Happy Endings: In Memory of Satoshi Kon

As if lured by the Greek sirens, he entered the innermost chamber, the pistil of the rose. There it was again, the enigmatic notes echoed far off into the distance. In front of him, a light shone upon a grand piano, a memento of the opera singer’s former glory. He carefully approached the pedestal, the grease and oil indicative of mechanical parts oozed from its crevices. With the deafening sound, the vestige sprang to life as if it had received the signal it had been waiting for all these years. The music hits its crescendo in full stride. As if to pay homage to Aquarela do Brasil, the camera falls back to reveal green pastures and rose-tinted bushes replacing the scrap metal present only a moment ago. A voice can be heard, “I love you, Carlos!” Thus, he was doomed.

Although I was completely unaware of it, I had just been exposed to Satoshi Kon for the first time. Magnetic Rose is a brilliant short film directed by 4°c founder Koji Morimoto (consequently another first exposure) as part of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories anthology. Kon, an aspiring manga artist turned animator, wrote the screenplay. At the time, I was about as much a fan of anime as a clueless casual who resolved to watch random things when curiosity struck. Little did I know of writers or even directors for that matter. Eventually, I learned of the name Satoshi Kon. It was later still, when I began to actually pay attention to his work, that I realized this was the man responsible for some of my favorite titles. By then, however, his time had already been drawing to a close. “Well shit,” I thought as I happened upon the ANN article dated August 24th 2010 (then only a month old). Since that day, a number of internet denizens have written their own little tributes and eulogies reflecting upon Satoshi Kon’s life and works. As if anything more needs to be said about the guy, here’s one more for the record books. My personal late-as-hell tribute and salute to Satoshi Kon.

Before his rise to prominence, Satoshi Kon was most likely a nerd. At the very least, he was an anime and manga enthusiast. Back then, you either tuned into MBS and watched family oriented shows such as Chie the Brat. Or you were cool and edgy enough to switch to YTV and catch the latest Space Battleship Yamato. Satoshi Kon was cool and edgy.

He began pursuing a career as a manga artist after drawing inspiration from Katsuhiro Otomo’s Domu, a short but visually stunning science fiction manga that served as the precursor to Akira. Otomo’s visual aesthetic became a huge influence on Kon’s own art style which carried over as both of them made the transition to animation. The two would eventually form a lasting partnership throughout the 90s beginning with Roujin Z. Hiroyuki Kitakubo directs the 1991 straight-to-video feature. Otomo pens the script while Kon himself was in charge of art design. Satoshi Kon continued serving as scriptwriter on such projects as Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (1993) and Memories (1995), the latter of which saw him reunite once again with Otomo. For many years, he honed his skills in preparation for his directing career.

When asked in an interview how he came to be an anime director, Satoshi Kon replied that he simply wanted to “have a go” at it. For most of the 90s, Kon had worked primarily with design, scripts, or animation, but never all three at the same time. He finally got his chance in 1997 when he signed on to direct Perfect Blue. Thus began his illustrious career with Studio Madhouse spanning 12 years. During this time, he directed four animated movies and one television show. He had won numerous awards and honors both in Japan and internationally. Millennium Actress was even considered for an Oscar nomination, but was passed over in favor of children-oriented features (Finding Nemo would eventually win Best Animated Feature that year). He was slated to direct his fifth film when tragedy struck in the form of pancreatic cancer. He died before finishing The Dream Machine, his career having been cut short by at least two decades.

Looking back on these 12 amazing years, it’s difficult to do them justice. Satoshi Kon’s works are widely regarded to be a form of high brow entertainment, often times tinted with bits of humor, surrealism, or romantic irony. But what makes his movies unique? What exactly did he bring to the table?

