Beyond Mt. Fuji and Cherry Blossoms

Satoshi Kon is a man whose movies, contrary to our notion of anime, deal with emotions, perceptions and life in general. Not only is he a master of the surreal but also an ingenious painter of human emotions and life’s contradictions. The depth that one finds in his frame-by-frame-hand-drawn movies is hard to match even when compared to big budget Hollywood films. Here are four of the best creations of this little know genius from the east.

Paprika(2006)

For those who do not keenly follow anime, Paprika is well known as the movie  that inspired  the Nolan  blockbuster Inception. Adapted from a novel of the same name, the story of  Paprika revolves around a  machine called the ‘DC- Mini’ that promises a new form of  psychotherapy via the pathway of dreams.    When the machine gets stolen, things begin to go  horribly wrong and as the  story oscillates between  dreams and reality, the boundary between  the two begins to blur causing the characters as well the  viewer  to question the very  nature of  reality . The central idea of the movie also allows Kon to work with  themes – nature of reality,  alter-egos – that are almost a leitmotif of his  previous works and use the medium of dreams to take all this idea to  grotesque proportions. There are enough ‘dreams within dreams’ and    psychiatric imagery to create a mind screw of Lynchian proportions.

Visually, Paprika is a blast that will promise to stun the living daylights out of any viewer. The realism in the backgrounds of the movie is as comparable to that in Tokyo Godfathers, but what really makes this movie stand apart is the rendition of the surreal. The dream sequences, with their interplay of colors (look out for the crazy parade), along with the seamless transitions between reality and dreams can make heads spin – especially when the boundaries between these realms fade. The juxtaposition of the surreal with the precisely sketched out environments (the laboratories, Tokita’s workshop) creates a dichotomy that will remain with the viewer a long time after the movie has ended.

Useless Trivia – Paprika was the first movie that used a voice synthesizer (called Lola) to provide vocals to parts of its soundtrack.

Perfect Blue(1997)

When Darren Aronofsky comes down from his directorial pedestal and acknowledges that Black Swan (2010) indeed has certain similarities with a 1997 anime that starts off with a power ranger sequence, you know you ought to investigate. Perfect Blue charts the tale of a J-pop singer, Mima who forgoes her former career as the lead singer of a pop-gorup named ‘Cham’ and decides, on the insistence of her agents, to try her luck as an actress in a drama-series interestingly named ‘Double Bind’. In doing so, innocent Mima Kirigoe unsettles her fans and opens the doors of her life to things deep, dark and sinister. As things turns bloody and her acting career spirals into unchartered territories, we find our ever increasingly paranoid protagonist going into bouts of delirium where what’s real and what’s not becomes indistinguishable.

Perfect Blue is nothing short of an expose on the human psyche  where the throbbing and fragile  parts of the human mind are  ripped out and examined under the light of obscure human  attributes like ambition and  sense of unique identity. Like Aronofsky movies, Perfect Blue also has its fair share  of graphics nudity and  violence which add to the immensity of the events and make the schizophrenic changes in Mima more genuine.

The enormity of certain sequences and dialogues in the movie are  overwhelming and might be  difficult to  grasp and  put into  context on your first watch. Notwithstanding, this still remains a  must  watch thriller which  has been aptly  described as  something out of Hitchcock’s and Disney’s common  closet.

Useless trivia – Darren Aronofsky owns the American filming  rights to this movie, which he  purchased for $59,000, just so he could film the now infamous “bath scene” with Jennifer Connelly  in  his own film Requiem for a Dream.

 

Tokyo Godfathers(2003)

Among the five movies that constitute Kon’s (sadly) limited oeuvre, Tokyo Godfathers (TG) is perhaps the most strikingly different. While his other works are highly intertwined with the intricacies of the human psyche, TG is a tale that propounds more commonplace ideas and themes. At the surface, it is a heartwarming story of three oddball homeless individuals – an alcoholic, a transvestite and a runaway girl – trying to restore an abandoned baby to its parents on a Christmas day in Tokyo. But take a step beyond the surface, look beyond the Dickensian coincidences, the amusing deux ex machinas and the tinges of magical realism, and you realize it is much deeper. Kon not only manages to convey ideas about parenthood (more specifically, fatherhood), shame and repeated confrontation with one’s past but also sneaks in his opinions on social issues – such as the treatment of fringe society by the well-off.

TG may not have the colorful extravagancy of Paprika, but Kon has created a visually arresting work of art. His characters do not have the ambiguous features that is a stereotype of standard anime works (termed as Mukokuseki, meaning stateless). Special techniques used to blur the boundaries between the object of focus in the foreground and the background creates a blend that is smooth and realistic. The background itslf is gritty and realistic – TG paints a picture of modern-day Tokyo that accurately depicts the suburban high-rises as well as the shadier backwaters of the city – the two zones between which the film oscillates.

Useless Trivia -TG was loosely inspired by a 1948 western title ‘Three Godfathers’ that had a similar plot line.

 

Millennium Actress(2001)

If Paprika was all about dreams within dreams, then Millennium Actress is a movies-within-a-movie. Like most of Satoshi Kon’s works, Millennium Actress too has a curious lady as its lead. Chiyoko Fujiwara, once an actress of great fame but now a recluse living in isolation, unfolds the story of her life to two documentary makers who have managed to track her down. What follows is a uniquely surreal narrative of Chiyoko’s journey from being a young school girl to an accomplished actress. During the unfurling of her deeply emotional tale, reality and the world of her movies, which spanned over several social, cultural and political eras, merge seamlessly where the listeners themselves are transformed into interacting characters in Chiyoko’s life in more ways than one.


Unlike Perfect Blue and Paprika, this movie doesn’t deal with the darker recesses of the human mind but with brighter human attributes like hope, love and resilience. The  symbolisms, metaphors and historical re-creations used throughout the movie, which are sometimes difficult to  catch under the surreal veil that shrouds the whole movie, are profound when comprehended. The artwork, specially the choice of palette,varies significantly and adds depth to  the content of the scenes.

Though Millennium Actress is a much lighter watch than Kon’s other movies, it  still   remains one of his most magnificent work of art brimming  with life and  emotions. So it’s no  surprise that this movie is considered as  anime’s answer to Mulholland Drive.

Useless trivia - Some of the scenes are reminiscent of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, while others evoke Akira Kurosawa movies (particularly Throne of Blood).

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