Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Spotlight On: Satoshi Kon

(To view a preview for each film, click the title.)

Upon learning I'm a film student, often first question I'm asked is, "who's your favorite director?" Very often I don't have an answer-- I've never been one to have an absolute favorite anything-- however one name that does leap to mind with pretty solid consistency is Satoshi Kon. Even though he only has four films and one television show to his directing credit, they are all of such high quality and unusual content that every one of them would be worth discussing in detail. (I should note that I haven't seen the television series, Paranoia Agent yet, though I plan to soon.) While there are certain unifying themes in his works, they are all distinctly different in tone and genre, which only adds to Kon's skills as a director-- instead of staying with the genre that he first found success with, he tries something new each time, which adds a new dimension to the credibility of his range and vision.

It Really Is a Medium
Probably my favorite aspect of his body of work is that he uses animation as a medium instead of a genre. Many people automatically associate animation with a genre, such as children's films, or fantasy, and this is especially so in the US. To the best of my knowledge, this idea is not as firmly rooted in Europe, where many countries have their own rich animation legacies and France in particular produces films like The Triplets of Belleville and Persepolis to great worldwide acclaim. Recently the Israeli film Waltz With Bashir also used the medium to effectively tackle adult subject matter in a highly effective way, and there seems to be a dawning realization that animation is capable of much more than most people ever considered.

Asian countries, in particular Japan, have not traditionally been as wedded to the idea that animation is a medium strictly for children and have produced a staggering amount of television, video and DVD releases, and feature films with it. There are more variations on genre in these instances, though there is an emphasis on children and teenaged-audiences, and more of the popular titles tend to fall into the fantasy or science fiction categories, so it's not all that different in that respect. Even a legendary director like Hayao Miyazaki stays to these genres, though his mastery of the medium and talent for storytelling elevate his films above traditional "anime" in the minds of most.

So where does Satoshi Kon fit into all this? While Miyazaki produces epic fantasies for all ages, full of messages about self-esteem, environmentalism, war, work ethic, and devotion, Kon produces quiet, more introspective, psychologically ambiguous works that deal with the blurring of reality and fantasy, and the nature of the media in modern culture and its impact on the human mind. Both men craft films of staggering detail, emotion, and artistry, but where Miyazaki brings realistic detail to the fantastic, Kon very subtly weaves the fantastic into reality.
My first exposure to him was the film Perfect Blue, his directorial debut. I was fairly new to my appreciation of Japanese animation (I'd held it in universal disdain for quite a number of years until my very early twenties), and to say that this film disturbed me is something of an understatement. While very skillfully made, and scenes from it have haunted me in the years since, it's only recently that I've managed to bring myself to watch it again. The story revolves around a young pop idol from a dime-a-dozen pop music group try to branch out into a successful acting career. She finds that in order to gain the kind of exposure she needs to garner serious attention is to cast off her innocent, wholesome pop singer image and pose nude for photo shoots and partake in a graphic rape scene for a TV show. As this happens, she finds herself stalked by a fan from her pop idol days, and discovers an internet page claiming to be written by her with intimate details of her life on display. She begins to see hallucinations or possibly dreams of her pop-idol self chastising her for the choices she's made for the sake of her ambition, and eventually people around her start dying. Both Mima's and the audience's sense of what is reality disintegrates through the course of the film, and until the end, neither she nor we are entirely sure if those fantasies of her murdering the people exploiting her are really fantasies or not.

I'd heard about Millennium Actress, Kon's next film, probably a year or two after I saw Perfect Blue. I didn't wind up seeing it until two years ago, convinced it was another violent psychological thriller, and no matter how well-made it might be, I simply didn't feel up to coping with another one from him. This impression could not have been more wrong. Actress is the flipside of the situation in Blue, where the connection between a star and her biggest fan is touching and impacts their lives in positive ways. It's a sweet, heartfelt film that captures the essence of Japanese history and film from World War II through to the twenty-first century in the life and career of one legendary actress.

It's a love story between her and a mysterious figure she met only briefly in her early teens, but whom she spent her life chasing after, as well as that of a man so inspired by her image, he spent his career chasing it. Chiyoko begins her career as an excuse to chase after the man she helps rescue one snowy winter morning, traveling all the way to Manchuria to film a propaganda picture during WWII-- he left a key near her house as he fled the Japanese secret police and she vowed to bring it to him. Her movie career blossoms and her roles take her as far back as 1,000 years in Japanese history even as her own life keeps progressing forward through adulthood, middle-age, and even old age. Whether the roles she had eerily match the events from her life or her memories have become so intertwined with them that they're inseparable, it's never clear, but neither is it that important to figure out. The snippets she recalls from her films continue to drive forward the story of her own personal quest for the man she's compelled to find just as easily as a literal enactment would have been, and it creates a fascinating and entertaining vehicle to contemplate the depths to which films can become a part of our lives.

