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Satoshi Kon: Tribute to a great anime director

I learned this afternoon that Satoshi Kon has died. He was 46 (born October 12, 1963) and died of pancreatic cancer. Kon is famous for directing four Japanese animated theatrical features, PERFECT BLUE (1997), MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001), TOKYO GODFATHERS (2003), and PAPRIKA (2006). He also did the art direction and wrote the screenplay for the "Magnetic Rose" segment of Katsuhiro Otomo's MEMORIES (1995). All of these films, as well as the TV series he directed in 2004, "Paranoia Agent," are included in my book on anime, "Anime Classics Zettai: 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces," co-authored with Julie Davis. (My review of PERFECT BLUE includes one of two references in the book to Morning Musume.) I interviewed Mr. Kon once and am including a transcript of that interview below.




Virtually alone among anime directors, Kon chose to focus on contemporary urban Japan as his chief subject and told dramatic stories set in the real world, but with a bold intrusion of characters' fantasies, dreams, or past lives into their present reality. PERFECT BLUE is centered around a former pop star who becomes a TV actress in a violent crime show and is soon haunted by her preening and prancing pop idol past self. MILLENNIUM ACTRESS tells the life story of a former movie actress, intermingling her actual life with the historical eras of the various roles she played, extending from ancient Japan to a future of space travel. TOKYO GODFATHERS offers a trio of homeless people--a middle-aged alcoholic man, an aging transvestite, and a teenage runaway girl--and follows their adventures on Christmas Eve as they discover an abandoned infant and try to locate its mother. In the course of the story, they each encounter their own pasts and cross paths with abandoned family members. PAPRIKA, made four years before INCEPTION, shows what happens when experiments in entering people's dreams threaten to disrupt the real world as a female therapist's alter ego, Paprika (played by Megumi Hayashibara), enters the dream world to try to undo the damage. They're all amazing films, beautifully animated and crafted with extraordinary detail while telling stories filled with great originality and inventiveness. I also highly recommend "Magnetic Rose," both for its artwork and clever story, in which a derelict ship in outer space turns out to have been the lavish home of a celebrated 21st century opera singer who comes back to holographic life to greet a hapless space salvage crew which boards the ship. Eva Friedel, the opera singer, looks forward to three later female protagonists of Kon's--Mima Kirigoe in PERFECT BLUE, Chiyoko Fujiwara in MILLENNIUM ACTRESS and Paprika. (Interestingly, two of my favorite Japanese singers did voice work in these films: Junko Iwao voiced Mima Kirigoe and Megumi Hayashibara voiced Paprika.)


The pop group Cham, fronted by Mima Kirigoe, in PERFECT BLUE


Chiyoko Fujiwara in MILLENNIUM ACTRESS


The protagonists of TOKYO GODFATHERS


A street scene in TOKYO GODFATHERS


Paprika as the Monkey King in PAPRIKA


A spectacle of dream imagery in PAPRIKA

I had the good fortune to interview Mr. Kon when he came to the Big Apple Anime Festival in August 2003, where TOKYO GODFATHERS and MILLENNIUM ACTRESS were being screened. I did it on assignment for Animerica Magazine, which is, unfortunately, no longer in print. I found the transcript of the interview, done exactly seven years ago this Saturday, and am posting it here. It's mostly about TOKYO GODFATHERS, with some questions about MILLENNIUM ACTRESS. I found Kon to be a great interview subject. He was quite expressive and forthcoming. He didn't seem to soften his views about anything for the American press. He was very passionate about his work and this passion informed every aspect of the interview. He also took the interview very seriously and when someone got overzealous at a nearby table in the press room and began raising his voice, Kon turned around in the middle of one of my questions and very firmly directed the offender, who didn't look Japanese but seemed to understand it, to keep quiet. I saw Kon later during the festival when he introduced the screening of MILLENNIUM ACTRESS. He was very upset with the choice of artwork used to publicize the film in the U.S. and made it very clear in his remarks to the audience that he didn't approve of the posters used by the American distributor. This surprising frankness in the midst of a festival honoring him in a foreign country impressed me a great deal. This is not a man given to compromise or diplomatic niceties.

