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After Satoshi Kon: Echoes Of An Auteur

“Part of me thinks that I should retire or die peacefully now,” Satoshi Kon joked during a talk at New York’s Walter Reade Theater. “It would be better for my reputation, but unfortunately, there are a lot more things I want to do.” It was June 2008, and Kon was developing his fifth animated feature, Dreaming Machine. Now in his mid-forties, he was still young compared to other top-rank anime directors, but famed enough to get a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival two years earlier. It was only a decade since Kon came to world attention with Perfect Blue in 1997. Fans looked forward to many more years of his work to come.

Barely two years after his New York talk, Kon was dead from pancreatic cancer. In 2017, I asked his friend and producer Masao Maruyama, who co-founded the Madhouse studio where Kon made his signature anime, what had happened to Dreaming Machine. Maruyama had hoped the film would be finished in accord with Kon’s wishes. “I would love to do it somehow, but I have no way to,” Maruyama told me. “It is like a concert, where the star is no longer on the stage. So at the moment it just goes back and forth in my mind. If (Kon) appeared in front of me right now I would jump at the chance, but he has the ultimate reason keeping him away from me.”

As Maruyama says, the star is gone from the stage. Until recently, there didn’t seem to be many people picking up Kon’s instruments. The two live-action films which are always brought up in connection with Kon are Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Both were released in 2010, very close to Kon’s death, and commentators compared them respectively with Paprika and Perfect Blue. I have little to add, except that Inception could have benefitted from Paprika’s playful good humour, while Perfect Blue and Black Swan show the divide between Kon’s purposefully lurid hysteria and Aronofsky’s overwrought silliness, which might have worked better in animated form.

A decade after we lost Kon, there are two more titles offering comparisons to his work, both in adult animation. Undone was released on Amazon Prime last year. The more sprawling Bojack Horseman ended its six-year Netflix run this January. Most Animation for Adults readers will know these shows and their shared creators. The whole premise of Undone – after a car crash, a young woman experiences what are either trauma-induced delusions or a higher order of reality – is territory associated with Kon. Undone’s story is told through the protagonist’s fractured subjectivity, continually shifting in place and time, unglued from stable reality. As for Bojack Horseman, many of its individual episodes entered Kon-ish, reality-shifting territory, especially in its later seasons.

I haven’t found any interviews where Undone’s and Bojack’s staff make direct reference to Kon. However, there’s an interesting Tweet where Bojack’s creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg quotes a post referencing Kon among other things. In his own response, Bob-Waksberg highlights Kate Purdy; the co-creator of Undone, she also wrote Bojack episodes including The Old Sugarman Place (4.2) and Time’s Arrow (4.11). Both episodes deal with the life of Bojack’s mother Beatrice. The first uses artfully-woven flashbacks; the second, chillingly, takes Beatrice’s viewpoint as a dying woman with advanced dementia, stumbling through her memories like one of Larkin’s Old Fools.

Both episodes invite Kon comparisons, as do Bojack episodes not by Purdy. Fans have pointed out that it’s easy to see The New Client (6.2) as riffing on Kon’s one-minute film Ohayo, here, in depicting a woman’s overlapping experience of multiple presents. In the Bojack story, the cat-faced super-agent Princess Carolyn is represented as a crowd of temporally smeared multi-taskers, struggling to cope with a wailing baby. Other Kon-ish Bojack episodes include the lighthearted Mr. Peanutbutter’s Boos (5.8) where the action skips between four Halloween parties across the decades, and The Showstopper (5.11), which puts Bojack himself into a Perfect Blue-ish scenario; he breaks down in “real” and “fictional” stories which run in parallel till violence connects them. Bojack’s very last episode (6.16) starts with more real and fictional framings, pulling a fiendish trick on viewers frantic to know what’s happened.

To be clear, these are parallels, not influences, though I’d be surprised if Kon’s work never crossed the minds of the writers. It would be cretinous to suggest an animation exploring fractured subjectivity needs to acknowledge Kon, any more than it should namecheck his own predecessors. That includes the live-action director George Roy Hill; as well as making Butch Cassidy and The Sting, Hill directed the 1972 film of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, which Kon acknowledged as a touchstone for his work. If you’re looking for a non-Kon precursor to the Bojack episode Time’s Arrow, then try the 1985 film Dreamchild, which writer Dennis Potter frames through the dreams of an aged and addled Alice Liddell “remembering” her adventures in Wonderland. If Dreamchild isn’t animation, then the presence of Jim Henson’s fantasy creatures makes it a cousin.

