It's hard to write about the death of Satoshi Kon, but there is no use whining about it. I'm sure he wouldn't be happy about me being disappointed, so I'll try to make myself feel as cheerful and merry as possible. (Can I really do that?)
Kon, the director of the anime "Perfect Blue," "Sennen Joyu" (Millennium Actress), "Tokyo Godfathers" and "Paprika," died of pancreatic cancer on Aug. 24. He was 46.
You can read Kon's "Sayonara" (goodbye) letter on his website [http://konstone.s-kon.net/modules/notebook/ archives/565], in which he describes how he came to accept his cruel fate when he learned, out of the blue, that he only had "six months to live at the most." He was working on his fifth feature anime at the time. His letter is a fine piece of writing that is crisp, gentle and very sad.
With his detailed artwork, close-knit composition and illusory imagery, Kon in his films portrayed the inexplicable humor of human folly, as well as adoration. He made four feature-length anime during his career.
Not to praise ourselves, but it was our honor to carry an exclusive interview with the director when each of his four movies was released. Of those, I interviewed him for his "Sennen Joyu" and "Tokyo Godfathers" in 2002 and 2003, respectively.
Many anime directors are silver tongued (probably because it's part of their job to tell production staff what they want on screen), and Kon was no exception. Whether it was theme or technique, he was kind enough to explain to me the essence of his works in an accurate and straightforward manner, as well as in thoughtful and interesting terms. So it was fun and easy to interview and write stories about him.
Regarding "Sennen Joyu," a story about a legendary actress portrayed through flashbacks interwoven with scenes from her films, Kon told me: "In my previous work ("Perfect Blue"), I used the technique of mixing reality with unreality to illustrate the heroine's uncertain state of mind. This time, I wanted to use that technique in an adventure story full of amusing images.
"Someone said that a story of an old lady recalling her past sounded like a low-key project for an anime. But when the completed film was shown, I was told that it 'unfolded in a spectacular way that only anime can do.' I felt like I pulled it off in a way I wanted it to be. I had (old Japanese movie actresses such as) Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine in mind for the heroine," Kon said.
"The movies used in the story are of various kinds, such as samurai drama like Akira Kurosawa's, monstrous beast movies and sci-fi films. This piece also pays homage to Japanese films. It is a 'first-love-is-good' kind of story, and also sends a 'let's live honestly' message. I want everyone to see it in many different ways," he said.
In the final moments, the actress, who continued to search for her "first love" throughout her life, says: "Because I like me chasing after him." That throws the audience a curve ball just when they are feeling sentimental. Though I didn't include that portion in my story, Kon explained what he was aiming for:
"If I were the audience, I'd have thought 'she wouldn't need to say that.' But instead of having the movie end up as a sweet fantasy, I wanted to say that it is tough to keep doing 'what you like,' and it takes self-affirmation and determination to do that. It requires a strong sense of self-affirmation to achieve 'what you like' even though you cause trouble for people around you."
But, he added: "There is no single solution. And that is the best way I want the movie to be viewed." I think Kon would say that everyone is welcome to make their own interpretation and analysis.
He once complimented me on my interpretation of "Tokyo Godfathers." The film is about a middle-aged man, a gay man and a runaway girl. The three set out together to find the parents of an abandoned newborn. The runaway, dressed in thick layers of clothes, reveals herself to be a beautiful girl with a slim figure at the end of the movie when she sheds her clothes.
I pointed out that the growth of her mind and the psychological liberation of her inner self were portrayed like a brilliant metamorphosis, as in a caterpillar's becoming a pupa and then a butterfly. The director smiled, saying: "That never occurred to me."
"The idea of her being fat before she runs away from home was conceived by the screenwriter. I always thought she came up with such a mean idea. I like the analogy of butterfly. From now on, I'll answer in that way (in interviews)," Kon said.
Really? I was flattered. I read his interviews and other articles that followed--but unfortunately, none of them mentioned the "butterfly" theory. (Naturally!).
In "Tokyo Godfathers," Kon incorporated landscapes of city backstreets that look like human faces at times. Windows and air conditioners serve as eyes, while shutters and entrance doors look like mouths. It almost appears as though Tokyo is always watching the trio of protagonists with affection.
So I like to imagine there is an alley with Kon's face somewhere in Tokyo, looking down on us with love. I think he would forgive me for feeling sentimental to ease the sense of loss; he wouldn't think that I am having a "sweet fantasy."
When I finished reading his "Sayonara" letter, I was feeling regret and distress. Then an idea occurred to me and I found myself chuckling.
He was so obsessed with hospitals that he had included scenes of a hospital or medical clinic at the end of each of his four features. But he vehemently refused to breathe his last in a hospital room and chose to die at home instead, despite the objections! How should I interpret this, Mr. Kon?