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Kon Satoshi: Animated Filmmaking with a Dash of Paprika

Written by Mike Crandol Tell a Friend

A marching band of giant frogs leads a procession of anthropomorphic kitchen appliances, Hinamatsuri dolls, and various international landmarks on a destructive trek through the streets of downtown Tokyo. A young woman dressed as the Monkey King unsuccessfully attempts to halt the proceedings. She transforms into a winged pixie and engages an enormous tree in a battle of wills. Hiding from her adversary inside a painting of Oedipus, she flees in the guise of a sphinx, only to suddenly find herself underwater, where she is now a mermaid being pursued by a giant whale...

If this free-association narrative sounds like some kind of feverish dream, well, that's precisely the point. Welcome to the reality-bending world of anime director Kon Satoshi, whose latest film, Paprika, plays with the notion of people's dreams and nightmares spilling over into the waking world. Typical of his work, Paprika dares its audience to separate the fantasy from reality, all the while pointing out that - in the world of film in general and animation in particular - any attempt to do so is not only wholly futile, but spectacularly beside the point. An occasionally disturbing but ultimately whimsical celebration of the animated film's ability to portray whatever the mind can conceive, Paprika has garnered international critical acclaim and sealed its director's reputation as one of the most sophisticated minds at work in anime today.

Although Kon Satoshi's movies do not enjoy the mainstream popularity of his contemporary, Miyazaki Hayao, his work has been a favorite on the international festival circuit ever since his directorial debut, 1998's psychological suspense thriller Perfect Blue, shattered preconceptions of what the animated film could be. While Kon's visual style typifies the commercial anime industry, he consciously avoids the tropes and clichés associated with the medium. He has yet to make a movie about giant robots, superhero schoolgirls, or the post-apocalyptic future. His heroes and heroines are not samurai, ninja, or intergalactic bounty hunters, but septuagenarian actresses, homeless transvestites, and overweight scientists. Despite his taste for offbeat protagonists, Kon's characters invariably exude an everyman quality lacking in the larger-than-life cartoon characters of more typical anime productions. While most of his films toy with a tenuous concept of reality, the human dimension of Kon's work always remains at the fore. This quality, coupled with his talent for delightfully twisting narratives, has brought Kon many devoted admirers beyond the pale of anime fandom, and marks him as one of the few true auteurs of the medium.

Kon Satoshi was born on October 12, 1963 in Hokkaido, Japan. He attended Musashino College of the Arts with the intention of becoming a painter, but his friendship with Otomo Katsuhiro led him to a career in Japan's booming anime industry. Otomo was the mastermind behind the cult classic manga Akira and its 1988 film adaptation, and its success gave Otomo an unprecedented level of creative freedom in the anime industry. Having previously collaborated with Kon on various manga, Otomo tapped his pal to help out on several of his animated pet projects. Kon put his painting skills to use designing backgrounds for the Otomo-scripted Roujin Z (1991), and later did the same for Oshii Mamoru's Patlabor 2 (1993). But it was his script for the "Magnetic Rose" segment of Otomo's 1995 anthology film Memories that gave the world its first glimpse of Kon's true filmmaking potential.

"Magnetic Rose", unlike Kon's later self-directed work, features many conventional anime motifs. Set in deep space and the distant future, the story follows a ragtag salvage crew as they explore a seemingly abandoned starship. A mix of tech-heavy science fiction and haunted house story, Kon's hand can be seen in the emotional portrayal of the hero and the ambiguity of the narrative, which give the characters and the viewers pause to wonder if the old ship is possessed by the spirit of a long-dead opera singer, or something more mundane. Memories is still considered a high watermark of theatrical anime, with "Magnetic Rose" almost universally regarded as its best segment.

The critical praise Kon received for his work on "Magnetic Rose" brought him a steady job at Madhouse, one of Japan's most prolific anime houses, and soon he was at work on his first film as a director. Perfect Blue began life as a live-action adaptation of Takeuchi Yoshikazu's steamy novel, but when funding ran out the project was "downgraded" to animation. The producers approached Madhouse about completing the picture, and Kon was named as the man for the job. Dissatisfied with the original shooting script, Kon agreed to undertake the project provided he could rework it from the ground up.

