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Fantasia 2021: Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist Is a Solid Tribute to an Animation Genius

Aug 03, 2021 07:37 PM

Those wishing for more high-quality documentaries about anime will want to watch Pascal-Alex Vincent's Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist when they get the chance. Those who've seen all of Satoshi Kon's anime won't learn anything too mind-blowing about the director, who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2010 at the age of 46, but the wealth of interviews from both Kon's fans and collaborators makes for an interesting tribute to one of the greatest animation directors of all time.

The 81-minute documentary is primarily focused on Kon's exceptional and all-too-brief directorial filmography: the movies Perfect BlueMillennium ActressTokyo Godfathers and Paprika, and the TV series Paranoia Agent. His manga work is talked about briefly by The City of Lost Children director Marc Caro, who wanted to adapt Tropic of the Sea into a film in the '90s, and by Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii, who collaborated with Kon on the manga Seraphim: 266613366 Wings before creative conflicts left the book unfinished. The most egregious oversight is the lack of discussion of Kon's writing for the "Magnetic Rose" segment of Memories (less egregious but still would have been fun to hear about: his work on the JoJo's Bizarre Adventure OVA).

Fantasia 2021: Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist Is a Solid Tribute to an Animation Genius

Kon's personal life is also generally not discussed, though comments and stories about interactions with him from co-workers and collaborators paint a multifaceted portrait of the auteur's personality: outspoken, a bit too aware of his own genius, occasionally mean but also gentlemanly, empathetic and far calmer than you'd expect from an artist whose work was so out there and often disturbing. Pascal-Alex Vincent's filmography is often engaged with LGBTQ+ subjects, and though Kon himself is not identified as LGBTQ+, interviews convey him having a non-conforming sense of gender -- identifying with female characters over male ones, dressing in drag to entertain his animators and generally being skeptical of binary thinking.

The segments on each of Kon's anime all contain interesting artistic analysis and behind-the-scenes facts. It's fascinating hearing from Junko Iwao, the voice of Mima in Perfect Blue, about how she was cast without Kon being aware of her own past in the idol world, while Darren Aronofsky gets to talk about how Perfect Blue influenced Requiem for a Dream (he doesn't discuss the Black Swan comparisons, though Vincent makes them himself). The Millennium Actress section parallels scenes from the movie with those from the many classic Japanese films Kon paid homage to.

When discussing Tokyo Godfathers and Paranoia Agent, a lot of attention is paid to how much fun these projects were for the animators. Masashi Ando, a character designer who left Studio Ghibli after Spirited Away and is now co-directing The Deer King (also screening at Fantasia Fest), says he found Paranoia Agent particularly refreshing as his first post-Ghibli gig because it allowed him to draw human characters who weren't conventionally attractive.

Fantasia 2021: Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist Is a Solid Tribute to an Animation Genius

The Paprika segment features interviews about the adaptational process with the source novel's author Yasutaka Tsutsui as well as director Mamoru Hosoda, who also has experience adapting a Tsutsui book with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Rodney Rothman points to Paprika as a major influence on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Paprika was Kon's most commercially successful film, but he apparently thought it was a lot more commercial than it was. Animator Aya Suzuki says that Kon described Paprika as "his version of Sailor Moon" and was shocked that she found the movie to be "dark."

Kon's next film would have been an even bigger attempt at a commercial play, a family film called Dreaming Machines. Suzuki, who was working on Dreaming Machines before Kon's passing, says that even a kid-friendly Kon film would have still been plenty dark and complex. From the way she describes the plot, it sounds like a hybrid between WALL-E and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.

Concept art and even some brief storyboards for Dreaming Machines are shown, but disappointingly, Vincent was unable to show any of the film's completed animation, of which at least a half-hour allegedly was finished before Kon's passing. Including Dreaming Machines footage would have made Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist an instant must-see for anime fans, but even just hearing the unfinished film discussed makes for an emotional conclusion to an interesting documentary.

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