Ranking the Films of Satoshi Kon

by Matthew Roe,

Satoshi Kon is my favorite animation director. Throughout his tragically brief career, he managed to make a single-season series and a small collection of films that all rank as some of the greatest achievements in animation history, and time has only been kinder to each of them. Kon's imaginative style, methodology, and sincerity have rarely been echoed in any other creator, and as time continues to creep on from his death from pancreatic cancer in 2010, it is becoming clearer that there may never be another like him. Whether or not that's a good thing is entirely subjective, but it makes the end of his story all the more complicated.

Kon made his first foray into the arts while attending Musashino College of the Arts, debuting his two-part doujinshi Toriko in 1984, which focuses on a robot-ruled dystopia forcing mental conditioning on children. I can't say much more as I have never read the work, but the manga garnered recognition from Weekly Young Magazine, winning Kon the Tetsuya Chiba Award for Rookie of the Year. This manga would not be officially published in any form until the compendium Dream Fossil: The Complete Stories of Satoshi Kon was released through Kodansha in 2011. But upon its debut, Toriko would catch the interest of Katsuhiro Ōtomo, who would seek out and employ Kon as an uncredited assistant on Akira (which was also being published in Weekly Young). This working relationship would lead Kon to work on a number of Ōtomo's productions, while simultaneously publishing his one-volume series Kaikisen.

Kaikisen centers on a seaside town on the cusp of being heavily commercialized, while juxtaposed against a community safeguarding a mermaid's egg in exchange for ideal weather and safety - honestly seems a little out of H.P. Lovecraft's Shadow Over Innsmouth. While the manga is adequately (even sometimes beautifully) drawn and inked, playing with refracting light and perspective in interesting ways, the story deflates due to the over-heavy-handed moralizing and genre cliches that Kon utilizes to explore Japan's ongoing conflict between modernization and tradition. Kon would return to the manga's themes throughout his career, but what this exercise clearly represents is an artist determining their strengths - his ideas were present, the execution needed much more polish.

Not long after this, Kon would receive his first on-screen credit for the story of the live-action horror-comedy World Apartment Horror (1991), from which Kon would create a manga series of the same name (released a few months later). Centered on a yakuza enforcer who is met with a zany collection of preternatural encounters after he is given the assignment to evict an apartment, the film marks a distinct example on how Kon's sense of humor, genre blending, and reality bending would come to play a major factor in how he would handle his own productions. However, in this instance, these elements are seen through the lenses and narrative quirks of Ōtomo and the budding screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto, who (of course) would later go on to major acclaim with Cowboy Bebop.

Though the film is quite an enjoyable (and odd) cinematic romp, the manga is really where we can see Kon begin to seriously flex his creative muscles. Equipped with visuals far more complex, detailed, and satisfying than any of his previous works, it plays with the borderline bonkers ideas started in the film in ways that can only be done through comics. This is where Kon's continuing education in crafting successful narrative starts to match and combine with his natural visual flair - this is arguably where Kon evolves from an amateur with potential to an emerging professional.

Ōtomo might have also deemed this true around this time, as he snagged Kon his first legitimate anime production job as art director, key animator, and layout artist on his and Hiroyuki Kitakubo's Roujin Z (1991). Kon's attention to detail and individual flourish would catapult him towards designing layouts and key animating for Masaaki Osumi's Hashire Melos! (1992), and Mamoru Oshii's Patlabor 2: The Movie (1993). The latter project would propel Kon into a deeper creative collaboration with Oshii, publishing their (never completed) manga Seraphim: 266613336 Wings in the May 1994 issue of Animage - boasting the most stunning and innovative art to come from the young artist. It's a real tragedy that the story of the Angel Plague pandemic may never have a conclusion (unless Oshii gets nostalgic), but the most realistic possibility for the manga's unceremonious end was that Kon was then wading full-tilt into anime.

The young creator would shoot over to the animation staff of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure in late 1993 to key animate the second OVA in the series, which directly lead to his scripting, storyboarding, and assistant directing the fifth installment, and assisting composition on episode six. While he is credited on IMDb and Wikipedia for having directed the final three episodes in the 1993-1994 season of the JoJo's OVAs, I found no corroborating information to validate this, with those associated episodes having been directed by (and credited to) other significant anime directors, such as Hiroyuki Kitakubo. While Kon's contribution to the series was subdued and missing many of his budding trademark elements, as his interest in fighting shonen was limited at best, there are scattershot moments where time and space distort, evidently as Kon's passions struggle to get out.