No one was prepared for what Kon ultimately did with Perfect Blue. What was originally supposed to be a fairly straightforward, tawdry thriller became a densely layered suspense picture that kept the audience guessing at every turn. B-grade pop idol Kirogoe Mima quits her stagnate singing career to become an actress, but the sleazy nature of her role as a stripper on a sexually explicit drama series clashes with her once wholesome idol image. Plagued by her own sense of shame, as well as threatening letters from a mysterious stalker, Mima begins seeing visions of her old, pop-idol self, which claims to be the "real Mima". Soon, staff members on the drama series start showing up dead, and the mentally unsound Mima fears she might well be the murderer. Perfect Blue doesn't merely cast doubt on its heroine's sanity; it calls its entire world into question. Scenes from Mima's "fictional" drama series begin to overlap with "real-world" events, and by the climax of the film Kon has his audience wondering whether Mima is an actress playing a role in a series, or a character in a series herself.

Realizing they had something special, Perfect Blue's distributors gave the made-for-video film a theatrical release in early 1998. Kon soon won attention from critics at home and abroad for his unconventional anime project, which was favorably compared with the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Kon was praised in particular for broadening the horizons of animated film content. A quality psychological murder mystery with innovative storytelling techniques was rare enough in live-action; it was unheard of in anime and unthinkable in Western animation.

When Kon announced his highly anticipated follow-up feature Millennium Actress in 2002, audiences expected a continuation of Perfect Blue's dark style and puzzle-box narration. They were half right. Free to work on a wholly original production, Kon revealed himself to be a rather sentimental filmmaker. Like Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress plays fast and loose with perceived and actual reality, but gone is the madness and murder that characterized Kon's debut film. Instead, Millennium Actress tells the heartfelt tale of a fictional Japanese movie star, Fujiwara Chiyoko, and her lifelong quest to find a mysterious painter who leaves a key to "the greatest treasure there is" in her possession.

Although Chiyoko's story is a simple one, Kon's presentation is anything but. Chiyoko relates her life story to a documentary filmmaker and his cameraman, and they corporally enter into her flashbacks, which are an indeterminate mixture of Chiyoko's biography and the movies she starred in. Her hunt for the painter is recounted in a variety of genres, from Heian-era Kurosawa epics and Tokugawa-period chambara films to wartime propaganda and postwar Ozu domestic dramas. The film is simultaneously Chiyoko's life story, the hundred-year history of Japanese cinema, and a thousand-year history of Japan. Kon makes use of the same cinematic ambiguity that Perfect Blue used so effectively to play a narrative guessing-game with the audience, but this time around it is in the service of a surprisingly gentle, touching story about the quest for happiness.

Kon surprised his fans yet again when his next feature, 2003's Tokyo Godfathers, discarded the mind-bending narrative tactics of his first two films to tell a very straightforward tale of three homeless people who find an abandoned baby in a dumpster on Christmas Eve. Unique among Kon's directorial work thus far, Tokyo Godfathers never asks its audience to question the reality of its world. Even so, Kon Satoshi's fingerprints are all over it. As the three bums embark on a search for the baby's mother, uncanny coincidence piles upon uncanny coincidence, forcing each character to confront their dismal pasts and offering hope for a spiritual rebirth in the coming year. Kon purposefully stretches the credulity of the story to its limit until, like his characters, the viewer begins to suspect that the baby is indeed an angel sent from heaven to redeem the down-on-their-luck trio. In this way Tokyo Godfathers evokes the same sense of wonder as Kon's other films while working in a much more conventional narrative framework. It also confirms that the director of the dark and demented Perfect Blue is, at heart, quite the optimist.