Tachibana, a longtime fan, seeks her out for a documentary of her career years after she retires in seclusion. He's worked in films and even managed to create his own production company ("Lotus", named for her favorite flower), spurred by his fascination and admiration of her. Though often played for comedy, he and his assistant further the blurring of reality, memory, and fantasy by becoming involved in her flashbacks, even able to directly affect them and bring back mementos when the scene shifts back to the present. To attempt to understand what's literally happening here is futile and misses the point: the film is demonstrating how involved the audience becomes with the films it views, how potent the fantasy is, and how much it becomes a part of the culture and collective memory of those who view it. It isn't science fiction or fantasy, it's a visual, stylistic method of conveying a complex idea while at the same time, driving forward the story without breaking our concentration.

There's even more to talk about with this film, but it's best left for debate amongst people who have seen it. Suffice to say, I was so surprised and moved by this film, it completely overshadowed my fear of and anxiety towards Kon's work and I rushed to watch his next film.

Tokyo Godfathers is yet another departure from his previous films. While Blue is a thriller and Actress is a love story, Godfathers is a slapstick comedy with a very unusual subject: the homeless. The three protagonists of the film are a sort of dysfunctional family of homeless people: Gin, the "father" figure, a former family man who's haunted by his past; Hana, the "mother" figure in the form of a homosexual transvestite who longs for family, and Miyuki, the "daughter", a sixteen year-old runaway hiding from her father. While dumpster diving for presents on Christmas Eve, they come across an abandoned baby and set out to find its mother. Of course, through the journey they each wind up confronting their pasts, usually through a series of miraculous coincidences, each one becoming more implausible than the last.

Kon's go-to animation studio Mad House retains its hyper-realistic style that they used for his previous two films, but couples it with more exaggeration and "cartoonish" facial expressions to heighten the goofy comedy. However, the film also doesn't shy away from the more realistic and serious hardships that come with living on the streets, as well as the characters' backstories, and there is very much a solid, emotionally resonant core beneath all the humor. The blurring of reality and fantasy inside the story isn't as pronounced as in Kon's other works, though it does crop up occasionally. Personally, I see it happening most often with the coincidences, almost like an accentuated version of the type of thing that happens in a lot of Hollywood films, where destiny drives the characters to their inevitable resolutions and happy endings.

It's no coincidence that the story takes place in the week between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, the time of year when people are most likely to believe in miracles, and also when family connections feel culturally most important. The human connections in the film are what drive it, be they between the protagonists, their real families, or the people they meet along their journey-- every one of them is significant and unlikely, reminding us that no matter how high or low we may go on the social ladder, we are all still connected. Kon goes out of his way to shine a light on society's most forgotten and ignored, from the homeless to drag queens to Brazillian migrant workers, it's a side of Tokyo that doesn't get focused on much, and the fact that he does so in such an approachable and inalienating way is impressive. It's a feel-good movie, but one without as many empty calories as many of its brethren, and it's far more likely to get me in the holiday spirit than most.

Once again, Paprika is a departure from Kon's already eclectic body of work, this time delving into a more conventional arena for Japanese animation, science fiction. The character design also changes, Paprika being the only example that is recognizably Kon's style, with everyone else looking closer to the style used in Miyazaki's Spirited Away (coincidentally, also a style change for the director, and yes, I know the same character designer worked on both, but he also worked on Kon and Miyazaki's other works in their signature styles).

This is by far the most blatant example of the blurring of the line between reality and fantasy, and if Actress works to gently twine the two together until one doesn't notice the difference, then this film has them crash together violently in a noisy cacophony of images that go by almost too fast to catch. Also like his previous films, it dialogues with Hollywood film, in ways more blatant and also more subtle than before: one of the characters has a reoccurring dream with scenes from various Hollywood films like Roman Holiday, and at one point has a conversation with someone about different film techniques as the camera demonstrates each one as he explains it; the film itself takes the Hollywood idea of the "destined pair" and turns it on its ear, while underhandedly critiquing its perpetuation of male sexual entitlement at the same time. It deliberately defies audience expectation by playing on these very commonly used techniques, which a lot of people found dissatisfying but which was frankly my favorite part of the entire film.

Like with Perfect Blue, Kon incorporates the internet into the list of media being used, this time as its own immersive world with very fuzzy boundaries to reality. Like Tokyo Godfathers it focuses on the interconnectedness of humans, this time through the idea of collective dreams. These ties don't seem to be accidental, as in the final scene, a character goes to a movie theater displaying movie posters for all of them-- instead of keeping them in the background, the camera pans slowly over all of them in chronological order, stopping on the poster for Kon's upcoming film, The Dreaming Machine. In a lot of ways, this film is very consciously telling the audience that they're watching a movie (outside of the fact that it's rendered in animation), and now that some images from Dreaming Machine have been released, it's much easier to see the scores of visual references littered throughout Paprika. So not only does this film dialogue with Hollywood and its influences and conventions, but with Kon's own body of work, past and future alike.