Interview with Satoshi Kon
Recorded 8/28/03 at Big Apple Anime Festival, New York City
Interpreter: Shigeki Morii

Animerica: Did you come up with the original ideas for both Tokyo Godfathers and Millennium Actress?

Kon: Yes.

Animerica: Did you collaborate with the screenwriter or just hand the ideas to them?

Kon: On both movies, I am credited as co-writer and was deeply involved in the making of the script. Of course, I had discussions with the writer and he developed the original version, and then the second revision, third revision, and fourth revision. At the time when decisions are concerned, he was involved. So it’s not like he wrote this part and I wrote that part, it’s that he was involved throughout.

Animerica: How long did it take to write each script, from idea to finished screenplay?

Kon: Millennium Actress took six months and Tokyo Godfathers took four months.

Animerica: Tokyo Godfathers is similar to John Ford’s western, Three Godfathers (1948/U.S.), starring John Wayne, about a trio of outlaws who find a baby in the desert. Was that the inspiration for your film?

Kon: I really like Three Godfathers and that was the original idea, but my film is not really an imitation, or remake, of that one. Its basic idea of three bank robbers, good-bad guys, finding the baby was the real inspiration but the story wasn’t imitated.

Animerica: Do you like old American movies and have you seen a lot of them?

Kon: I like American movies very much. I really don’t think I’ve seen a lot of old movies, but I like John Ford movies a lot.

Animerica: In Tokyo Godfathers, we see something that the west doesn’t normally see in Tokyo--homelessness. We see a whole homeless community in a park, a shantytown built of shacks. Is homelessness a big problem in Tokyo?

Kon: It’s really becoming an obvious problem now. Many homeless people are in Tokyo right now. In the movie, right underneath the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, there’s a homeless hamlet there, with blue sheet and cardboard boxes and it’s actually what you can see in real life at the foot of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

Animerica: Another feature of Tokyo that we don’t normally see in the west is immigrant communities. There’s a Spanish-speaking community that we see in the movie. Is that something that exists to a great extent in Tokyo?

Kon: I’ve never actually really experienced that immigrant community. But I would read about it and watch documentary films about it and there does really exist the immigrant community in Japan. I don’t go deeply into that community but when you go to one certain station in Tokyo, you will find around there many, many foreigners. Not many Japanese go near it. So there is a community like that.

Animerica: There is a scene in the film where Japanese, Spanish and English are all spoken in an attempt to communicate. Is there anything you’re saying in that scene about a possible multicultural future for Japan?

Kon: I didn’t particularly see that scene from the perspective of Tokyo or Japan in the big picture, but, rather, I wanted to express how people speaking different languages may have some misunderstandings, but can somehow communicate. That kind of thing I personally experience when going overseas and I have to get my words translated. But I have a means of expressing myself with the movie and my movie message. And what I want to express is actually conveyed through the movie so I really think about the power of conveying communication by the movie. Without having words and speaking different languages, we can still communicate. That’s what I wanted to express in that particular scene.

Animerica: This is the first film you’ve made in which you deal with characters who are outcasts, separate and apart from society. What drew you to this kind of character for the first time?

Kon: On one hand, homeless means “without a home.” At the same time they are also cut off somehow from their ties with the family. If they maintain their ties with the family they would not become actual homeless. But somehow the ties were cut and that’s how they ended up living in a cardboard box as home. So in terms of that, I wanted to express the revival of family ties, human ties. In Millennium Actress, too, I wanted to make the revival of the ties with Japanese history intertwine with the story. So revival of family ties became my theme and homelessness came to mind as the means to express it.

Animerica: The Tokyo we see on screen is one of the most stunning and painstaking renditions of Tokyo we’ve ever seen in anime. What efforts did you and your animators make to create such a realistic depiction of Tokyo through animation?

