FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021 CAPSULE: SATOSHI KON: THE ILLUSIONIST (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Pascal-Alex Vincent

FEATURING: Masashi Ando, , , Shozu Iizuka, Nobutaka Ike, , Taro Maki, Masao Maruyama, Masafumi Mima, Sadayuki Murai, Hiroyuki Okiura, , Aya Suzuki, Yasutaka Tsutsui, Masaaki Usada, , , , Rodney Rothman

PLOT: A documentary survey of the career of influential animator .

Still from Satoshi Kon, Illusionist (2020)

COMMENTS: It would be impossible to make a bad documentary about Satoshi Kon. So long as you have access to clips of Mima’s pink pop alter ego bouncing onstage, Chiyoko donning an astronaut’s helmet to take off for the moon, the homeless godfathers cradling an orphan, Lil’ Slugger brandishing his bent golden bat, and Paprika‘s parade of cellphone-headed schoolgirls, you can keep an audience enthralled.

Illusionist includes little archival material featuring the man himself. Kon shunned the spotlight, preferring to let his work speak for itself. Most of the talking heads who appear to tell stories about the auteur are respectful, if not worshipful. The only exceptions come from a couple of collaborators who found Kon difficult to work with because of his perfectionism: Mamoru Oshii relates that Kon was too headstrong to accept a secondary role as artist on the manga they worked on together, while an animator describes quitting after Kon insulted his work ethic (a decision he later regretted). But while a single interviewee calls him “nasty,” most describe Kon as “gentle.”

We learn next to nothing about Kon’s background or personal life. What was his childhood like? Was he married? But that’s OK. Not every artist lives a fascinating life outside of their work; some (most?) are just dedicated, hardworking craftsmen. I suspect Kon would approve of a documentary focused on the movies he put so much work into, rather than the man behind them. Structurally, Illusionist goes through Kon’s catalog in chronological order. Because, due to his tragic death at 46, Kon’s cinematic output only lasted for a decade—four feature films and the TV series “Paranoia Agent“—the documentary is able to take a deep dive into each individual work, sprinkling in background information from those who worked with Kon and appreciation and analysis from admirers. When a female collaborator questions why the protagonist in Perfect Blue has to suffer so much, Kon responds that when he writes women’s roles, he’s really writing about himself. We learn that Slaughterhouse Five influenced Millennium Actress due to the way the narrative jumped around in time while still telling a coherent story. Kon’s producer describes Tokyo Godfathers as an attempt to tell a lighter, more entertaining story that nevertheless explores the issue of marginalized Japanese—homeless people scratching out an existence in the midst of an economic miracle. A philosophy professor lectures his students on how “Paraonia Agent” predicts the alienation of cellphone society. Paprika, Kon’s final completed film and biggest hit, is the culmination of the themes of dreams, blurred realities and multiple identities that run throughout his films—themes which, according the the artist himself, he was about to put behind him before his life was cut short.

There isn’t much here that will come as a revelation to anyone who’s followed Kon’s career. The most notable rarities are brief peeks at the artist’s early manga work, and a more substantial look at the concept art for his final (unfinished) project, Dreaming Machine. But for Konophiles, this trip down memory lane, illustrated with some of his most startling and beautifully composed artwork, will be a welcome experience, a chance to relive these classics while expanding your understanding of them. Perhaps no other director has as high a batting average as Kon: in five outings, he never slumped once. Anyone who has yet to experience the treasure trove he left behind in his short career is in for a treat.  As Aronofsky puts it, any Kon film is “a full human meal.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

The Illusionist stresses Kon’s genius as a filmmaker and gentleness as a man. It argues for him as a visionary who plowed his own deep furrow through the anime industry, driven by a combination of talent, ambition, self-confidence, and the faith of allies. It does this well.”–Alex Doduk de Wit, Cartoon Brew–(festival screening)

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