Satoshi Kon: Why His Contribution to the Animation Industry is Irreplaceable

Famous for his psychological thrillers, Satoshi Kon passed away 11 years ago at the age of 46 due to pancreatic cancer. His marvelous animations have continued to influence well-known directors like Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky, whose films share striking similarities with Kon’s. We are still haunted by Kon’s animations loaded with dreams, fantastic and surreal elements. In Kon’s creations, technology, the internet, the virtual world, and real-life commingle together, just like today. Not only the characters, but we as the audience lose our grip on reality, and fail to follow where the reality ends and dreams start in his films. So, Kon built such complex worlds which are very hard to penetrate that we feel the need to watch them again and again and question what we have just seen.

Best known for his Millennium Actress, Paprika, and Perfect Blue, Kon understood the future of the internet better than most of us at his time, foreseeing its potential dangers. Most importantly, he explored how the gates of the unconsciousness and personal dream worlds can get accessed via computer technology. His film legacy points to the mass-consumerist culture, and the toxic nature of fandom and stalking. Doing multiple things at the same time in his animations, the void Kon left is hard to fill in in the animation industry and will remain so.

Who is Satoshi Kon?

A black and white image of Satohshi Kon standing in front of an anime poster with a female anima characterface on it

Born in 1963, Satoshi Kon is a Japanese animator, screenwriter, and manga artist. After his graduation from Musashino Art University as a Graphic Designer, he started his career as a manga artist. Later, he found himself in the world of animation. He worked with Katsuhiro Otomo, another master in the animation industry, who changed the anime world with his cyberpunk thriller Akira. Satoshi Kon was the scriptwriter for Otomo’s Memories (1995), where they focused on how technology as a destructive power devoured people and alluded them into a fantasy world, benefiting from their weaknesses. Then, Kon started to build his own animes.

Using non-linear narrative techniques, Kon managed to drag everybody into his delusional worlds, alternating between dream time and real-time. Also, his works shed light upon the human psyche and misconceptions in our daily relationships, especially with ourselves and what we dream of being. Above all, he excelled at showing little details, such as gossiping on one corner of the street and how they affect us in time, even bringing us to the edge of insanity. As Dean DeBlois said,

“Satoshi Kon used the hand-drawn medium to explore social stigmas and the human psyche, casting a light on our complexities in ways that might have failed in live-action. Much of it was gritty, intense, and at times, even nightmarish. Kon didn’t shy away from the mature subject matter or live-action sensibilities in his work, and his films will always occupy a fascinating middle ground between ‘cartoons’ and the world as we know it.”

Memories (1995)

anime character wearing spaceship suit, looking giant with an extremely white-colored face and sitting connected with cables

“Memories aren’t an escape.”- From the first episode of Memories, “Magnetic Rose”

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories is a project Satoshi Kon contributed to as a screenwriter when he was at the early start of his career. This long-featured film has three unconnected stories: “Magnetic Rose”, “Stink Bomb”, and “Cannon Fodder.” The themes tackled in Memories are no stranger to us or different than other Kon’s films. The dangers of technology, memories, reality are sometimes given in absurd and ridiculous interpretations.

To add one surprising detail, the first episode of Memories, “Magnetic Rose”, has a spaceship named, Corona, with a mission to investigate signals it receives. In the following of one of these signals, Heinz and Miguel find themselves in a setting dating back to the 19th century, the home of an Italian opera singer, Eva, who turns out to be only a hologram.

Perfect Blue (1997)

anime character Mima, leaning backwards to gain momentum before stabbing someone ( not seen in the picture) with knife and blood stains on her brown shirt , at the back we see Mima's pop singer image from the right profile with her red lipstick

Perfect Blue is Satoshi Kon’s debut film, probably the scariest and most disturbing one in his oeuvre. The plot revolves around Mima, the lead singer of the pop music band CHAM, who quits the music industry to be an actress, disappointing her fans substantially. In the following, themes such as toxic fandom and an identity crisis start developing. First, Mima finds an online diary of herself, written by a stalking fan, recording every moment of Mima and even every feeling of hers. There is also a man obsessed with Mima’s pop idol image. He dominates the film as a symbol of the male gaze projected towards the female body, showing how fandom turns into a serious threat.

