Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: August 2010, 24

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

08:13:21 pm , 874 words, 3316 views     Categories: Animation

Satoshi Kon RIP

It's hard to believe the news, but it seems that Satoshi Kon has passed away at age 47. My first reaction was disbelief because he was just way too young.

We've been deprived of many great movies from a brilliant mind. Satoshi Kon was perhaps the only person in Japan today consistently releasing sophisticated films for adults that anyone in the world could watch and be blown away by. His films transcended anime. There is nobody else doing the sort of work he was doing. He truly was one of a kind and irreplaceable in the world, not just in anime.

Every time he put out a new film, it felt unprecedented - something that had never been done before in anime. And each film had the same maniacal level of craftsmanship and attention to detail. They are each a unique and perfectly realized vision. Each of his films takes a completely different tack but is precisely crafted in every way, from the structure to the development of the characters to the animation.

Despite the huge number of films produced in the industry every year, most of these are throwaway work intended for a small domestic audience. Satoshi Kon showed by his example that it was possible to create anime films that stood up to the scrutiny of audiences the world over. I don't see him as an auteur. I don't even see him as a director of anime films. I see him as a master filmmaker who was creating great films; his chosen medium just happened to be animation.

He tackled complex themes and narrative structures that animation was uniquely suited to tackling, but that had never been tackled due to conservatism and the still ingrained notion of animation as being exclusively for children. Right from his first film, his vision was uncompromising in its willingness to tackle subject matter implicitly taboo in animation.

And yet, despite the adult themes and the postmodernist glee with which he toyed with the concept of narrative, at the core of his films there were always human beings who behaved like real human beings. They felt emotions and made us feel their emotions. They made you forget they were drawings. Like no other film before, his films were a contradiction and a tightrope act - they conveyed believable human drama, not in a realistic way, but in a way that emphasized the medium. Thus he achieved the impossible contradiction of doing things animation is supposedly not good at doing, while at the same time doing the things animation is supposedly good at doing.

He seemed to just have the instincts of a director. He knew how to structure a film, how to pace the shots, and how to use animation effectively to create something that worked as a film in a way that very few anime features do. They had a narrative heft, richness of character development and thematic complexity that was fully the equal of the greatest live-action films. And as if that weren't enough, on the animation front, the exceptional quality of character acting in his films, Tokyo Godfathers in particular, was something of a new achievement for anime. He was a great director of animated films because in animation it's not just about you - he knew how to corral the talent and individualism of a huge army of people, including some very idiosyncratic but talented animators, in a way that melded into a perfect unified whole. His films were among the few animated films ever to not only be interesting as animated films, but to also be interesting as films.

The editing of the shots in his films has always been the thing that most impressed me about his films, from the bewildering shifts of perspective in Perfect Blue to the fast-paced cutting between different time-periods and sequences in Millennium Actress. In his mind he clearly understood how every piece of the complex puzzles that were his films fit in. And despite the way he destroyed concepts of linear narrative, his films never felt muddled, but were the essence of clarity.

His films were, in a way, an extension of his genius for meticulous illustrations, illustration being the ancestor of filmmaking. His storyboards are marvels of the art that beyond being beautifully detailed are revealing of the amazing precision with which he conceived every element of his films down to the smallest detail. His writings on his experiences making each of his films, posted many years ago on his web site, are among the most insightful I've ever read on the subject of animated filmmaking in Japan. He was even a mentor of young artists, appearing on NHK's Digital Stadium occasionally to critique short student films.

This is a devastating blow to anime because there's nobody who can replace Satoshi Kon or carry on his legacy. It's not just that he had a unique vision; he had the analytical mind and the awesome technical skill to back it up. He was arguably the most consistent filmmaker working in anime today, with an exacting and methodical approach to directing shared by seemingly nobody of his generation. He leaves us right when we were expecting to see him embark on a long career of new heights.