A recurrent and highly recognizable theme in Satoshi Kon’s works is, of course, the dream. I’ve always been fascinated by dreams. On-screen, dreams are a simple yet effective way to communicate a number of details. Granted, the dream sequence is nothing new. On the contrary, dreams and flashbacks have become so well endowed in modern cinema and television that it has more or less become par for the course for most directors. When done well, a dream sequence becomes a powerful tool. Satoshi Kon’s masterful handling of the dream sequence was exactly what drew many of us into his movies and kept us captivated throughout. When done poorly, the results are rather uninspiring. Externalizing internal conflict becomes easy when all one needs to do is utilize the ever-reliable dream sequence. The issue arises when these sequences become predictable and formulaic, as they often are. Character falls asleep, que the music, wavy lines or some other indication as the screen shifts to off-color tone, the story moves along until the sequence has served it’s purpose, character wakes up. Now admittedly, it works. Some of my favorite movies have utilized this pattern to great success (e.g. Oldboy). But at the end of the day, it’s still a pattern which runs the risk of becoming overused.

Satoshi Kon breaks this mold by melding three separate worlds into one: the conscious, the subconscious, and the hyperconscious. In Perfect Blue, Mima leaves her pop-idol group to pursue a career as an actor. Not long after, she becomes tormented by a mysterious figure resembling her past persona. As she pushes forward with her career, the lines between real and unreal begin to blur to the point that the two are indistinguishable. What follows is pure confusion. A TV producer is murdered. Jump cut to a scene within a scene where Mima’s character enacts a murder on-set. Yet another cut, this time Mima murders someone in what appears to be the real world. Cut to her waking up in bed. We think it was a nightmare, a reenactment of her TV role. This is not a dream where we merely gaze inward as spectators. Like Mima, we are desperately trying to figure out what’s happening. Why is it that after she wakes up, she finds blood-stained clothes in the closet? These cuts become more frequent as the film reaches its climax, but never once does the narrative pause to wait. We are dreaming in a hyperconscious state of mind. No fade cuts or toned indications that we’ve entered the dream world. Under Satoshi Kon, the real, the dream, and the fantastical all come together as one. The heroine is never allowed a moment’s sanctuary from the chaos and neither are we. The final montage leading up to the film’s conclusion is a scene for the ages.

I had always imagined Perfect Blue taking viewers by storm when it first came out more than a decade ago. People would go into the theater uncertain of what to expect and leave just plain uncertain of everything. Here was a film which marked the debut of some young director whom no one knew anything about. While Magnetic Rose was an abstruse and mysterious, almost calm hallucination of sorts, Perfect Blue set the stage beautifully before plunging the viewer into pulse-pounding psycho-thriller pandemonium for the better half of 80 minutes. There really was no telling what would happen.

Some critics have likened Kon’s style to that of Alfred Hitchcock. I’m not quite sold on that, although the similarities are certainly present. The famous British and later Hollywood director, responsible for numerous classics such as Rebecca, Psycho, and North by Northwest, began challenging the boundaries of film and cinematography as far back as the silent era. A master of suspense, Hitchcock’s movies from half-a-century ago are very cerebral in nature. In thrillers such as Vertigo and Spellbound, the viewer’s perception of the narrative plays a huge role in driving its suspense (much like in Perfect Blue). In particular, Spellbound had a dream sequence designed by Spanish wide-eyed nutcase Salvador Dali.

Until recently, however, I’ve always thought of Hitchcock as a misogynistic bastard (in a good way). Even after film noir popularized the femme fatale, women in Hitchcock’s world were always secondary to men. If the heroine caused the hero any pain or trouble, it was always out of some dutiful or pure gesture. Heroines are often times unaware of the hero’s plight and rarely do they act on their own accord or have their own agendas. Much of this was by way of popular sentiment at the time. Just like how Satoshi Kon’s emphasis on the female performer is reflective of contemporary Japanese culture. But unlike the profile king, Satoshi Kon would often times interweave small criticisms addressing the social issues presented in his stories. It almost seemed as if Kon was able to take more liberties given the nature of his films, whereas Hitchcock was constantly hounded by producers and censors to “give audiences what they want.” Spoiler alert! The hero in Rebecca gets the girl even though he’s a supposed murderer. The hero in Suspicion gets the girl, partly because he’s Cary Grant, and partly due to a last second ass-pull that sees the car make a sudden U-turn instead of going straight like it was supposed to. And don’t get me started on Foreign Correspondent. The heroine is less than ten minutes on-screen before the hero proclaims his love and the two begin to kiss! The movie is two hours long and you couldn’t find time for a little character development? Alas, ’tis the power of suave 1940′s American news reporters, empowering a nation on the brink of world war.

