Satoshi Kon: 1963-2010
On Tuesday, August 24, renowned anime director Satoshi Kon passed away from pancreatic cancer at the young age of 46. Along with films like Katsuhiro Otomo’s AKIRA (1988) and Mamorou Oshi’s GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995), Kon’s films such as PERFECT BLUE (1997) and PAPRIKA (2006) helped popularize mature-themed Japanese animation in the United States by showing the West that animated films didn’t have to be for children. Kon’s films were often subversive, complex, and surreal examinations of the human condition. He would prove to be an influence on filmmakers the world over such as Guillermo del Toro (PAN’S LABYRINTH, HELLBOY), Christopher Nolan, (INCEPTION, THE DARK KNIGHT), and Darren Aronofsky (THE WRESTLER, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM).
Born Oct. 12, 1963, in Hokkaido, Kon attended the Musashino Art University and studied Visual Communication Design. While at the University, he got his start by writing, drawing and editing manga for Kodansha’s Young Magazine. Kon soon received attention for his detailed artwork and innovative layouts on manga such as Kaikisen (Regression Line). While at Young he met Katsuhiro Otomo, and the two collaborated on World Apartment Horror. Moving into animation, Kon created background art for ROUJIN Z (Roujin Zetto, 1991); layouts for RUN, MEROS (Hashire Meros, 1992); and backgrounds and layouts for PATLABOR 2 (1993). He also wrote the screenplay and provided backgrounds and layouts for MAGNETIC ROSE (Kanojo no Omoide), a segment in Otomo’s anthology film MEMORIES (1995).
1998 saw the release of Kon’s first full-length film, the critically acclaimed mind bender, PERFECT BLUE (Paafekuto Buruu). Written by Kon and Sadayuki Murai (COWBOY BEBOP, STEAMBOY, ULTRASEVEN X), PERFECT BLUE was the story of a J-pop singer who quits her singing career to become an actress. As her new career proceeds, a displeased fan stalks her, all while reflections of her past catch up with her, causing the lines of reality and fantasy to blur. The movie was a neo-noir with a surreal atmosphere. It has been compared to the films of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch. It would become one of the most critically acclaimed anime films of the 1990s and is the film that put Kon on the map. It is rumored that director and fan Darren Aronofsky bought the rights for PERFECT BLUE so he could make a live action version of one of its scenes for his film REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000).
Kon followed up PERFECT BLUE with the film MILLENIUM ACTRESS (Sennen Joyuu) in 2001. Like PERFECT BLUE, it is the story of a female celebrity, told in a way that blurs reality. The film is a surreal “play within a play” type story. MILLENIUM ACTRESS would be another success for Kon. The film tied with Hayao Miyazaki’s SPIRITED AWAY at the Grand Prize in the Japan Agency of Cultural Affairs Media Arts Festival, and would receive the Best Animation Film and Fantasia Ground-Breaker awards at the 2001 Fantasia Film Festival.
After MILLENIUM ACTRESS, Kon decided to take on a more straightforward story with the adventure-comedy TOKYO GODFATHERS (Tokyo Goddofaazaazu, 2003). With a screenplay by Kon and Keiko Nobumoto (creator of WOLF’S RAIN and head screenwriter for COWBOY BEBOP), the film would be Kon’s first (and only) film to not deal with blending reality with dreams and fantasy. Loosely based on John Ford’s THREE GODFATHERS (1948), it told a more simple story about a group of homeless people find an abandoned baby and try to get it back to the parents, and the adventures they go on along the way. TOKYO GODFATHERS was another critically praised film for Satoshi Kon; it won the Excellence Prize at the Japan Media Arts Festival and was nominated for a Best Animated Film Oscar at 2003 Academy Awards.
Satoshi Kon would next delve into the medium of television with the mini-series PARANOIA AGENT (Mousou Dairinin) in 2004. The series ran on the Japanese WOWOW network from February 2 until May 18 with 13 episodes. It was run on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim in 2005. PARANOIA AGENT centered around a young assailant named Bat Boy (or Lil Slugger in the US version). Each episode would end with someone being assaulted by Bat Boy. As the series went on and introduced more characters, we learned more about this strange character.
Kon got the idea for PARANOIA AGENT when he had a few unused ideas from his previous films and felt the best way to explore them would be in the form of a television series. At one point, acclaimed J-horror director Takashi Shimizu (THE GRUDGE, MAREBITO) was planning a film adaptation of the series.
In 2006, Kon would strike gold again with the critically praised PAPRIKA (Papurika). This science fiction story followed a therapist who treats her patients inside their own dreams. When a device that allows people to enter and record dreams is stolen for illegal activities, the therapist (as her dream world alter ego “Paprika”) tries to get it back and stop the madness that will ensue.
PAPRIKA saw a return to Kon’s surreal, dreamy style of storytelling. The film would be a massive critical success in the United States. Its been said that PAPRIKA was one of Christopher Nolan’s influences when he was working on his film INCEPTION, which was released earlier this summer. Director Wolfgang Peterson (DAS BOOT, THE NEVERENDING STORY, TROY) is apparently working on a live action version of the film.
Kon also directed the one minute long OHAYOU (Good Morning) for ANI*KURI15, a series of experimental animated shorts that aired on the Japanese station NHK in 2007-08.
At the time of Satosi Kon’s death, he was working on his fifth film, THE DREAM MACHINE (Yume Miru Kikai) for Madhouse, the animation studio that had produced all his feature films. It was to be his first film made directly for children and featuring non-human lead characters. In a 2008 interview with Anime News Network, Kon described it as a fantasy-adventure road movie about robots.
This past May, Kon was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Aware that time was short, Kon penned a heart-wrenching yet life-affirming farewell message to his friends and fans, which was posted yesterday on his blog by family members. He thanked everyone for they’re support and revealed his emotional reaction when Madhouse founder Masao Maruyama assured him that THE DREAM MACHINE would be completed. “With my heart full of gratitude for everything good in the world, I’ll put down my pen,” he concluded. “Now excuse me, I have to go.”
With the death of Satoshi Kon, we have lost a genuinely original and great filmmaker. He will be greatly missed by movie lovers the world over.
For a complete transcript of Satoshi Kon’s final message (translated from Japanese), please visit makikoitoh.com.