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Five Years On: Satoshi Kon Remembered

On August 24th 2010, the world of animation lost one of it's brightest lights, when Satoshi Kon passed away at the age of 46. There was only a short time between his diagnosis and his death,  but he had time to pen a heartbreaking farewell to fans before he left us. Of course, it's always tragic when somebody goes well before their time, but for fans of animation- and just fans of quality cinema- it was a double blow, as they mourned not only the man himself, but the future works we'll now never see.

At the time of his death, Kon had been working on The Dream Machine, which was set to be his fifth feature. Something of a departure for the director, it was going to be a family-friendly story, with a cast entirely made of robots- and not a human in sight. Studio Madhouse intended to complete the film as a tribute to Kon and his work, using notes and recordings left behind. Sadly though, due to financial difficulties at the studio, the production was halted in 2011. Although never officially canceled, it now seems extremely unlikely the film will ever see the light of day.

Even if his final film is never completed, Kon had a remarkable body of work. He directed four features, and one TV series, all of which are must-sees. His films attracted acclaim from critics all over the world, and from such diverse fellow film-makers such as Darren Aronofsky and Dean DeBlois. He made truly adult films, in the truest sense of the word, with genuinely mature themes as well as gorgeous visuals.

Kon was one of the few anime directors who's films crossed over beyond anime and animation fans, to film aficionados and festivals across the world. Yet his work couldn't be more different from that of Hayao Miyazaki, one of the few other anime directors to have such cross-over appeal.

As evidence of this, most of Kon's films have been released in the west not by specialist anime companies but major distributors. Paprika and Tokyo Godfathers are available via Sony, while Millennium Actress was released by DreamWork's short-lived world cinema label Go Fish.

It was telling that a lot of Kon's chief influences were not other anime- or animated at all, but that he had a deep love of cinema itself. Sometimes it's been said that his films often deal with content that could have been done in live-action. So, while some may ask why they were animated at all, we could also ask why should animation be limited to only telling certain types of story? Sometimes it's refreshing to watch an animated thriller, or drama rather than travel to yet another sci-fi or fantasy world.

All of which is not to say that Kon didn't take full advantage of the medium he was working in. Films such as Paprika show that he truly loved the freedom of animation. Never for a minute does he give off the impression of being a frustrated wannabe live-action director.

Kon got his start in comics, with his first manga being published while he was still in College. But he really started to break through by becoming an assistant of legendary Akira artist/director Katsuhiro Otomo. This lead to roles in various films- such as scripting a live-action film Otomo directed, and animation work on Roujin Z, and Memories, leading up to his directorial debut with 1997's Perfect Blue. His career may have been cut tragically short, but in just a few short years he was able to build up a filmography that would be the envy of any film-maker. He may be gone, but his legacy is assured.

The Works of Satoshi Kon

Perfect Blue (1997)

This psycho-thriller marked Kon out as a talent to watch from the word go. It follows a young idol singer as she tries to make the transition to acting, but she starts to experience shocking and confusing events. But are they real, or is she cracking up? Extremely dark and disturbing, but masterfully made. Sadly Out Of Print in the US, but available on Blu-ray and DVD via Anime Limited in the UK.

Millennium Actress (2001)

Probably Kon's most underseen films, this was released by DreamWorks in the US and Manga in the UK. Sadly, it is now tricky to track down- unless you want to pay through the nose, your best shot is a used copy. Which is a shame, as this is a beautiful, lyrical journey through the life of an actress, as seen through the roles she played on screen. Badly in need of a Blu-ray release.

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Showing Kon's amazing versatility, this warm-hearted comedy follows three homeless people- including a transvestite and a runaway teen- who find a baby in the titular city on Christmas eve. Their attempts to track down the baby's family are funny and sweet but the film gives us a side of Tokyo rarely shown on screen before. The DVD release from Sony is still widely available and can be picked up cheaply. But again... we need a HD release!

Paranoia Agent [TV] (2004)

Kon's only TV series is a stunning piece of work. A series of random attacks (by a young boy with a baseball bat) in Tokyo connects a series of disparate souls, with each episode following a different character. Although at its centre it's a mystery (who is L'il Slugger?), it's not really about that, and is instead much more of an exploration of modern Japanese life. The Boxset is available in the UK via MVM, but the US release from the defunct Geneon is long out of print.

Paprika (2006)

Exploring a world in which the technology exists to enter dreams, many have inevitably drawn comparisons between this and Inception. But they are very different films, with Kon's final finished film full of stunning imagery you won't forget in a hurry, and some truly thought provoking ideas. Freely available on Blu-ray and DVD via Sony in the US and UK

The Art of Satoshi Kon is now available from DARK HORSE COMICS. Buy from Amazon or Amazon UK