Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Remembering Satoshi Kon - Conclusion

"Part of me thinks I should retire or die peacefully now. It would be better for my reputation." - Satoshi Kon, 2008

It was a joke when he first said it, but unfortunately it became prophecy.

Paprika, the director's final film, is charmingly familiar to those who have followed his work. Once again, we have reality and fantasy colliding, a heroine with a split personality, and a thundering score from Susumu Hirasawa. It was originally a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, a writer who Kon cites as one of his heroes. As fate would have it, when Tsutsui saw Millennium Actress, he was so impressed that he decided Kon was the director who could bring the story to the screen. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the nonsensical, rapidly changing landscape of dreams was perfect fodder for this particular director.

The title character is a cheery, resourceful woman who participates in the dreams of others to help with their mental issues. She is the alter ego of the tightly-wound Dr. Atsuko Chiba, and the technology is possible thanks to the DC Mini, a scientific breakthrough conceived by the childlike, morbidly obese Dr. Tokita. The technology is not yet widely known, but those who participated in its creation have differing views. For Dr. Chiba, it represents a potential breakthrough in the realm of psychotherapy. For the sinister Chairman Inui, it is an invasion of the last truly private element of human life.

Not long after the movie's virtuoso opening sequence, the technology is stolen and proves to be much more powerful than any of the characters could have foreseen. Dreams begin to merge with reality, and well...things get really weird.

Really weird. The insane finale to this film will make you think someone slipped a hallucinogen into your most recent meal. The entire movie is a showcase for one incredible image after another. I don't have enough superlatives for the quality of the animation here, it has to be seen to be believed. If there's anything lacking about Paprika, it's that while it is a very satisfying experience to watch, it doesn't provide the emotional undercurrent that Kon's other work has. Still, after the bleakness of Paranoia Agent, he clearly was shooting for something more light-hearted (though no less complex!)

Unfortunately, that brings us to the end of this little journey. Kon's sudden death means that Paprika would be the last piece of genius we would get to enjoy from this one of a kind talent. Apparently, he was planning to continue with the themes he explored here. His next film was intended to be called The Dream Machine, and the director described it as a "road movie with robots." The very last scene of Paprika features grizzled cop Konakawa going to see a film called Dreaming Kids. The name may have been altered, but I'm guessing that was a clue to what we were meant to see next. I'm not aware of how far along the movie was, but even if they were to finish it, it won't be the same without Kon to oversee it. Can't help but envy Konakawa now.

If it's not clear enough after all this, I found all of this man's work to be brilliant and truly inspiring. I can't have been the only one. I wonder how many in the business have seen Kon's movies and walked away with the same inspiration. The idea of implanting dreams into others, the focus of Christopher Nolan's Inception, is a little similar to Paprika. I also remember noticing how Hayao Miyazaki animated his heroine, Sophie, in Howl's Moving Castle. Sophie fluidly morphed from young to old to young with gray hair, like the many personas of Chiyoko Fujiawara in Millennium Actress.

If you want at least one concrete example, there's this:On the left is Perfect Blue, on the right is Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream. The director revealed that he indeed sought Kon's permission to copy the "bathtub scream" scene shot for shot. You know what they say about imitation and flattery.

The prospect of no future Kon films or anime shows is a sad one. I suppose I can only hope that Kon's quote holds true, that his untimely death brings about at least a little more attention to his work...and that one day, he will be widely respected by animation enthusiasts as one of the greats.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Remembering Satoshi Kon, Part 4

There's a large chunk of the anime audience that more or less ignores the theatrical films and focuses on the television shows. When Satoshi Kon followed up his three films with a 13-episode series, Paranoia Agent, I suspected it would bring much more attention to the director. I also remember thinking, "These people don't know what they're in for." I didn't really know what I was in for, either.

After the classy Millennium Actress and the lighthearted Tokyo Godfathers, it took the first episode of the show to remind me just how dark and intense the director could be. Like all of the man's work, Paranoia Agent is truly excellent. With six-plus hours of content to work with, Kon and his crew weren't afraid to get really ambitious, in both form and content. It's the sharpest example of his social commentary, and the animation is worthy of a feature film. You won't find any of that cost-cutting laziness that made every Dragon Ball Z story arc about 15 episodes longer than it needed to be.

