FANTASIA REVIEW: Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist (2020)

satoshi_posterThe late Satoshi Kon is without exaggeration one of the most talented and significant directors in the history of animation, and thanks to French filmmaker Pascal-Alex Vincent he is now the focus of a feature-length documentary about his life and work.

Truth be told, Kon was not the most prolific of directors: through his career he only made a handful of manga, four animated features – Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika – and one 13-episode TV series (Paranoia Agent). Neither was he particularly successful: the majority of his work won critical and peer acclaim but struggled at the box office. He died in 2010 from pancreatic cancer while partway through animating his fifth film.

Vincent’s documentary is a straightforward one, combining a work-by-work retrospective with a series of ‘talking heads’ interviews with former colleagues, animators, directors, and academics. Satoshi Kon’s own personality and immense talent are progressively revealed through these interviews – which are well-cut and ordered into a clear and entertaining sequence. It is excellently edited and relatively objective. The film dives into Kon’s work with a firm belief in his artistic talent, but it also reveals a complex artist who was both rather difficult with whom to work and aggressively supportive of new talent.

The film does not simply run through Kon’s work, but contextualises it within a broader context of both Japanese animation and global film. American filmmaker Darren Aronofsky speaks of Kon’s influence on his own work. Anime and manga legend Mamoru Oshii discusses their brief collaboration together. Vincent has assembled an impressive range of interview subjects, as well as added a few precious archival interviews with Kon himself. The film is also well stocked with clips both from Kon’s career and from the films that inspired him – and which he inspired. One key section, in which Aronofsky demonstrates how he lifted – with permission – an entire scene from Kon’s Perfect Blue to duplicate in his own Requiem for a Dream, is fascinating. A brief insight into Kon’s final incomplete film The Dreaming Machine, including story and design details, is must-see viewing for his fans.

Fans of Kon will be immensely pleased at both the sterling critical appreciation of his films, and the peek ‘behind the curtains’ at their making. Viewers unfamiliar with his work may well develop a keen desire to check them out after seeing the documentary; certainly the existing enthusiasts will probably be racing to undertake a rewatch of their favourites.

There was always a risk that this kind of filmmaking documentary to become relegated to home video special features, and now that physical media is in decline there is an additional risk that they may not find many avenues for production and distribution at all. Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist is a valuable part of the conversation about Kon – for both academics and fans. It is a strong sign that these kinds of films remain necessary. Indeed, with the sheer quantity of narrative film being made annually around the world this century, I think we need smart, thoughtful documentaries like this more than ever.

Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist is screening at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. For Canadian readers, the festival takes place in person and online from 5-25 August. For more information, click here.

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