The Dream Master

Jonathan Clements is an expert on manga and anime. He will be bringing us news about science fiction and fantasy from Asia. Hopefully future columns will be happier.

Satoshi Kon 1963-2010

Satoshi Kon, who died on 23rd August, was a manga artist and anime director who brought a truly mature perspective to the Japanese animation medium.

His early career was heavily influenced by the manga creator Katsuhiro Otomo, for whom he worked as an assistant while studying at the Musashino Arts University. With Otomo’s encouragement, the young Kon published the manga Toriko (“Captive”) in Young Magazine in 1984, winning the first of many awards. When Otomo made the little-known live-action film World Apartment Horror, it was Kon who turned the script into a manga. Otomo then scripted the anime satire Roujin Z for which Kon worked in set design. The story, about the repurposing of military robots for use in the care of the elderly, required a squalid near-future setting, for which Kon meticulously roughed up backgrounds with kipple and clutter, in order to create a lived-in feel.

“On anime set design especially,” Kon once said, “the most important thing is to make these places look lived-in, somehow real. Even vaguely placed background objects have to look as if they have a past, and came to be there through a process, not just a man drawing them.”

Conscious of the essential unreality of animation, Kon showed an endless fascination with the recreation of the mundane world. He loved spooky midnight streets illuminated by the ambient light of vending machines, or the impressionistic effect of drawing a crowd without any faces. Kon’s films also favoured unreliable narrators, dream sequences and hallucinations — an idea he claimed to have stolen from George Roy Hill’s adaptation of Slaughterhouse Five. In particular, he seized upon Hill’s (and indirectly, Kurt Vonnegut’s) admixture of past and present, or as Kon called it: the objective reality of where we are, and the subjective reality of what we’re thinking of. His films excelled at bringing such a twinned worldview to the screen, jumping without warning between everyday life and his characters’ internal thoughts.

His first such creation was not his own, but Otomo’s, in the form of the manga “Magnetic Rose”, for which Kon wrote the screenplay adaptation. Appearing as part of the anthology anime Memories (1995), it featured an artificial intelligence attempting to recreate an entire world from the imperfect memories of a long-dead opera singer. Astronauts from a space salvage vessel are lured into a lethal gravity well by a distress signal that broadcasts a loop from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. At its heart they find a gigantic love token created from the accretion of space junk and hundreds of doomed vessels. The action centres on the reality gap between the AI’s idea of a happy ending and the salvage crew’s desire to escape.

The protagonist of Kon’s directorial debut, Perfect Blue (1998) is an actress experiencing a mental breakdown, whose shaky grasp of reality elides her performances into her daily life. Meanwhile, her stalkers are subject to their own delusions, rendered as real onscreen as the physical world, casting the entire narrative into periodic doubt.

“With animation, there are many cases where the style is already fixed,” Kon said in an interview in Manga Max magazine. “When you get wavy lines on the screen, it means that you’re entering a dream sequence, or the scene switches to sepia tones, or cream flows onto the top of the coffee, creating a whirlpool, or there is a close-up of someone’s eyes.” Kon regarded such transitions as pointlessly pedestrian. Instead, he threw them out, creating a film in which flashbacks and dreams often sneak into view unannounced.

“The best influence on me,” he said, “wasn’t a single film but the complete works of Terry Gilliam. Despite being fantasy, his depictions are quite bitter, his narration also throws curve balls. Rather than covering every point in detail, he takes the staging off to a completely different point and plucks out a single, vivid theme.”

Perfect Blue’s impact reached far beyond the anime world. Footage from its tale of a starlet in crisis was spliced into concert performances on Madonna’s Drowned World tour, and the film director Darren Aronofsky was briefly associated with a remake project. Nothing came of this, although one fragment survives in Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream: a shot lifted straight from Kon’s original, in which the heroine crouches in her bathtub and screams underwater.

In Kon’s Millennium Actress (2001) another leading lady mixes the parts she has played into the history of the twentieth century itself. In a refashioning of the concerns of “Magnetic Rose”, her love for a long-dead man threatens to pull observers into a gravity well of grief, unable to escape from the worlds of her own delusions. Millennium Actress is also a love letter to Japanese cinema itself, beginning with pulpy sci-fi rockets, but then jumping across time into disparate genres and styles. In one notable sequence, Kon’s heroine travels from Victorian-era Japan into the future, literally riding a horse through tableaux of imagery from woodblock prints. Her steed is transformed into a bicycle, and the graphic style settles into sepia tones that tell us she has arrived in the age of Edwardian photogravure.