Kon: One thing I was very careful about was the perspective of the homeless. I had to maintain the perspective of the homeless but at the same time you can’t really get too close to it. What’s really being depicted in Tokyo Godfathers is not something you would see in a guidebook or something in current fashion. I actually don’t have much interest in terms of the newest fashion or something in the Tokyo guidebook. But, rather, I’m interested in the back streets and that’s how it was depicted. When these characters have to eat they have to go to the garbage piles to eat and in that scene you can actually see the actual, unusual Tokyo, like taking a peek through the back street. What’s depicted in the film may not be the real representation of Tokyo, but is seen from a narrow area of the back street and when you peek through you can see the real Tokyo, so maybe that created a reality.

Animerica: Did you send your artists into the streets and back alleys to take a lot of pictures? Were you recreating real places?

Kon: I myself went to the locations and took a lot of pictures and staff members took a lot of pictures as well. But that doesn’t mean I had the exact same scene as what I had in my head. Of what I created, there are actually very few existing locations. What I did was take typical Tokyo images, fragments of images, and combined them into the picture. So I used a combination of fragments of typical Tokyo scenes and what I made up. And that’s how I made a realistic depiction of Tokyo. That’s how I used the photos.

Animerica: It looks like a documentary depiction of Tokyo.

Kon: When you really think about it, when you really try, you can’t really get all the essence together in an actual photograph, so I think that’s the advantage of animation, being able to make it into a realistic image.

Animerica: Do you want to make live-action films?

Kon: I have no desire to make live-action films.

Animerica: Your colleagues Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) and Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion) have made live-action films.

Kon: If I ever make a live-action film, I will have to try something only live action can do. When I think about it, it’s as if it took 40 years for me to actually try to recreate something that’s imagined in my head and it’s still not perfect. So if I really want to make something out of live-action film and take what I really imagined and try to recreate it, it’s probably a different skill and in order for me to get that skill it’s going to take a long, long time. So I would like to make the best use of what I really know, the know-hows of making animated films, and make more animated films rather than live-action films.

Animerica: Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers have the richness, depth and power of live-action films. Will they get the same respect from critics that a live-action film of the same type would get? Do you find that an animated film doesn’t get the same respect from the critics?

Kon: I understand there may be a prejudice in terms of it being animation, as if it were more for kids or for otaku. I hope that kind of prejudice can be wiped out some day. Because of that kind of prejudice, if I would go to live-action that wouldn’t happen. If we wanted as many people to see a film as possible, maybe we would make just English language films so that many more people could see it, but that’s not the case in terms of expressing culture. Culture may be something you can only express in Japanese, to show that something like that does actually exist. So, to express culture you can’t just make everything in English so as many people as possible can see it, right? So, in terms of the only possible explanation being in Japanese or the only possible explanation being in animation, animation is really my language, so I would like to express what I can express in my language.

Animerica: Speaking of culture, Millennium Actress goes back into Japanese history and culture. Doing the research must have been a journey of rediscovery for yourself. What did you get out of your journey to research the film and how did that make the final film different?

Kon: In terms of rediscovering Japanese culture and history, I would already have knowledge of Japanese history and culture. Of course I was taught in school about Japanese history and what happened in the past, but the research I did brought me to the stage that I actually feel that based on what happened in the past I live in Japan and after thousands of years of history that was the extension that came to me, so like the actual feeling of living in Japan, the actual feeling of history and my existence became the rediscovery element.

Animerica: And what did you want Japanese audiences to take away from the film. Did you have a message for Japanese audiences with this film?

Kon: There are many, many, many messages. So, it depends on the person who sees the film. So some people see it as a melodrama and an accomplished love, like a real pure love. Some people see it as a depiction of Japanese history and culture. Some people see it as pursuit by a man who cannot get the girl, cannot get the love he really loved. It depends on the person who sees the film and they get different kinds of messages. As a director, if I were asked, “Mr. Kon, what’s your message?” I wouldn’t say. It’s probably better that way. They can enjoy the film more and find many layers and many messages. Personally I got to discover a lot of things. I got to know what was happening 50 years ago and that was a surprise for me. My wish is that that kind of surprise could be conveyed to the audience but that doesn’t mean the message is the surprise of our rediscovery. In terms of the message, I wouldn’t say, and that’s probably the best way to enjoy the film.

