In memoriam: Satoshi Kon

>> Wednesday, August 25, 2010

When the news hit Twitter on Tuesday that Japanese animation director Satoshi Kon was dead at age 47 (I caught a post retweeted by SF legend William Gibson), I held off on saying anything because I really, really hoped it was just one of those crazy rumors. People die on the Internet all the time and it turns out, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that word of their deaths was greatly exaggerated. I regret to say, however, that Kon's death has been confirmed. (Properly, yes, his name should appear as Kon Satoshi, but he was always billed in the Western fashion over here.) Kon was one of my two favorite living animators alongside Nick Park, and it's terrible that we've lost him so soon.

As a writer, his primary field, he was very much in the vein of surrealists like Philip K. Dick; as a director of animation, on the other hand, he tended to go for what might be called a more realist style--while Japanese animation is somewhat infamous for presenting characters with an exaggeratedly Disneyfied Western look (the classic "big eyes, small mouth), Kon frequently tended to eschew this in favor of characters closer in appearance to real humans in photorealistic settings. It was a good combination, since the realism of the visual design clashed nicely with the more dreamlike plot elements; all of Kon's work, in varying degree, was concerned with reality versus fantasy and truth versus memory.

Kon's first film as a director, Perfect Blue is a Hitchcockian thriller about a singer-turned actress who may or may not be having psychotic breaks that would explain the increasingly bloody body count around her. What's most notable about the film aside from some really disturbing sex and violence (albeit nothing more than you'd get from an early Brian De Palma film), is that the movie exploits the ability of animators to do anything, seamlessly and to a degree challenging for a live-action director. Specifically--and I looked for a good clip on YouTube but was unlucky in my search--Blue features an utterly haunting hallucinatory sequence in which the protagonist's alter ego or hallucination dances from streetlamp to streetlamp. It's something you could do live, sure, but it would be expensive and it might not work.

After all, one of the things that animation does psychologically is to lower the viewer's resistance. You don't look for wires in an animated film, a talking animal looks completely natural. In films like Paprika and Millennium Actress Kon used this quality to bend viewers' brains in all sorts of wonderful ways; one might watch one of his films thinking that it would be a great live action-feature--until the utterly impossible happens with fluid ease on the screen and you don't even think about it that way until later.

Even Tokyo Godfathers, a movie that some have seen as a departure for Kon, has a freeflowing magic to it reminiscent of Jeunet or Gilliam. Which brings up something else, by the way: that although Kon's work takes full advantage of the special potential of animation, his movies compare far more readily to non-animated works than to Kon's apparent peers; Perfect Blue to De Palma, Tokyo Godfathers to Gilliam (in Fisher King mode), Millennium Actress to Jeunet, Paprika to Gilliam and Jeunet.

It is hard to find a good clip; Kon's work is best appreciated in full, and context matters. I'll leave you with a ten-minute segment from what is probably my favorite Kon work, Millennium Actress, a movie you should see even if you don't normally care for animated films in general or Japanese animation in particular. As much context as I can provide in brief for such a rich movie: a two-man television crew pays a visit on a reclusive elderly actress for one last interview and are treated to the full memories of her life--except memory, of course, is fluid and an audience alters a tale by hearing it as much as a storyteller shapes it in the telling. Not only do we find the interviewer and cameraman oddly present during the events of the actress' life, but interacting with it... and how much of it is her life and how much of the shared experience is drawn from her rich and varied film career? Actress is less biography than dream, a dream meditation on age, memory, art and love. It's a damn treat, is what it is, and this clip barely offers a taste.

Thank you, Mr. Kon, thank you.


jamie Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 9:13:00 PM EDT  

Well crap, now I'm going to have to find that movie, and others by him. Thanks for helping me spend my money for me Eric!
(In all serious, that was a lovely clip, and I want to see more, and it's a damn shame Satoshi Kon died, especially at 47, I feel bad not paying more attention to his work)

Rachael Thursday, August 26, 2010 at 12:39:00 AM EDT  

Millenium Actress is my favorite, too. I need to watch it again, soon.

Anonymous,  Thursday, September 2, 2010 at 7:43:00 PM EDT  

Wow... I just got my computer fixed and saw this post. I had absolutely no idea. He was such a talented person... It's horrible to know he's passed. And he was so young!

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