A native of the far northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, Kon never lost his outsider’s fascination with Tokyo, often rendering it as a character in its own right. His TV series Paranoia Agent (2004) begins as a detective story, but unravels into a complex discussion of the power of urban legends. The city is also a powerful presence in Tokyo Godfathers (2003), a secular Christmas movie in which three tramps seek to help a foundling child. In it, Tokyo is an interzone where images of ancient spirituality contend with modernity, with shrine gates crammed into alleyways and old gods in forgotten shadows. It is a living, breathing entity far removed from the real metropolis, a fact acknowledged even in the closing credits, in which the buildings come to life and dance to a reggae version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

The last film Kon completed before his death, Paprika (2006) bound together many of his themes. Based on the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, it has strong resonances with Roger Zelazny’s Dream Master, featuring a psychologist who is able to insert herself inside the dreams of others. The world of sleep is revealed as the true final frontier: a collective unconsciousness on its own plane of existence. Threatened by new technology that can artificially enter the place of dreams, this alternate world fights back with surreal consequences for our own.

The most conspicuous of Kon’s additions to Tsutsui’s original novel is the film’s unforgettable “parade”: a manic marching column of household appliances and anthropomorphic animals that symbolises the threat one world presents to another.

“I had to find a way in one visual step to represent the mindset of the novel,” he told Midnight Eye, “and that became the parade of inanimate objects… It starts in the desert, which is the furthest point from civilization, [and comes] through the jungle, over a bridge, and finally intrudes into reality.” At a Hawaiian film festival, Kon reacted with amused approval to a blurb that likened Paprika to “Hello Kitty meets Philip K. Dick”, and welcomed enthusiastic reviews that touted it as his masterpiece.

At a New York screening in 2008, he quipped: “Part of me thinks that I should retire or die peacefully now… It would be better for my reputation, but unfortunately there are a lot more things I want to do.”

However, Kon also seemed uneasy in the limelight. “It makes me happy,” he said, “when people are interested in my work, but not when they are interested in me.” Ironically, he was particularly annoyed when reality was manipulated around him. He never seems to have forgiven the Parisian magazine photographer who asked him to pose with his arms spread wide, and then Photoshopped cards flying from his sleeves in a playful imitation of a circus conjuror.

He was also oddly ungracious towards Andrew Osmond, the British author whose insightful Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist (2009) remains the only book-length study of his work in the English language. Despite meeting Osmond in Tokyo, and agreeing to answer follow-up questions by email, Kon feigned surprise at the publication of the book, and sourly noted that its title made him sound like an oriental charlatan. He also seemed affronted by the book’s inclusion of foreign box-art from his works, unaware perhaps of how difficult Japanese studios can be in the face of fair dealing. However, it is fair to assume that by January 2010 when he made his comments, he was already preoccupied with other concerns.

For much of 2010, Kon worked on his final project, The Dream Machine, but was told in May that he had inoperable pancreatic cancer. His last blog post, on the morning of the day he died, completed a rundown of his 100 favourite movies, an eclectic and international list whose most recent entries included Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino. Meanwhile, he wrote a long goodbye letter to his family and friends, which was only posted online after his death.

Making no reference to his illness or decline, Kon was posting comments on his Twitter account until mere hours before his death. A cryptic comment on 15th August compared working in the modern anime industry to serving in the Japanese military in the Second World War. On his last day alive, he reminisced about the nurse-robot Lily, from Rainbow Battleteam Robin (1966), a beloved anime show of his childhood; he wondered when if the interminable Koshien baseball competition would ever end; and he noted with some satisfaction that he had seen some rushes of The Dream Machine, a film which now seems sure to be released as his posthumous monument.

Kon’s death was a tragic loss to the anime industry, depriving it of one of its tiny handful of true auteurs. As Helen McCarthy, co-author of the Anime Encyclopedia, noted upon the announcement, Kon was only 46 when he died: younger than the Hayao Miyazaki who would make My Neighbour Totoro, or the Akira Kurosawa who would make Yojimbo. To draw the kind of cross-cultural parallel that Kon would have hated, anime has lost its Christopher Nolan. We will now never know if it has also lost the man who could have become its Hitchcock.

Satoshi Kon leaves behind a widow, Kyoko, and several of the best anime films of the turn of the 21st century.

A number of samples of Satoshi Kon’s work, and work influenced by him, are available on YouTube: