Kon Satoshi was a visionary Japanese filmmaker, animator, and storyteller who left an indelible mark on the world of animation and cinema. Throughout his tragically short career, Kon demonstrated an unparalleled ability to blend reality and fantasy, exploring the human psyche and the boundaries of perception. In this article, we will delve into the life and works of Kon Satoshi, celebrating the legacy of a true creative genius.
Early Life and Career Beginnings
Born on October 12, 1963, in Kushiro, Hokkaido, Japan, Kon developed an early fascination with drawing and storytelling. He nurtured his passion for art through his formative years, leading him to attend Musashino Art University in Tokyo. After graduating, Kon embarked on a career as a manga artist, contributing to various manga magazines with his unique artistic style.
▲ Musashino Art University
It wasn't until the late 1980s that Kon's path shifted toward animation. His exceptional talents caught the attention of the renowned animator Katsuhiro Otomo, known for his groundbreaking work on "Akira." Under Otomo's mentorship, Kon honed his skills as a director and animator, gaining invaluable experience that would shape his future creations.
In 1997, Kon made his directorial debut with the psychological thriller "Perfect Blue." The film showcased his extraordinary ability to blur the lines between reality and illusion, delving into the mind of an idol-turned-actress who grapples with the loss of her identity. The film's innovative narrative structure and stunning visuals earned it critical acclaim, establishing Kon as a force to be reckoned with in the animation world.
Following the success of "Perfect Blue," Kon's sophomore effort, "Millennium Actress" (2001), solidified his reputation as a masterful storyteller. This mesmerizing tale traverses time and space, as an aging actress recounts her life story while being interviewed by a documentary filmmaker. Through skilful use of non-linear storytelling, Kon delves into the power of memories and their effect on an individual's perception of reality.
In 2003, Kon's third film, "Tokyo Godfathers," marked a departure from his previous works, presenting a heartwarming and humorous story of three homeless individuals who discover an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve. The film's portrayal of compassion, redemption, and the intricacies of human connections demonstrated Kon's versatility as a storyteller.
Legacy and Influence
Kon's final completed film, "Paprika" (2006), stands as a testament to his extraordinary imagination and mastery of the medium. The film, which heavily influenced Christopher Nolan's "Inception," delves into the realm of dreams and subconsciousness. With vivid imagery and a complex narrative, "Paprika" pushes the boundaries of visual storytelling, captivating audiences worldwide.
Tragically, Kon's promising career was cut short when he passed away on August 24, 2010, at the age of 46, due to pancreatic cancer. Despite his untimely departure, his impact on the world of animation and cinema endures through the works he left behind.
If you have time, I highly recommend you to read Satoshi Kon's heartbreaking last words written before his death.
How could I forget, May 18th of this year.
I received the following pronouncement from a cardiovascular doctor at Musashino Red Cross Hospital.
"It's the latter stages of pancreatic cancer. It's metastasized to several bones. You have at the most half a year left to live."
My wife and I listened together. It was a fate so unexpected and untenable, that the two of us together could barely take it.
I used to honestly think that "I can't help it if I die any day." Still, it was so sudden.
To be sure, there were some signs. 2 to 3 months before that I'd had strong pains in several places on my back and in the joints of my legs; I'd lost strength in my right leg and found it hard to walk, and I'd been going to an acupuncturist and a chiropractor, but I wasn't getting any better. So after having been examined in an MRI and a PET-CT and such advanced machinery, came the sudden pronouncement of the time I had left.
It was as if death had positioned itself right behind me before I knew it, and there was nothing I could do.
After the pronouncement, my wife and I researched ways to prolong my life. It was literally a life or death situation. We received the support of staunch friends and strong allies. I rejected anti-cancer medication, and tried to live with a view of the world slightly different from the norm. The fact that I rejected what was "expected (normal)" seemed to me to be very much like me.
I've never really felt that I belonged with the majority. It was the same for medical care, as with anything else. "Why not try to keep living according to my own principles!" However, as is the case when I'm trying to create a work [a film], ones willpower alone didn't do the job. The illness kept progressing day by day.
On the other hand, as a member of society, I do accept at least half of what society in general holds to be right. I do pay taxes. I'm far from being an upstanding citizen, but I am a full member of Japanese society. So, aside from the things I needed to do to prolong my life from my own point of view, I also attempted to do all the things necessary to "be ready to die properly". I don't think I managed to do it properly though. (But) one of the things I did was, with the cooperation of 2 friends that I could trust, set up a company to take care of things like the measly number of copyrights that I hold. Another thing that I did was, to insure that my wife would take over any modest assets that I had smoothly by writing a will. Of course, I didn't think there would be any fighting over my legacy or anything, but I wanted to make sure that my wife, who would remain behind in this world, would have nothing to worry about - and besides, I wanted to remove any anxiety from myself, the one who was going to take a little hop over there, before I had to leave.
The paperwork and research necessary for these tasks, which neither my wife nor I were good at doing, were taken care of speedily by wonderful friends. Later on, when I developed pneumonia and was at death's door, and put my final signature on the will, I thought that if I died right then and there, it couldn't be helped.
"Ah...I can die at last."
After all, I'd been brought by ambulance to the Musashino Red Cross Hospital 2 days before that; then brought back again to the same hospital by ambulance the day after. Even I had to be hospitalized and undergo many examinations. The result of those examinations: pneumonia, water in my chest, and when I asked the doctor [straight out], the answer I received was very businesslike, and I was in a way grateful for that.
"You may last 1 or 2 days...even if you survive this, you probably have until the end of the month."
