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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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

08:13:21 pm , 874 words, 3310 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.

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10 comments

huw_m
huw_m [Member]

Very sad news :(

Satoshi Kon had an incredible ability to orchestrate emotions and feelings across the course of a film in a way that made him a true showman as well as an intelligent filmmaker. He’ll be sorely missed… RIP

08/24/10 @ 23:26
D.Z.
D.Z. [Visitor]  

I kinda knew something was up when the guy had a huge gap where he didn’t update his blog. Yeah, there were apparently, um, transitions at MadHouse, due to the overall suckonomy, but production still seemed unusually slow on Yume Miru Kikai. So now I’m wondering if he knew and was trying to hide it, or he didn’t know, but that bastard of a disease slowed him down from his usual pace. Or was he able to keep it under control, but that move to a different office made it more stressful for him?

As for Ben’s take on his work, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Perfect Blue was clearly the Akira for the next generation. I just wish, outside of Nolan and Aronofsky, that his work caught on better with casual fans like Akira did.

08/25/10 @ 01:02
LainEverliving
LainEverliving [Visitor]  

I’m still in utter shock about it, and words can’t even begin to express my sense of loss. Satoshi Kon was not only one of the best directors of animated films, he was among the best filmmakers working today. His very small catalogue of titles belies the tremendous talent and imagination, both his own and those he encouraged and fostered in his collaborators and production teams, that emerged from his extraordinary thoughts. There is no one else like Satoshi Kon in the anime world, and the only people similar to him outside of it seem more to be inspired by or perhaps taking advantage of, the visions he spun for us. No matter what good things continue on in anime, and indeed there are many, an enormous door of potential and intellectual advancement has closed with his passing, and I fear it may never open again. I had, perhaps selfishly, hoped for many more films from Satoshi Kon. I realize now the number he made was just enough. It was enough to show the world, or at least the small portion of the world that opened themselves to him, just what kind of a man he was and what kind of analytical criticism he could level at them, and us, to simultaneously point out our many flaws and the few virtues that somehow balance them out. He was a unique voice in a world obsessed predominantly with sameness, and that was why his words and thoughts cut so clearly through to reach out and touch us.

No words can make up for this or make me feel any better. But perhaps an image, borrowed from him, can. I should like to picture him now, as a fellow voyager of Chiyoko, journeying out into the vast reaches of time and space. And Chiyoko’s words, though meant for someone else in Millennium Actress, seem appropriate now for Satoshi Kon.

“It’s chasing him that I really love.”

08/25/10 @ 04:01
gaguri
gaguri [Visitor]  

I think that image of Chiyoko as a voyager is very fitting. I remember Kon saying Millenium Actress was his most proud work, and I still regard it as one of the greatest movies ever created.

I just read his farewell letter and what a dignified man. I know this was, as he put it, irrationally unfair fate handed to him, but I’m glad he at least had months to prepare for it and spend his last days with his dear wife at his home. Rest in peace.

08/26/10 @ 05:49
Neilworms
Neilworms [Visitor]  

The world has lost someone special. A director of anime that trencended and shattered all expectations of the medium and helped to promote it as serious film. As everyone else has said his passing was too soon.

I always liked this quote from the New York Sun regarding his work and its relationship with anime:

“It’s fitting that the finale of “Paranoia Agent” isn’t a climactic disclosure of a giant robot or a magical schoolgirl or anything quite so mundane"…"it’s a rejection of anime’s traditional subject matter and a celebration of everything that people watch anime to escape, namely daily life, the workaday grind, and humdrum reality. As the credits roll, one can imagine Mr. Kon, detonator in hand, pushing the button to destroy his own art form, because that’s the only way he thinks it can truly be free.”

Anime will never be as free without him. With the rising tide of Moe and the lack of new talent rising up, the industry is looking a whole lot more grim.

One can only hope that the French recognizes and appropriates his work as they did with Film Noir in creating today’s film paradigm through their New Wave movement. (or at the very least SOMEONE rises up to fill the void).

For now I need to finish up watching/reading the odds and ends of his work I haven’t seen yet. His two published manga, and his episodes of JoJo.

08/26/10 @ 13:26
Neilworms
Neilworms [Visitor]  
08/26/10 @ 13:27
Andy Norton
Andy Norton [Visitor]  

I have been trying to find a justified tribute to a director I have been fascinated by ever since starting to watch his ‘anime’ over 7 years ago.

Kon was an exceptional film-maker, with my preferred works from him being Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika, and the Paranoia Agent series.

I hope that his work will be recognised amongst as some of the best Japanese cinema, or television, has offered during the past 20 odd years. I can only hope for such recognition amongst his peers for years to come.

08/26/10 @ 13:34
D.Z.
D.Z. [Visitor]  

Neil: “One can only hope that the French recognizes and appropriates his work”

No thanks. I already had enough of that with Nolan and Aronofsky. Though that Illusionist cartoon looks partly inspired by Paprika…

08/26/10 @ 20:33
Neilworms
Neilworms [Visitor]  

D.Z: I’m not asking for parrot like copying, but instead someone who takes a base and moves it to the next level.

The French New Wave borrowed a lot of sophisticated elements from (mostly) American Film Noir, but while doing so managed to create a new paradigm for film. I guess I wasn’t clear enough in that explination.

08/27/10 @ 06:25
D.Z.
D.Z. [Visitor]  

Neil: I see. Thanks.

08/27/10 @ 16:13