Tokyo residents are being attacked by a mysterious young phantom known as Shonen Bat, who wields a baseball bat and chases down his victims on roller skates. Two investigators, who have a Mulder/Scully-esque relationship pitting realism against possibility, struggle to connect the various incidents and their stange connection to Maromi, a garish pink dog who stars in the latest cartoon hit. Eventually, the public takes notice of the media attention and sympathy given to Shonen Bat's victims and starts to envy them.

The series takes on an anthology format, using individual episodes to focus on one character at a time. The mystery of Shonen Bat is more or less the only element tying these tales together. Kon and his crew use this to try out all sorts of ideas, with mixed results. "Happy Family Planning," about three suicide-obsessed outcasts (including a little girl!) who meet on the internet to plan their demise, is a small masterpiece on its own. This is the blackest of black comedy, with a brilliant final twist that seems simple but may not be. Kon has never been simple, after all. On the other hand, "The Holy Warrior" is a parody of corny fantasy anime that winds up being almost as dull. Not every episode works, but the majority of them do. "Double Lips" is an interesting remix of the Perfect Blue story, and an incompetent animator's road trip in "Mellow Maromi" appears to be in real time.

The overall message of the show relies heavily on metaphor and can be quite confusing. In fact, the final scene of the last episode features a narrator actually advising the viewer to watch it again...which definitely helps. My sense is that Kon feels that most people in contemporary society are no longer equipped to deal with the suffering that is an inescapable part of life. They would rather cultivate a sense of victimhood, or escape reality altogether via insipid obsessions with cute characters. It's no surprise that Maromi winds up being the origin of the Shonen Bat phenomenon - he represents all that Kon finds obnoxious and unfortunate about his home country.

It's all very abstract, but the last few episodes really tug on the heartstrings. In one truly epic confrontation, the frail, sickly Misae Ikari renders Shonen Bat powerless simply by facing her darkest moments and openly talking about them. The final revelations revolve around the shy Tsukiko, who was responsible for the death of her puppy, Maromi, when she accidentally dropped his leash near a busy road. Unable to cope with her mistake, she invented Shonen Bat as someone she could pin the blame on when she had to explain the incident to her father. In the gut-wrenching finale (animal lovers beware, I speak from experience), she faces her failure and apologizes to the broken, bloodied little dog. This halts the epidemic in Tokyo, but nobody else learns anything. It's back to business as usual.

There's a lot of stuff out there that's weird and confusing. But not everyone can deliver that type of entertainment while also providing a fulfilling emotional experience. Kon did it, time and time again, and that's one of the major talents that made him great.

Next, we bring this series to its sad conclusion with Kon's final film, Paprika.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Remembering Satoshi Kon, Part 3

Now for something completely different.

Satoshi Kon's first two films were challenging, compelling works of art. Tokyo Godfathers is not quite that, but I still loved it for its memorable cast of characters and big heart. An oddly spiritual fable about a trio of homeless people who find an abandoned baby, this one will sneak up on you. Visually, with its gorgeous snow-covered cityscapes, it is as beautiful as any other Kon film. This time, however, the director set aside his typical themes and aimed for a more human and less abstract story.

The director's gift for realistic character designs serve the movie very well. There are a lot of priceless facial expressions in Tokyo Godfathers, most of them belonging to the scruffy, hard-drinking Gin. Then there's Hana, a melodramatic transvestite who doesn't bother to alter the pitch of his deep voice despite being dressed in women's clothing. The two of them have a contentious, quasi-marital relationship, and their "daughter" is Miyuki, a sullen teenage runaway. The three of them trade vicious (but hilarious) insults that would not be out of place in a 1990s family sitcom...though I guess you wouldn't have anyone shouting "Eat shit, you old fart!" on "Family Matters."

The three search the back-alleys of Tokyo to solve the mystery behind "Kiyoko's" abandonment, which are odd circumstances indeed. It's amazing how much coincidence drives the plot, to the point where it becomes humorous. It's fully intentional - Kiyoko is a harbinger of old-fashioned Christmas miracles, as the cosmic powers that be take pity upon those who have been shunned by society. This film is really funny, but Kon is not just interested in making you laugh. There is an emotional undercurrent that bubbles underneath the surface the entire time, bursting forth a few times along the way. Not many directors could make you choke up at the sight of a girl alone in a phone booth (makes sense in context).

