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The Dreams of Satoshi Kon: Chapter I - Prehistory

by Todd Ciolek,

It's fair to say that Satoshi Kon's career as a filmmaker began with Perfect Blue in 1997. It was the first film he directed, and perhaps the first animated creation largely under his control. That isn't the whole story. Kon, like many animation directors, worked his way up through the ranks, and his early catalog reveals many projects: some are offbeat, some are conventional, and at least one ranks alongside his best films.

The fastest way into the anime industry is often through its manga cousin, so it's no surprise that Kon began his anime career in comics. While still in college during the mid-1980s, he created a short manga called Toriko and earned a runner-up spot in Young Magazine's Tetsuya Chiba Awards. It was through Young that Kon met the man who'd give him his start in anime: Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo.

Yet Kon's anime career was still a good way off, and he spent years sneaking out short manga stories. It wasn't until 1990 that he started his first full-length manga: Kaikisen. In some ways, it's a typical coming-of-age story speckled with strange goings-on. A seaside town's shrine guards what is thought to be a mermaid's egg, and Yosuke's the heir to a family tradition of protecting this relic. Of course, there's a developer who's reshaping the once-quaint coastal village, and there's also a young woman to complain about it while drifting closer to Yosuke.

Still, Kon gives it all his personal touch. He spent part of his childhood in a small Hokkaido fishing town, and Yosuke, like a young Kon, is eager to leave home and head for college. Kon's knack for the cinematic comes through here and there in Kaikisen, even in the first chapter's shot of a mermaid's shadow glimpsed in the beam of a sinking flashlight. As supernatural manga tales go, Kon's is rather subtle at first, and like his films, it's careful in deciding just what rules of reality it'll break.

Kaikisen was a short work at only one volume, but Kon was busy elsewhere. He wrote the script for Otomo's live-action World Apartment Horror film, a dark comedy about a mobster trying to forcibly evict some stubborn tenants. Kon also worked on Otomo's first major anime project after the landmark 1988 Akira film: Roujin Z.

Roujin Z was smaller in scale and more humorous in tone than Akira, much to the ire of anime fans who bought it expecting Akira 2. Yet it's a unique satire, one where a bedridden old man becomes the test subject for a robotic bed designed to free younger generations from caring for the elderly. The dehumanizing machine goes haywire in bizarre Otomo fashion, and Kon joined up as an animator and set designer. Director Hiroyuki Kitakubo (who'd make a bigger mark in anime with Blood: The Last Vampire) preserves the social commentary of Otomo's script, though there's not much in the film to augur Kon's later style. Well, not unless you count the bizarre, fade-to-white ending.

Kon's next big anime job came in 1992 with the film Hashire, Melos!, often known as the comma-free Run Melos!. Based on the short story by Osamu Dazai (itself a retelling of the myth of Damon and Pythias), the film follows a condemned Greek shepherd trying to make it home and back before the despot of Syracuse executes a moody sculptor in his place. It's a simple and often dull story, but the generous animation makes a great showcase for its two lead artists, Kon and future Jin-Roh director Hiroyuki Okiura. The characters have the facially realistic look that both Kon and okiura employed in their films, free of both bug-eyed cuteness and over-sharpened features. Mamoru Oshii's magnificent political drama Patlabor 2 was also released that same year, with storyboard work by Kon.

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure showed off Kon's abilities in 1993, as he scripted and co-produced the fifth episode of the OVA series based on Hirohiko Araki's flamboyant fighting manga. It's a strange match, as Kon admitted in interviews that, as a kid, he was never fond of the overblown shonen fisticuffs that JoJo's Bizarre Adventure frequently embodies. He also stuck to the story established in Araki's manga, and the only really Kon-like scene comes when series villain Dio torments an underling by chasing him into the same car over and over. Perhaps Kon and JoJo's Bizarre Adventure weren't so different.

Yet if Kon's anime career truly started anywhere, it started with Magnetic Rose, the first of three short films in Katsuhiro Otomo's Memories omnibus. Kon didn't direct Magnetic Rose; it was helmed by Koji Morimoto (whose excellent work is mostly limited to shorts like the Animatrix's Beyond) and based on a snippet of manga by Otomo. Yet it's a Kon piece in many important ways.

Magnetic Rose is built on that well-worn horror premise of unfortunate spacefarers happening on a mysterious signal. In this case, the travelers are a salvage crew in 2090, and they're lured into a field of wreckage by the strains of opera. At the center of this space graveyard lies a strange vessel shaped like an unopened rose, and two of the salvagers, the womanizing Miguel and the no-nonsense Heintz, are sent in to investigate. They find an ornate palace of holograms and automated statues, and it was all apparently made to serve Eva Friedel, a renowned opera diva who died long ago.

Easily the highlight of Memories and perhaps Otomo's career, Magnetic Rose is accessible, layered, and no less amazing for its brevity. Owning small debts to Stanislaw Lem's Solaris and William Faulkner's A Rose for Emily, it has the psychological edge and human core sometimes missing in Otomo's more satirical stories. As Heintz and Miguel plunge deeper into the ship and Eva's tragic history, the walls of reality crumble to spectacular effect, and Morimoto captures everything in striking, subtle detail. He's backed by a Yoko Kanno score as well as the animation talent of Hiroyuki Okiura.

It's not hard to see Kon underneath it all. He wrote the script, handled the layout, and served as art director. A lot of Magnetic Rose would later show up in Kon's movies. Despite the science-fiction stage, it's steeped in the same sense of magical realism and surreal chaos that proved so unnerving in Perfect Blue and so magnificent in Paprika. Eva seems an insidious version of Millennium Actress's Chiyoko; they're both women marked by tragedy and driven to chase men they may never find, but Eva's far more deluded in her fantasies. Heintz, too, has his descendants in Kon's movies. Like Detective Ikari in Paranoia Agent and Detective Konakawa in Paprika, he's a by-the-book, middle-aged man secretly looking for a place to hide from his own failings.

Magnetic Rose wasn't the start of Kon's directing career, but it clearly wouldn't be the same movie without him. It's a stunning achievement from some of the anime industry's lesser-seen talents, and it's hard to think of Kon getting a better launching pad for his first movie. Magnetic Rose can stand next to Satoshi Kon's best work on its own and as a sign of what he'd accomplish in the years to come.  

Roujin Z was released on VHS and DVD by Central Park Media. Run, Melos! is not commercially available in North America. Super Techno Arts managed to put out six volumes of the JoJo's Bizarre Adventure OAV in the U.S. before collapsing. Magnetic Rose and the rest of Memories were released here on DVD by Sony, and the film is still available in limited numbers at Amazon, for out-of-print prices.

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