Yet, things really start to fall apart after she accepts to star in the drama Double Bind with a rape scene. Mima’s colleagues, who lead her in her acting career, such as the photographer who takes her naked photos, start to get murdered one by one. Among all these murders, we see Mima losing her sanity gradually. Suffering from split-identity, she can’t be sure who she really is. Her singer identity clashes with her new public persona as an actress. Her doppelganger wearing the dress from her last performance as a singer pops up as a reflection or in her room, as part of her imagination. The fact that she tries to do her best for her acting career, satisfying the industry’s voyeurism just tears her apart. In her home, we see her trapped and suffering.

The ending is far more shocking. Just to be direct to the point, we learn that the person behind these murders is Mima’s manager, Rumi, who associated herself with Mima. So, Mima’s downfall becomes Rumi’s, which drags her into an act of serial-killing.

Why does Perfect Blue matter this much?

What is it like to exist in real life and the virtual world? What happens if you lose the thin line between your public persona and your real self? Just like Mima does, suffering from a dissociative personality disorder and surrendering her delusions. By showing so, the film asks many questions, criticizing the media and pointing to the brutal sides of the entertainment industry.

Besides, the smooth transitions between the characters, complicating who is responsible for what, blur our grasp of reality as well. The windows of trains and shops, and TV screens act like mirrors, revealing the double identity of the characters. With wonderful edits, the film depicts sadness, melancholy, and identity crisis perfectly, merging it with important topics such as stalking, toxic fandom, voyeurism, and the cruel entertainment industry. Kon puts his finger on such vulnerable subjects masterfully without falling into cliches and melodramatic burst-outs. That’s why it is a movie deserving to be watched but also very hard to bear at some points. Perfect Blue’s influence can be traced in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan.

Millennium Actress (2001)

The collage of the same anime character in different clothes belonging to different eras of Japan

Millennium Actress is said to be based on a true story or at least inspired by the lives of Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine, two Japanese actresses who chose to live an isolated life. The movie takes its start as we see characters moving to arrive at their destinations: a van on the road, a ship on the sea, a train on the railways, long-journey passengers waving on the boat. Not knowing where we are heading, we follow the van.  The journalists in the van lead their way to the home of a retired actress for an interview, who now leads a secluded life at the age of 70. We meet Chiyoko Fujiwara, who starts telling how she started her acting career.

One day, she comes across a wounded stranger, a runaway, and a painter. She helps him and provides him with shelter at her own place. She is very young, still a student, and falls in love with this stranger, who gives her a key that opens something very important. Knowing that the police are after him, he runs away again. After that moment, Fujiwara’s only focus is to meet him again to give him his key back. In the nutshell, a love story becomes her major motive to become an actress and star in movies, traveling to different places, hoping to see him again one day.

The meaning of Millennium Actress

Fujiwara’s whole life and all the movies she stars in have a repeated pattern occurring in different eras of Japan. They all focus on the same love story. There is a man whom she tries to save or meet in her films. Thus, Chiyoko Fujiwara’s lifetime journey as an actress and as a person after a romantic thought gets intertwined together. This dilemma highlights the coexistence of fiction(cinema in this context) and reality. The fact that Millennium Actress is also about film shooting already embeds elements of meta cinema.

female anime character in her white colored spacesuit waiting to be launched into spae

Furthermore, the film is cyclical. It ends where it starts, as the spaceship launches. The first time, it causes a studio accident, which crushes Chiyoko’s fantasies as well. At the end of the film, after finishing her story, Chiyoko gets sick, but is also relieved, finally uniting with the key the journalist finds and brings ( she had lost it during the accident). This means that the spaceship can leave the earth now. And it does, which symbolizes the death of the actress, suggesting her mission is complete. She finally accepts everything as it is: non-confirmed love brings self-confirmation at the end.

As for the key, it can have various meanings, depending on how you read into it. Overall, it is just a mere symbol, which can symbolize anything, whatever you want to take. It could be a reason/excuse to move forward. A reminder which she uses to make sure he has existed. Because, in the end, she feels terrified by the fact that she can’t even remember his face. Above all, what makes this film stand out is the masterful editing techniques and the way it shows how we deceive ourselves by merely losing ourselves in our fantasies.