His professional anime career is usually credited to having truly begun when he would work with Kōji Morimoto on the short Magnetic Rose in Ōtomo's anthology Memories (1995). This marked the first instance when Kon wrote the screenplay for an animation with relative free reign, and of the new experience, Kon would later state “the process of creating a story with just words - without drawings to carry things along - that was challenging.” The short focuses on a gaggle of travelers who are drawn through space to an abandoned ship that is revealed to contain a whole world created via a woman's memories. What ensues is an exploration through repression, angst, and satire showcasing Kon's love for Western stories (such as Stanislaw Lem's Solaris and William Faulkner's A Rose for Emily), all animated spectacularly by Studio 4°C. Kon was able to articulate aspects of his previously explored themes in a concise and even-layered manner, allowing his characters their each unique life and dynamic. This is compounded by Kon's oversight of so much of the short's animation and design, honestly giving us his first animated spectacle, providing a perfect petri dish in which to watch his skills play out.

By this time, he had already worked with Studio Madhouse, but now began his collaboration with the animation giant which would last the duration of his career. Originally pitched as a faithful live-action adaptation of the Yoshikazu Takeuchi novel, 1997's Perfect Blue would be molded by Kon and (then) screenwriting newcomer Sadayuki Murai into a fever-dream headtrip through disassociation, shame, paranoia, and mental illness. When the pop singer Mima Kirigoe leaves her girl group Cham to become a serious actress on television, she is concurrently stalked by an obsessed fan and nightmarish hallucinations of her alternative self as her professional pressure and turmoil mount with each passing day. Described as if “Alfred Hitchcock partnered with Walt Disney” the film is a textbook psychological thriller with a mind-warping twist, where reality and the fantasy of the roles Mima plays on screen bend and twist till no one can easily ascertain what is actually real. Time folds and memories melt, the film remains as tense a story today as it did when it was first released (disregarding the details that painfully date the movie in the late 90s, like the birth of the commercial internet and the new availability of home computers), but the film does have its flaws - primarily in the technical execution, and the occasional disconnect between what Kon was able to deliver visually and what Murai was able to deliver structurally.

Perfect Blue received acclaim from international audiences, critics, and festivals, revving up his career as a director and allowing for Kon to make a far more ambitious project next. While he began drawing plans to adapt Yasutaka Tsutsui's novel Paprika into his next film, and did some uncredited story work on Hiroyuki Okiura's Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999), Rex Entertainment, the distribution company for Perfect Blue went belly-up and he was forced to look for another project. This next project would become Millennium Actress (2002), where Kon created a duality with his debut film by exploring similar themes of memory, time dilation, and multiple narrative perspectives to blend reality with imagination. Loosely inspired by silver screen starlettes Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine, two low-budget documentarians investigate the life of retired Japanese acting legend Chiyoko Fujiwara, and manage to get an exclusive interview for her to tell them her life story. This is the first time Kon would work with famed composer Susumu Hirasawa (of whom Kon was a sizable fan), which managed to ensure each scene is heavily seasoned in emotional resonance - it articulates what the characters desire and feel but cannot express. Kon and Murai's story is polished, refined, and beautifully poignant; the visuals are elegant, timeless, and showcases the know-how of a creator and their team at the peak of their talent and passion. Released to modest returns, but a sizable critical response, the film easily remains one of the most heartfelt journeys in any dramatic film yet produced in the 21st Century. It also remains one of the only two films that have ever made me cry - that is an accomplishment.

Not even a year after his sophomore release, Kon announced the production of his third film, Tokyo Godfathers (2003). I like to call this a 'sad story of happy accidents,' as this film plays heavily with themes surrounding coincidences, forgiveness, and shame, all to the tune of zany antics and heartbreaking revelations. This actively remains the most grounded of all Kon's feature works (while also, at the time, the most expensive), with limited visual extravagance, and enduringly flawed and fickle characters that we haven't seen in earlier films. Kon would team back up with Nobumoto for the screenplay, this time focusing on a trio of homeless friends toughing it out on Tokyo's hard winter streets, coming across a discarded newborn in the trash on Christmas Eve. Their multi-day odyssey across the city to find the child's parents is frothing with roaming youths looking for a fight, mobster weddings, drag shows, and each character's past ready to confront them. While Kon's personal style of animating and designing characters had always attracted interest and praise, it is this film more than any other project beforehand, that we can see Kon's embrace of a completely individualistic style - few other anime of this era looked, sounded, impressed, or resonated like this film. But what is also striking, is that his exploration of community, family, regret, and consequence that he had begun in Kaikisen now has come back, fully matured and executed phenomenally (the ending credits wackiness gets me every time as being a little too out of let field, but I enjoy it all the same).