With the release of Tokyo Godfathers, Kon scored three critical hits in a row. However, while many praised the level of sophistication he had brought to animated filmmaking, Kon was also accused of not using the medium to its fullest potential. Critics charged that Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Tokyo Godfathers were essentially live-action films that happened to be animated. Kon dismissed such statements, claiming that he was first and foremost a graphic artist and had no interest in live-action filmmaking. Still, he seems to have taken the criticism to heart, and his subsequent work has made a conscious effort to tell stories that would be impossible to realize in any format except animation.

An animated television series might be considered a step backward for a successful movie director, but for Kon the serial format presented the perfect forum for the many discarded and leftover ideas he had accumulated from working on three feature films. Paranoia Agent (2004) feels like what it is - a collection of half-baked ideas - but under Kon's supervision the series manages to add up to more than the sum of its parts. Each episode features a different protagonist who faces off against "Shonen Bat", a faceless young thug who viciously assaults apparently random victims and who may be a phantom spontaneously generated by a case of mass hysteria. After the sentimentalism of his previous two movies, Paranoia Agent marks Kon's return to the dark side of the human subconscious. The series suffers for its lack of an overriding lead to tie the action together, but Kon compensates by letting the visuals run wild. Unlike his previous features, Paranoia Agent is unabashedly a "cartoon", full of beautiful animated abstractions. Kon would take the graphic lessons learned working on his television series back to the big screen in 2006 with the release of Paprika.

Kon had originally wanted to film an adaptation of Tsutsui Yasutaka's popular sci-fi novel following completion of Perfect Blue, but was reluctant to proceed without the author's personal blessing. Kon's subsequent fame eventually caught Tsuitsui's attention, and production on Kon's fourth feature film began even as work on Paranoia Agent was winding down. In many ways, Paprika represents the culmination of Kon's style to this point. Even more visually eye-popping than Paranoia Agent's surreal imagery, Paprika blends the whimsy and sentimentality of Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers with the psychological menace of Perfect Blue to do what Kon does best - blur the lines between fantasy and reality while telling an emotionally engaging story in the bargain.

Using a machine known as the DC-mini, Dr. Chiba Atsuko is able to enter people's dreams in the form of a young woman known as Paprika. Several DC-Minis go missing from Atsuko's lab, and soon an unknown terrorist begins invading her coworkers' nightmares, trapping them in a mental state halfway between the dream world and reality. It's up to Paprika to try and catch the culprit in dreamland, but she soon makes a horrifying discovery: the victims are sharing a communal nightmare that's threatening to intrude on waking life.

Kon takes full advantage of Paprika's premise to illustrate the free-form dreams and nightmares of his characters. The movie is a sound rebuttal to the critics who claimed Kon wasn't making full use of the animated medium, and a perfect fit for his famous narrative tricks. When are the characters awake, and when are they dreaming? By the time Paprika reaches its dizzying climax, in which the dream world invades the real one, it's all a moot point.

But there's more than just dazzling visuals and storytelling games. Kon's wonderfully human characters and their quirky foibles prove the emotional center of the film. The straight-laced Atsuko often finds her carefree alter-ego telling her to "lighten up", while the naive, idealistic, and painfully overweight inventor of the DC-mini, Tokita, struggles with the idea that his machine could be used for evil. Best of all is Konakawa, a hard-boiled police detective who, Paprika discovers, is really a frustrated movie director at heart.

Konakawa's repressed love of cinema finds expression in his dreams, where he and Paprika perform all sorts of classic-movie-moment recreations. Their meta-cinematic adventures reveal another important theme of Paprika and all of Kon Satoshi's work to date - the power of a good movie to stimulate the imagination. Whether it's Perfect Blue's Mima, so caught up in her TV drama even the viewer can't tell if it's real, Millennium Actress's Chiyoko and her mix of memories and movie roles, or even the Tokyo Godfathers' homeless heroes wryly noting how the uncanny events that follow them around seem to be taken from the script of a Hollywood film, Kon Satoshi's work always comments on the way in which cinema both reflects and shapes today's world. Paprika ends, appropriately enough, at a movie theater, where posters for all of Kon's previous films are on prominent display. Hopefully, Kon will be adding many more posters to that collection in the years to come.

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Published October 15, 2007

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