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R.I.P Satoshi Kon (1963-2010)

Of course I love Kurosawa’s films and I’ve seen them many, many times, and in terms of how he structures images, I am very influenced by that. But as far as films go, I’ve seen so many movies, and honestly, I’ve seen a lot more American Hollywood films than Japanese films. And because I’ve seen so many, it’s hard to pick out just one – I’ve been influenced by all of them.

This is a sad bit of news, I’ve just learned about the passing of Satoshi Kon – an important Japanese anime filmmaker who gave us Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika (from which was the last time we met with the filmmmaker). In honor of the filmmaker and his fans, we are republishing this sit down with Kon originally published May 24th in 2007. —-


Paprika is the latest feature length work from Japanese anime auteur Satoshi Kon (Tokyo Godfathers, Paranoia Agent, Millennium Actress), and adapted from a novel by Japan’s most renowned science fiction author Yasutaka Tsutsui. The plot centers around an experimental invention called the DC MINI, that allows its users to enter another person’s dreams. 29 year old Dr. Atsuko Chiba is a brilliant but conservative research psychotherapist working on the DC Mini project, and also uses the device to moonlight as super heroine Paprika, entering into her patient’s dreams and helping them resolve anxiety and neurosis.

When one of the DC MINI prototypes is stolen, Atsuko is forced into the role of a real-world heroine as her colleagues begin to go mad, haunted by terrifying waking-dreams of a doll torn from the mind of a schizophrenic patient. Someone is wielding the device as a weapon, and setting the unconscious and conscious minds of everyone around her on a nightmarish collision course.

Yasutaka Tsutsui’s original work was one of those highly sought after literary masterworks that was thought impossible to adapt into celluloid. The author amassed numerous awards and a huge, loyal fanbase in the 80s and 90s, and Paprika was his last published piece of fiction before a 3 year writing-strike in protest of the restraints imposed by Japanese publishers. It was Tsutsui himself who offered Kon the project, having been acquainted with the artist/filmmaker since 1993, and after seeing Kon’s second feature film, Millennium Acrtress. Science fiction and fantasy is new territory for Kon, whose career trademark has been a detailed realistic approach to anime.

Fans of Japanese science fiction and anime should light up the idea of the collaboration between the two master artists, but in the end, Paprika is as much a film for fans of cinema as it is for fans of anime. The film is rife with images of and references to classic Hollywood films, meditates on the relationships between dream and memory, and contains a brilliantly composed sequence where a once aspiring filmmaker – now a middle-aged detective investigating DC MINI related crimes – recounts his unrealized ambitions.

I recently had the chance to participate in a roundtable discussion with Satoshi Kon while he was in New York promoting the stateside release of Paprika

Q: When you are developing a new story, do you make preliminary illustrations?
SK: I usually don’t start at the very beginning with sketches, I find that if I do start drawing, I become too trapped in the images, too restricted by the initial images that have been sketched down, so I try to think out the idea in a preliminary stage with words, and develop the idea first.

Q: I would imagine with this film, it might be tough to invent images, because it is such a visually complex film.
SK: In terms of creating feature length animated films, as a director and creator, I work on a project for two years, two and a half years. That’s a pretty long time, so if I start thinking of the images too early in the process, when we finally get to the point of the process where we’re creating the images for the film, it doesn’t feel fresh, it doesn’t feel new, and so it starts feeling roped when we’re actually creating the images, as if we’re just producing something we already thought of and we’re just following through with it. So when the ideas are in the screenplay stage, when we’re creating the screenplay, we don’t do too much image work.

Q: What are some of the challenges of adapting a story with such a loyal fanbase?
SK: The difficulty I faced when I adapted this book into a film was not about the fact that it was very popular, that it had a hugely loyal fanbase, it was more to do with that the original work was so great in volume, so to adapt it into a 90 minute feature length film was a big challenge, and that’s something we worked very hard on. As far as the dream sequences go, there is an idea in the original work about being able to go into other people’s dreams, that was very interesting, but also in the original work, what was great were the descriptions of the dream imagery. We felt that if we took the dream sequences and turned them into images directly, that would be perfunctory and expository. So actually the images you see in the film Paprika don’t come from the film at all, but are original images that aren’t taken from descriptions in the book.

Q: What influenced the images in the film?
SK: It’s difficult to say. I did indeed reference some of my own dreams, and thought about what components of dreams I was having that would be useful and did employ some of that. Where most of the imagery came from is hard to say. It was more about the structure of the story, and at certain points we had to produce imagery that is interesting and progresses with the story. And so it was more about reaching those points in producing the film, and then working very hard and being tortured to come up with great imagery to fit into those points in the film. The central image in the dreams is the parade sequences. The parade is not an image that exists in the original novel, and for us the parade is a symbol of a nightmare. Usually when a nightmare is portrayed, in film and in anime, it is very dark. But for Paprika we wanted to be disgustingly decadent and far too colorful – grossly colorful. And that was our idea with that. And as far as what is in the parade, there are things that shouldn’t move, that shouldn’t have a life of their own, but are moving, are progressing, and most of the things there are images and objects that people have thrown away as society has developed. Some of it is very specifically Japanese, for example there are religious and cultural icons of Japan that come from Taoism and Buddhism that are part of the parade. Compared to a hundred years ago, people in Japan are far less respectful of their culture or their heritage. And so the parade composed of a lot of things people have thrown away as society progresses.

Q: You reference a lot of other films in Paprika, for example there’s a point in the film where Kugawa almost looks like Akira Kurosawa while describing film. Are you afraid references like this will be lost on an American audience?
SK: Of course there are some things that won’t translate because of social barriers, but for us there are things we see in American films that we recognize, that we understand as having some significance for Americans, but we don’t know what they are because we don’t live in America. But I don’t think it means people can’t enjoy the films because of small details that they don’t understand. I think that if people see certain imagery in a film and recognize it as having a certain significance –  whether they know exactly what it is or not –  is not important, they can still enjoy the film.

Q: This film is much more fantastical than your previous work, like Tokyo Godfathers or Millennium Actress, what made you want to move in that direction?
SK: Before thinking about Paprika or any film, the focus is, for me, is the desire to tell a story, and then we think about the image which is best suited to tell that story, and that’s what’s interesting. As far as Paprika goes, it was not quite an experiment, but the idea behind it was to not make the plot line, the story line, the main thing, but to make imagery the main focus, to have images tell the story.

I don’t write music or make music myself, but as a good metaphor, when there is a particularly song that I like, what I’m usually drawn to is not the lyrics or the words, but the melody. And so if you want to describe to another person what’s good about the melody of a song, that’s a very difficult thing to do. And so that sort of applies to Paprika. In making Paprika I wanted to make sure the lyrics of the film were being paid attention to, but the focus to be on what’s attractive of the melody of it. And why I wanted to move in this direction is partly that I wanted to try to do it this way. But also working in films that take place in a very realistic world, it’s easy to get trapped in the rules of the real world and try to keep it realistic, and I don’t think that’s very good. And I wanted to be able to expand my own imagination.

Q: Are you a science fiction fan?
SK: When I was in my late teens and early twenties, what I read mostly Yasutaka Tsutsui’s – the author of Paprika — work. And Mr. Tsutsui had the unique standing in the Japanese literary world of a master of his genre, and I read a ton of his work and was greatly influenced, not just by the works themselves, but by his idea of what is interesting, what are interesting ideas to explore, his whole worldview. So that was something that greatly influenced me as a director and creator of anime films in general. So for me this film is really a homage to Mr. Tsutsui and his works, in the form of imagery.

Q: You seem to be combining 2D and 3D animation, which seems to be an emerging trend in anime.
SK: It seems that in America a lot of animation is done exclusively 3D. But in Japan, it’s more about incorporating 3D components into 2D hand-drawn animation, and creating a hybrid between those two. There are of course some people in Japan that are moving towards doing completely 3D. But as a foundation in Japan, there’s a very strong culture of manga, of comics, that are read by people of all ages. So it’s more about taking the manga people love, that’s 2D and hand-drawn, and making those move in animated films.

