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Still from "Perfect Blue"
Still from "Perfect Blue"Satoshi Kon

Tracing the legacy of anime giant Satoshi Kon through four key works

On the tenth anniversary of his death, we explore the life and art of one of anime’s most prolific rule-breakers, from Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress to Tokyo Godfathers and Paprika

There aren’t many filmmakers who can interrogate reality as captivatingly as Satoshi Kon. The Japanese filmmaker, who died ten years ago today from pancreatic cancer at the age of 46, is one of the most respected creators of anime, a director who’s often uttered in the same breath as Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuhiro Otomo. While his interest in the possibilities of cyberspace and the nature of mass media can draw comparisons to the work of David Cronenberg or Olivier Assayas, Kon was a singular cinematic mastermind.

Blurring the lines between performance and identity, the tension between the real and unreal, and the very porous line between illusion and materiality, Kon’s work steered clear of conventional anime tropes, in which narratives often fall into sci-fi, fantasy, or romantic genres. His novel approach to animation took cues from live-action auteurs such as David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, and Alfred Hitchcock, and ultimately led Kon to develop his experimental style of filmmaking, characterised by its heavy use of overlapping scenes and jump cuts. Using camera trickery, Kon’s narratives would slip and slide amorphously into each other, like dreams – techniques that, violent at times, could evoke the psychological breakdown of a character’s psyche (Perfect Blue), or gently tumble into one another like memories (Millennium Actress).

While contemporaries like Miyazaki were busy building fantastical worlds filled with rolling green hills and blue skies, Kon’s universe looked inwards, his narratives frequently turning to performers who experience traumas that lead them into liminal worlds where the real and unreal mingle. His fascination with intriguing female characters came in part from his interest in shojo manga, like Whisper of the Heart (later to be made into an anime by Studio Ghibli), and recall what Sharalyn Orbaugh defines as “uncertain, mercurial, elastic,” possessing a “slightly confused but seductive vulnerability”. But Kon’s portrayal of his protagonists is not to be taken at face value: his overt use of gaze, among other techniques, demonstrates a strong social consciousness – several of his works, Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers, Paranoia Agent, are not only grounded in contemporary social issues, but serve as clear critiques of Japanese society.

In January, nearly a decade after his untimely death, Kon was posthumously celebrated by the Annie Awards, an annual ceremony in Los Angeles, dedicated to animation. He received the Winsor McCay Award, described as “one of the highest honours given to an individual in the animation industry in recognition for career contributions to the art of animation.” Previous recipients include Ghost in the Shell’s Mamoru Oshii, Osamu Tezuka AKA the godfather of manga, and Walt Disney, to name a few.

Despite his relatively short life, Kon, with a small, concentrated body of work, created a universe. On the tenth anniversary of his death, we remember the life and legacy of one of anime’s most prolific rule-breakers through four key works.