On August 24, 2010, legendary filmmaker, screenwriter, and manga artist, Satoshi Kon passed away unexpectedly at the age of 46, shortly after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. His efforts were always critically-acclaimed, even if they never quite achieved the same level of success at the box office, but the composition of his artistic works, relatively brief though his catalog is, shows his diversity — a handful of comics, four feature films (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika), one short (Good Morning), a TV series (Paranoia Agent), and sadly, his final, never-realized project (Dreaming Machine). That’s to say, the reach of Kon’s creative legacy and influence is mammoth, specifically in the history of animation and more generally in the history of Japanese cinema. As a noted perfectionist and eccentric visionary, described by the Japanese producer Taro Maki as “a genius and a nasty guy,” or else characterized in the words of Paprika voice actor Megumi Hayashibara as “absolutely charming, very calm” and yet “impenetrable,” Kon stands out as a fascinating, mercurial figure ripe for study. And that’s precisely what French filmmaker Pascal-Alex Vincent set out to do in Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist, shining a light on the man’s peculiar character and singular world nearly a decade after his tragic early death.
A quick glance at the massive list of various luminaries, including both Kon’s domestic and non-Japanese friends, collaborators, and fellow directors, who agreed to be part of Vincent’s film is perhaps enough to appropriately measure the scale and scope of Kon’s rich and fruitful heritage. The influence the director cast is evident even if Vincent’s documentary remains less imaginative than its subject: The Illusionist is a conventionally-structured, quite straightforward biopic-style documentary, narrated in chronologically linear fashion, and mostly dependent on talking-head interviews. Nevertheless, the film still manages to play out as a respectable enough tribute to the art and work of Kon as seen through the eyes and recollections of the interviewees, though it’s a little confusing why this is all the further Vincent seems willing to push; for instance, he never really dives into the artist’s early influences, his upbringing, or experience as a child and teenager, and any archival footage from the artist himself is relatively scant — whether this was a deliberate structural or conceptual strategy or if it was rather because of limitations in access to the reclusive virtuoso’s first-hand work isn’t clear.
What becomes clear, then, is Vincent’s strategy to focus mostly on film-by-film analyses: he supports this mode with myriad conversations, affording viewers with the requisite contextual information (about people and cultural aspects that may not be familiar to non-Japanese viewers) and some exciting stories about both Kon and the worlds he created. In other words, standard, necessary stuff, but hardly inspiring. And so, regardless of all of the evident effort that has gone into this homage documentary, it’s not exactly unfair to say — particularly if viewers are to be at least half as demanding as Kon was, always holding the highest standards — that The Illusionist feels too hastily executed and lacks the verve and creative playfulness that would have made for a much more enthralling and revelatory experience, and which would have been more reflective of Kon’s spirit and imagination. Indeed, Satoshi Kon is at one point here described as “half-crazy,” and Vincent’s portrait-doc simply functions a bit too timidly to live up to that descriptor. That said, Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist still offers plenty for anime aficionados and cinephiles, and it’s perhaps best to consider Vincent’s work primarily as a friendly farewell feast, not only celebrating and honoring the passionate life of an incomparable artist — whose last words were “I loved the world I lived in. Just thinking about it makes me happy.” — but also managing to suggest a path forward for future generations of animators and filmmakers. The Illusionist is, on top of anything else, an enticement to return to Kon’s work, to attentively revisit the artist’s profound magic. Vincent may not have managed to translate such lessons to his own film, but his invitation is one well worth receiving.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2021 — Dispatch 2.