Boasting one of the eeriest “happy” OPs from the early 2000s, this thirteen-episode series was a culmination of story fragments and themes that Kon had wanted to explore, but none he deemed had the viability and narrative strength to be turned into a full project on their own. So, Kon collected these fragments with Seishi Minakami and Tomomi Yoshino to craft a bum-rushed charge through group hysteria and social conditioning, focused on seemingly random citizens of Tokyo being targeted by Lil' Slugger, a rollerblading boy assaulting people with a bent golden baseball bat. Managing a consistent unease and tension that often stuttered in Perfect Blue, Paranoia Agent manages to make its array of loosely connected vignettes a powerful statement on the pathway humanity has taken as a collective civilization. A series to be digested multiple times to even begin to appreciate the multitudes of technique and trope at work, the show would remain the last major television contribution that Kon would make - the final series was eventually shown on satellite networks in Japan after being determined unsuitable for network television due to its controversial content.

Kon's final completed feature film would arrive in 2006 with his long-gestating adaptation of Paprika. Kon and Minakami penned the script, centering on a research psychologist whose team develops a device that permits individuals to enter others' dreams. This has become the quintessential example of Kon at his most flamboyant and visually powerful, offering a veritable treat for the eyes and the mind. If someone asks who Kon is, usually this is the movie that gets brought up first (or Perfect Blue). Often (unofficially) credited as a possible source for Christopher Nolan's Inception, the film blends reality and fantasy in more extreme and direct ways than Kon had ever attempted before. While the film's visuals are masterclasses on effective visual language with a mind for archetypal character and setting design, the story actually could be considered the most simplistic and straightforward of Kon's narratives since his career writing animation began with Magnetic Rose. This isn't necessarily a detraction, as the familiar whodunit framework allows for the visuals and kinetic scenarios to really pump into overdrive, culminating in one of the most visually innovative films ever made. Receiving wide acclaim from native and international critics, it eventually became a box office success even in the United States.

The very last of Kon's completed contributions would be his short film Ohayō for the Ani-Kuri 15 (2007) anthology series, exploring the mental state most of us are in as we drag ourselves out of bed and ready ourselves for the work day. This simple poetic exploration of the mundane equally showcase a master in complete control of his craft (in an anthology of scenarios far more complicated with plot-based shark-jumping), and provide the most bittersweet swan song for a filmmaker that I could imagine. He began working on what would have been his final film, Dreaming Machine, which he worked on until a month before he died from pancreatic cancer at just 46 years old. Even after his sudden passing in 2010, Madhouse head Masao Maruyama said that Kon's final “robot road movie,” was still in production, with roughly six-hundred shots of the planned 1500 having been animated. Eventually, after several hands passing the project around (including Kon's assistant director Yoshimi Itazu), mixed with several funding dry spells, the project was indefinitely shelved in 2018, and most likely will never be finished.

Kon was a one-of-a-kind talent whose works have continued to age progressively better than most of his contemporaries. His sensitivity to realistic characters twirling in a surrealist-infused world provides some of the best examples of what animation can achieve over live-action and manga. While I am certain there are and will be others with similar thematic and technical affinities (Hiroshi Hamasaki and Masaaki Yuasa come to mind), I do not believe there will be such a sublime coexistence of emotional resonance, narrative strength, and visual complexity in a single artist. I honestly hope I'm proven wrong, because anime will forever mourn the loss of Satoshi Kon, one of the definitive masters of the medium.

MY FINAL RANKING:

  1. Millennium Actress
  2. Paranoia Agent
  3. Paprika
  4. Tokyo Godfathers
  5. Perfect Blue

So what are your favorite (and least favorite) Satoshi Kon films? Be sure to share your own rankings with us in the forums!


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