Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Directors: Satoshi Kon

I am starting a new series on this blog. I take a look at the work of various film directors. I am interested in different sort of filmmaking from time to time. So the only limit is that I have to have seen all of the feature films each director has directed (not necessarily if he's done only episodes, produced, wrote, etc.) For current directors, I do a SWOT analysis. For those that have passed away, a necrology. I will rank all their fims together with a rate average. Thus, we can eventually learn, who is or was the greatest director of all time.

The first one in this series shall be the anime maestro Satoshi Kon, who sadly passed away earlier this year. I was appointed to write a necrology about him at Helsinki International Film Festival, which was when I noticed I actually hadn't seen any of his films! Kon had the chance to only direct four feature films before his untimely death, aged 46. He was a maestro of anime films which all had modern characters caught in illusions and false conceptions, and usually also some sort of merger of reality and fantasy. The topic itself may not seem that special, but Kon's unforgettable style was something never seen before. The strongly visual, sometimes also frightening, stories mixed dreams, illusions and reality very colourfully and vividly. Kon's style has influenced numerous other directors, including Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan. The viewers of Kon's films could never be sure themselves, what was real and what fantasy which made the films intriguing yet sometimes difficult to follow.

At the time if Kon's death he was working directing the film Yumemiko kikai (The Dreaming Machine). The fate of the film remains uncertain. So powerful was Kon's vivid imagination that no one else seems quite sure what he was looking for in the finished film. Let's hope the film shall be finished and take a look at the four other ones left behind.

Perfect Blue (Pâfekuto burû, 1998)

Kon directed perhaps his best film as his debut feature length. Perfect Blue is a story about an ex-pop star who leaves her old career and attempts to switch to an acting career. However, a stalking fan is not too pleased with this decision. The popster soon finds not only her life is in danger, but also that her grip of reality is shaking and she doesn't know what is real and what fantasy any more.

Perfect Blue is a film about the collective pop culture experience, which can drive people to madness, if they get too obsessively tangled to it. A celebrity is felt to be public property and feels like a traitor when she decides to do something else than expected. For the celebrity herself this is not an easy decision, as it's hard to know what people actually want from her and whether she is just being exploited. The Hitchcockian layers of psychological damage and sexual subconscious run through the film elegantly and the slowly decending madness is worthy of Polanski. The film actually mostly resmbles a certain Brian DePalma film, which I'm not going to spoil. The only downside is the main character with her basic anime looks and squaky voice. I would've wished a deeper characterization, a treat which is troublingly rare in Kon's filmography.


Millennium Actress (Sennen joyû, 2001)

A couple of reporters arrive to a legendary japanese actress's house to do an interview about her life. They soon find that her story comes to life with them as minor characters in it as well. Moreover, the actress's story doesn't so much follow the times than it follows the trends in japanese cinema over the decades. Thus war times can turn into feudal countrysides where samurai roam, or a rocket launchpad. Godzilla cameos.

Unfortunately, even though I love the film's premise, I find this to be Kon's worst film. Kon hasn't been that good in creating multidimensional female characters in any of his films. Even though his women are strong when they need them to be they usually have about as much charisma as any stock anime girls. Whereas Perfect Blue is driven by other things besides the main character's psyche as well (such as the pop-culture obesessed japanese mentality, not to mention murders and such), Millennium Actress lies solely on the shoulders of its central love story. Which is bland. Although it might be that Kon just tried to copy the most basic love story from the cinema history as well. It still doesn't make this film more than a wasted opportunity.

★★ 1/2

Tokyo Godfathers (Tōkyō Goddofāzāzu, 2003)

Tokyo Godfathers was the reason I wanted to time this necrology around Christmas. It is a Christmas fable about the good will toward men. Three homeless drifters find a dumpster baby and bicker among themselves on what to do with it. They intend to return the baby to its parents, but the method causes a lot of trouble and for all of them to come to terms with their past.

The characterization of main characters, which usually was Kon's main fault, works actually very fine here. The film stars an ageing transvestite, an old boozehound and a young girl who has run from home. Each of these characters is portrayed multi-dimensionally and interestingly. The filmitself also bears little similarities to Kon's other, more fantastical work. Tokyo Godfathers is firmly rooted to real world, and could've easily been shot as a live-action film as well. But then we would miss all of Kon's fantastic art from the caharacter's very expressive faces to the city-scape of Tokyo, which is almost a main character in itself. The film brings to mind Lee Man-hui's The Road to Sampo in that it is about a trio of drifters who learn a lot about life while striwing for their destination. The humour is a little too goofy and the film has a little too many happy coincidences, but this is welcome change to the same old holiday fims you see every year.


Paprika (Papurika, 2006)

Paprika was the last film Kon finished before he died. It's also his biggest epic, so lushingly full of imagination, detail and luscious visuals that most other animated films pale by comparison. It is also probably the hardest of Kon's films to follow. Reality, dream, subconscious, ego, id, superego, avatars and culture begin to blend in surprising and surrealistic ways that has to be seen to be believed. The plot features therapists on a dangerous trip through different patient's dreams to pursue stolen technolgy, which could cause huge harm in the wrong hands.

Like Inception after it, Paprika takes us inside other people's dreams. However, Paprika follows more closely the logic within dreams. Thus, surreal images are common, things can morph, appear suddenly or act strangely. It is very hard to describe the film any further, but I'd surely like to watch this film a couple more times before I can make a proper judgement on its themes. As it is it's still a stunningly fine-looking film, probably the most eye-catching and visually beautiful anime film I've ever seen. It is worth to watch because of that alone. And it's a must-see for anyone respecting Kon's career as it works very fine as a swan-song to a maestro who pushed the borders of his medium multiple times. That is, until they finish his work on The Dreaming Machine.


Satoshi Kon's score: 3,25

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