Satoshi Kon is regarded as one of the most groundbreaking and influential directors who ever set foot in the industry of animation and, to a larger extent, cinema. He only made four films due to his death at the young age of 46, yet he is considered a legend in the business, which is a tribute to his creativity and mastery of the art.
Creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion Hideki Anno once famously said that animation needed to look outside Japan for inspiration, and, in many ways, Satoshi Kon was the answer. His array of influences ranges from Mobile Suit Gundam to Fyodor Dostoevsky, creating movies that feel steeped in anime culture but also entirely unique and unlike anything, anime has ever seen (and if you’ve seen anime, you know that is a bold claim).
Satoshi Kon has famously been cited as the inspiration for some of today’s most recognized directors such as Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky, and his works are still inspiring millions of mangaka and directors today.
If one thing is true about Satoshi Kon’s films is that they are as engaging as they are difficult to pin down. His movies are wildly experimental, using the medium of animation to blur the line between reality and fiction in a million different ways. This is the reason why his films are so engaging and so notoriously difficult to get into. They possess so many layers of detail and nuance that it can be overwhelming, but it is well worth your time to experience them.
In this article, I’ll be talking about his four films in a beginner-friendly order, suggesting where you should start if you want to get into this director. If you like what you see after the list, I suggest you check out his work as a scriptwriter or his experimental TV anime Paranoia agent, but for now on with the list!
1: Tokyo Godfathers
Tokyo Godfathers is Kon’s masterful attempt at a family movie, a Christmas movie at that. It is a lighthearted comedy where a group of homeless people find themselves with an abandoned baby and set themselves the goal to return him to his parents. What follows is one of the most hilarious movie experiences I’ve ever experienced, with gorgeous animation and some fantastic voice actor chemistry to back it up.
As with every Christmas film, there are clichés to be found, but Kon gives them his own spin, making them fresh and unique, even adding some social and political commentary to the mix without losing the film’s tone.
Tokyo Godfathers is a film apt for all ages, but you get the most out of it as an adult. It’s landed in this spot because there are still some “Kon-isms” that would hint to viewers on what is to come in the rest of his filmography.
2: Millennium Actress
Satoshi Kon’s second full-length film, Millennium Actress, takes the second spot on this list, and the differences between this and the previous spot are evidently clear. Don’t get me wrong: this is still mostly a family movie. But, on structure alone, the film presents a huge shift in storytelling and even ambition. Millennium actress is about two filmmakers making a documentary about a once-famous Japanese actress, as they seek to uncover her secrets and shine a light on her mysterious life.
Kon takes this premise to the next level as he has the two filmmakers jumping around in different movies that the actress starred in, breaking the fourth wall in a way that can be as hilarious as it can be dramatic.
It’s clear from watching this movie that the animation team had a blast, as each film they visit presents a tonal shift that is mirrored both aesthetically and narratively, and it becomes more inventive as the film progresses.
Not going to spoil the ending, but I gotta say it is one of my favorites and the most uplifting Kon has written. It lands on this spot, not because of its lack of layers, but because the films that follow are just on a whole different level.
3: Perfect Blue
Perfect Blue was and still is a monumental step for Kon and adult animation in general. Movies like Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan never shy away from the direct influence perfect blue had on them, even going as far as to recreate scenes shot for shot. Perfect Blue is also Kon’s most anime-rooted film, exploring both Otaku culture and Japanese Idol singers. Despite the fact that it is full of anime references, it is unlike any other anime out there.
Perfect Blue follows Mina, an Idol-turned actress, who struggles with her identity because her celebrity persona doesn’t seem to correlate with her idea of herself. It’s a perplexing narrative, but one that Kon masterfully explores, with characters like a stalker, a manager, and fellow performers all contributing to the overall vision.
As you might expect, the movie is primarily a psychological horror but is one that goes much above and beyond the boundaries of the genre that is impressive. If you’re still not convinced, there is a great video by YouTuber Super Eyepatch Wolf that explores the movie elements and makes great points on how ahead of its time it was. I considered putting this film as no. 4 on the list since it is, indeed, difficult to get into, but there is nothing quite like the final movie on the list.
Satoshi Kon’s swansong before his passing, and widely regarded as his best film, Paprika is the last movie on the list. A film that has intrigued and perplexed viewers since its premiere due to its extroverted and continuously altering animation style and extremely inventive narrative. Paprika´s plot is all about dreams, as the characters have a device that’s used to get inside the dreams of others.
If that plot summary sounds familiar, it is because Paprika is the film that inspired Inception, and just like its foster child, is very confusing. The movie feels almost like a Venus Flytrap: it’s so colorful and vibrant that you can miss important details as the movie goes.
The film never stops being entertaining, but it does take some time to digest; once you’ve finished it, you can only declare to have witnessed a masterpiece that you only half understood. It’s a film that gets better with each re-watch since it’s so deep and packed with wonderful concepts that are explored without you even noticing. It’s a wonderful film that I believe everyone should see, but not as a first step.