viewing guide

A Viewer’s Guide to the Works of Satoshi Kon

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

In 2022, anime is a globally beloved art form, and yet many Americans are still unlikely to know any of its greats beyond (of course) Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki. In part, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can be blamed for that: It has only ever selected one Japanese film, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, for Best Animated Feature. And yet the late Satoshi Kon, who remained a cult figure when he died of pancreatic cancer in 2010 at the age of 46, has been arguably just as influential on American cinema. A young Darren Aronofsky worshipped him, potentially to the point of artistic theft, with some of the scenes from Kon’s 1997 masterpiece Perfect Blue reproduced nearly shot for shot in 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. (“I’d never seen the Japanese style of animation used just for a real adult, dramatic story,” Aronofsky says of Kon’s work in the 2021 French-language documentary Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist.) Christopher Nolan followed suit with 2010’s Inception, which has the fingerprints of Kon’s final completed feature film, 2006’s Paprika, all over it.

The influences make sense: Kon was a master of the match cut; his films obsess over the suspense inherent in the surreality of our lives, especially in an era of ever-advancing technology. This year, the Embassy of Japan’s Japan Information & Culture Center and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art have teamed up to bring all of Kon’s completed feature films, plus Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist, to American audiences. The films are streaming until April 10, and they’re all well worth watching. Here’s what to know before going in.

The Early Work

Before carving out one of Japanese animation’s great careers, Kon found some success as a mangaka. His manga debut, Toriko (1984), attracted the attention of Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo, who hired him as an assistant for both his manga and his anime. Kon continued writing manga of his own, including an adaptation of Otomo’s 1991 live-action film World Apartment Horror — which was written by Cowboy Bebop screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto — and his 1996 manga magnum opus, conveniently titled Opus, about a manga artist who is literally sucked into his own work in a fashion foreshadowing the films to come. He also directed a single episode of the 1993 OVA adaptation of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, among a handful of key animating and other design credits.

Perfect Blue (1997)

Satoshi Kon’s fascination with cinema makes it all the more baffling that the Academy never recognized his work. After all, there’s nothing Hollywood loves more than a movie about the movies, and Perfect Blue is the first of two. Its protagonist, the retired J-pop idol Mima Kirigoe, turns to acting as her next profession and then her world begins to fall apart: Stalked by an obsessive fan, cast in a traumatizing role that requires her to perform in a rape scene, she discovers a website that contains far too intimate records of her life. Regret over leaving her past behind and stress over her new existence add up, and Mima begins to question not just her reality but her whole self. The film’s themes are quintessentially contemporary: After all, what’s more timely in 2022 than a film about the complexity of identity and the horrors of being perceived? And its chase sequence remains one of the greatest in animation history.

Millennium Actress (2001)

Acting is a profession dedicated to transforming oneself into someone else via performance, to making the unreal seem real. Kon’s subtlest — and arguably best — film is his second to use acting to expose the thin line between fact and fantasy. A duo of documentarians sits with the reclusive aged actress Chiyoko Fujiwara and films her as she tells the story of her life. That story is conflated with those of the films in which she starred in a manner that eliminates the boundary between Chiyoko’s real experiences and her acting roles. All the while, the documentarians themselves impossibly appear in Chiyoko’s recollections. Or is it impossible? Where Perfect Blue questions the distinction between truth and fiction, Millennium Actress demolishes it, and while the latter also has a tragedy at the center of its story, it is a gentler viewing experience than the former — almost as if Kon were telling his audience that if it accepts the intersection of the real and the unreal, living will be gentler too.

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Kon’s most sentimental film is also his least surreal (albeit still deeply weird) and a great Christmas movie to boot. A retelling of sorts of the Biblical tale of the Three Wise Men, it’s a skewed reinterpretation of John Ford’s 1948 western 3 Godfathers, itself an adaptation of that tale. On Christmas Eve, three unhoused people in Tokyo find an abandoned newborn left in a dumpster with a note and a key. The trio — a middle-aged alcoholic, a transgender woman, and a tween runaway — endure a series of dramatic encounters and almost unbelievable coincidences in a desperate attempt to return the child to her parents. While not as surrealist, on the face of it, as Kon’s other works, the film is just as interested in liminality: the fine line between family and found family, the lives of people living on societal margins, and the razor-thin gap between the disastrous and the miraculous.

Paranoia Agent (2004)

In a city just outside Tokyo, a boy on roller blades bludgeons toy designer Tsukiko Sagi at night with a bent golden baseball bat. She does not see his face. Shonen Batto — or Li’l Slugger, as he’s known in the English dub — soon becomes a serial assailant, striking again and again at seemingly random targets as the two detectives assigned to the case struggle to discern his identity and motive. Meanwhile, the city’s citizens sink deeper into anxiety, depression, and fear, and Tsukiko’s story becomes all the more strangely linked to Li’l Slugger’s attacks. Kon’s only television series is, like Perfect Blue before it and Paprika after, a postmodernist psychological thrill ride, and the 13-episode runtime gives the determinedly alinear, characteristically surreal story room and time to build an amount of tension that is extraordinary even for Kon’s works. (This one isn’t part of the ongoing retrospective, but it’s streaming on Funimation for free.)

Paprika (2006)

An adaptation of the 1993 technological thriller novel of the same name, Paprika is Kon’s final finished feature film and probably his best-known work in the U.S. This is the film that pushes Kon’s questioning of where reality ends and fantasy begins closest to its limits. Dr. Atsuko Chiba is a psychologist researching a technology that allows its users to experience other people’s dreams. She sometimes uses it illegally to help her patients by entering their dreams, where she takes on a new persona: Paprika. When the device is stolen and the thief begins wreaking havoc on people’s minds, Atsuko undertakes a hunt to find the culprit that results in a merging of the dream world with waking life and one of the most stunning sequences in animation history: a parade of dreams that simultaneously satirizes contemporary issues in Japan, stretches the limits of its audience’s imagination, and puts both Kon’s craft and his creativity on full display.

Good Morning (2008)

Kon was working on one last feature film before he died, called Dreaming Time. It was never released. But after Paprika, he did finish a final original animation. Ohayo (“Good Morning”), which frames the utterly ordinary act of waking as an almost otherworldly experience, is only a minute long. But sometimes — at least for a master like Kon — that’s all a story needs.

A Guide to the Anime Auteur Satoshi Kon