Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist was originally made to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Satoshi Kon’s sudden passing. The documentary is a solid acknowledgement of Satoshi Kon’s works, but you wish it dove deeper than it does. If you’ve seen all or most of Satoshi Kon’s works, then this documentary doesn’t really cover much of anything you don’t already know. It feels like a film you’d get much more out of if you were only slightly familiar with Satoshi Kon or went into The Illusionist completely in the dark about his work in animation.
The film covers all of Satoshi Kon’s major directorial film and television works; Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paranoia Agent, Paprika, and Dreaming Machine. Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist also includes interviews and insight from over 20 individuals including former and current character designers and animators at Ghibli and Madhouse, seven film directors, voice actors, producers, scriptwriters, sound designers, a novelist, professors, anime historians, animation critics, art directors, and curators.
In a way, Satoshi Kon is to anime what Bruce Lee is to martial arts cinema. Bruce Lee left behind a legacy of four major completed films and one that was still in production when he died (The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon, and Game of Death) while Satoshi Kon had the same number of completed directorial films and one that he was working on when he passed.
It’s an interesting comparison because the documentaries that have covered Bruce Lee are formatted similarly to Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist. Documentaries like this that cover famous individuals that have passed only seem to scratch the surface of their overall contributions to the film industry. With Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist, you just hope for more like a better glimpse or a few seconds of footage from Dreaming Machine that Kon actually completed.
Mamoru Hosoda, director of The Boy and The Beast and Mirai, says that Satoshi Kon was able to take animated films and make them as powerful as live-action. Mamoru Oshii, director of Ghost in the Shell and the Patlabor films, says Kon never held back and always spoke his mind. Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) mentions that he’d never seen Japanese animation used for a real, adult, dramatic story until he saw Perfect Blue. Aya Suzuki, an animator at Ghibli and Madhouse, says that Satoshi Kon was not only a superb filmmaker but the world also lost an incredible teacher, mentor, and activist once he passed.
The film reveals that Satoshi Kon was heavily inspired by Akira and Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga work specifically. Kon’s first two manga titles, Toriko in 1995 and Kaikisen in 1990, were sci-fi manga published in Young Magazine. Marc Caro, director of The City of Lost Children, wanted to adapt a live-action version of Kaikisen for the big screen. The film doesn’t disclose that Kon also worked with Otomo on the anime Memories, which recently received a new English dub and Blu-ray release from Discotek Media. Kon is credited as writing Magnetic Rose, which is arguably the best segment of the film.
The Perfect Blue film differs from and is less grotesque than the novel. Kon’s way of making films, especially ones based on novels, seemed to be that he wanted to adapt the novels he found interesting and would make them his own. The themes would be similar, but where Kon took his animation went in a different direction than the source material it was based on. Junko Iwao, the voice of Mima in Perfect Blue, based her performance in the film on an actual stalker experience she had when she was a music idol.
Millennium Actress was said to have been inspired by actress Setsuko Hara and Slaughterhouse-Five. The film actually shared the top prize with Spirited Away at the Japan Media Arts Festival. Tokyo Godfathers was inspired by a John Wayne western called 3 Godfathers. Paranoia Agent is Satoshi Kon’s answer to Twin Peaks. Satoshi Kon liked to inject himself into his films. The anxiety Mima faces with her stalker in Perfect Blue is a parallel to Kon’s struggle with politics in animation. Yasutaka Tsutsui, the novelist who wrote Paprika, also wrote the novel that Mamoru Hosoda's The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is based on.
Despite nearly all of his films being well-liked by critics, Satoshi Kon’s films never did well financially and typically lost money in the long run. The documentary mentions that Paprika was his most successful film, but making a decent profit always seemed to be a struggle for Kon. He was also a perfectionist that didn’t tolerate any sort of mistake. He was known for being polite, well-mannered, and behaved like a gentleman, but his pride and work ethic often made it difficult for him to collaborate with others. A manga called Seraphim, which was a Mamoru Oshii/Satoshi Kon collaboration, was abandoned after only one volume because Oshii and Kon were always butting heads.
Aya Suzuki does go into some detail regarding Dreaming Machine. Satoshi Kon actually teased the characters of Dreaming Machine as well as some of the themes of the film in Paprika. Kon saw Paprika as a culmination of his film work to date and wanted to go in a different direction for Dreaming Machine. It was going to be his first family film. Humans created robots and assigned work to them, but the humans were now long gone. The robots, however, are still doing the work that was assigned to them. Electricity is on the verge of running out completely and The Land of Electricity, where electricity never runs out, is the only solution. According to IMDb, Dreaming Machine is very much in the works to still be completed at some point once funding is available for it while staying true to Kon’s vision. However, this wasn’t mentioned at all in the documentary.
One of the best stories in Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist is that Satoshi Kon and producer Taro Maki worked together on Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress, but Kon fired Maki after Tokyo Godfathers was released. For years, Maki thought it was because of money. It wasn’t until several years after Kon’s death that Maki revisited Tokyo Godfathers and caught some things he didn’t the first time around. It was never about money. Maki didn’t totally understand Tokyo Godfathers, so Kon didn’t want to work with someone who didn’t fully appreciate his work.
Satoshi Kon passed much sooner than he should have and even Taro Maki mentions that Satoshi Kon and his work came around too soon. This allowed Kon’s work to be appreciated more later on as he influenced several generations of animators and filmmakers, but it’s difficult not to wish for another film from him since they are such unique and fulfilling experiences. Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist is an accurate representation of Satoshi Kon’s most well-known works, but you’re just left wanting more. More from his early works, more from Dreaming Machine, and more of anything he’s ever done or ever been a part of. What’s out there is all we’ll ever have from Satoshi Kon and that’s the saddest element of all.
Kon sounds like he was a difficult individual to work with, but the end result was always something extraordinary. Everyone in the documentary speaks very highly of him even the ones who butted heads with him. He was a masterful visionary and Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist portrays that message extremely well.
© 2021 Chris Sawin