Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on November 21, 2010
Three months ago we lost a major talent in the world of animation. Satoshi Kon was only 46-years-old when he died of pancreatic cancer. He was the Japanese anime director behind Perfect Blue (1998), Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003), Paranoia Agent (2004), and Paprika (2006). He was on pre-production for The Dreaming Machine when he passed away. With his death, all work on that film was suspended. Kon had asked the production company to promise him they’d finish the film even in the face of his demise, and last week Madhouse Studios announced that production would resume on The Dreaming Machine, with former chief animation director Yoshimi Itazu at the helm.
Until I saw Paprika, I have to confess to not being familiar with the work of Satoshi Kon. My experience with anime is shallow at best. As a kid I enjoyed Speed Racer (I prefer the original title: Mach Go Go Go, or I should say: マッハGoGoGo). As a college student I was blown away by the mental explosions that re-shaped a Neo-Tokyo in Akira (1988). As a film series director I’ve programmed films by Hayao Miyazaki (and already covered some of his amazing work for TCM) along with other titles like Ghost in the Shell (1996), Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (2001), and Evangelion: 1.0 You are (Not) Alone (2007) – the sequel of which is being pitched to me right now for my Spring calendar. Of most of the anime films I’ve programmed, Paprika stands out for me.
I first saw Paprika a few years ago and recently decided to revisit it after hearing of the tragic fate that befell the director. There were some interesting things I discovered the second time around; Paprika was the first film to use a Vocaloid (a singing synthesizer application that allows you to mess around with pre-recorded vocals and input your own melody and lyrics), and I found out Kon was a kindred spirit who loved Philip K. Dick, Terry Gilliam, and Akira Kurosawa. Kon was also influenced by the Japanese author and actor Yasutaka Tsutsui (b. 1934), who wrote a novel in 1993, of same name – Paprika – which was later adapted by Kon for the screen. The other major revelation was that, holy smokes, Christopher Nolan was definitely influenced by Paprika when he set out to make what ended up being one of the biggest blockbusters of this year: Inception. After all, the story for Paprika involves a machine that allows people to enter the dreams of others and also introduces the idea of shared dreams and – the kicker – thieves who steal said machine to mess around with other peoples dreams. Sound familiar?
Of course, we’re still talking apples-and-oranges here because anime is so distinct from a live action film. Also: whereas Nolan is obsessed with creating clever films that unwind their layers with clock-work precision, Kon allows himself far messier (some might say “inexplicable”) routes that freely tap into a stream-of-consciousness mode. Putting aside issues of plot execution, there is also the obvious visual style inherent to anime, which can be an acquired taste. One friend of mine avoids anime films because he avidly dislikes one of its most tell-tale signature marks: the exaggerated large eyes. For this he can blame Osamu Tezuka, “the Godfather of Anime.”
Tezuka is the creator behind Astro Boy and is often cited as being the Japanese answer to Walt Disney. It’s a lazy comparison that also gets tossed Miyazaki’s way (who doesn’t care for it). But in Tezuka’s case it’s certainly apropos since his wide-eyed characters were partly influenced by Bambi and Mickey Mouse. But Tezuka was also influenced by the Fleischer Brothers and Betty Boop – and since I’ve always had a crush on Betty I guess that might account for why I’m a bit more forgiving of those big eyes than my friend. Tezuka also had his share of noteworthy admirers, including Stanley Kubrick. Presumably with Astro Boy in mind, Kubrick sent a letter of invitation to Tezuka inviting him to be the art director on 2001: A Space Odyssey - but Tezuka had to refuse because he couldn’t move to England for the required year that Kubrick wanted him there (the film started shooting in 1965 and was finished in 1968).
Kon’s work also touches on science-fiction, and just about every other genre you can imagine as well. One of the many things I like about Kon is that he clearly loves movies. The premise for Millennium Actress shows us two filmmakers who go out of their way to find an elderly actress with the hope of making a documentary about her life. Kon was clearly a fan of both Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Citizen Kane (1941), but where Millennium Actress really shines is in the varied ways it presents the movie-making process – all the way from silent propaganda films to colorful science-fiction stories that present our leading lady as a spaceship pilot.
In Paprika, Kon continues to show us movies-within-movies, and to great effect. The plot involves a revolutionary form of dream therapy assisted by a device called the “DC Mini,” which allows the person using the device to see the dreams of the patient. The first scene in Paprika opens on a surreal note, as an impossibly large clown steps out of a very small car, and the action gets increasingly bizarre from there until we realize that we are witnessing the recurring nightmares of Detective Konakawa Toshimi. The doctor using the DC Mini is Atsuko Chiba, whose avatar within the dream world is of an attractive young sprite known as Paprika. Use of the DC Mini is very hush-hush due to the fact that the government hasn’t approved its use yet, but all this is complicated by the fact that three prototypes are stolen and all hell breaks loose. Dreams and reality merge. Reality unravels. And through this all we keep revisiting the detective’s recurring nightmare, which plays out on a movie screen within his mind, and has everything to do with making movies. It’s a bit of a spoiler, but not by much, to reveal that the last thing the detective does is to buy a ticket to watch a movie titled Dreaming Kids.
My friend who hates the Bambi eyes might soon be able to put his theory that live-action is always better than anime to the test: a treatment for the live action version of Paprika is in the hands of Wolfgang Peterson, but whether the popularity of Inception will hurt or hinder its production remains to be seen. At first I must confess to thinking it a bit surreal that the director behind Das Boot (1981) – a realistic, claustrophobic, and tragic war drama – would want to tackle the decidedly unrealistic and wide-open-anything-goes terrain of dreams. But then I remembered that he also directed The NeverEnding Story (1984), which is all about getting lost in fantasy worlds. Terry Gilliam even bought some cloud footage from the producers of The NeverEnding Story to use in Brazil (1985). Kon would certainly have appreciated that detail; Brazil was one of his favorite films.
With Paprika, Kon’s animated dream came to life, merged with reality, and even became one of Terry Gilliam’s favorite films (Gilliam included it in his top 50 animated movie list). While The Dream Machine is not a sequel, it is a continuation of the themes Kon has been playing with that honor his heroes and promises to expand on ideas seen in Paprika. When it comes to the act and art of cinema, with its projected light that cuts through a dark room to allow us, the audience, to share in the dreams reflected on the screen, Kon was a true bearer of the torch. He grabbed it from those who preceded him, did spectacular work while it was his to hold, and made damn sure that he passed it on to keep it going, even when he was stopped tragically short of the finish line.
Satoshi Kon posted his last thoughts on his blog. The translation can be read here:
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