Do you know what Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) have in common? It’s ok if you struggle to work this out. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Requiem is an exploration of addiction that stares, unblinking, at the horrors that await those who cannot stop or are unable to get help. Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, Spider-Verse is an animated tale fit for the whole family that explores coming-of-age, loss, and responsibility. On their faces, there’s not a single thing in common, which is why you need to look beyond the material and into what influenced them in some manner. That trail leads you straight to Satoshi Kon, writer and director of such films as Perfect Blue (1997) and Paprika (2006), whose works inspired within Aronosfky and Rothman what they needed to create the stories we know. Though Kon only directed four films and a television program, and crafted a manga before his passing at 46 years old, his legacy was cemented through the relationships he made in trying to bring his ideas to life. Thanks to director Pascal-Alex Vincent (Give Me Your Hand) we’re invited to explore Kon’s life through the lens of those who remember him and what they carry forward in his honor.
Unlike most spotlight documentaries, Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist neither includes a great deal of material from the nor does it heavily explore the personal life of the subject. Recent docs like a-ha: The Movie or The Neutral Ground utilize either the subjects themselves or historical documents to illuminate the topic at the heart of the documentary. Vincent seems less interested in the creative described as “sweet and caring” in the same breath as “domineering and mean” and more in exploring his works and their legacy. You can’t really explore the works without addressing the man, but you don’t have to dig too deeply into the man in order to understand why his works continue to resonate. Vincent’s approach leaves one with a deep desire to know more about Kon and to seek out his works. Activating the audience to do further research — the most perfect outcome for any documentary narrative.
Don’t take the above to mean that you won’t learn anything about Kon himself. Vincent uses a few interviews and a posthumous blog post so that the audience can hear things from the man himself, but the bulk of Kon content is in videos without the source sound. Instead, Vincent utilizes varying versions of talking head interviews and snippets from Kon’s various works to tell the story. This means that the film, once the topic is introduced, opens with Kon working on his first manga at 22 and ending with his death at 46. Upon conclusion of Satoshi Kon, it’s clear that Kon made the most of his 24 years in his career, making content that spoke to him. What’s a tad startling is learning from one of his collaborators on Perfect Blue, animator Aya Suzuki of Ghibli and Madhouse, that Kon often placed himself figuratively within his films. This statement revealed to her that Kon saw himself as Perfect Blue central figure Mima Kirigoe (voiced by actor Junko Iwao), often struggling with the shadows he chases in his life. It repositioned how she viewed the abundant violence Mima undergoes, shifting away from a perception of misogyny to one of self-discovery and analysis. Through interviews with colleagues, associates in the film industry, and animation and cinema scholars and historians, the audience is treated to many stories like this one, each adding color to the portrait of who Kon was and his seemingly boundless well of cinematic knowledge.
At the start of this review, I mentioned both Requiem and Spider-Verse. The reason being that directors Aronofsky and Rothman provide their own testimony regarding Kon and his work. For Aronofsky, this enables the audience to learn from someone who not only knew of Kon’s work but spent time with him and found inspiration in his work. Aronofsky himself speaks of how he went to see Perfect Blue while trying to navigate a problem in his storytelling, only to find the answer in a scene from Blue. After receiving permission from Kon, an homage from one to the other was devised and shot with it being almost a 1:1 translation. Rothman offered no such anecdote, though he did speak to the ways in which Kon’s visual style, often bending to the whim of broken time or his characters shifting perception of reality, formed the basis of the ways in which he, Persichetti, and Ramsey crafted the animation style of Spider-Verse. In this instance, as Rothman speaks, Vincent cuts to the “leap of faith” scene in Spider-Verse showing the character of Miles Morales jumping from a building only for the fall to be inverted in order to communicate Mile’s fall is actually a rise to power. By exploring the making of each of Kon’s films through the lens of his collaborators and those who admired him, the shape of a legacy comes into view.
One cannot speak on Kon without giving credit to editor Clément Selitzki. The way in which the entire documentary flows from start to finish, never losing speed and never lingering too long on any one aspect, is thanks to Selitzki’s editing. Much like the way Kon speaks of the writer/director’s work possessing an energy, Selitzki’s editing feels much the same, managing to convey a liveliness without feeling false or manufactured. That each of the interviewees is recorded in vastly different places (office vs. a taxi vs. a recreation spot vs. work station) in varying positions (front mid, side mid, full side, close-up side), all of which is also a credit to cinematographers Gordon Spooner and Toshiyuki Kiyomura, there’s a perpetual sense of movement even though no one is moving. Thus, the film generates a roaring excitement in the opening montage that pulls you in and then never lets you go.
Prior to watching Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist, I could identify the films Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers (2003), and Paprika. I hadn’t even heard of Millennium Actress (2001). I couldn’t tell you much about the latter two, but, with the first two, I could at least offer the barest of synopsis. There would’ve been no way for me to tell you who directed them, wrote them, or to understand how these films, and Kon’s other works, have proven to be vital parts of cinema today. Future filmmakers take their inspiration from somewhere and we often don’t think any steps further than beyond the one degree. If those Vincent interviewed are to be believed, the animation world and cinema in general is entirely changed due to Kon’s work. This is not a debate, but an unequivocal fact that comes from some of the most prominent creatives in animation and cinema (Marc Caro of The City of Lost Children and Jérémy Clapin of I Lost My Body, to name two) from studios that include Ghibili amd Madhouse. If, like me, you couldn’t tell one of these films from the other, start with Vincent’s Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist as it will undoubtedly make the initial experience of watching these films — spoilery, though it may be — into a far more profound experience.
Screening during the 2021 Nightstream Festival.
Head to the official Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist Eventive page to watch the film during the festival.
For additional information, head to the official Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.