Satoshi Kon can always be counted on to make you question if you are in one reality or another or in reality at all. And sometimes it might be better that way, it makes for an interesting ride.
Satoshi Kon was born in 1963 and spent his time developing his skills, culminating in his graduation from Musashino University and starting as a writer and manga artist and eventually working his way up into directing his own movies and TV shows, of which I am very much a fan.
Sadly, he died prematurely in 2010 of pancreatic cancer, right as he began to work on his next movie, Dreaming Machine, which has been put on hold indefinitely. Nonetheless, his works left an indelible footprint on the anime scene and continue to amaze and inspire.
A Thin Line Separates Dreams and Reality in Satoshi Kon’s Movies
A common thread woven throughout Satoshi Kon’s movies and TV shows is stepping – sometimes falling – in and out of reality and questioning if we’re dreaming or awake, transcending the limits of sleep and death in certain cases.
The mass collective is often explored, such as in Paranoia Agent, a Satoshi Kon-directed TV show about a small lie that grows into something bigger over time, making the viewer question if the incident in question ever happened.
This underlying theme is not too far away even the lighter of his films, such as Tokyo Godfather. The focus is more on the mundane than the fantastic and highlights the plight of people on the outskirts – societal underdogs, outcasts, people who have been denied by their families for one reason or another.
A Brief Breakdown of Satoshi Kon’s Movies and TV Shows
Perfect Blue (1997)
A slow-burn psychological thriller, Perfect Blue follows an idol-turned-actress as she progresses in her career.
Slowly but surely, lines begin to blur on and off camera, until the protagonist isn’t sure what’s real anymore. A creeping feeling that her memories are less reliable than they appear begins to overtake her life as she realizes she may not be alone on stage or in the privacy of her own home. The imagery itself is not especially freaky, but plays tricks on the mind of the viewer and protagonist all the same.
Millennium Actress (2001)
Similar to Perfect Blue, the movie’s focus is on a young actress. Bedridden, retired, and in the twilight of her life, she guides us and her interviewer through a visually captivating journey that blends time periods in her life.
She chases after the shadowy figure of a kind man who gave her a key from her teen years, seeking to draw him to her with every role she portrays as we follow her into show business.
The events of the movie are very closely tied with the Sino-Japanese War, grounding the film in some kind of reality even as we glide through time.
The movie’s focus on chasing an image can feel very dreamlike, especially if you’ve ever had the kind of dream where you frantically search for something and try to find it before awakening.
Though she doesn’t exactly find what she’s looking for, she reveals that she found pleasure in the chase itself. Aren’t dreams to be enjoyed, after all?
Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
A film more grounded in reality, Tokyo Godfathers follows three outcasts living on the Tokyo streets.
Miyuki, a teenage runaway, Hana, a transgender woman ousted from her home after the death of her lover, and Gin, a gambling addict and former bicycle shop owner with an estranged daughter, find themselves united in a mission to return a baby they found cast aside in the garbage to its parents.
The film focuses on the plight of people on the outskirts – sexual minorities, the homeless, immigrants, and those struggling to find a place in the world in general. It’s also unflinching in its portrayal of heavy issues like suicide, family issues, grief, and how society treats its undesirables.
Thankfully there’s a heaping dose of black comedy throughout to even things out, and a happy ending.
Speaking of which, the movie is slated for a 2020 Blu-Ray release, so maybe carve out some time during Christmas season to watch it for extra warm fuzzy feelings.
Paranoia Agent (2004)
A young animator under a tremendous deadline and a tightening spotlight on her is suddenly given a break – literally.
A boy in skates wielding a baseball bat (dubbed Lil Slugger) assaults her, resulting in her being able to step away from the spotlight. Two detectives highly question the validity of her claim, until they hear other reports of Lil Slugger assaulting people in the same way.
We make our way through a large cast of seemingly unrelated characters, whose stories all intertwine and reveal some ugly truths and tendencies through the human trait of gossip and collective judgment and abdication of responsibility.
Similar to Tokyo Godfathers, the TV show does not shy away from heavy issues – there’s even an entire episode devoted to three people trying to commit suicide – and really takes the manifestation of a tall tale to its literal extreme. As with most Satoshi Kon works, the blurring together of reality and fantasy is reflected in the warping of the environment.
In Satoshi Kon’s final movie, Paprika is the culmination of all the reality blending themes in his former movies, and centers the plot on dreams themselves. The ones we have at night and those that follow us throughout our waking lives.
An internal employee makes off with one of two DC minis – a machine that can record dreams for playback, and allows a second party to enter another’s dream and help them make sense of it.
Straightlaced, no-nonsense Dr. Atsuko Chiba provides these services anonymously via her dream avatar Paprika – a vibrant, quirky and enigmatic girl who transforms and blends right along with the ever-shifting dream scenery.
As she investigates with the inventor of the psychotherapy machines, they discover the theft has led to the creation of a manic, carnivorous dream parade that swallows everything in its path.
It’s worth noting that Chiba/Paprika is voiced by the talented and versatile Megumi Hayashibara, who also provided the voice of another famously double-sided character, Ranma.
Susumu Hirasawa Spun Worlds of Confusion With Kon
Susumu Hirasawa was a frequent collaborator with Satoshi Kon.
Known for his work on Berserk, Hirasawa often provided just the right tone of dissonant serenity to the soundtracks of a lot of his movies and TV shows, including Paprika, Millennium Actress and Paranoia Agent.
An exemplary track is Parade from the 2006 hit Paprika, whose superficially joyous atmosphere is offset by an almost insistent cheeriness with an undercurrent of unease and anxiety.
The lyrics are a post-modern slush of seemingly meaningless phrases selected at random, perfectly replicating the effect of a carnivorous dream parade senselessly chewing through the fabric of reality itself.
Influences and the Future of Satoshi Kon’s OPUS
Satoshi Kon’s love of sci-fi and penchant for blending the mundane and the fantastic can be attributed to his admiration for many works and authors, including Yasutaka Tsutsui, the author of the novel that inspired Paprika and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Kon even brought him on to voice a minor character in the movie.
Of course, this penchant arguably all began in one of his lesser-known works, a short-lived manga called Opus. The manga ran for just a year, 1995-1996, before being canceled by the publisher.
In it, the author finds himself sucked into the world of the very characters he’s created, and has to find ways to help solve their problems alongside them. Short-lived as it was, it seemed to be the springboard for his directorial debut – he released Perfect Blue the very next year.
Back in 2017, there were rumors of an anime adaptation with long-time musical composer and collaborator Susumu Hirasawa, though whether we’ll see it come to fruition remains yet to be seen.
If you’ve never seen a Satoshi Kon movie or TV show, the time is now. These works have high rewatch value and visual and intellectual appeal that fosters interesting discussion no matter how many times you’ve seen them.