Satoshi Kon, arguably one of the great directors in the history of anime, died from pancreatic cancer in 2010 at age 46, leaving behind an unfinished film. Today, Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Pascal-Alex Vincent, this documentary brings together directors, historians, critics, crew members, and collaborators to create a moving tribute to Kon and his exceptional work. Some interview subjects remember him as gentle. Others cite his combative personality. But the consensus is clear: Kon was a genius.
What set Kon’s work apart was his unique ability to represent the influence of dreams and fantasy on his characters’ perception of the world. As Rodney Rothman, director of Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), puts it, Kon’s films “capture what it [is] like to have your reality bended.”
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Three of Kon’s films, Perfect Blue (1997), Millennium Actress (2001), and Paprika (2006), feature women with split personalities who struggle to navigate their lives as different timelines and realities collide. This recurring theme reflects Kon’s belief that the world and its representations blend and shape each other. This personal philosophy made him the perfect person to adapt Paprika, a book by acclaimed science fiction writer Yasutaka Tsuitsui about a device that allows psychiatrists to observe and study their patients’ dreams. Tsuitsui claims that Kon was the only director who could faithfully adapt his work. “You mustn’t let the audience know exactly where the frontiers lie between these two dimensions [dreams and reality],” he says in The Illusionist. Paprika and its approach to blurring the real and the unreal was the inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (2010).
Other directors drew inspiration from Kon, too. Darren Aronofsky, who appears in The Illusionist, was so taken with Kon’s first movie Perfect Blue that he paid homage by re-creating several shots in his film Requiem for a Dream (2001). There are also compelling parallels between Perfect Blue and Aronofsky’s Academy Award-winning Black Swan (2010). Both feature malicious doubles and the mind-breaking pressures of public performance.
Despite Kon’s influence and critical acclaim, most of his movies lost money or barely broke even. Even Paprika—which Kon dubbed his “big commercial prostitute film,” according to one of the documentary’s interview subjects—was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival but couldn’t win box-office success.
Taro Maki, who produced some of Kon’s films, believes the director was ahead of his time. “The way people see animated cinema has evolved since he died, in Japan and throughout the world,” Maki says. “I think he landed too soon in this industry.” Another issue was that Kon lost money by paying his crew members well, a rarity in the anime industry.
Kon had hoped Dreaming Machine, his first film for children, would bring him mainstream success. The documentary offers some tantalizing glimpses into the film’s plot and development, but no finished scenes.
A day after Kon’s death, members of his family published a farewell letter he had written on his blog. In it, Kon expressed regret that he could not finish Dreaming Machine, and his concern for the crew members involved. But he ended on an uplifting note. “I loved the world I lived in,” he wrote. “Just thinking about it makes me happy.”