“The greatest show time” | Perfect Blue (1997) and Paprika (2006)

‘It’s the greatest show time!’ announces a clown as he impossibly squeezes out of a tiny automobile. A circus ring seems like an incongruous place to begin a science fiction film, but before long we are following a middle-aged police officer from circus to corridor to train and beyond, without explanation or logical sense. We are in a dream, and that dreams is being subtly controlled and manipulated by a machine: the DC Mini.

It sounds quite a lot like Christopher Nolan’s 2010 mega-hit Inception, in which surveillance experts use technology to enter other people’s dream-states and steal their ideas. This, however, is Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, an animated film from Japan that pre-dates Nolan’s work by four years and is – arguably – the superior film.

Satoshi Kon died in August 2010, aged 46, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Anime (Japanese animation) lost one of its most distinct and talented voices. There is a rarefied group of anime directors considered at the top of the industry, whose films represent the pinnacle of artistry, passion and talent in an industry overflowing with films, TV serials and original animated videos (OAVs). The group is topped, without serious question, by Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away) and over time has included Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), Makoto Shinkai (Your Name) and Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell). It also, to my mind, included Satoshi Kon, whose string of animated feature films and series demonstrated a medium at its absolute best.

His premature death was a tragedy for the world of animation. Animation lost a Mizoguchi, or a Hitchcock, or a Bresson. While the greatest tragedy was obviously for Kon himself, his family, and his friends, there was also the mourning of a creative talent – and a sad regret surrounding all the potential future films we will never have the opportunity to see. It is a regret that I continue to feel today; what masterpieces did we lose to his illness and death? As the saying goes: fuck cancer.

Kon started his career as an artist and a writer. His early work included art and scripting duties for Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira). Kon provided art of Otomo’s manga World Apartment Horror, and subsequently worked as set designer on the OAV (original animated video) Roujin Z. He wrote the script to the “Magnetic Rose” segment of Otomo’s Memories. It was not until 1997 that he made his feature directorial debut, Perfect Blue – which I shall discuss in more detail below.

Kon’s second feature, Millennium Actress, was released four years later in 2001. It depicted a documentary filmmaker shooting a film about an elderly actress in which reality and dream start to blur and collide. His 2003 feature Tokyo Godfathers was a far more conventional work than either Perfect Blue or Millennium Actress. It was a loose riff on the classic western Three Godfathers, relocated to Tokyo and based around a trio of homeless people. In 2004 Kon directed his only anime TV project, the trippy 13-part series Paranoia Agent. While working excellently as a surreal series in its own right, Paranoia Agent also acted a bit like a creative ‘clearing house’ for Kon, allowing him to burn through all of the fantastical imagery and dreamlike sequences he had developed but abandoned for Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. The last of Kon’s works to be released was Paprika (2006), yet another exploration of dream worlds and surrealistic imagery.

Kon’s works present us with a unique brand of screen fantasy, which straddles an uneasy boundary between stark realism and visual surreality. Kon once described his artistic process as follows: ‘When I draw myself, I am quite naturally interested in whatever’s around me, so that there’s a feeling of starting from a realistic point of view, with which fantasy is then mixed, and finally finishing with pure fantasy.’[i] In the same promotional interview, Kon said that ‘the most important influence on me wasn’t a single film but the works of Terry Gilliam. Despite being fantasy, his depictions are quite bitter, his narration also throws “curve balls”, and rather than covering every point in detail, he takes the staging off in a completely different point and plucks out a single, vivid theme. I especially like Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.’[ii]

There is an immediate similarity between the fantasy of Satoshi Kon and the fantasy of Terry Gilliam, although Kon’s choice of the word ‘bitter’ to describe the tone of Gilliam’s films strikes me as a little inaccurate. To me it feels more like a sort of weary melancholia – a sense that the fantasy we are experiencing has become a little worn and exhausted around its edges. Gilliam’s films are not, despite regular moments of levity or comedy, particularly cheery affairs. The same can be said of Kon’s.

Despite all of this talk of surrealism, fantasy and dreams, there is actually an unusual degree of realism to Kon’s films. The characters don’t often feel like anime archetypes. They have depth and nuance. They are designed and drawn in a much more realistic and seemingly conservative way. Much of the realistic edge to Kon’s work can be fairly easily drawn back to Katsuhiro Otomo, his former employer and mentor. There is a strong correlation between the visual styles of the two artists, and in the unexpectedly deep and flawed characters that both men tend to play with. While Otomo’s characters tend to play second fiddle to grand visual spectacle – the mechanical wonders of Steamboy, or the biological terrors of Akira, for example – Kon’s characters are generally the focus of his works. If there is spectacle, it comes from the dreamlike worlds within his characters rather than expressions of science fiction and fantasy without.

There is also a well-identified shōjo element to Kon’s works (shōjo being a style of manga and anime aimed at teenage girls). His anime expresses, on the whole, a sort of undercurrent of shōjo culture: femininity, vulnerability, and a focus on relationships over physical action. More often than not his works are based around female protagonists.

