Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Late, Great Satoshi Kon

So, I was stunned last Friday when reading a sidebar in an article in an anime magazine to see a passing reference to PAPRIKA, my favorite animated film, as "the last film of the late Satoshi Kon".

A quick check proved it was all too true: last spring Kon was strikened with pancreatic cancer and, unlike those who maintain a public presence throughout their final illness (like Warren Zevon, who recorded a heart-breaking version of "Knocking on Heaven's Door" shortly before he died), seems to have gone home to quietly live out his final days, dying just three months later.

Here's how Lord Dunsany described a similar loss of a genius, much appreciated by those who knew his work but virtually unknown to the public at large:

We have lost, in a time of losses, when loss is nothing out of the ordinary,
a genius whose stupendous imagination has passed across our time
little more noticed by most people than the shadow
of a bird passing over a lawn would be noticed
by most of a tennis-party.

—Ld Dunsany, "S. H. Sime" [1942], THE GHOSTS OF THE HEAVISIDE LAYER

As for Satoshi Kon's work, there's surprisingly little of it: just four movies and one short (thirteen-episode) tv series.

First off, there's PERFECT BLUE, the fascinating and disturbing story of a pop singer trying to become a serious actress while coping with a seriously scary stalker. What makes this film really disturbing aren't the violent scenes (though these mean it's definitely R-rated) but its being told from the point of view of three people, all of whom are going mad -- so that sometimes we see scenes that don't actually take place. Similarly, scenes that only take place in the film the actress is making are presented just like the ones in her real life. This one deserves the sobriquet "Hitchcockian" more than any other non-Hitchcock film I've ever seen: Brilliant but disturbing.

By contrast, MILLENNIUM ACTRESS [2001] is a much less sinister affair. It uses the frame story of two men going to interview a famous actress to weave two threads together: her life story (particularly her lifelong search for the artist she fell in love with as a teen) and the roles she played, with the documentarians getting caught up in the story (literally, as in appearing in the scenes as they're witnessing). Very much a filmmaker's tribute to favorite films: everything from samurai epics to her last film, which looks a lot like 2001: A Space Odyssey.

TOKYO GODFATHERS [2003], the only one of his films I don't have a copy of, is (surprisingly enough) downright heart-warming: the story of three homeless people (an old drunk, a transvestite, and a teenage runaway) who find an abandoned baby they have to take care of. It's like having all the events of Chaplin's THE KID condensed into one hectic day in snowy Tokyo, and is remarkable for ending in a totally appropriate miracle.

With PARANOIA AGENT [2004], we're back in disturbing/creepy territory, from its far-too-cheerful opening music (with pictures of the character laughing as they stand in front of nuclear explosions and tsunamis) to the lessons of people getting what they asked for, not what they wanted. Things get progressively more surreal episode after episode, but my two favorite moments are (1) the episode featuring three people who've made a suicide pact (two of whom conspire throughout to save the third) who are stymied time and again by other peoples' deaths everywhere they go,* and (2) the opening scene in which an old man who looks like an absent-minded professor is writing a complicated mathematical formula on the sidewalk in chalk: he ends by drawing an equal sign, and then looks up in wonder at the realization of the solution.

And then, finally, there's PAPRIKA [2006], the latest and greatest of the lot. I've written about this one before; suffice it to say that it's weird, and fascinating, and scary, and funny, and wholly absorbing.

It's a shock to think there'll be no more of these -- given that Kon was five years younger than I am, I expected he'd be producing masterpieces far into the future. For lifetime achievement, I'd rank him second only to Hayao Miyazaki (who's in a class by himself -- but then, so was Satoshi Kon). Apparently he was working on one more movie when he died, THE DREAM MACHINE, which has been described as a sort of road movie for robots, intended for a somewhat younger audience than most of his works. The people working on it with him have decided to go ahead and finish it.

I'll be waiting to see it -- but with that strange reluctance that sometimes prevents me from reading the only-book-I've-never-read by a favorite author, knowing that after this there's no more.

--John R.
current reading: OSSIAN REVISITED, ed. Howard Gaskill [1991]
current audiobook: THE SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER by Kate SUmmerscale [2008]

*think 'somedays you just can't get rid of a bomb'

No comments: