It has been nearly 10 years since anime director Satoshi Kon died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 46.
Despite the relatively young age at which he died in August 2010, Kon is one of the most-lauded creators of Japanese animation, a director who is often mentioned in the same breath as Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuhiro Otomo. His influence extends beyond Japan: His films have been cited as inspiration for Hollywood hits such as “Black Swan” and “Inception.”
A decade after his untimely death, Kon is set to be posthumously celebrated by the Annie Awards, an annual ceremony in Los Angeles, dedicated to animation. Kon is one of the recipients of this year’s Winsor McCay Award, described as “one of the highest honors given to an individual in the animation industry in recognition for career contributions to the art of animation.” Previous recipients include Mamoru Oshii, Osamu Tezuka, Ralph Bakshi and Walt Disney, to name a few. The award is set to be presented on Jan. 25.
Kon was “someone who I think everyone (on the jury) recognized as such a talented and important artist,” says Charles Solomon, a member of the Board of Directors of ASIFA-Hollywood, the organization that presents the Annie Awards. “He had the kind of creativity and originality that was so clearly deserving.”
Kon was born and raised in Hokkaido, but attended Musashino Art University in Tokyo, where he studied graphic design and illustration. During this time, he became interested in films from overseas and the work of Japanese science-fiction author Yasutaka Tsutsui, whose novel “Paprika” he would later adapt.
He began his creative career not as an animator, but as a manga artist, debuting in 1984. Soon after, he became an assistant to Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator of seminal anime “Akira.” Kon and Otomo went on to collaborate on several projects, including the animated films “Roujin Z” and “Memories.” At the same time, Kon continued working in manga, penning works such as “Opus,” a meta manga-within-a-manga meditation that ran in 1995 and 1996. In that title, Kon began to explore themes that would later run throughout his filmography.
“Even from his earliest works he had something specific he wanted to say,” says Zack Davisson, who translated “Opus” and “Art of Satoshi Kon” into English. “Look at ‘Opus’ and you will see those same ideas bubbling, of reality and unreality, and of dual nature. This was clearly a mind born with a particular question to explore.”
That exploration continued in “Perfect Blue,” Kon’s directorial debut. The 1997 psychological thriller centers around a singer whose attempt to reinvent herself as an actress is complicated by a dangerous doppelganger, an internet-obsessed stalker and a role in a TV series that increasingly blends with her real life until neither she nor the audience is sure where one ends and the other begins.
“In many of his films, there is an uncertainly about what is real and what isn’t,” says Solomon. “He glides between fantasy and reality and memory and film and fact and fiction.”
American director Darren Aronofsky, another filmmaker known for gliding between fantasy and reality, was particularly taken with “Perfect Blue,” as he told Kon when the two met in 2001. His film “Requiem for a Dream” (2000) features a shot-for-shot homage to a scene from “Perfect Blue,” and his 2010 film “Black Swan” has been noted for its many thematic similarities to Kon’s work.
Kon’s next film, 2001’s “Millennium Actress,” was like a mirror image of “Perfect Blue,” again featuring an actress, an obsessive fan and a blend of fiction and reality. But while “Perfect Blue” was a stomach-churning thriller, “Millennium Actress” was an uplifting ode to the golden age of Japanese cinema. The film traces the long life of a fictional actress whose story is unveiled via a dreamlike jaunt through her oeuvre.
“It had Kon’s fluid animation, his sense of unreality, but infused with an infectious joie de vivre,” says Davisson.
“Millennium Actress” also established a new creative relationship for the director, pairing him with new wave musician Susumu Hirasawa, whose bracing synthesizer-heavy tracks helped give the film an explosive propulsion. Hirasawa would go on to collaborate with Kon on many more projects, including his final film, “Paprika.”
Kon’s third film, “Tokyo Godfathers” (2003), takes place on Christmas Eve, and centers around three homeless people who discover an abandoned newborn girl and make it their mission to return her to her parents. Perhaps the director’s most straightforward, feel-good film, “Tokyo Godfathers” also tackles issues like homelessness, gender and family.
The following year, Kon helmed his first television series, “Paranoia Agent,” which allowed him to tell stories that didn’t fit within the feature-film format. Its 13 episodes are all loosely connected around a figure called Shonen Bat (Lil’ Slugger in the English-language release), whose identity is never made clear.
“You have to think and puzzle and come to your own conclusions,” says Solomon of the series. “Years later, I’m still thinking about it.”
Kon’s final work, 2006’s “Paprika,” was an adaptation of a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, the author who had long inspired the director. The story, about a machine that allows users to enter the dreams of others, seems almost custom-built to fit Kon’s pet themes. But, as with “Perfect Blue,” Kon put his own stamp on the material, keeping only the central premise and again inserting his love of cinema: One central character, whose dreams flit between scenes from “Roman Holiday” and “Tarzan,” serves almost as a stand-in for the director, even explaining cinematic rules to the titular protagonist in one particularly meta scene.
Kon also labored to improve conditions in the anime industry. He was one of the founding members of the Japan Animation Creators Association, which advocates for better pay and working conditions for animators. Ever the cinephile, he also encouraged his fellow animators to expand their viewing habits beyond animation, assembling lists of live-action films that included classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Jaws” and “Tokyo Story.”
In his final days, Kon was working on a film called “Dreaming Machine,” which is about one-third complete. Its producer, Masao Maruyama, initially resolved to complete the film based on Kon’s storyboards, but in 2018 said it would be put on indefinite hold.
“I think it’s tragic that Kon died so soon, because I would’ve loved to have seen what his next films would be,” says Solomon.
Despite his short life, Kon left the world with a wealth of creative output. And as the posthumous Winsor McCay Award confirms, his legacy continues to reverberate throughout the animation community.
“You have these masterpieces of animation, and they all have something vital to say, they all pose questions that we can never answer. That is infinitely alluring,” says Davisson.
For more information about the Annie Awards, visit annieawards.org.