How better to describe the films of the late Satoshi Kon than guiding spirits to our agitated subconscious. Although all his films can be called dream factories, this notion becomes quite literal in his last feature Paprika, a film that splices the worlds of dream and reality to achieve a symbiosis in how we look at and into ourselves. Investigating beyond the crushing limits of our physical reality, Paprika explore the worlds of illimitable possibilities and potential that exist just on the other side of our conscious self. In Millennium Actress, Kon explores a lifetime of Japanese cinema through a spectrum of different film eras, each interjoined by tumultuous periods in the nation’s recent history. It’s not only a moving elegy for a generation on the verge of completely receding into the past, but an aching earnest tribute to cinema—a single, undefinable mould that brings our undefinable feelings and passions to life.
Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue is interesting in that it similarly explores the dichotomy of dream and reality but asks the unsettling question of how much and how little our mind’s fabrications and imagination actually make up our reality. Satoshi Kon channels these concerns through its protagonist, Mima Kirigoe, a young J-pop idol attempting to transition into the world of acting. The film starts with Mima running on stage with her pop trio and performing for a vivacious audience. After the show ends she resolutely announces her departure from the pop group to pursue her acting career. The decision is met with shock and derision from the crowd—even prompting some of the more bacchanalian members hurl beer cans at her on stage. She returns to her tiny urban apartment and surfs the web, finding a site titled “Mima’s Room,” where she makes a disturbing discovery an impostor posting diary entries of her day-to-day life in too precise of detail.
Mima’s first acting project, as we later find out, is playing the rape victim on a crime procedural—a role that she, as well as her staunch manager, are worried will irrevocably ruin her fluffy pop idol image. Her agent explains the pop idol’s role in the show, “Mima’s character, Yoko Takakura, completely changes personalities when she’s raped by the customers at a local strip show.” The “change”, as her agent describes in the show’s script, occurs similarly in real life when shortly after filming the intense-yet-benign rape scene Mima starts casting serious doubt on her transition from pop idol to screen actor. These doubts seem to dematerialize her reality, coming in the form of doppelgangers, who first appear coming off reflective surfaces, then off posters hanging off the wall, all with the intent to thwart Mima from her acting pursuits. Outlying this deeply internalized fear of Mima is Satoshi Kon’s more traditional horror subplot of a serial killer lurking about her studio, where key members of production are being offed one by one.
Branded as ‘psychological horror’ its hard to think of a more apt category for Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue. The film, among the scariest in the medium, finds equally disturbing implications in its imagined threats as it does in its physical ones. Mima’s doppelgangers as we find out are existential threats manifested as figurines of her pop idol persona. They embody a Mima more confident and self-assured, but also ones still trapped in her girlish pop idol image, ones that refuse Mima the vulnerability and self-questioning needed to develop, grow and change on the way to becoming a serious artist.
Just as it will appear in his later films, Kon’s effect of blending reality and fantasy all-in-one in Perfect Blue is less an attempt to distort reality than illuminate it. Kon further dematerializes the reality of Perfect Blue through several inventive visual approaches, the most striking is how he employs conjunctions between the crime actually happening and the fictional one being filmed, entwining the two together so frequently they seem to form a seamless whole in the narrative (an effect mimicked in films by Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Christopher Nolan’s Inception). Just as we will see in Satoshi Kon’s later works, it’s clear that there is no fine line between dream and reality in his films, no boundary and no border separating the realm of the imagined and the lived-in. Satoshi Kon’s true test of visual and conceptual imagination comes not in his ability to create a profound connection between reality and fiction, but to forge them into emotional wholes to the point where they become inseparable.