It has been 11 years since one of the greatest directors working in the animation industry departed our world after an unfortunate battle with cancer. From Paprika to Perfect Blue, Satoshi Kon managed to enrapture the hearts and minds of avid cinephiles and anime enthusiasts across the globe. In the span of less than a decade, the renowned director went from revered award-winning manga artist to one of the most important anime connoisseurs of the early 2000’s. With only a brief repertoire of four feature films and one major television series, Kon’s short lived career was nothing but influential. So, it would only make sense to create a documentary all about him; a time capsule meant to represent Kon’s filmography as a miraculous achievement of pure animated artistry. Premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival as an official title in the Cannes Classics sidebar, Pascal-Alex Vincent’s loving tribute ‘Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist’ is an emotionally satisfying tribute to the great master of contemporary Japanese animation.
Stacked with a set of appearances from cinema legends such as Mamoru Oshii, Mamoru Hosoda, Jeremy Clapin, Marc Caro, and Darren Aronofsky; Vincent’s range of interviews provides detailed analysis and reflection on Kon’s artistic process, reticent friendships, and global influence. Opening with a sequence that overlaps live action B-Roll of a vibrant metropolitan Japanese cityscape with scenes from Kon’s animation works; the intercutting featured in the film’s first few minutes punctuates Kon’s personal reflections and ruminations on Japanese society, through the power of montage — a theme that is explored later in the documentary, where careful odes and hints at information to come is riddled within the picture-edit. In essence, basic setup and subsequent payoff — where even the addition of sporadic substandard narration never hinders the information on display.
The same technical payoff can also be found within the interview footage, where fluid cutting keeps the film moving at a brisk and engaging pace. The formidable mise-en-scène and location swapping on screen — found within these talking head interview portraits — manages to also reinforce the general theme on how creativity can come from anywhere. The locations in which these interviews are shot within vary depending on the person/subject; including but not limited to pubs, cinematheques, moving cars, and even the brief appearance of Studio Chizu. Though what ultimately limits Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist is its occasional lack of insight when highlighting Kon’s artistic and social achievements. More specifically, the documentary could have utilised more information and analysis on Kon’s commitment to wage equality in the anime/manga industry and a detailed profile on the cinematic differences of the television process behind Paranoia Agent. Vincent instead kills time by reiterating Kon’s influences and inspirations; causing a kill-your-darlings effect. Unfortunately, as most viewers already know, restating the same piece of information through multiple interviews does not equate to engaging non-fiction filmmaking.
At its core, there’s still a great level of professionalism and gaiety at the core of Vincent’s love letter to the great master. As a documentary purely produced for the sake and goodwill of preserving animation history — for both intrigued film students and animation alumni alike — Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist thrives as a pleasurable pastime; a documentary which succeeds in its intentions to educate, reflect and pay homage to a long-lost artist.
Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist screened at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, as part of the Axis section. The film is currently seeking international distribution