"Why wasn't this live action?"
One of the more interesting questions asked about Kon's works, and one which has many relevant answers. Perfect Blue started out as a live action film but ran into budget problems and delays, so animation was turned to as the next best option. Kon and Mad House's skill at creating detailed, realistic-feeling worlds served this story well, since the medium allowed them to seamlessly bend the laws of physics to allow a hallucination to skip effortlessly down a row of lamp posts, or appear in the reflection of a pane of glass-- instead of special effects that on some level impress upon the audience that the frames they're watching were altered, it's simply a part of the narrative, as seamlessly interwoven into the frame as the characters themselves. Despite its glaringly obvious lack of reality, it's also able to create higher tension in the audience because there is no real-life actor on screen, and the physical punishments that happen in a sense "really" happen to the character; in other words, there's no effects person gluing prosthetic wounds on before the scene is shot, no rubber knives, no trick shots, no digital effects added in later-- an animated character gets stabbed, they're stabbed with as real a weapon and have as real a wound as they themselves are. Of course there is also the impact of taking a medium that is generally thought of as being for children and telling very adult stories with it, which for many people is a profound one. If the recent trend of adult-oriented animation continues, this will likely lessen as people become accustomed to the idea.

The fact that Kon chooses to animate stories that for the most part could just as easily be filmed in live action is significant because it demonstrates the range it's capable of as a medium and the different psychological effect it can have on an audience. He was the first director I know of to really stretch the boundaries of what had been done with it up until then, particularly by utilizing its particular strengths in such subtle ways and to the best of my knowledge he's the only one still using this particular method. He's experimental and full of ideas and things to say, which is always exciting for me as a viewer, and I hope he continues to gain more exposure. The Dreaming Machine, his next film, is yet another departure for him into a more conventional animation standard, the children's film. I can't wait to see what he does with it.


  1. This is a very interesting article Bevin. I love the way you write! I'm off to watch Perfect Blue on the Netflix instant now. Thanks for the recommendation. I hope it gives me nightmares.

  2. Anytime, Evie. It certainly messed me up for a while, but everyone's different. If it's the English dub, however, it might be nightmare-inducing for an entirely different reason. ;)

  3. Yup. It certainly is. Not bad for a first-time director, though.

  4. Not bad at all. And you were right, very disturbing. It's 2:45 AM. I just woke up from the craziest nightmare. Three claymation women were having an extremely graphic three-way. It ended with one of them stabbing themselves repeatedly until she was nothing more than colored marshmallow cubes. This all happened in a rundown theater where stacks of curly fries were dripping grease into the red velvet seats. Weird.

  5. Well written! You remind me how much I've been wanting to catch up on Kon's work. I loved Perfect Blue when I first saw it and I liked Paprika although I was immensely tired when I watched it so I don't really remember it. Perhaps I shall try to have a marathon at some point...

    I am curious how you feel about translations (dubbing vs subtitles) when viewing his films. I don't know if you know Japanese but if you do, how would you feel about it for those of us who don't?

  6. Evie, you should be in movies with dreams like that. ;)

    Nojh: Paprika's definitely not a movie to watch when tired. As for dubbing, in general I find it to be distracting, even when the voices themselves are fine. Japanese animation specifically doesn't tend to have closely articulated mouth movements, so in that respect it's easier to dub, but the timing of the movements is still made for a very different language. So even if you have a good voice actor, there are going to be very awkward moments of jamming two sentences together or run-on sentences to make the mouth flaps match up. This is true of just about every dub I've watched, even the good ones like Princess Mononoke.

    By and large,I tend to not be impressed with most of the dub actors I hear anyway, a lot of them sound very artificial and it puts me off a lot. In fact, dubbing was a large part of the reason I disliked anime for as long as I did-- it wasn't until I saw something in Japanese that I decided to give any of it a shot because the difference in quality was so great. I keep hearing from people that dubbing's gotten a lot better, and it probably has, but I still find it more distracting than anything and much prefer subtitles. And while I'm very, very far from fluent in Japanese, I know enough to pick up on politeness levels and some basic vocab. Whether or not that affects how I feel about dubbing, I'm not sure, but I know I still preferred subtitles before I knew any Japanese at all. But some people do genuinely prefer the dubs and that's fine, too. I don't see a need to get that worked up over it. =)

  7. Nice entry! For some crazy reason, the Japanese made a live action Perfect Blue a few years ago. I don't know what possessed them. They also made a live action Grave of the Fireflies. 2 good examples of adult-oriented animation turned live action to ruined by dicks in the movie business too lazy to do an original idea.

  8. I had no idea they remade "Perfect Blue". What was the point of that, I wonder. I never see animated remakes of live-action movies.

    I did read somewhere that someone wants to remake "Paprika" in live action. I just don't understand the point unless they want to give it more 'legitimacy' by filming it with live actors. I mean really, why remake a perfectly fine movie that isn't even a few years old?