FANTASIA FEST 2021: ‘Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist’ is a Fervent Celebration Long Overdue

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Satoshi Kon _ The Illusionist

Few directors of the last thirty years have been more impactful and innovative than Satoshi Kon, a visionary who blended reality and fiction with such precision and ease that one might still not be able to tell the difference. From Perfect Blue to Paprika, Satoshi Kon weaved groundbreaking stories that reshaped the animation landscape in Japan and inspired the world. From Fantasia Fest 2021, Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist is a charming documentary directed by Pascal-Alex Vincent profiling Satoshi Kon’s sparse yet powerful filmography and the people who helped make it happen.

The documentary is split roughly into five parts across several cities globally, taking us on a journey through his seminal works: Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika, and Paranoia Agent. It is fascinating to hear about the stories behind some of these productions, most notably the friction-filled yet immensely fruitful relationship between Satoshi Kon and Madhouse co-founder Masao Maruyama. We learn about Madhouse’s frustrations with Perfect Blue’s lackluster financial performance despite the outpouring of love from critics at the time. Maruyama-san says in the documentary, “To be blunt, we lost money.” However, the collaboration continued as Maruyama-san believed in Kon’s unique vision, so they pushed forth on the next film, Millennium Actress. We also hear from director Darren Aronofsky as he shares a brief anecdote regarding the inclusion of a scene in his Requiem for a Dream film from 2000. He had to ask permission from Satoshi Kon to use an iconic shot from Perfect Blue, the scene in which Mima sits in her bathtub with her head submerged in the water and lets out a muffled scream. 

Aronofsky shot the scene pretty much 1:1 and fully credits Satoshi Kon for such a memorable scene. The voice actor for Mima, Junko Iwao, also makes an appearance and recalls meeting the famed director. In one of the more moving moments in the documentary, Junko tells of her experience playing the troubled character of Mima and how it eerily mirrored her first-hand struggles as a pop idol. She also discusses her having a stalker and how she dealt with the brief stardom of being a member of a pop group. It is pretty scary stuff, and she is almost moved to tears talking about how realistically Satoshi Kon was able to reflect this unpredictable lifestyle. As a huge fan of Perfect Blue, I was grinning ear to ear as they spoke about the film’s impact in not only Japanese animation but Hollywood as well. There wasn’t much anime quite like Perfect Blue in 1997, and it shook the industry to its core for good. 

By the way, for those who haven’t yet caught up with Satoshi Kon’s works, you don’t have to worry about spoilers in this one. As they move from film to film, they primarily expand into the themes and the juggling between truth and fiction, a hallmark of Satoshi Kon’s brilliant skill set. One of the best moments in the documentary happens at the very end, where they discuss Satoshi Kon’s last unfinished film, entitled Dreaming Machine. As a self-proclaimed Satoshi Kon worshipper, I was pleasantly surprised I had no idea what this project was. While Paprika was, in his eyes, his first commercial film — although arguably — there is no denying that Dreaming Machine could have very well been his Spirited Away moment. It is a story about a trio of distinctly different robots in a world devoid of humans and natural creatures after a cataclysmic event as they try to find a place with sufficient electricity to keep them going. According to some of the completed storyboards and scripts, the film had a joyous feel to it and had a fair share of darkness, more akin to something like Paprika but suited for both adults and children.

The most heart-wrenching moment in the documentary happens when sound director Masafumi Mima recalls a moment Satoshi Kon criticized him for his lack of hard work on Paprika. And Mima-san rebutted by saying his requests were practically beyond his abilities and that he’d rather watch his films than be a part of the crew. As it turned out, Satoshi Kon was working on Dreaming Machine at the time of this confrontation, and he would die sometime later, leaving Mima-san with boundless regret and disappointment. It makes you think, what could have been?

The documentary does an excellent job of revisiting Satoshi Kon’s films and seeing how much he used the blending of reality and fiction to create such frighteningly original works of art. His use of this kind of distortion is masterful, and he was able to use it across multiple genres. Millennium Actress is probably his most mainstream film, and yet it is filled to the brim with dimension-hopping and seamless blending of numerous worlds.

My one complaint is that we don’t get to spend much time on who Satoshi Kon was as a human being. We know he was a strong advocate for animators and a strong supporter of the animation industry as a whole, but we don’t dig deeper into who he was personally. From some of the guests on the documentary, we can gather he was a quiet, focused man and a man who would be endearing but also nasty, according to Madhouse co-founder Maruyama. We don’t dive too deep, and I wish we did, but this documentary is a celebration of his films, and it is a celebration well worth the price of admission. 

Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist is screening at the Fantasia International Film Festival 2021.

Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist
  • 9.5/10
    Rating - 9.5/10
9.5/10

TL;DR

My one complaint is that we don’t get to spend much time on who Satoshi Kon was as a human being. We know he was a strong advocate for animators and a strong supporter of the animation industry as a whole, but we don’t dig deeper into who he was personally. From some of the guests on the documentary, we can gather he was a quiet, focused man and a man who would be endearing but also nasty, according to Madhouse co-founder Maruyama. We don’t dive too deep, and I wish we did, but this documentary is a celebration of his films, and it is a celebration well worth the price of admission.