The thing with hand-drawn 2D animation and 3D animation is that they’re actually not terribly compatible in terms of quality. Often times with regular 2D animation, the characters are drawn with lines and are painted in a fairly flat manner within those lines, and the backgrounds are done by brushwork, so there are already two different qualities that are meshing there, and to bring in 3D animation, which is a very different quality, it’s hard to contain them all within one screen. But all different methods have different qualities that are all very good, so I very much like thinking in terms of production of incorporating what each element has to offer.

Q: Where do you think animation is heading toward a hybrid of 2D, 3D and live action/motion capture filmmaking?
SK: What I think is that – I don’t think all things will become unified into one combination of all of them, or that all things will become 3-dimensional, or all things will become live-action. I think that each individual technique should continue to develop, and I think it’s actually preferable that there are different techniques that coexist, but not necessarily all in one film.

Q: Where do you see yourself going? Do you want to direct a live-action film, or try different animation techniques?
SK: Well, I think if it becomes necessary, I’m willing to try other mediums. But the things is, that for forty years I’ve been drawing and training with the hand, so it is a medium that I am extremely suited for, and trained to express myself in. And to learn other techniques, such as doing live action or doing 3D, to learn everything that I would have to learn to get myself up to the same level that I am at now with hand-drawn animation, that would take the same amount of time and effort, and it seems like a little bit of a waste. So I think if it’s necessary, to bring in components of live-action or 3D, I would rather collaborate with people who are experts in that field. I think it is not necessary for me to be able to do everything myself.

Q: What do you have planned? What other projects are in mind?
SK: There is another feature length animation film in the screenplay stage right now that I’m working on. It is different than my previous works in that it is an adventure film that kids can enjoy. That being said, I don’t want it to be something that fans of my previous works will look at and think that it is not something for them. The idea is that on the surface it appears to be an adventure film that kids can actually enjoy, but if seen by an adult audience, that there are much deeper meanings that they can get from it and things that they can enjoy in it as well.

Q: What has influenced your filmmaking? Kurosawa was mentioned earlier, do you consider his work an influence?
SK: Of course I love Kurosawa’s films and I’ve seen them many, many times, and in terms of how he structures images, I am very influenced by that. But as far as films go, I’ve seen so many movies, and honestly, I’ve seen a lot more American Hollywood films than Japanese films. And because I’ve seen so many, it’s hard to pick out just one – I’ve been influenced by all of them. All of them have influenced my work, I’m sure, on one level or another. As far as images go, I like to draw very much, I still enjoy it very much, but my interest is less in the creation of images than how to use images, and how images can be employed in interesting ways to tell a story.

Q:You bring up the notion of the apocalypse in Paranoia Agent, and at the very end of Paprika — how do those two notions of the end of the world relate to one another. And how do you understand the relation between the apocalypse and the media in general?
SK: In terms of order, Paranoia Agent was created first as a TV series, and then Paprika was made afterwards. As far as Paranoia Agent goes, it was for TV, so there were a lot of things we wanted to do that we couldn’t do as far as imagery went – that we couldn’t accomplish because of the medium. So, in a sense, Paprika has components that we wanted to – if we had been able to take Paranoia Agent and made it into a feature length film – Paprika has some of those images. So there are things that coincide between those two works. As far as apocalyptic imagery goes, and the media, I think there is sort of an intangible fear that the value systems in the world all can be extremely homogenous, and that it is sort of actually a very threatening presence, almost like unknown doctrines are swallowing up entire worlds, so in that sense I suppose these images are apocalyptic that do appear in Paprika.

Q: There are a lot of terrifying images in the film. What frightens you?
SK: Well, one thing that scares me are schedules and deadlines [laughs]. But in Paprika there is one place where I directly used images from my own dreams, and it’s the scene where Paprika is escaping and she has transformed herself into a mermaid, and Inui, the villain, is a dark black whale and is pursuing her. I had a nightmare where I was in a train station, and there is a fountain in that train station. And the fountain actually connected directly into the ocean, and I thought, ‘Well, isn’t that convenient.’ So I dove in and was swimming in the ocean when the very dark and scary ocean floor started rising towards me. And while I was dreaming I was able to acknowledge that that dark ocean floor represented my unconscious mind and it was coming towards me. And that was very frightening, so in a way, I think my own unconscious mind is both mysterious, but also very frightening.

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