Animerica: Is there anything you want American audiences to get out of this film?

Kon: I don’t think about the American audience in particular but probably for the entire overseas audience. I don’t have a particular interest in terms of what kind of thing I would like Americans or other people to see. Rather, I would like to know what they saw, what they see in the film. I’m more interested in what they see in the film rather than what they can get from it.

Animerica: Were there any classic Japanese films that you relied on for researching scenes of Chiyoko’s previous movies?

Kon: Maybe something that stands out is Akira Kurosawa’s Kumonosu Jo [U.S. title: Throne of Blood, 1957] and Yasujiro Ozu’s films. Maybe there are scenes which may look like Ozu’s films, although not like any particular title. I tried to recreate what I have seen and what a typical Japanese film would look like based on what I’ve seen on TV, in theaters, and different places.

Animerica: Was there a particular actress who provided the model for Chiyoko Fujiwara?

Kon: There is really no clear single person who served as the model for Chiyoko. But somebody who I had in mind was Setsuko Hara [leading actress in many films by renowned director Yasujiro Ozu, including Early Summer and Tokyo Story] and different fragmented images of who used to be really popular in the past. So it’s a combination of fragments.

Animerica: You always have women in your films who used to be some kind of performer (usually a singer), e.g.: Eva Friedel, opera singer (“Magnetic Rose” segment of Memories); Mima Kirigoe, pop singer (Perfect Blue); Chiyoko Fujiwara, film star (Millennium Actress); Hana, nightclub performer (Tokyo Godfathers). What draws you to these characters?

Kon: In terms of thinking about why, there were already original stories that “Magnetic Rose” and Perfect Blue were based on. But when I think about it there are actually similarities. I don’t get that kind of question often; it’s probably for the first time. So when I think about it there may be something that makes me attracted to that kind of character. This is the first time I’m getting that kind of question so I can’t really answer it clearly.

Animerica: So what’s the next film going to be? Are you going to have another character like it?

Kon: The next film is going to be different.

Animerica: Do you know what it is yet? Have you started on your next project yet?

Kon: In terms of an actual project going on there is an original TV series. That project is actually going on but I cannot announce it yet so I can’t talk much about it. In terms of feature films, the next project is also not at a phase where I can announce anything. So I cannot say much, but it’s going to be different from the previous three films I’ve made.

Animerica: You’re one of the few anime directors whose films feature characters that look recognizably Japanese. Why don’t other directors create characters that look Japanese?

Kon: I guess there is an image of Japanese being kind of cool, but it’s more like a foreign cool. And when you think about the depiction of beautiful ladies, and beautiful girls, in, for example, TV commercials of women’s underwear, the TV commercial would have foreign ladies, not necessarily white foreign ladies, but a lot of times white, but non-Japanese people in the underwear commercials. Probably they have an image of cool-great-looking-good as non-Japanese. But I do not particularly think like they do. I am proud of being Japanese and I do not particularly think of Japanese as being cool but I do not look for the others to be admired, to be intrigued by the other, in terms of outer look. So I actually would like to depict distinctively Japanese people and I am not particularly drawn to someone who’s making Japanese characters to look non-Japanese.

Animerica: You have worked with Katsuhiro Otomo on several films. Was he a mentor to you?

Kon: In the past I’ve worked with Mr. Otomo on “Magnetic Rose” and, based on his idea, I made a script. Otomo has many, many stimulating ideas, very brilliant ideas and he probably made a great contribution to Japanese manga in terms of the graphics. In terms of the new stuff he’s putting out he’s taking ten years or so to make new ones, so I haven’t seen his recent ones, but his influence on the manga graphic is very big.


Eva Friedel in the "Magnetic Rose" segment of MEMORIES.

Kon's early death echoes that of Yoshifumi Kondo, a Studio Ghibli mainstay who directed WHISPER OF THE HEART (1995), one of the finest animated movies ever made, if you ask me. Kondo died of an aneurysm in 1998 at the age of 47. The last film he worked on was Hayao Miyazaki's PRINCESS MONONOKE, for which he served as Supervising Animator.
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