Despite Gin's protests that "we're homeless bums, not action movie heroes!" there's a lot of excitement in the movie's epic finale. This scene brilliantly walks a tightrope between laughs and tears, and is likely to provide both in equal measure. Hana's jaw-dropping act of heroism, in particular, is as hilarious as it is moving.

In the end, I'm glad Kon stepped so far out of his comfort zone. It's a testament to his wide-ranging talent that this film, easily the odd one out in his body of work, is as excellent as it is. Plus, I'm glad there's at least one film of his I can show to a "average movie watcher." Let's face it, for a lot of people, Millennium Actress is too baffling and Perfect Blue is too damn frightening.

Speaking of fright, next time we go down the rabbit hole with Kon's miniseries, Paranoia Agent.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Remembering Satoshi Kon, Part 2

Any time I think about Millennium Actress, it always comes back to that scene. I'm not sure which of Satoshi Kon's films is the best, but the most amazing single scene he ever created is in his second feature.

But we'll get to that soon enough. A few years after Perfect Blue, Kon returned with a film that touched on many of the same themes - fame, the blurred line between life and art, and fandom. Of course, it was far less disturbing this time around. Instead of the psychotic MeMania, we have Genya Tachibana, a much more benevolent take on the obsessive fan. His passion winds up being justified, since we learned he actually met the title character in his younger years as a production assistant. The "actress" of the film's name is the elderly Chiyoko Fujiawara, a character supposedly based on Setsuko Hara. The bulk of the film is Chiyoko sharing her life and filmography. However, this is a Satoshi Kon film, and it doesn't take long for the memories and the movies to start blending together to kaleidoscopic effect. The director throws the audience a bone with the character of Kyoji, a young cameraman who functions as a surrogate for the viewer and doesn't hide his confusion. "When did this turn into a movie?!" he exclaims at one point.

The numerous roles played by Chiyoko during the film include an astronaut, a geisha, a teacher, a war prisoner, a warrior, and a scientist working to defeat Godzilla. Some specific scenes pay tribute to live-action legends like Kurosawa or Ozu, and the various settings of Chiyoko's films encompass many major periods of Japanese history. The movie is almost a salute to Japan's history and iconography, which can be surprising given the spanking Kon gave to elements of Japanese society in Perfect Blue.

For the greater part of her life, Chiyoko obsessively pursued a mysterious painter she met by chance in her younger days. She continues on for years despite how baffled everyone else in her life is by this, and it culminates in that scene. As a middle-aged Chiyoko makes one last mad dash for the mountains of Hokkaido, we see all of her incarnations rushing through rain, snow and other obstacles, all of them seamlessly integrated. She collapses from exhaustion, but hears the painter's voice in her head and wills herself back to her feet for one last trudge. This sequence is a moment of transcendent beauty and overwhelming emotion. I honestly had never seen anything like it, and when it was over, I didn't know whether to weep or stand out of my chair and applaud.

Part of the reason this scene (and the whole film) is so powerful is the bombastic, beautiful score by Susumu Hirasawa. An innovative composer whose style is instantly recognizable, Hirasawa would become a frequent collaborator of Kon. The score for Millennium Actress may be his finest work, it perfectly compliments the images and it's hard to imagine the movie working so well without it.

The natural instinct as a viewer, especially a viewer who would like to speak conpetently about the movies he watches, is to try and figure out which scenes are from Chiyoko's "real" life and which are from her movie life. Kon's style makes this virtually impossible, and he likes it that way. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. Chiyoko's recollections blend them all into one story of yearning and perseverance.

This is a film that rewards multiple viewings. The first time around, I was focused on the lush visuals and Kon's brilliant scene transitions and editing. The second time, I really felt the emotion. It honestly gets better each time I see it. Kon's films are often compared to live action, and I guess this one could have been if the producers didn't mind spending a huge amount of money creating all the "sets" of Chiyoko's career. As it stands, Millennium Actress is another Kon masterpiece that raises the bar for animation not just in visual dexterity, but also in emotional depth. Next up - the funny, poignant Tokyo Godfathers.