When asked about his preference for writing about women, Kon said ‘It’s because female characters are easier to write. With a male character I can only see the bad aspects. Because I am a man I know very well what a male character is thinking… on the other hand, if you write a female protagonist, because it’s the opposite sex and I don’t know them the way I know a male, I can project my obsession onto the characters and expand the aspects I want to describe.’[iii]

In remembering Kon’s works, it seems most appropriate to focus on his first and final films, Perfect Blue and Paprika. They not only provide an insight into Kon as a filmmaker, but they also act as interesting companion works to each other.

It is difficult to imagine too many films more expressive about paranoia and mental illness than Perfect Blue. It is at once a gripping thriller and a disturbing nightmare journey. It is an adaptation of a novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi, in which a young woman named Mima Kirigoe switches careers from wholesome pop starlet to sexualised TV actress, begins to lose her grip on reality, and slides into a miasma of fear and paranoia.

The film entered production as a 90-minute live action film that would be cheaply produced and released direct to home video. The 1995 production schedule was delayed, however, followed the devastating Kobe earthquake. When preparing to remount the production later that year, the producers elected to transfer the film to animation. ‘Perfect Blue dealt with a subject never before addressed by anime,’ claimed the film’s production notes, ‘and it was agreed to employ the best names currently working in the industry. A new system of production would be adopted that did not fall prey to the constraints of traditional animation. It was felt that anime had not adopted the eclectic nature of manga and was in danger of confining itself to the same characters and subject matter.’[iv]

Perfect Blue certainly achieved its aim in presenting something different to the usual run of anime features. It’s a present-day psychological thriller, a genre typically suited to live-action. By making the innovative move of producing the film via animation, the filmmakers have shifted the story one step closer towards hallucination and dream from the outset. Had Perfect Blue been produced in live action (and there was ultimately a live-action version, directed by Toshiki Sato in 2002) any shift into nightmare imagery or hallucinations would have been signposted to the audience. We would not have experienced the hallucination as much as simply witnessed a visual effect. By presenting the realistic elements of the story through an abstracted medium such as anime, the shift from reality to unreality is smoothed over and is subsequently much more immersive.

This blurring of reality and nightmare is part of what makes Perfect Blue such a disturbing viewing experience – something that wasn’t lost on its cast and crew. While promoting the film, voice actress Junko Iwao said ‘when I got the storyboards and the script, to tell you the truth, I had some mixed feelings about it. I had made up my mind to accept the role at the time of the audition, but I was a little concerned about the violent scenes. Because I didn’t have any experience acting violent scenes in the past… I think I feel exactly the same as Mima feels in the story.’[v]

With a close eye on the film’s small budget, Kon went out of his way to limit the amount of animation used in the film. Perfect Blue was ultimately based on 30,000 drawings. As Dani Cavallaro pointed out in her book Anime Intersections, ‘to grasp the full significance of this figure by comparative means, it is worth noting that Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, also released in 1997, incorporated over 144,000 cels. Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy (2004) […] encompasses no less than 180,000 drawings.’[vi]

When the producers and financiers of Perfect Blue saw Kon’s work-in-progress, it became obvious that they were producing something a lot more significant than a direct-to-video work. Partway through the production process the decision was made to release Perfect Blue into cinemas. Kon was initially ambivalent about the idea. Speaking to Midnight Eye in 2001, he recalled: ‘As its creator I was actually a bit hesitant about Perfect Blue getting shown in theatres. But it was, and as a result the film was invited to a number of film festivals and seen by many different audiences. I also got to visit many countries, so I was happy with it after all. The film was much more appreciated by those audiences than I’d imagined, so I was quite perplexed at the same time.’[vii]

Perfect Blue’s spiralling sense of paranoia and nightmare is interesting because it is framed so tightly in televisual terms. Mima’s predicament is kicked off by her shifting from singing to acting for television. The second hallucinatory Mima, is first encountered via the Internet on a computer monitor. Scenes are deliberately framed in a 4:3 ratio – the dimensions of a pre-digital television.

It’s an interesting touch: this is basically a film about being watched, and it’s visually framed in a way that reflects the fact that we the audience are the ones doing the watching.

Perfect Blue is an outstanding film for a first-time director. It is a distinct anime production, since both its realist aesthetic and its psychological subject matter make it seem more closely aligned with live-action filmmakers such as Hitchcock and De Palma than other anime filmmakers such as Otomo or Oshii.

Fast forward nine years, past Millennium Actress, Paranoia Agent and Tokyo Godfathers, and we come upon Paprika, Satoshi Kon’s final film production. Once again it’s a film that deals with the subconscious and the unreal. Its treatment of this kind of subject matter, however, is very different. It’s a much more colourful and vibrant movie. Scenes set within the movie’s dream environments shift and jump with reckless abandon. At times it’s a film in the form of a riot, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, sometimes scary, but always bright, always vivid. Perhaps this is what provoked the Village Voice’s Rob Nelson to claim Paprika ‘isn’t a movie that’s meant to be understood so much as simply experienced—or maybe dreamed.’[viii]

One thing about Paprika that I’ve convinced of is that it’s a film that is, quite frankly, the work of someone deeply in love with the medium of film itself.

