“A genius but a nasty guy” is the way a former collaborator describes the late director Satoshi Kon, a sentiment echoed by others who’d worked alongside him though many also describe him as gentle if reserved remarking on his seeming impenetrability. Pascal-Alex Vincent’s documentary Satoshi Kon: The illusionist (Satoshi Kon, l’illusionniste) is less interested in illuminating the man than briefly sketching an overview of his career yet nevertheless seems to content to present him as an enigmatic figure filled with contradictions which his work, in some way, was intended to resolve. 

Skipping over Kon’s early life and beginnings as a manga artist, Vincent begins with Perfect Blue before proceeding through each of his features chronologically finishing with the incomplete Dreaming Machine. In essence a talking heads doc, he interviews a series of well-known figures in the anime world such as fellow directors Mamoru Oshii, Mamoru Hosoda, and Jin-Roh’s Hiroyuki Okiura, as well as those who had worked with Kon directly, the international filmmakers who’d found inspiration in his work such as Darren Aronofsky, Jeremy Clapin, Marc Caro, and Rodney Rothman, and experts in anime and manga history. 

In a sense, Vincent is less interested in Kon as a man than in the lasting impact of his oeuvre, which does in a sense lend an uncomfortable imbalance in implying Kon’s work is of greater importance because of the influence it went on to have on Western, particularly Hollywood, cinema. Kon’s impact on contemporary anime for example is not addressed in any real depth save for implying that it gave the art form permission to deal with more mature concepts and ideas which in itself implies that it up to that point had not done so. 

Yet even if Kon is described as “prickly”, an intense perfectionist unable to tolerate failure or resistance, he is also regarded as another kind of innovator in his determination to change the notoriously difficult, often exploitative working culture of the contemporary anime industry. Despite facing financial hardship, he ensured his crew members and animators were paid fairly while also determined to support the next generation of anime creatives. His goodbye letter published the day after he passed away similarly expresses concern for his animators now left adrift with Dreaming Machine destined to remain incomplete. A former colleague remembers Kon as a patient mentor and teacher, gaining a new appreciation for him when she dared to challenge some of the attitudes she found unpalatable in his work including his depiction of women only for Kon to reveal that the women in his films are often reflections of himself. Thus Mima’s torment is an expression of his own in dealing with the fractious politics of the anime and manga industry. 

According to others, the desire to address these issues was born of that to resolve the things he did not understand, Kon again describing the heroine of Millennium Actress’ quest to retrieve a lost key as like that of a director pursuing the idealised vision in his mind, finally arriving at the conclusion that what he loved was the chase itself. His work was frequently concerned with the interplay between dream and reality, yet his vision could sometimes be at odds with others’ describing Paprika as his “Sailor Moon” movie intended as a piece of commercial cinema about a dream hopping “magical girl”. Despite his perfectionism, his universe was anything but black and white, a space which held no place for those who embody evil and sought only to understand. According to an archive interview, Dreaming Machine would have marked a break with his persistent themes, aimed at children as well as adults though apparently also dealing with some darker ideas as mankind’s children attempt to survive their orphanhood. It’s this sense of contradiction which gives Kon’s work its power, at once a man who “radiated gentleness” but was unafraid to speak his mind, bluntly berating a colleague for not pulling his weight but hurt and confused when the colleague declined the opportunity to continue working together because of his intense management style. “He had two sides to him. He could be a nasty guy. A really nasty guy, OK? But I loved him” according to Madhouse’s Masao Maruyama, “He’ll always be in our hearts” a contradiction to the last.

Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist streams in Canada until Aug. 25 as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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