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  • Lucid Dreams, False Awakenings:Figures of the Fan in Kon Satoshi
  • Kerin Ogg (bio)

Fatal but Not Serious

"Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, Psycho—they're all wonderful films, sir, but when in the world are you going to get serious and do something animated?"

Entertaining as the reply surely would have been, it is hard to imagine an interviewer posing that question to Hitchcock. More's the pity: a director with a reputation for storyboarding and controlling his films down to the last detail might have found a natural home in what Howard Beckerman characterizes as "the least spontaneous of the arts."1 What we are far more likely to see is the opposite question, one frequently put to anime director Kon Satoshi, here paraphrased: "You are a critical and commercial hit in Japan and abroad, you have world-class production capabilities and resources at hand with Madhouse studio, and you do things with animation that challenge long-held assumptions about the uses to which animation can and should be put. So you're going to start putting real people in front of the camera soon, right?"

As much as this attitude raises hackles among animation fans, it is understandable given lingering prejudices against animation as a serious art form, especially in the West. There is also the unavoidable fact that most of Kon's [End Page 157] films have a markedly "realistic" look: the action takes place against photorealistic backgrounds, movement is weighty and credible even when not perfectly fluid, and characters as a rule have normally proportioned bodies and faces. Kon sometimes underscores the contrast between his style and the "industry standard," most famously in the video store scene in Perfect Blue (1997) that juxtaposes Kirigoe Mima's fans with the Technicolor-haired, big-eyed anime girls seen on posters and cassette boxes.2 While it is difficult to imagine Kon's outstanding use of trompe l'oeil effects being as persuasive in live action, it is not inconceivable, particularly given the state of modern CGI.

There may be another factor at work here, one not much remarked on but important: the obvious interest in and fondness for live-action cinema pervading Kon's entire body of work. Even when film is not Kon's main subject, his films are intimately engaged with the medium, often depicting the filmmaking process or commenting on our relationship to the movies as both individual viewers and participants in movie culture. Most famously, Millennium Actress (2001, Sennen joyū) celebrates and reflexively critiques the golden age of Japanese filmmaking, full of tributes to popular genres like jidaigeki, family drama, and giant-monster films, all framed by the making of a documentary that literally and figuratively depicts actress Fujiwara Chiyoko's "life in the movies."3 On a smaller scale, Kon's debut work, Perfect Blue, uses the filming of a television serial as the vehicle for Mima's transformation from idol to actress, and even the relatively straightforward Tokyo Godfathers (2003) has Gin's repeated refrain that he, Hana and Miyuki are "homeless bums, not action movie heroes."4 Most recently, Paprika (2006) opens with unambiguous nods to Roman Holiday (1953), From Russia with Love (1963), the Tarzan series, and DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), all found in the unconscious mind of would-be filmmaker turned police detective Konakawa Toshimi.5

While these references serve a higher purpose in the film than mere winking in-jokes, it does not change the fact that they are winking in-jokes, little love letters to all the avid movie watchers in the audience that yield a pleasant frisson of recognition when we spot the reference. Kon has confirmed his cinephilia in multiple interviews, describing Western films as especially influential (perhaps not surprisingly, he commonly cites Kurosawa Akira as a favorite director).6 Tellingly, Kon describes his collaborative process with his first screenwriting partner, Murai Sadayuki, as centered around film viewing: "It was fun, and we ended up watching a lot of movies together, with movie scenes and shots becoming our mutual language."7

Given all that, it is not surprising that Kon gets asked when he will leave the ink-and...