The film is based on the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, who made a career out of writing mysteries and science fiction. Paprika was published in 1993, and Satoshi Kon was keen to make it into a film as soon as he read it.

After an abortive attempt to secure the rights in 1998, Kon wound up meeting Tsutsui at an interview for the anime magazine Animage. It turns out Tsutsui was a fan of Millennium Actress, the two got to talking, and a deal was struck for Kon to finally make the Paprika adaptation he’d always dreamed of.

While working on the film, Kon said ‘When I met Tsutsui-san and got his blessing to make it into a film, it was as if something came true that I had in my mind for a long time. The visualization of the film goes beyond the initial concept. It’s a film that demanded to be made in this era. It’s something I had to make, a personal commitment.’[ix]

Kon adapted the novel fairly loosely, which is something that made Tsutsui quite happy. ‘If Kon didn’t do as he pleased,’ Tsutsui said in an interview, ‘I don’t think the story would have taken advantage of the anime format. Regurgitating the novel is boring. I’m glad he felt free to do as he saw fit.’

Much of the film was storyboarded as they went along – Kon had no idea what the climax would be like when they had started animating the opening sequence. It was a process of deliberately freeing the production up. Nothing was cemented down, no minds had been made up, therefore any ideas remained possible. The result is a string of amazing dream sequences, displaying a wonderful sense of flair and imagination.

Paprika is more than a simple flight of fancy, however: it is arguably the most effective and realistic (although that seems an odd word to use) depiction of dreamlike states ever committed to cinema. In many ways the realist imagery of live-action cinema runs directly counter to the free-flowing and imaginary environments of dreams. As a result, no matter how imaginative the settings or elaborate the visual effects of such films as Inception, Dreamscape and The Cell, as products of a fundamentally realist medium they are never going to ultimately approach the shifting, often inexplicable worlds of an unconscious mind. By working within the medium of animation, Kon is released from that realism. His production and design team can create whatever imagery they like, and it can move, change and surround the viewer in a much more dreamlike manner than live action ever could.

Some of the dream sequences are an absolute goldmine for movie and television buffs. Kon presents references to and riffs off of From Russia With Love, Akira Kurosawa, Tarzan, Roman Holiday, Busby Berkeley, Monkey, and so on. As with Perfect Blue, this is something that for me really makes Satoshi Kon stand out from his contemporaries. He’s an anime writer/director who’s embracing and playing with live-action American cinema. A really interesting fusion of screen cultures results from that, and you can see it all through his body of work.

Paprika may not ultimately be Kon’s final feature film, since he was working on a new project at the time of his death (The Dream Machine, which remains unfinished and indefinitely postponed). However, if we take Perfect Blue and Paprika as the beginning and effective end point of Kon’s directorial career, we find ourselves with a remarkable pair of films. Together they bookend a three-fold contribution to cinema: a contribution to anime, a contribution to Japanese cinema, and finally a contribution to an ongoing dialogue between the screen cultures of two different countries – Japan and the USA. These are two films, both animated, both concerned almost entirely with worlds that are imagined and unreal, but one of them frightening and nightmarish and the other exhilarating and colourful. Kon approaches the same territory from different directions.

Satoshi Kon leaves behind a strong legacy, not only as a writer and director of immense creativity and talent but also as an artist who by-and-large focused on a highly specific subject matter. Dreams interested Kon, and he expressed that interest in a variety of ways. Each of his texts – Perfect Blue and Paprika, but also Millennium Actress and Paranoia Agent, played with ideas of dream, nightmare, imagination and the unreal in inventive and visually dramatic ways.

Japanese animation remains poorer with Kon’s passing, but simultaneously remains rich thanks to the wonderful films he left behind.

This essay was originally written immediately following Satoshi Kon’s death, and was delivered as a lecture at the 2010 World Science Fiction Convention. It has been edited to reflect the passing of time – his death is no longer immediate – but is essentially the same as what was written seven-and-a-half years ago.

[i] “Interview with Satoshi Kon”, Perfect Blue official website, 1998.

[ii] Perfect Blue official website, 1998.

[iii] Tom Mes, 11 February 2001.

[iv] Perfect Blue production notes, quoted in Dani Cavallaro, Anime Intersections: Tradition and Innovation in Theme and Technique, McFarland Publishing, 2007.

[v] Quoted in “Interview with Junko Iwao”, Perfect Blue DVD, Manga Entertainment.

[vi] Dani Cavallaro, 2007.

[vii] Tom Mes, “Interview: Satoshi Kon”, Midnight Eye, 11 February 2001.

[viii] Rob Nelson, “Kon’s cure for cinema”, Village Voice, 15 May 2007.

[ix] Jason Gray, “Interview: Satoshi Kon”, Midnight Eye, 20 November 2006.

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