Otaku extraordinaire Susan Napier writes that Satoshi Kon and Alfred Hitchcock are similar not because they both create thrillers, but because they both share a “fascination with notions of spectatorship, perception, and the ‘dynamics of identification and identity,’ usually mediated through an overt use of the gaze and how these notions revolve around the complex positioning of women in their films.” I guess you have to be a film aficionado to notice these things.

On the other hand, you don’t have to be a film expert to notice the presence of another figure whose style of storytelling permeates much of Satoshi Kon’s movies: Terry Gilliam. Unlike Hitchcock, Gilliam is Kon’s contemporary. Perhaps most widely known as the Yank in Monty Python, he pursued a career directing movies after the troupe disbanded in the late 70s. He is also one of the few people I can safely say I liked better as a live action filmmaker than as an animator. Though the two never worked together, they both shared the same interests and were fans of each other’s works. Kon has cited Gilliam, in particular the Trilogy of Imagination, as one of his most important influences. On the other side, Gilliam has listed both Perfect Blue and Paprika in his top 50 animated films of all time.

“I really want to encourage a kind of fantasy, a kind of magic. I love the term magic realism, whoever invented it. I do actually like it because it says certain things. It’s about expanding how you see the world. I think we live in an age where we’re just hammered, hammered to think this is what the world is. Television’s saying, everything’s saying ‘That’s the world.’ And it’s not the world. The world is a million possible things.”
— Terry Gilliam, March 2003

Terry Gilliam and Satoshi Kon were both harbingers of “magic realism.” In Kon’s own words, “a feeling of starting from the realistic, with which fantasy is then mixed, and finally finishing with pure fantasy.” The Trilogy of Imagination is Gilliam’s first thematic film trilogy (discounting Monty Python of course). It is composed of Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). In all three of these movies, the imagination is allowed to run wild. Brazil is particularly fascinating as it is, in essence, a satirical portrayal of Orwellian society. The unidentified dystopian city, while not as visually striking as Bladerunner’s, still manages to impress with its sci-fi noir aesthetic reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and later Dark City as well. Our protagonist Sam Lowry’s impassioned dreams of flight and fantasy are often times substituted in favor of the dull, dreary, and later dangerous occurrences in the “real world.” Once again, the lines between real and unreal begin to blur.

We see bits and pieces of this in Satoshi Kon’s debut film Perfect Blue, but if you ask me, it was Millennium Actress that really bridged the pipes as Harry Tuttle might say. Meant in part to be a look back on Japanese history and the golden age of film, Kon infuses reality and fiction once again as the film recounts the life of actor Chiyoko Fujiwara. Told as a “story-within-a-story,” the film takes us all the way back to the 1930s to recount a story spanning more than half a century’s worth of time. Chiyoko’s flashbacks are often presented as scenes from within her films. One scene she may be a Sengoku-period princess, the next she is a World War II survivor. These scenes serve to embody her real life as she chases her lost love through the years. In keeping with the style of magic realism, Satoshi Kon conceives an ending that is pure imagination, keeping the dream going for Chiyoko and us viewers as well. The same style even carries over to Tokyo Godfathers, when during its ending sequence, the Tokyo backdrop seemingly comes to life.

Then there was Paranoia Agent.

