When I went to the Fantasia Film Festival in 2001, it was one of the first few film festivals I ever attended, and I was a little overwhelmed by the number of choices available and by the number of filmmakers I'd never heard of.  One of the few titles that jumped off the schedule immediately for me was "Millennium Actress," the latest movie from Satoshi Kon.  I knew his work already from the film "Perfect Blue," and I thought he was one of the more promising names in anime, so I wanted to attend the premiere and possibly meet the filmmaker.

Instead, I ended up seated next to him, and before and after the film, I got a chance to chat casually with him about his work, anime, science-fiction on film and more.  He turned out to be a younger guy than I expected, and right away, from that first conversation, it was obvious that he was a guy who believed in the potential for animation to tell stories that no live-action director could pull off, using language unique to animation, and the force of his belief was enough to win me over.

I spent almost two years back in the '90s trying to get an R-rated animated horror film made, based on a novel I loved.  My co-writer Scott and I worked with a producing partner named Kevin and a very talented animator named David Simmons who did a ton of design work for us.  It was gorgeous, unsettling stuff, and every time we took the presentation into a new office, people would freak out over the quality of the work, and then tell us that they didn't believe anyone would ever see an animated film for grown-ups.  This was the era of "The Lion King," and all anyone wanted to do was chase that film's success.  Animated musicals.  That seemed to be all anyone in Hollywood believed was possible with the medium.  It got so frustrating listening to otherwise-smart people sell short an entire type of filmmaking that we eventually gave up and moved on.

But sitting in that theater in Montreal, talking to Satoshi Kon, my faith was rekindled.  And if you haven't seen "Millennium Actress," here's a piece of my original review: 

I heard a few people afterwards say, "That could have been live-action, and it would have been just the same," but that’s not true. This is the story of a woman who became a screen legend in her teens that follows her through almost 70 years. By using animation to tell the story instead of make-up and a series of different actresses, we are allowed to lose ourselves in this journey across time and really believe that we are watching someone’s whole life represented. The film plays with time and reality in a sophisticated manner, and there’s a gentle, quiet longing to the whole thing that surprised me. It’s 180 degrees away from PERFECT BLUE in terms of content, but much of the technique on display here is similar. An interview about her career and a mysterious key that is returned to her set Chiyoko Fujiwara on a trip through her own past, as well as that of Japanese cinema. A number of genres are represented here as we see scenes from Chiyoko’s work, including science-fiction, Godzilla films, samurai films, and romantic epics. Through it all, Chiyoko chases after a phantom, the image of a man she loved as a young woman, a man she barely knew. There’s enormous heartbreak just under the surface here, and quite a few people were moved to visible tears by the film’s resolution.

It's mature, adult work, closer to Ozu than it is to Miyazaki.  But Satoshi Kon didn't just make one style of film.  His film "Tokyo Godfathers" was a lovely remake of John Ford's "Three Godfathers," set in modern-day Japan instead of the Old West, naturalistic and human and heartbreaking.  "Perfect Blue," the film that made his reputation originally, was an Argento-like psychological thriller about a pop star under seige.  And then there's his masterpiece, "Paprika," about which I originally wrote this:

This is not “just another anime film” by any means. PAPRIKA is a wild next step for Satoshi Kon, one of the most unique voices working in world animation today. He has resolutely avoided making the same film twice so far, and his career is unlike anyone’s working in animation or live-action as a result.  With his TV series PARANOIA AGENT, Kon seemed to explode all genre walls, and he continues that effort with PAPRIKA, a movie about the thin line between dreams and reality, and what would happen to our world if that line were able to be erased completely. It’s heady stuff, and there are times where it sort of spins deliriously out of control, where it stops being merely surreal and becomes something like a fever dream, unfettered and effortlessly amazing. In those moments, I feel like this filmmaker is showing us exactly why 99% of all American animation... no, scratch that... why 99% of all animation anywhere... is such garbage. Right now, we use this medium (and it’s not a genre, oh, no; it’s something so much more than that) to tell children’s stories. That’s pretty much it. We are retarded in the truest sense of the word. Instead of seeing animation as a way of bringing to life that which no live-action film, no matter what the budget, could ever hope to do, we seem to see it as an excuse to sell Happy Meals and make fart jokes while pop songs play. It’s like if we had decided early on that we could only use live-action films to tell mystery stories. And no matter what, no matter how advanced the artistry became, we insisted on only telling mystery stories, and anyone who did anything different was marginalized. Satoshi Kon is a true believer in the freedom of animation, and Madhouse, the animation house he used on this film, seems to rise to the level of ambition that he’s thrown down with his script. If I have any complain, it’s that the film seems repetitive in the last half-hour, and it doubles back in on itself a few too many times.

Even so, it’s the sort of film that you absolutely should see on as big a screen as possible. It’s a sumptuous theatrical experience, with a great score by Susumu Hirasawa. It’s also a surprisingly dense film considering it’s only 90 minutes long. I found myself sort of exhausted by how much ground it covered in its brief running time. And if you’ve followed Satoshi Kon’s career, you know that although he’s skipped from one genre to another, he’s always had a bit of a fetish for dreaming, so this is sort of the culmination of what he’s been saying so far in his movies. Sony Pictures Classics will be rolling this one out in the weeks ahead, and it’s one of the most original things you’ll see in a theater all summer. If you don’t have patience for films that not only bend reality but gleefully dynamite it, then this one’s not for you, but I look forward to whatever Satoshi Kon does, and this did not disappoint in any way.
 
News of Satoshi Kon's death this week at 46 rattled me deeply.  I didn't realize he'd been wrestling with cancer now for a while, and the news came as a total shock.  Still, it wasn't until I read the letter that he left behind that it really hit me, and I've spent my evenings this week revisiting his work, reminding myself of just what a brief but incredible legacy this filmmaker leaves behind.
 
Here's one part of his devastating final letter:

The many people that I met throughout my lifetime, whether they were positive or negative, have helped to shape the human being that is Satoshi Kon, and I am grateful for all of those encounters. Even if the end result is an early death in my mid 40s, I've accepted this as my own unique destiny. I've had so many positive things happen to me after all.

...

If Madhouse's Maruyama-san says that, I can go to the netherworld with a little bit of self-pride after all. And of course, even without anyone else telling me this, I do feel regret that my weird visions and ability to draw things in minute detail will be lost, but that can't be helped. I am grateful from the bottom of my heart that Maruyama-san gave me the opportunity to show the world these things. Thank you, so very much. Satoshi Kon was happy as an animation director.

You should read the full thing, and you should seek out his work, and for god's sake, if you are someone in a position to sign checks and make a difference, you should embrace a larger definition of what animation can be.  I love the work of Pixar and I love the Disney films I grew up watching, and I certainly appreciate that my kids have movies they can watch and love, but I am sick of the narrow way we treat animation, and to lose even one filmmaker who works to change the definitions of what we'll accept as an animated film is too much.  We needed Satoshi Kon.

Thank god we had him, if only for a little while.

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