Matt will present a panel entitled “The Works of Satoshi Kon” at Nan Desu Kan in Denver this Saturday, September 12th at 2:30 PM in the Humboldt panel room. Cheggitout!
Satoshi Kon’s first feature, Perfect Blue, was something of an oddity for a first-time anime director: a narratively-gripping, expertly-crafted thriller. Perfect Blue has a reputation for being confusing, but unlike so many anime features where that confusion comes simply out of poor planning or weak writing, Perfect Blue’s layers of reality (and unreality) are very much intentional elements that serve the film’s themes. In short, the film was clearly guided by Kon’s unique directoral vision.
His follow-ups, the films Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers, plus the 13-episode series Paranoia Agent display the same thematic elements as Perfect Blue, proving that Kon is no gun-for-hire: rather, a clear auteur with consistent elements of style and theme he carries from one project to the next.
Paprika, released in 2006, is the fullest expression to date of Kon’s signature styles and themes. It’s also a visually dazzling work, second to few modern animated films in fluidity and detail. Unfortunately, it’s also his least emotionally satisfying work. More on that later.
Paprika starts by dropping us headfirst into one of Kon’s favorite themes: the thin border between fantasy and reality. The opening sequence takes place inside the dreams of Konakawa, a detective who’s been employing the services of Paprika, a kind of dream psychologist. She can enter the detective’s dreams, you see, using the “D.C. Mini,” an experimental device.
Doppelgangers and multiple personalities are another constantly recurring theme in Satoshi Kon’s films. Here, Paprika is actually the alter-ego of Dr. Chiba, a scientist working on the D.C. Mini project. Dr. Chiba is cool and calculating and has trouble expressing emotion; Paprika is flirty and adventurous. Initially, Paprika appears only in dreams while Dr. Chiba stays in reality, but as things begin to blur, as they often do in Kon’s works, we see Paprika and Chiba interact.
In any case, the members of Dr. Chiba’s team have a problem, because one of the D.C. Mini units has been stolen. The thief has been hijacking people’s dreams, causing chaos which eventually breaks into reality and threatens the world.
All of Kon’s favorite elements make an appearance throughout the film. Kon likes to play around with self-reflexivity: in Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress the main characters are actresses, and we’re often unsure if what we’re watching is the “reality” of the film or the movie-within-the-movie. Paranoia Agent features a hilarious episode which goes behind the scenes of an in-production anime series. In Paprika, Detective Konakawa’s dreams are filled with memorable scenes from Tarzan, Roman Holiday and From Russia With Love. It turns out he was an amateur filmmaker in high school and he is haunted by an 8mm film he was never able to finish.
Kon also comes back over and over again to obsession. In Perfect Blue, Mima is stalked by a serious Tsutomu Miyazaki-type. But Kon doesn’t always portray obsession as negative. In Millennium Actress, the TV producer who tracks down the reclusive actress in question is obsessed with her films, but uses his knowledge for good, bringing happiness and closure to the end of her life.
Paprika’s obsessee is Tokita, the inventor of the D.C. Mini. Tokita is a genius, but has the emotional capacity of a child, preferring to obsess over his inventions and toys than think about the moral implications of the D.C. Mini. Tokita is also obese, perhaps a first for anime. Kon often has multiple characters who are physically deformed or simply imperfect in some way.
Again, Paprika is, so far, the deepest and fullest exploration of Satoshi Kon’s animated world, and a simply gorgeous film to boot. But this exploration and experimentation comes at a price: it’s also Kon’s least character-driven work, a disappointment after Millennium Actress and especially Tokyo Godfathers delivered much of their emotional “oomph” by centering their narratives around compelling, sympathetic characters. Interesting as it is otherwise, it’s hard not to see this film as a step backward.
But listen. As a recent episode of Anime 3000 pointed out, it’s important to remember that there are directors out there doing great work, and not all of them are named “Miyazaki.” In the world of Japanese cartoons, a visionary (and as overused as “visionary” has become, I hope I’ve made the case that it can fairly be applied here) compelling as Satoshi Kon shouldn’t be overlooked.