by Ed Sizemore
Yesterday afternoon, the news came over twitter that Satoshi Kon had died. Normally, the death of a director doesn’t affect me. However, Kon’s death hit me hard. He is only one of only four anime directors I devotedly follow. His films had a deep impact on me, and he is the only one of the four that I got to meet in person.
When I first got into anime, I started reading any book I could find on the subject and looking for recommendations of shows and films to watch. Films like Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Totoro, and Perfect Blue kept coming up in every “best of” list I found. I had already seen Ghost in the Shell and Akira, so I decided to try Perfect Blue. If I had any reservations about being a fan, or doubts to the artistic value of anime, Perfect Blue erased them all. It was the confirmation that I had stumbled upon a vast treasure.
Perfect Blue is the story of a young pop idol singer, Mima, being pushed to become an actress by her manager. The talent agency wants to mature Mima’s image and so has her cast in an erotic thriller. Perfect Blue is a brilliant film on par with the works of Hitchcock. It proved to me that animated stories could be as complex and layered as live-action films. It was the first time ‘mature’ cartoon meant more than just having nudity.
Kon’s next film was Millennium Actress. I was fortunate enough to see this in the theater, and I was blown away. Not only was the film gorgeous to look at it, it was a masterpiece of storytelling. A retired actress, Chiyoko, recounts her life and the movies she made. When I saw it for the first time, I was flabbergasted at how seamlessly Kon blended memory and movie reality. Watching it again last night, I was moved by the unrequited love at the heart of Chiyoko’s life story. It’s my favorite Kon film.
Tokyo Godfather was a bit of a departure for Kon. It was a straight-forward narrative, a Christmas story of three homeless people that find an abandoned baby and their adventures trying to locate the child’s parents. In a culture that likes to pretend the homeless don’t exist, Kon had the courage to make them heroes. Whether intentionally or not, Kon crafted a Christmas story that actually resonated with the Gospel narratives. Jesus walked among the outcast of Jewish society. He ministered to adulterers, lepers, Roman soldiers, etc. So this story of a child and the three ‘angels’ that look after her has lessons for audiences of all faith traditions.
His final completed film was Paprika. This film holds very special memories for me. I got to see Paprika and Tokyo Godfather in Washington, DC, as part of the Cherry Blossom festival in 2008. Kon himself was in attendance to introduce the films and take questions after. It was a thrill for me to see a director I deeply admired in person.
It’s a story I tell too often. While the end credits for Tokyo Godfathers were rolling, I approached Kon and asked him to sign the postcard that came with the Tokyo Godfathers DVD. The Smithsonian hadn’t scheduled an autograph session, but I couldn’t let this chance pass. I figured the worst that could happen would be security escorting me out, but at least I’d have my signature. Thankfully, I wasn’t kicked out. After I got my signature, and an unexpected sketch, I turned around to find twenty or so people lined up behind me. Kon gratuitously gave signatures to everyone. I prized that signature before; now, I cherish it with all my heart.
Kon was a great director, period. He just chose to work in the animated medium. All of his films are masterpieces visually and narratively. Working in animation gave him the freedom to tell stories that delved deeply into human psychology and raised questions about reality, how we perceive reality, and our memories. He loved to explore how the borders between these three blurred and can get confused. He is one of the extremely rare directors to never make a bad film.
Kon is survived by his wife and a legend of fans. I know I won’t be the only person who will spend the next few days grieving his passing. My prayers go out to his wife and relatives. The greatest testament to a man can have is positive impact his life had on others. By that measure Kon was a truly great man. May his kind increase.