Satoshi Kon Collection Review

Preface

I get asked a lot why I chose the name The Student Film Review. For me it was a simple choice; I was a student and I was reviewing films, it was a perfect fit. I wasn’t reviewing films from a student perspective, it was just the period of time in my life when I was reviewing movies. But this collection, I’m reviewing films which are very much tied in with my studies, these are the films that I’m researching for my dissertation.

Satoshi Kon was a visionary director. Over ten years he made four films, each unique and outstanding in their own rights. He pushed animation and anime in new directions, focussing on much more adult and mature stories than his contemporaries. If Hayao Miyazaki (the head of Studio Ghibli) is the Walt Disney of anime, Satoshi Kon would be the Alfred Hitchcock or Terry Gilliam. His films became some of my favourites, so I chose him to focus on for my final university work. And now onto reviews.

  • Perfect Blue
  • Millennium Actress
  • Tokyo Godfathers
  • Paprika

Review

Perfect Blue

The first of Kon’s four films, the story focuses on pop singer Mima who takes a drastic career turn to become a risqué actress. She starts to receive death threats from a fanatical fan/stalker and hallucinates monstrous visions and nightmares.

This was both my first Kon film and my introduction to anime, which was an odd experience to say the least. The animation is a bit low budget, with some definition on large sections of crowds missing, but it holds up enough for the film. And while the English dub was a bit jarring at the beginning, it actually added to the weirdness of the film. What got me hooked was the clever and mind-bending story. We go from dream sequences to rooftop chases, song and dance numbers to viscous and bloody murder with a screwdriver, before landing on not one but two rape sequences. It was definitely a jarring film to be introduced to, but a memorable one. Fans of Darren Aronofsky, this is a film to check out. The latter director bought the rights just to restage a number of scenes in his film Requiem For A Dream, and the whole film is the basis for Black Swan. For anyone thinking that anime or animation is for children, this is one to change your mind.

Score: 9/10 Dark, twisted and baffling, but entertaining.

Millennium Actress

This was Kon’s second film and it shows how versatile a director he was. While Perfect Blue focused on dark and warped versions of celebrity, Millennium Actress is much more light-hearted, with a love for Japanese history, both real and cinematic. The film follows a documentary filmmaker and his assistant, who are interviewing a famous actress from the Golden Age of Cinema. As she tells them the story of her life, the group are transported back through time and relive the important moments of her life.

The time-travel gimmick can sometimes make this film even harder to follow than Perfect Blue with its dream-within-visions sequences. We’ll be in a train in the 1930s, but the characters will get off and the film will be back in the 1500s, without even a mention that we are in a new time period. The story though isn’t as interesting as Kon’s first film. The film is about a woman trying to find her first love amid all the time travel, but it isn’t that compelling. We don’t get any time to know with the man that she is chasing, which is kind of the point, but it leaves the film with nothing to aspire to. He’s an empty vessel, purely there to move the story on. And after the first couple of time swaps, the story potters about for a while until the big reveals start happening near the end.

Score: 7/10 One of the history buffs and romance fans, but not one of the best.

Tokyo Godfathers

Probably Kon’s most accessible film, as it features none of the trippy mind-bending weirdness or the adult themes of his larger body of work. The story follows three homeless people in the middle of Tokyo, who find a baby dumped in the street on Christmas Eve. The three band together to go find the child’s parents just in time for Christmas.

While the film is the most “normal” of Kon’s, it’s still deals with big ideas. The main theme is family; our three leads have each been thrown out or left their families for different reasons, and over the course of the film they seek to resolve and contact their families. The most interesting of the three is Hana, a transgender nightclub singer, whose desire to be female leads her to running away with the baby so that she can feel “motherly”.

The film is the most comedic of Kon’s four, but the humour can sometimes come off as forced. Take in the meandering story and very contrived plot (people meeting over and over again in one of the largest cities in Japan), it requires you to leave plausibility at the door. Kon’s fantastic camerawork and editing though make it still enjoyable to watch from a technical aspect. And it’s a Christmas film, so why not watch it next year rather than Die Hard for your alternative Christmas movie night?

Score: 6/10 Probably the weakest of the bunch, but still a good watch.

Paprika

Kons’ last film before he died in 2010, Paprika is his most well-received film. The story is about a machine called the DC Mini, which allows people to enter other people’s dreams. Its purpose is for psychotherapy, but a group of criminals steal it for nefarious ends. A group of scientists have to band together to find the DC Mini and save the world from total destruction.

The set-up of Paprika might seem familiar. That’s because, just like how Perfect Blue was remade into Black Swan, Paprika was remade into Inception. It’s not just in the vague story beats either; the rotating hallway, the shattering glass wall, the dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams idea (Inception went three dreams deep, Paprika goes five deep), it’s been lifted from Kon’s magnum opus.

The film is ten years old, but the animation is superb. Crystal clear and meticulously detailed, Madhouse, the studio behind it, outdid many similar animation at the time and works being done today. The crazy dream sequences and editing quirks (such as jumping through paintings and billboards and into another scene) are feats to be admired. It’s a film that is also in love with filmmaking as an art, with sections detailing Filmmaking 101 such as the “180 Line” and recreating famous films within characters dreams. With the addition of the darker themes and intriguing story of Perfect Blue but the brighter colours and cheery aspect of Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers, this is the culmination of Kon’s work and is surely his best.

Score: 10/10 Will blow you away with its fantastical approach.

The YouTube channel Every Frame A Painting did a fascinating breakdown of Kon’s editing and visual style. It’s a great watch, even if you don’t know his work.

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