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Satoshi Kon, l'illusionniste
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by Jay Seaver

"A fine look at the works of a great filmmaker."
4 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2021 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It's a crying shame that "Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist" can be both relatively detailed and complete as an overview of Kon's career; when pancreatic cancer claimed him in 2010, he was only 46, with four animated features, one mini-series, and a handful of shorter works in anime and manga to his name. Nevertheless, this festival's award for excellence in animation bears his name for good reason, and this documentary profile does a fine job of showing why he is so revered.

His relatively short career means that it can be broken up into sections focusing on his works: Perfect Blue, a psychological thriller whose grounded and adult nature was unlike much Japanese animation that had previously crossed the Pacific; Millennium Actress, which story that spans Japan's Twentieth Century inspired by the life of actress Setsuko Hara; Tokyo Godfathers, a freewheeling adventure among the unseen people of the metropolis; Paranoia Agent, a TV series where chaos takes human form and anything can happen; Paprika, a science-fiction thriller that pulled his themes on multiple identities and the nature of reality together; and the unfinished Dreaming Machine, intended to be his first family-friendly adventure story. Director Pascal-Alex Vincent is able to excerpt all of these works liberally (except the last, where he mostly has concept art), allowing the audience to see the extent to which Kon brought a realistic style to his films while still being able to explode into fantasy and heightened emotion, and see how themes recur in his work.

Kon himself obviously cannot be interviewed, but Vincent is able to put together an impressive group of people to talk about his work. There are noteworthy Western filmmakers who were at points aiming to adapt his work like Marc Caro and Darren Aranofsky, with the latter being frank about why his live-action Perfect Blue never came together even though he was able to homage the original in Requiem for a Dream; there are fellow anime directors like legend Mamoru Oshii and Mamoru Hosada. Novelist Yasutaka Tsutsui, a legend of Japanese science fiction, comes across as aware of his own status but generous in how Kon adapted his work; there's a nice bit of serendipity in how as Kon was making his last film Paprika, Hosada was making his first feature from another Tsutsui work, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The most interesting and entertaining interviews come from those who worked with him, whether it be Junko Iwao talking about drawing on her own experience as an idol singer to voice Mima in Perfect Blue, Madhouse Studios founder Masao Maruyama and producer Taro Maki showing clear admiration but also clearly focused on the business side, or gregarious animator Aya Suzuki talking about her difficulties with how Kon treated his female characters.

One of the intriguing things she mentions is that Kon always saw the most of himself in those characters, which makes Tokyo Godfathers and its transwoman lead a bit more interesting. The film doesn't dig into that sort of thing, though to be fair, it doesn't spend a lot of time discussing Kon as a person rather than an artist at all, with no sign of his widow or anybody who knew him personally rather than professionally. That's a bit unfortunate, as the portrait that emerges via various interviews is potentially fascinating: He's described as a demanding boss and Oshii is philosophical about how their egos clashed when collaborating on a manga, but it's also mentioned almost offhandedly that he would take less pay than a director normally did so that those working on his pictures could get something closer to a fair wage (the animation industry in Japan is notoriously exploitative), and one of his stated goals while making The Dreaming Machine was to help elevate newcomers.

Renewed frustration that said film remains stuck in limbo a decade later is the inevitable side-effect of watching this movie, but it's far from all bad: At 80 minutes, it's an easily-digested overview to foist on someone who hasn't heard of Kon to get them interested, and for the rest of us, it's a reminder of his greatness which we might need. I, myself, will certainly be starting a rewatch of his films once the festival is over, and wouldn't be surprised if others do as well.

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originally posted: 08/06/21 08:00:00
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Directed by
  Pascal-Alex Vincent

Written by
  Pascal-Alex Vincent


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