05 May 2011
The Art of Satoshi Kon
Satoshi Kon was an up and coming young animation producer from Japan. What sets Kon apart from his fellow Japanese anime producers is his method of storytelling and fantastic approach to visual storytelling. The films he made were well known for having a unique way of blending reality and fantasy and rather dark themes (compared to the many slice-of-life animated series popular in Japan).
Kon was born in Kushiro, Hokkaido. He graduated from the Musashino Art University with an emphasis in graphic design. He is sometimes credited as Yoshihiro Wanibuchi in his movies. His interest in creating art started in middle school. His senior classmates were interested in popular anime shows (Mobile Suit Gundam and Space Battleship Yamato) influenced Kon to watch the same shows. They inspired him to become an animator. In college, he finished his first manga called Toriko. It won the runner-up spot in the 10th Annual Tetsuya Chiba Awards. After college he worked on several manga publications and as an animation and layout artist before directing his first movie. He debuted with animated film Perfect Blue. He went on to direct Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paranoia Agent, and Paprika. He was unfortunately diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died on August 24, 2010 before his last movie Dream Machine was scheduled to be released. Dream Machine is scheduled to be released sometime in the year 2011.
Satoshi Kon was a great visual artist and storyteller. As a student studying the visual arts, I was blown away the first time I saw one of Satoshi Kon’s movies. Kon’s films are visually very different from the standard animated film. The first thing you might notice is his use of color. He uses deep, saturated colors to make compelling imagery. The second thing you might notice is how his characters are not the usual stylized characters you see in many Japanese animations. Kon’s characters look a lot like real people. Many people have said that Kon’s work has a “live-action style”. This is probably due to Kon’s earlier influences. During his time in college, he watched many live-action films. He especially loved watching films about reality and fantasy blending together. Some people have asked Kon about his choice in making animated movies rather than live-action. Kon uses a technique called hyper-real to make his movies seem surreal. His response to his decision to make animated movies is “As you say, the hyper-real method of creating reality is an ‘excessive reality.’ This is different from live-action filmmaking. It’s a different kind of reality that challenges us what to emphasize or not emphasize. Each step will create a world beyond what is truly real. Instead of trying to create reality as it is around us, I felt that the surreal world would come out.” (Gray) This method of hyper-realism is a consistent theme in Kon’s movies. His characters and realistic imagery seem almost real until you seem something weird happen on screen. He often chooses to make the viewer second guess at what is “real” in the context of the movie and what is just a “dream”.
Kon toys with the idea of reality and fantasy a lot. In many of his films, he pushes the line between what is considered real and what is fake. He considers them two sides of the same coin, as you can’t have one or the other. This theme of blurred reality and imagination is especially obvious in his movie Paprika. Paprika is based off a novel written by Yasutaka Tsutsui. In the not-so-distant future, a device has been made that allows a person to enter another person’s dreams and explore that person’s unconscious thoughts. The device is meant to be used for a new type of psychotherapy for mental patients. The user views a person’s dreams and is able to better understand that person’s thoughts. Use of these devices is to be restricted by the government. Three prototypes of the devices are stolen and the thieves are causing havoc by messing with people’s dreams. The narrative follows Doctor Atsuko Chiba as she uses her alternate identity, Paprika, to travel through dreams to find the missing devices.
Kon intentionally blurs the line between reality and imagination in Paprika. This is clearly shown by the lack of scene transitions in this movie. He has said in an interview regarding his movie Perfect Blue that he hates the slowness of traditional scene changes. The scene transitions in his movies are instantaneous. For instance, in one scene, we have the head of the psychology department making a speech, running down a hall, and jumping out a window. The very next scene is a brightly colored scene of a marching parade with dolls and confetti. There is nothing that tells the audience whether something is a dream or not. Kon leaves it up to the audience to decide what is real and what is not. The narrative feels fragmented as scenes explaining what is going on with the plot are spliced with dream sequences.
Some critics may feel that the narrative of Paprika is just plain disconcerting rather than an innovative way to tell a story. But the blend of dreams and reality is something Kon does on purpose. He feels that it’s not always necessary to separate real from fake, to pointedly tell the audience what to believe. He says,
What I wrote was that the internet and dreams share the same quality of giving rise to the repressed subconscious. I think in countries like Japan and America and other countries where internet is prevalent, people can anonymously seek or release things they can’t speak of offline, as if there’s a part of the subconscious that’s uncontrollable and comes out on the internet. That is very much like dreams. This may be a very visualistic analogy, but I’ve always thought we drop down into dreams, and when you’re sitting in front of your computer and connect to the internet, you’re also going down into some kind of underworld. I’ve always thought those two images had something in common. I’m not trying to say that dreams and the internet are good or bad, I’m trying to saying that there’s good and bad that cannot be judged in both worlds. Some people say that in the virtual world, different rules exist or try to say that a lot of vicious things happen there, but I don’t think there’s a reason to differentiate the virtual world from reality because reality includes that virtual world. (Gray)
Kon’s movie Paprika is a result of his efforts to get people to think about how we define our realities. This idea reminded me of literary critic Lisa Zunshine and her theory on “mind-reading”. In Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction, she goes over the importance of fiction (she mainly talks about the novel) in our lives. To quote from her book, “As a sustained representation of numerous interacting minds, the novel feeds the powerful, representation-hungry complex of cognitive adaptations whose very condition of being is a constant social stimulation delivered either by direct interactions with other people or by imaginary approximation of such interactions.” (10) In a lot of ways movies are like novels. They are fictional and give us a chance to be involved in fiction. Movies give us a chance to escape reality and use our fuel our need for social interaction (both real and imaginary). Movies like Kon’s Paprika give us an excellent opportunity to actively engage our minds in his fictional world. His movies take place in a world not unlike our own (but always with a slight twist). It is exhilarating to actively watch his movies to try to separate what is supposed to be real and what is not supposed to be real.