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

3 anima characters, a transgender woman, a teenage girl and a bearded man and a newborn baby as they fall from the sky during a Tokyo night enlightened by the city lights as they try to catch the baby

In Kon’s oeuvre, Tokyo Godfathers stands alone as a comedy-drama rather than a psychological thriller. The characters are very humane, portraying contrast to the winter season of the film’s setting. A gap-toothed transgender woman, Hana, a homeless, drunk, and bearded man, and a runaway girl in her teenage years happen to find an abandoned baby next to thrashes. They name her Kiyoko and decide to find her parents. All of the characters have a complex past, which the spectators learn in time.

The concept of family is the main focus, asking what defines family bonds. Blood relations? A stranger who takes care of you? Additionally, being homeless in Japan is a big issue that is being disregarded. The homeless as social outcasts are an undesirable scenery in the streets. In some sense, the film attempts to subvert the stigma attached to the homeless. With Tokyo Godfathers, Kon shows the major problem is not those people, but the society that has a counterproductive approach to their problem. As both the director and writer of this film, Satoshi Kon summarizes the film as the following:

“Homeless people, as the term implies, “have no home,” but in this film, it is not just “people who have lost their homes,” but also “people who have lost their families,” and in that sense, this film is a story about recovering lost relationships with families.”

Paprika (2006)

the red short-haired female anime character Paprika wearing a red shirt, looking directly to us, standing on the air,as the parade is moving forwards on the floo

“What fascinates me in dreams is the idea that they emanate from our subconscious. I think that there are many possibilities to interpret dreams but a great deal of mystery always remains.” Satoshi Kon

Paprika is a visually rich and “simplified” adaptation of a complex science fiction novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui about a device called the DC-Mini, which allows psychiatrists to enter people’s dreams. Designed by a group of scientists, the device helps psychiatrists to treat their patients and see the core of their problems. A more advanced technology-based Freudian approach in some sense.

However, it is more complicated than it sounds. Dreams can become real and gain materiality via this device. More, they can emerge with others’ dreams, spreading like a disease. So, it’s like a portal waking the collective unconscious and setting it free during the Dreamtime. Therefore, it is a very dangerous device if someone with bad intentions uses it. What happens is that one of the prototypes gets stolen. Dr. Chiba, one of the leading scientists, whose alter ego is Paprika in the dreamworld, enters into the dreams to solve the mystery and find who stole it.

Why is the point of Paprika?

To start with, Paprika offers a world laden with dreams which reflect our deepest desires. Can you imagine that someone can see what is in your mind even if their only intention is to help and treat you? That’s what happens in Paprika. Yet, it comes with serious consequences. If you stay connected too long to the device, your life is in danger and it can totally destroy your mind. In a sense, it is a fatal machine. Kon shows the double-edged character of technology and warns us against its drawbacks.

a female anime character lying down as her face is appearing beneath her other persona as Paprika with short red hair

Secondly, real life is full of restrictions, where you need to maintain a certain personal image. However, in dreams, you can be anything you want or do anything you wish. For example, Dr. Chiba with her tied hair and glasses is in total contrast with her playful character as Paprika with short and red-colored hair. Another example is one of Paprika’s/Dr. Chiba’s patients, Detective Konakawa, who still faces his ruined aspiration to be a director, by killing his younger version in his dreams. In regard to that, Kon definitely benefits from dreams’ function as a way to escape reality. No matter how much we try to run away, we still live with our ruined dreams of who we could have been. They are still with us, and we set them free in our dreams.

Additionally, the soundtrack by Susumu Hirasawa completes the theme of the film so well that it wouldn’t be the same without Hirasawa’s contribution to the project, especially the parade scene. Lastly, a visually stunning work, Paprika was the major inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s Inception. And Paprika is definitely better than Inception, which is a rather okay movie.

Paranoia Agent (2004)

the image of Paranoia Agent anime characters in different emotional states against a red background on which the batboy's shadow is projected,

Paranoia Agent is a Japanese anime TV series with 13 episodes created by Satoshi Kon. The plot revolves around the accidents that keep happening in the dark streets of Tokyo. A mysterious inline-skating boy attacks people with his bat. In every episode, we meet another character as the victim of the bat-boy, Shonen Batto, or L’il Slugger in the English version.