Nor is this a game of reductive comparisons with Kon. Granted, trying to make a direct comparison between Undone and Perfect Blue is like comparing Pixar’s Inside Out with Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. In each case, the Japanese titles have so much more anarchic gusto, so much madness at their core. The American titles are sane and clever works about mad mindscapes; the Japanese titles go mad. But then they work to such different ends. To return to Time’s Arrow, a brilliant episode in itself, it’s not really complete until you get to the most celebrated Bojack episode. That’s Free Churro (5.6) in the next season, with the lead character’s twenty-minute eulogy about Beatrice. Having experienced the horrors of Beatrice’s subjectivity, now the audience sees her ripped apart from the outside, by a son who’s slammed the door on understanding his mother.

Free Churro is unlike anything Kon made… except in the broadest sense of experimenting with narrative in animation, like the Bojack episode at the other end of the scale from Free Churro, the wordless aquatic Fish Out of Water (3.4). And such formal experimentation is something that American adult animation is still open to in 2020, far more than commercial anime. Again, this goes beyond Kon’s influence; rather, he’s part of a wider mix. The rotoscoped Undone shares some of the spirit, and appearance, of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly from 2006. That was a lower-key treatment of characters dissociated from reality, as was Charlie Kaufman’s 2015 stop-motion Anomalisa. Neither of those films feels “like” Kon, even as they clearly lie along the same continuum.

And it’s not just adult Western animation that feels conceptually open-minded in a way Kon would have approved. You only have to remember when you watched The Lego Movie and realised why a live-action Will Ferrell was showing up at the end. Again, remember how Spider Verse’s narrative was constructed as a spiral around a hero origin story, timeless and ever-changing (“Let’s do this one last time”). That’s not very different from Kon’s Millennium Actress, whose own story spirals round a rocket ship that’s always on the verge of take-off.

Staying with Actress, Kon’s film was discussed recently on the excellent Ghibliotheque podcast. In the story, the heroine Chiyoko searches for a key left by a mysterious painter. Ghibliotheque presenter Michael Leader interpreted the key as a cipher for Story itself, all the different kinds of film story Chiyoko runs through, and that her fans eagerly follow. That’s different from my own take (I see the key as an object of Chiyoko’s quasi-religious faith, like the millionaire’s trophy which Robin Williams thinks is the Grail in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King). But Leader’s interpretation would align Actress amusingly with the Story Train conceit in the Rick & Morty episode, Never Ricking Morty (4.6), which had fans gibbering only weeks ago.

Thus Kon feels aligned with a growing range of Western animation. In contrast, he seems much less reflected in Japanese animation since his death, though I’d point to two. One is Ghibli’s underrated When Marnie Was There, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, which slides between realities with the delicacy of marsh mist. The other, very different, is The Case of Hana & Alice by Shunji Iwai. It’s a comedy whose Tokyo runarounds, shaggy-dog humour, eccentric relationships and fundamental kindness are all reminiscent of Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers. Iwai uses rotoscoping, not to suggest the hidden underpinnings of reality, but rather to bring out title girls’ eccentricities; this makes an interesting comparison to the hyper-broad character animation in Godfathers, just as focused on its leads’ quirks.

But the dearth of other anime like Kon’s reflects the state of anime now, wedded to established rules and sub-genres. Of course, Western animation is stymied by its own templates, from Disney Princesses to Simpsons sitcoms, but with many more rule-breakers in recent years. Kon feels in tune with Western animation now, even with something as basic as his choice of grown-up main characters. Think of the mature leads in adult Western animation, and contrast the eternally school-aged heroes of anime. And is it surprising Kon’s legacy continues outside Japan? Talking in New York in 2008, Kon looked back to the animation which shaped him from the start. “As a child,” Kon said, “I loved animation, all of it, whether it was Japanese, or whether it came from overseas. If it was a moving image, then it made me very happy.”

Andrew Osmond is a British Journalist specialising in animation and is the UK editor of Anime News Network. His books include BFI Classics: Spirited Away100 Animated Feature Films and Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist. His website is anime-etc.net