Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, August 27, 2010

DIrector's Report Card: Satoshi Kon (1998-2001)

Satoshi Kon's death came as a depressing and surprising blow. At only 46, he was certainly taken before his time. Mr. Kon has proven to be one of the most talented directors to work within the animation genre in recent years. His ability to create visual tapestries was unrivaled and, over the course of only four feature films and one television series. he proved himself to be a master filmmaker. This Report Card was planned some time in advance and Mr. Kon's passing is a sad coincidence. May it stand as a minor tribute to his body of work.

1. Perfect Blue
“Perfect Blue” is a real mindfuck. It starts out as a study of celebrity status and self-image, and how easy it to confuse other people’s perception of you with your actual self. This is pretty good, in and of itself.

Then towards the middle of film, the vision becomes more surreal, and we really do begin to wonder what’s really happening. We are even given the possibility that the character’s lives are actually imaginary. It’s manipulative, yes, and at times frustrating, but Satoshi Kon and his co-creators get serious points for wrapping their audience around their thumb with such expertise.

By the end however, there is a master reveal and we are given a neat wrap-up, one that you would expect from a more conventional thriller. It’s a satisfactory conclusion but I felt a little let-down. Still, “Perfect Blue” is a really well done character study filled with more then it’s fair share of great thrilling moments, excellent use of music, and beautiful animation. [Grade: A-]

2. Millennium Actress
I was admittedly disappointed in “Millennium Actress,” especially after all the praise it received. After exposing myself to the reality-bending nature of his first and fourth films, as well Kon’s excellent television series, “Paranoia Agent,” this one was more down to earth. The laid-back tone was a surprising shift.

Still, “Millennium Actress” has plenty to offer. First off, the animation is gorgeous. It easily meets, and in some ways, surpasses the high standard of theatrical animation. The way real life and fiction weave in and out of each continues many of the visual motifs of “Perfect Blue.”

The vocal performances are fantastic. Miyoko Shoji and Shozo Iizuka in particular give resonant, heart-felt performance. If this had been a live-action film, I know for certain their acting would have received several awards. The story tracks the development of the Japanese film industry from World War II on, and we get homages and references to the propaganda driven melodramas, Kurosawa style historical epics, fifties character studies, and the Japanese sci-fi of the sixties. A Godzilla type creature even shows up at one point. The film studio at the story’s center is obviously a parallel to Toho Studios. I like how the rocket scene shows up in every act, each time in a different context.

Despite weaving film history so nicely into its story and the main character being a total movie nerd, the film has surprisingly little to say about the relation cinema devotees have with their favored art form. I find this surprising, considering how critical Kon has been of the nerd lifestyle in some of his other works. The script focuses more on how life and fiction parallel each other, a less interesting concept. Ultimately, its Chiyoko Fujiwara’s unending quest to find the man she fell in love with as a teenager that drives the story. It’s a touching, bittersweet tale that wraps up perfectly at the end.

However, its also a little unbelievable and features themes mostly unrelated to the movie’s other goals. The narrative is sometimes confusing as well. Maybe it’s just because I was tired when I watch this, but the way we shifted from reality to the world of movies without warning threw me off at times. So, despite being technically proficient and having an honest emotional core, “Millennium Actress” never quite comes together as a whole. [Grade: B]

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