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:
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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