Besides reality and fantasy blending together, another strong theme in his movies is human relationships. Tokyo Godfathers is different from Kon’s usual work. There’s no mind-bending reality and fantasy fusing together. It is a tale of the gritty, darkside of Tokyo starring unlikely heroes. In Tokyo Godfathers, we have alcoholic middle-aged man Gin, transvestite Hana, and runaway girl Miyuki playing as the three main protagonists. All three are homeless and live on the streets of Tokyo. On Christmas Eve, they hear crying coming from a large pile of trash. They investigate the noise and find an abandoned baby girl. They decide to temporarily take in the baby and try to find her mother. Kon uses all the characters in this movie to analyze human relationships. The narrative in Tokyo Godfathers is unusual. All of the important parts of the movie are the dialogue and interactions between the characters. Long conversations between characters are broken up by location changes and short action scenes. The audience follows the three protagonists on their journey to find the baby’s mother. A string of coincidences slowly leads the trio to the baby’s mother. Kon connects the lives of the three homeless heroes together as well as the lives of those they meet.
One of the interesting things about the interactions between the characters is that Kon uses conversations to have nonlinear storytelling. The overall story of the movie is the three heroes trying to help the baby find her mother, but there are shorter stories within the larger story pertaining to each character’s past. The main plot of the movie naturally movies forward, but there are frequent flashbacks as opportunities for the main characters to reveal their backstory come up. This goes against well-known Greek philosopher Aristotle’s beliefs. In Aristotle’s Poetics, Aristotle states,
And a whole is that which has a beginning, middle, and end: a beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, but after which it is natural for another thing to be or come to be; an end is the opposite, something that is itself naturally after something else, either necessarily or for the most part, with no other thing naturally after it; and a middle is that which is itself both after something else and has another thing after it. Therefore, well-organized stories must neither begin from wherever they may happen to nor end where they may happen to, but must have the look that has been described.” (30)
This is a rather interesting idea. Most of us would agree that, yes, stories should for the most part have an established beginning, middle, and end pattern. That familiar structure makes it easy for any one person to follow the story’s natural progression. However, this does not mean that the structure is the best for all stories (and other things in life). On the topic of nonlinear storytelling, Kon said, “Speaking of nonlinear storytelling, I don’t think people’s communication between each other relies only on a linear time frame. Even as we speak, for example, we might be thinking of the dinner to come one hour later. The human brain is mysterious; we can’t share the time axis in our memories with other people. I’m interested in trying to visualize those nonlinear ways of thinking in my work.” (Osmond 18) What Kon says is true. We speak to each other in the present but it is natural for us to be thinking about things in the past, present, or future. It would be ridiculous for a person to preface everything they talk about with history. This rings true for Kon’s movies as well. Paprika and Tokyo Godfathers would not work as well on a storytelling level if the stories were told in a completely linear fashion. Paprika would lose its surrealism and Tokyo Godfathers would be boring to watch.
When people talk about animated movies and great producers, most people would not immediately think of Satoshi Kon. Yet, Kon was great at what he did. He was a fantastic artist. He captured the essence of live action film and used it to create movies that offered more than what a camera can record. He mastered the art of tangling reality and fantasy. Besides being visually stunning, Kon’s movies offer a fun mental challenge in unraveling his blurred worlds. Kon strove to challenge traditional conventions of storytelling and how we define reality.
Gray, Jason. “Interview Satoshi Kon Part 2.” Midnight Eye – Visions of Japanese Cinema. 20 November 2006. Web. http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/satoshi_kon2.shtml
Mes, Tom. “Interview Satoshi Kon.” Midnight Eye – Visions of Japanese Cinema. 11 February 2006. Web. http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/satoshi_kon.shtml
Osmond, Andrew. Satoshi Kon – The Illusionist. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2009. Print.
Sachs, Joe. Aristotle Poetics. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2006. Print.
Zunshine, Lisa. Why We Read Fiction- The Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University, 2006. Print.
Just some examples of his work: