Meet the animation director who inspired Inception

Ian Wang guides us through the work of a largely underrated animation director, whose work has inspired the likes of Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky.

In 2006 Satoshi Kon released what would be his final film, Paprika. A disorienting sci-fi extravaganza, Paprika is about an experimental technology that allows the wearer to enter into someone else’s dreams and influence their thoughts – sound familiar? Although the conceptually similar Inception is undoubtedly better known, Christopher Nolan admitted that he was inspired by Paprika, which predates his film by four years, and he’s not the only live-action filmmaker to be influenced by Kon. Darren Aronofsky bought the rights to Kon’s debut feature Perfect Blue just so he could copy a minute-long scene from it for Requiem for a Dream.

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Satoshi Kon. Photo credit: Getty Images.

One look at Kon’s filmography and it’s easy to see what draws those directors to his work. Kon shares Aronofsky’s penchant for striking visuals, nervous atmospheres and sheer visceral intensity. He’s also one of the few filmmakers whose work rivals the narrative complexity of Nolan’s. Kon’s style is frantic, hyperactive, near-bewildering; none of his films are longer than about 90 minutes, but they unload more visual information onto the viewer than most films twice that length. Across just four films, Kon carved out a niche for himself that no-one else could replicate and, since his untimely death in 2010, may be left permanently unfilled.

Kon wasn’t a genre filmmaker. He was just as comfortable in the paranoid corners of psychological thrillers (Perfect Blue) as he was in the pomp and lavishness of costume drama (Millennium Actress). It was what he brought to those genres, however, that was so distinctive. Each of Kon’s films is different, but each one meditates on the blurred lines between society and individuality, between fantasy and reality, between art and life. Kon contorts and manipulates those lines until they’re barely visible – one moment you’ll be watching a climactic, epiphanic scene that reveals the truth about a character, the next the camera will pull back and reveal that the character was only acting as part of a TV show. Kon never lets you get complacent as a viewer, he’s always one step ahead, always making sure there’s some other trick he’s got up his sleeve – he wants you on the edge of your seat from the very start to the very end.

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Still from Kon’s 2001 film Millennium Actress. Photo credit: Madhouse.

What’s more, since Kon works in the realm of animation, this heady, reality-distorting aesthetic is unburdened by the physical restrictions of live-action. He takes that freedom and runs with it, drawing up impossible, otherworldly situations and scenes for the audience to revel in. Kon’s is a world in which the ground can literally fall out from underneath you; in which a band of sentient furniture can march through the streets and websites are physical rooms you can go and have a drink in. It’s the creativity and memorability of these images, I think, that is a large part of Kon’s staying power – once you’ve seen the delirium of the parade sequences in Paprika, or the chaotic scene transitions of Millenium Actress, they’re hard to forget.

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The parade sequence of Kon’s Paprika. Photo credit: Madhouse.

None of this is just mindless visual spectacle either: Kon’s films often deal with very weighty topics that other animation directors would probably shy away from. Perfect Blue, which some believe to be the inspiration for Aronofsky’s Black Swan, confronts the misogyny and exploitation behind Japan’s pop idol industry; Tokyo Godfathers focuses on that city’s homeless population; the idea for Paprika was influenced by Kon’s attitude towards cyber-surveillance. Kon celebrates the vibrancy and fascination of modern, technology-dependent life, but he also sees its ugly underbelly, and he shows both sides in his films.

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Promotional image for Perfect Blue. Photo credit: Madhouse.

I think Kon’s work is a perfect example of what can happen when animation is pushed to its creative limit, both visually and conceptually. In an industry which so often chases bland high-concept cash-grabs, Kon refused to settle. He made Perfect Blue on a shoestring budget, and still managed to make it one of the most creative, ahead-of-its-time animation features I’ve ever seen. A number of live-action remakes of his films have been optioned, but the truth is that everything that makes Kon’s films special – the brightly-coloured surreal imagery, the lightning-fast editing pace, the confusion of fantasy and reality – only really works because of the medium of animation. It’s a vindication of a genre that is often looked down upon, and an achievement that deserves to be celebrated.

At the time of his death, Kon was in the midst of making what would’ve been his fifth film, Dreaming Machine, which he called a “road movie for robots”. He wasn’t even halfway through but his studio, Madhouse, is committed to finishing the film despite financial difficulties and struggling to find a replacement for Kon. It’s a testament to how important his films were for the studio, and how much his work continues to be valued almost a decade after his death. Rest in peace, Satoshi Kon.

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