki is an impressive feat, let alone one of Studio Ghibli’s best, and cemented Satoshi Kon as an up and coming great director.
The story is told by an aged actress, during an interview with two documentary film makers. As she tells her life story, the audience and the two men are whipped through over 6 decades of life and film. Chasing after the man she loves our actress blends reality and fantasy telling her life story. Our two filmmakers watch the story unfold, sometimes helping along the way.
Kon’s work in blending all the varied ‘films’ and moments of life together creates an almost nostalgic feeling. By the end, audiences are drawn to mirror the opening of the film and relive the memories of the characters. A genius touch. Millennium Actress can feel similar to Hollywood ‘Bio Pics’ like Ray and Walk the Line, but with the pace of an action adventure romp that can be watched over and over.
Tokyo Godfathers has such a simple story that the execution really shines, and all of Kon’s magical layout can be appreciated. One of those Christmas films like Nightmare Before Chrismas, Charlie Brown, or the Rudolf Christmas Special, this is a film that should be watched each year as a tradition.
A Hobo, a Homo and a Runaway pick up a baby… You might think it ends with a joke, but in truth you’ll just end up wanting to hug some people. Our cast of 4 traverses Tokyo over Christmas to find the baby’s mother and maybe a bit of food. Each character has strong growth and inspection of themselves, and the show handles it all with subtlety.
Kon’s design choices and color palate will make this film look relevant long into the future. A change from his previous works, the characters and environment have a dingy and downplayed tone to it, fitting the mood and story Kon wants to tell.
Co-written with Nobumoto, famous for Cowboy Bebop, Macross Plus, and Wolf’s Rain. The additional dialog skills helped to create a wonderful back and forth chemistry among the cast, and gave the show a wonderful heart. Do not miss this film!
A Mind Released
I’m working for two years and a half, always in the same mood and with the same method. I wanted to do something that allows me to be more flexible, to realize instantly what flashes across my mind. I was also aiming at a sort of entertaining variation, so I decided to go for a TV series.
— Satoshi Kon
Kon would shift into TV by making the very interesting Paranoia Agent series. Built around ideas that wouldn’t work in his previous films, the story changes each episode to deliver a wild ride of adventure.
The secondary character of volume two becomes the central figure in volume three, the supporting part there turns into volume four’s protagonist, and so on. This kind of relay system is one of the ideas I’ve always wanted to try out once.
— Satoshi Kon
The series would explore the ideas of society, lies, propaganda, and the effect it leaves in the world. The main idea, and character, is known as the criminal Lil’ Slugger who uses a baseball bat to assault people. Each episode would follow a link of characters who encounter the villain, eventually building into the culture itself being changed because of him. In doing so, Kon displays the ever shifting reality of ourselves and society that uses these ideas.
This dynamic of changing based on audience perception is similar to Kunihiko Ikuhara’s series that use the viewer bias to better deliver narrative. The two creators may have done marvelous things together given the right time, but Kon’s career took off and ended during Ikuhara’s decade long black list from the industry. Kon would also complain of the difficulty in making series, and the lack of money would lead him to return to feature films.
Satoshi Kon’s final film was an explosion of color and genius that is cemented into my Top 5. From the cold open that grabs the imagination.
To the credit sequence that features a fantastically odd soundtrack and Kon’s free form reality bending, Paprika is a thrill ride the whole way through.
Both Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress played with the illusion of time and of what we see. Paprika is the ultimate explosion of that idea. Every scene, motion, speech, or step can drastically change what you’re encountering.
Those things keep us safe, but I think it also sterilizes us. So, things like imagination and one’s willingness to believe in the abnormal have all but been eliminated from our daily lives; for all intents and purposes. The end result of which is soberingly bland reality. Which is pretty much what we live in today. In the film, Paprika is the entity that let’s you experience the utterly fantastic and absurd elements of life. I think that this type of story is becoming increasingly rare, unless it’s about drugs.
— Satoshi Kon
The film explores society and group mania, packed with explorations of what reality is, how it can change, the differences from one person to another, and the various differences within people themselves. Exploring what it means to bring multiple minds together, delivering an interesting detective story, exploring what reality is moment to moment, and melding differing realities together. The colors are vibrant, the scenery is shocking, the whole world lives in a dreamy state of change.
The film had a planned live action adaptation, but it has been put on hiatus after Nolan adapted the storyline into Inception. Nolan had apparently been working on a ‘mind hiest adventure’ for 10 years, and Kon’s brilliance showed him the way to making it a reality. Inception went with a different story and message from Paprika, but we got the cute Ellen Page to cosplay for us, so there is that.
The End of a Master
I received the following pronouncement from a cardiovascular doctor at Musashino Red Cross Hospital.
“It’s the latter stages of pancreatic cancer. It’s metastasized to several bones. You have at the most half a year left to live.”
Kon would make the previously mentioned short ‘Ohayo’ before getting some terrible news. The illness was kept secret until Kon’s death on August 24, 2010 shocked everyone.
He was in production on the film Dream Machine, which will probably never see the screen, but in his last days he wrote of his life, sickness, and hopes. Kon would reference Maruyama quite a few times in his last written message. Long time producer and MadHouse wizard, Maruyama that would try to bring Dream Machine to life after Kon’s passing but so far has failed to release the incomplete work.
Maki made a pretty great translation of Satoshi Kon’s Last Words that you can read as well.
With my heart full of gratitude for everything good in the world, I’ll put down my pen.
Now excuse me, I have to go.
— Satoshi Kon
Satoshi Kon’s mind was a unique gift to the world of anime, and the story telling mediums at large. His characters are well developed and the story arcs of their lives are entertaining. The reality he proposes in his films creates a lavish universe that leaves each film a must see experience.
The best of his generation, Kon elevated the medium and demanded respect through skill and brilliance. A legend that shall live through these films forever.