By time I really knew the name Satoshi Kon, he’d already passed away. Not by much; I’d heard of some of his films, hadn’t seen any, and didn’t know who directed them. The more I learned about the anime writer-director, the more intrigued I became, and the sadder it was he’d never make another movie. With a body of work consisting of only four feature films, one television series, one short film, and a few assorted episodes of TV animation, you wouldn’t think there’d be that much ground to cover. And yet, Pascal-Alex Vincent finds plenty in the new documentary Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist, which premiered recently at the Fantasia Film Festival.
Despite his small filmography, Kon is one of the most influential mangaka and anime creators of all time. Up there with Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuhiro Otomo, the latter of whom was himself one of Kon’s biggest influences. Critics have compared Kon’s work to that of David Lynch and Terry Gilliam; Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan have taken inspiration from his works. That’s some heady company. And it’s well earned.
The Illusionist talks about each of Kon’s works individually, interviewing people who worked with him and people—like Aronofsky, Marc Caro, and Mamoru Hosoda—who both knew and admired him. However, we don’t get a great deal of detail about Kon’s personal life, his upbringing, or his foibles. Only scant few interviews with him exist, and he comes across as supremely stoic and private person. We therefore only have his films to truly understand the man who made them.
His first feature, 1997’s Perfect Blue, is one of the most disturbing and affecting movies I’ve ever seen. A horrifying look at stardom and obsession, the movie follows a pop idol who leaves her girl group in order to pursue an acting career. One particular fan is not happy about this change in profession, and begins to threaten—and eventually kill—people in her orbit. Or maybe that didn’t happen? Maybe it’s all in her head. The movie’s dreamlike shifting of setting and timeframe give the impression that our heroine is not fully in control of her own faculties, as the violent and disturbing content of her new role begins to bleed into her real life.
At only 80 minutes, Perfect Blue is a brisk, brutal look at the psyche of a woman who has lost herself in her own public personas. It predates the social media boom, and yet perfectly encapsulates the always-on isolation of it.
Kon explored similar themes in a much different tone and attitude with his following movie, 2001’s Millennium Actress. It follows two documentary filmmakers as they attempt to chronicle the career of a reclusive acting legend. Kon loosely based the actress on Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine, two major Japanese stars who got their start during the WWII propaganda film era. As the actress recounts her life, the point of view shifts on a whim between the present, the past, and the artifice of the movies she made, which include dramas and epics all the way up to kaiju movies later on. We see, through her career, the difficult personal choices she made along the way.
Millennium Actress is an absolutely gorgeous movie, a perfect flipside to Perfect Blue. Both explore the notion of stardom as both blessing and curse, and people’s reaction to a “star” as someone who must, therefore, not be like us. This seems to have been something Kon cared very deeply about. Perhaps this is why he wasn’t more of a public figure himself.
Turning to a completely different kind of story, one designed to be his big crowd-pleaser, Kon next made 2003’s Tokyo Godfathers, a comedy about three unhoused people in Tokyo who find an abandoned baby and try to either care for them as their own, or failing that, return them to their family. I recently wrote extensively about this movie, but it’s what might be considered a romp.
However, the documentary explores that through it, Kon examined themes of forgotten people and places, and forgiving others and yourself. This was also the period of time in which Kon began giving more opportunities for young up and coming animators to work on his films. While by many accounts a taskmaster, he nevertheless encouraged exploration and experimentation among his staff, which made Tokyo Godfathers all the more interesting and fun.
The documentary doesn’t spend a ton of time on Kon’s 13-episode 2004 series Paranoia Agent, a return to the strange and troubling which many have compared to Lynch’s Twin Peaks. It gives the stories of many disparate people who each have the same harrowing, inexplicable run-in with a boy on roller blades who chases them and beats them with a golden baseball bat. My guess is it would be too much of a diversion from the story of Kon himself to go into Paranoia Agent more fully, but trust it’s one of the most absorbing and wowing anime series you’re likely to watch.
And finally we have Kon’s last feature, and fittingly his most popular. 2006’s Paprika, which directly influenced Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Paprika follows a research psychiatrist in the near-future who uses experimental technology to enter the dreams of people via her alter ego, Paprika. Someone has stolen the device, which allows anyone to enter anyone’s dreams, and Paprika and her allies have to track down who is behind the theft, while going through the weird-ass dreams of strangers and colleagues.
Once again blurring the lines between fiction and reality, Kon’s final feature is a work of unbridled creativity and visual splendor. He plays with visual trickery and perspective within the confines of an animated feature in a way few have ever done before or since. And these themes would have continued had he been able to make his long-planned fifth movie, Dreaming Machine, which the documentary also covers.
Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist might not be a particularly deep look at the life of its subject, it’s an exemplary examination of his body of work, which therefore informs the audience about the man himself. Every single person the filmmakers interview has interesting things to say and give us a surprisingly full picture of, if not Kon’s personal life, at least his work life. His untimely death in 2010 robbed us of more masterworks by a singular artist, but this documentary at the very least gives the work he did make the proper placement as some of the best movies—animated or otherwise—of the early 21st century.
3.5 out of 5