Even though every episode is very individual in itself, connections start developing. The whole show is actually built on a pink toy and an anime character, Maromi. The designer, Sagi Tsukiko, is the creator of this toy and gets massive attention thanks to Maromi. And we meet Tsukiko as the first victim of the bat-boy. This event spreads via the media, and so do the whacking accidents. The function of the bat-boy remains open to negotiation. He releases people from their anxieties, sometimes by killing them and sometimes erasing their memories as a post-syndrome of attack. In the last two episodes, all the puzzle pieces come together and the show definitely leaves you with an answer.

The meaning of  Paranoia Agent

Until the last three episodes, the batboy continues spreading fear that keeps oozing and galloping at the people he finds unguarded due to their ongoing anxieties and fears. Like always, this is a Satoshi Kon creation; there is always more.

As the series progresses, we realize that the bat-wielding boy is only a symbol that represents deep-seated fears and anxieties of people of different ages: a man who is mistaking his life, with a manga character, a boy impersonating the bat-boy, imagining himself as a hero saving the world from a fictional evil character. Every character in the show has a way to escape into their fantasy world, to get away from reality. That’s somehow connected to Maromi, a fantastical character offering an escape from the responsibilities and problems of Tokyoites. By building connections with Maromi, Kon reveals the dark facets of the anime character and a pink toy, which seems innocent and harmless on the surface.

Lastly, the biggest critique of the show targets the media as a manipulative force, which does nothing more than feed fears and terrorize Tokyo. The human psyche falls victim to the clash between objective reality and subjective experience. Grounded on all these aspects of the series, this creepy TV series Paranoia Agent is definitely worth watching.

Kon’s incomplete project: Dreaming Machine

Kon's anime character with short ginger hair in her red dress walking in the hall of a skyscraper-like tall building with floorr-to-ceiling windows from which we can see the blue sky and Tokyo city

“It was as if death had positioned itself right behind me before I knew it, and there was nothing I could do.”

This is just one sentence from Satoshi Kon’s farewell letter where he expresses how grateful he is for his life and having such wonderful people as part of his family. He also shares his resentment, regretting his incomplete project: Dreaming Machine.  As Kon states:

This is because Satoshi Kon put his arms around the original story, the script, the characters and the settings, the sketches, the music…every single image. Of course, there are things that I shared with the animation director, the art director, and other staff [members], but basically, most of the work can only be understood by Satoshi Kon. It’s easy to say that it was my fault for arranging things this way, but from my point of view, I made every effort to share my vision with others.”

Of course, in addition to this, there were other problems related to finance that left the project incomplete. At least, we know what it would be about: “On the surface, it’s going to be a fantasy adventure targeted at younger audiences. However, it will also be a film that people who have seen our films up to this point will be able to enjoy. So, it will be an adventure that even older audiences can appreciate. There will be no human characters in the film; only robots. It’ll be like a “road movie” for robots.”  For most people, even if it were completed and released, it wouldn’t be a Satoshi Kon movie. Something would remain missing.

Why should you watch Satoshi Kon? 

the femala anime character with long black straight hair facing her back to us, looking at the big and small multiple screens which shows parts of her singer and acting perfomances

Satoshi Kon’s animated films are a visual feast. He understood humans’ desperate obsessions, our elusive identities, and how our existence is tied to a thread, by dwelling on themes such as  multiple personas, voyeurism, and fandom. Most importantly, he didn’t distinguish fiction from real life and dreams from reality. For him, they coexisted, blending into each other. Especially, with the inclusion of technology, the distinction between the two disappeared, turning into a dangerous situation, which he showed brilliantly.

Lastly, Kon masterfully made use of cinematic editing techniques to show the altered mental states in his larger-than-life films. They are very much connected to our lives, our consumption habits, showing how public identities of celebrities are a commodity to buy and consume. It is really heart-breaking that his sudden death cut his career short. But we still have three great animated films and a TV show with 13 episodes. His works are just so to the point that they will never get old.

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