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Japanamerica: A Tribute to Satoshi Kon

By Roland Kelts.

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I was soaking my bones in a riverside rotenburo in the hills of Tochigi last month when news of anime director Satoshi Kon‘s death flashed across my cell phone via text message. Must be a macabre joke, I thought at first glance, though the friend who sent it isn’t given to jabs of dark humor.

Maybe a promotional gambit for Kon’s next work? His films are characterized in part by multiple realities and unexpected shifts among them, so that just when you think something is really happening, perhaps it isn’t. After all, typing or even thinking about the phrase, “the late Satoshi Kon,” just didn’t feel right.

But after returning to Tokyo and now New York, I have been forced to confront the banal and humbling truth: Kon, one of the most gifted, innovative and searchingly intelligent artists working in the anime medium and the film world at large, died on the morning of August 24 from pancreatic cancer – at the age of 46.

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As a director, Kon made four features – Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers and Paprika – and was at work on his fifth, The Dreaming Machine. Eerily, he appeared to be especially active and lively in recent weeks, as the Internet buzzed with fans from East and West accusing American live-action director Christopher Nolan of plagiarizing ideas from Paprika for his Hollywood blockbuster, Inception.

Responding to the controversy on his blog, Kon’s Tone, last month, the anime director gently brushed aside fan complaints, noting that most artists are influenced by others and identifying examples in his own work – though he neglected to add that in his case, source materials have been openly acknowledged, in particular John Ford’s 1948 Western, 3 Godfathers, on which Kon loosely based Tokyo Godfathers.

Last autumn, I gave a talk at a symposium on anime hosted by the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Paprika was screened and discussed. Befittingly, my fellow panelists and I spoke of the film in language usually reserved for literature and other works of so-called “high art.” There was so much to see and ponder in a Kon film. I screened Paprika again this summer for students in an anime seminar at Temple University in Tokyo. Each time I watch it, I see more.

Feeling helpless in grief, I reached out to friends and authors worldwide to make sense of Kon’s legacy, and our loss. Here’s what they had to say:

Helen McCarthy, author of nine books on anime, including the exhaustive and essential The Anime Encyclopedia: Japanese Animation Since 1917.

“Looking at his overall achievements as a director, writer and artist, Kon was working on the same level as Hayao Miyazaki at his peak. If Miyazaki had died at 46, we wouldn’t have My Neighbor Totoro. At 46, Tezuka hadn’t published Black Jack, or MW, or created some of his greatest short films. At 46, Hitchcock hadn’t even got as far as Stage Fright. Just think what we might have had from Satoshi Kon at 50, or 60.

“The painter Pablo Picasso once said ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’ For me, the uniqueness of his art is that, as well as the child remaining an artist, the artist remained a child.

“That places Kon very high among his peers. At the moment, Japanese animation, and Japanese film in general, has quite a few interesting directors who have reached the mid-point in their careers with solid achievement and huge potential, but Kon had moved beyond that. He was on the level of Rintaro, Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. Looking at his overall achievements as a director, writer and artist, judging him solely on his merits, Kon was working on the same level as Hayao Miyazaki at his peak. Looking outside anime, he was as sure of his own vision and method as Hitchcock or Cocteau. Not many people actually merit the term ‘auteur,’ but Kon did.

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“In a Kon film, there’s no flinching from ugly truths, but also no flinching from sentiment, romance, joy, or fun. There are very few sequences in animation as shocking as the kids beating up street people in Tokyo Godfathers, which also includes betrayal, lying, cheating, and self-delusion on an epic scale – and that’s just the heroes. And yet Tokyo Godfathers is one of the warmest, most humane, most hopeful films ever made – right up there with It’s a Wonderful Life and My Neighbour Totoro.

“Kon doesn’t pass judgment or lecture, he simply shows us the best and worst in the city and its people. He laughs at them, pokes fun at them, shakes his head in amazement at them. He allows them to be completely real, and in so doing, he opens the door for anything to happen. Anything is possible in a Kon film, because Kon is open to every possibility. When he misdirects or distracts us, it’s the mischief of a clever child having a bit of fun – we’re welcome to join in the game and try to outguess him, or we can just sit back and watch until everything becomes clear.”

American animation historian, critic and author Charles Solomon highlights Kon’s unique technical skills as a craftsperson.

“Kon stands out as a creator of unsettling originality. Many directors use flashbacks and dream sequences, but few could match Kon’s skill at integrating those elements into the narrative. He often kept the audience off-balance, undercutting assumptions and calling what seemed to be the facts of the story into question. Watch the opening scenes of Paprika, when the heroine shifts from a sign on a building to the logo on a passing truck and so forth – the flow of visuals appears effortless, but would have been extremely difficult to do. Similarly, in Millennium Actress – my personal favorite of his films – the viewer moves from reality into the main character’s memories and films with a grace and fluidity only a major talent could create. Kon also used color with exceptional skill – the grey-blue palette of Tokyo Godfathers and the early sections of Millennium Actress make the viewer feel the winter cold the characters are experiencing. Kon was one of the most interesting and talented directors working in animation – not just in Japan, but in the world.”

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The world beyond Japan had begun slowly waking to Kon’s genius – too slowly, according to many. Tokyo Godfathers was submitted for an Oscar nomination in 2003 and Paprika garnered some awards and praise in Europe, but nothing commensurate with Kon’s impact on Western artists.

“It may have been fortuitous, but Kon’s works tended to be very accessible to Westerners,” says Andrew Osmond, author of Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist, the only English-language book about the director. “He also educated foreigners about Japan. He told me that when Tokyo Godfathers premiered in New York, he was shocked that people were surprised to learn that Tokyo had a homeless problem. [The Kon-directed TV series] Paranoia Agent shows a Japan terrified of its younger generation, and Millennium Actress telescopes centuries of Japanese history, from the Heian era to World War II and beyond.”

Tufts University professor and author Susan J. Napier cites Kon’s humanism and empathy as transcendent features in his work.

“Kon should be considered not simply as a master animator but also as the descendant of an impressive line of postwar Japanese humanists, ranging from Akira Kurosawa to Kenzaburo Oe and certainly including Hayao Miyazaki. Like these other humanists, Kon shared a concern for social issues, the problems of being an outsider, and the ultimate fate of modern Japan. But his work was never heavy or tragic. Although he leaves behind a tragically truncated body of work, his playful, ebullient and visually stunning art is a lasting legacy of poignant delight.”

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“His films were always at the top of my list,” adds Frederik L. Schodt, manga authority, translator and author of the classics, Manga, Manga, and Dreamland Japan. “More than almost any other animator in Japan, [Kon] had truly liberated himself from what anime was supposed to be. He didn’t envision his audience to be mainly young children or adolescents, and he shied away from creating stories laden with robots, cute sexy girls, and inane, formulaic, feel-good plots. As a result, he was able to create works that stand up well to the best in serious live-action film making.

“But he was also able to exploit the strengths of hand-drawn animation, and to utilize its potential for infinite deformation and flexibility, while still retaining a special human warmth. In the process, he created something uniquely powerful, a blend of the reality we live in, with the borderless imagination of his own mind.”

Try it again: “The late Satoshi Kon.” Nope. Still doesn’t feel right. Not at all.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roland Kelts is a Temple University, Japan Campus, lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.. This article is hosted by 3:AM and Daily Yomiuri.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 23rd, 2010.