Today marks the fifth anniversary of the death of Satoshi Kon, a renowned, influential, and amazing director. In order to honor the life, talents, and achievements of this man, the following article will be spent discussing his films, his life, and what made him the genius we know.
Satoshi Kon was born October 12th, 1963, in Kushiro, Hokkaido, Japan. Growing up, Satoshi Kon had three major influences. Katsuhiro Otomo, who would later mentor him, Yasutaka Tsutsui, whose book he would later adapt, and western movies, which he would later influence. In 1982 he attended Musashino (not the Shirobako studio… sadly) Art University with the hopes of being an illustrator.
In 1984 Kon wrote his first short story, a manga called ‘Toriko’ (Not the Toriko you’re thinking of), which won the runner-up award in the 10th Annual Tetsuya Chiba Awards held by Young Magazine (Kodansha). He fell in love with manga and then found work as an assistant for Katsuhiro Otomo, and actually worked on the Akira manga with Otomo. Kon continued his work, he released a six-chapter manga called Kaikisen, or Tropic of the Sea, and wrote the script for Otomo’s World Apartment Horror, which he later adapted back into manga.
Kon worked on a myriad of other films, including Roujin-Z, Kanojo no Omoide, and Patlabor 2: The Movie, he then teamed up with Mamoru Oshii (of Ghost in the Shell fame) for Seraphim: 266613336 Wings, a manga that was sadly never finished. He also directed the fifth OVA in the Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, and wrote the script for Memories’ Magnetic Rose.
From here Satoshi Kon really took off, with his feature film directorial debut, Perfect Blue, receiving critical acclaim, particularly here in the states. It was one of the few anime films to gain traction in America, along Akira and Ghost in the Shell.
Kon was at the prime of his career at this point, producing hit after hit for the next ten years. In 2007 we got Ohayo, a one minute short film about waking up. Which is the last completed Kon film today. And then, on the day of August 24th 2010, five years ago, while working on his fifth film, Dreaming Machine, Kon died of Pancreatic cancer.
That is the end of Satoshi Kon’s career, it was not characterized by a long and prolific career (unlike Miyazaki, his peer in quality), but rather a short burst of a few movies. A casual fan will only recognize the four movies (and one show) that he directed. What truly makes him the influence we know is the intricate depth of his works. Kon’s primarily known for two major things, his thematic preferences and his direction.
Kon had a few themes he loved to use. Social Dissonance, Fanboyism, and (my favorite) Subjective Reality.
Social Dissonance is most prevalent in Paranoia Agent, but can be seen in just about all of his films. In Perfect Blue we see how obsessed society is with Idols staying ‘pure,’ Millennium Actress briefly touches on propaganda during wartime, Tokyo Godfathers is chock full of it, most notably how the homeless are treated, while Paprika deals with our inner desires and fantasies.
Fanboyism is interesting, because Kon explores multiple sides of this issue. In Perfect Blue the fanboy is the villain, stalking and haunting Mima, whereas in Millennium Actress both protagonists, Genya and Chiyoko, and both more innocent fanboys. To my knowledge Tokyo Godfathers doesn’t use this theme, but Paprika touches on cinema, which is closely related to the fanboys in Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress.
Subjective Reality is often considered Kon’s ‘calling card,’ seen in every work Kon is significantly involved with. In Perfect Blue our sense of reality is just as distorted as Mima’s, Chiyoko’s emotions directly change how we perceive her story, and Paprika’s is pretty obvious. Kon had a really hard time avoiding this aspect of his work, it can be found in nearly every manga he’s written, and even Ohayo, the final completed Kon film.
Kon’s directing is also unique, as detailed above, with a heavy focus on transitions, causing the story to feel fluid and further pulling us into the story.
Another crucial facet of Kon’s films is the music. Scored mostly by Susumu Hirasawa, what makes the music so powerful is how perfectly it fits the scene. In contrast to most movies, Kon will have the music scored first, and storyboard the scene while listening to the music, allowing the score to influence and enhance the movie rather than just support it.
What makes Kon’s stories so engaging and memorable is the trifecta of his themes, music, and directing. The combination of these three qualities make all of his movies entertaining, whether it’s about singing, acting, or dreaming.
If you’d like to re-watch his works (or explore for the first time), I recommend Perfect Blue, because it’s his first, Millennium Actress, because it’s his best, and Paprika, because it’s his last.
Or you can follow us, for the next six months as we watch and discuss one of his movies.
Magnetic Rose, the first of the three-part anthology film Memories, is another great look at a work he was only partially involved with.
If you can get your hands on copies of Opus, his longest manga, or Dream Fossil, collection of short stories, I highly recommend those as well.
Only two Kon works have yet to reach the states, Kon’s Tone: Road to Millennium Actress a biography type work documenting his journey to his second film. And, of course, Dreaming Machine, his final project that’s still in development hell.
To finish us off, here is a collection of other articles and essays about Satoshi Kon.