If Konesque were a word, its definition would be Paranoia Agent. Satoshi Kon’s brief foray into television began after cuts and rewrites left him with an abundance of unused material from his previous movies. Following Tokyo Godfathers, either Studio Madhouse or Kon himself decided to put said material to good use. This resulted in a wide juxtaposition of ideas inspired by all of his works up until that point.

Paranoia Agent is a little bit of everything. At times, it resembles Perfect Blue in its horrific and sinister portrayal of fear. Like Millennium Actress, its narrative is fragmented almost as if the characters are merely components in something greater. Similar to how Chiyoko is characterized by her roles in different films, the “city” in Paranoia Agent is shaped by each of its inhabitants. It’s almost as if each individual character takes a back seat to the entity known as society. Through it all, the series is not without its fair share of humor and heart-warm. The “suicide family” for instance seems to have been lifted straight from the characters Gin, Hana, and Miyuki from Tokyo Godfathers. Amidst all the intrigue, mystery, and suspense, Paranoia Agent manages to be funny, almost pythonesque in a way. Much of the humor is dark, as expected from a man who has blogged about Flying Circus. You could replace the character who takes the Maromi-chan anime tape from the incompetent delivery man with John Cleese and the entire episode would have instantly turned into a Monty Python sketch. Also, as a method of social commentary, Kon employs the use of satire extremely well. Corporatism, consumerism, and the mass media all appear on the chopping block.

And now for something completely different

Gilliam themes are certainly present, in particular that of escapism. Described as the “ages of man,” Gilliam’s Trilogy of Imagination depicts the desire to escape an ordered society from various age perspectives. Time Bandits depicts this struggle as as it pertains to children. Brazil depicts the very same struggle as it pertains to a middle-aged salary-man. Baron Munchausen depicts the same struggle yet again through the eyes of an elderly gentlemen. Whether it is the ace middle-school kid, the teenage character designer, the middle-aged detective, or the crazy geezer, all the characters of Paranoia Agent share the same desire to “escape.” Satoshi Kon designed the character “Shonen Bat” specifically for this purpose. Literally, an agent acting as society’s crutch for escapism.

If there is one baseless claim I want to make about Satoshi Kon, it’s that he was a happy man. His movies may have been though-provoking, self-reflective, and self-critical, but at the end of the day, they always ended happily. At the very least, they were hopeful. This is one aspect that I’m thankful he didn’t copy from Gilliam. In a way, I think Brazil parallels Magnetic Rose by posing the bleak “what if?” As Sam Lowry resolves to escape Gilliam’s dystopian world mentally, he succumbs to Eva’s song. But Sam was not given a choice, unlike Heintz. In the end, Heintz accepts, by his own accord, the hand fate had dealt him. He dies with a smile on his face. I want to believe that Satoshi Kon felt the same way.

Japan did not lose just another prolific director that day, it lost one of anime’s finest proprietors. A man who knew his audience, but wasn’t afraid to test them. A proud flag bearer for animation and its many capabilities. While still hospitalized, Satoshi Kon expressed concern over the unfinished state of The Dream Machine. Muyumara-san, president of Madhouse, assured Kon that they would continue the project no matter what, to which he broke into tears. Since then, financial troubles have halted production, which show no signs of resuming anytime soon.

As we wait and hope, I’m reminded of a similar situation Terry Gilliam faced when Heath Ledger’s untimely death brought a halt to Parnassus. It seemed for a while that, like so many projects before it, the work, sweat, and blood poured would all be for naught. Thankfully, this was not the case as the efforts of actors, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell combined to fill in for the late actor. The product was meant less for profit than as a dedication to Ledger. A final tribute and gift to a fellow actor, visionary, and friend.

In Satoshi Kon’s final film Paprika, the middle-aged salary-man, whom we’ve come to know so well across all of his works, realizes in the end that it’s okay to delve into the world of dreams and fantasy once in a while.

Perhaps it is there that one more happy ending is not out of reach.

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