As I listened, I thought "It's like he's telling me the weather forecast", but still the situation was dire.
That was July the 7th. It was a rather brutal Tanabata for sure.
So, I decided right there and then.
I wanted to die at home.
I might inconvenience the people around me, but I asked them to see how I could escape and go back home. [I was able to do so] thanks to my wife's efforts, the hospital's cooperation despite their position of having given up on me, the tremendous help of other medical facilities, and the coincidences that were so numerous that they only seemed to be gifts from heaven. I've never seen so many coincidences and events falling into place so neatly in real life, I could barely believe it. This wasn't Tokyo Godfathers after all.
While my wife was running around getting things in place for my escape, I was pleading with doctors "If I can go home for even half a day, there are things I can still do!", then waiting alone in the depressing hospital room for death. I was lonely, but this was what I was thinking.
"Maybe dying won't be so bad."
I didn't have any reasons for it, and perhaps I needed to think like that, but I was surprisingly calm and relaxed.
However, there was just one thought that was gnawing away at me.
"I don't want to die here..."
As I thought that, something moved out from the calendar on the wall and started to spread around the room.
"Oh dear, a line marching out from the calendar. My hallucinations aren't at all original."
I had to smile at the fact at my professional instincts were working even at times like this, but in any case I was probably the nearest to the land of the dead that I'd ever been at that point. I really felt death very close to me. [But] with the help of many people, I miraculously escaped Musashino Red Cross and came back home, wrapped up in the land of the dead and bedsheets.
I should emphasize that I have no criticism of or hatred for Musashino Red Cross Hospital, so don't misconstrue me.
I just wanted to go home to my own house. The house where I live.
I was a little surprised that, when I was being carried into my living room, as a bonus, I experienced that deathbed experience everyone is familiar with of "looking down on your body being carried into the room from a place high above". I was looking down on myself and the scene around me from a position several meters above ground, through a wide-angle-ish lens and flash lighting. The square of the bed in the middle of the room seemed very large and prominent, and my sheet-wrapped body was being lowered into the middle of the square. None too gently it seemed, but I'm not complaining.
So, all I had to do was to wait for death in my own home.
It seems that I was able to overcome the pneumonia.
I did think like this, in a way.
"I didn't manage to die! (laugh)"
Afterwards, when I could think of nothing else but death, I thought that I did indeed die once then. In the back of my mind, the word "reborn" wavered several times.
Amazingly, after then my life-force was rejuvenated. From the bottom of my heart, I believe this is due to the people who helped me; first and foremost my wife, and my supportive friends, the doctors and nurses, and the care managers.
Now that my life-force had been restarted, I couldn't waste my time. I told myself that I'd been given an extra life, and that I had to spend it carefully. So I thought that I wanted to erase at least one of the irresponsibilities that I'd left behind in this world.
To be truthful, I'd only told the people closest to me about the cancer. I hadn't even told my parents. In particular, because of various work-related complications, I couldn't say anything (to people) even if I wanted to. I wanted to announce my cancer on the internet and report on my remaining life, but if Satoshi's death was scheduled, there might be some waves made, however small. For these reasons, I acted very irresponsibly towards some people I know. I am so sorry.
There were so many people that I wanted to see before I died, to say even one word of greeting to. Family and relatives, old friends and classmates from elementary and middle and high school, the mates I met in college, the people I met in the manga world, with whom I exchanged so much inspiration, the people in the anime world whose desks I sat next to, went drinking with, with whom I competed on on the same works, the mates with whom I shared good and bad times. The countless people I was able to know because of my position as a film director, the people who call themselves my fans not only in Japan but around the world, the friends I'd made via the web.
There are so many people that I want to see at least once (well there are some I don't want to see too), but if I see them I'm afraid that that the thought that "I can never see this person again" will take me over, and that I wouldn't be able to greet death gracefully. Even if I had recovered, I had very little life force left, and it took a lot of effort to see people. The more people wanted to see me, the harder it was for me to see them. What irony. In addition, my lower body was paralyzed due to the cancer spreading to my bones, and I was prone on my bed, and I didn't want people to see my emaciated body. I wanted most of the people I knew to remember me as the Satoshi that was full of life.
I'd like to use this space to apologize to my relatives, friends and acquaintances, for not telling you about my cancer, for my irresponsibility. Please understand that this was Satoshi's selfish desire. I mean, Satoshi Kon was "that kind of guy". When I envision your faces, I only have good memories and remember (your) great smiles. Everyone, thank you for all the truly great memories. I loved the world I lived in. Just the fact that I can think that makes me happy.
The many people that I met throughout my lifetime, whether they were positive or negative, have helped to shape the human being that is Satoshi Kon, and I am grateful for all of those encounters. Even if the end result is an early death in my mid 40s, I've accepted this as my own unique destiny. I've had so many positive things happen to me after all.
The thing I think about death now. "I can only say, it's too bad." Really.
However, even though I can let go of many of my irresponsible actions [by not telling people], I cannot help regretting two things. About my parents, and about Madhouse [founder] Maruyama-san.
Even though it was rather late, there was no choice but to come clean with the whole truth. I wanted to beg them for forgiveness.
As soon as I saw Maruyama-san's face when he came to see me at home, I couldn't stop the flow of tears or my feeling of shame. "I'm so sorry, for ending up like this..." Maruyama-san said nothing, and just shook his head and gripped both my hands. I was filled with thankfulness. Feelings of gratitude and joy, that I'd been lucky enough to work with this person, came over me like a landslide. It may be selfish, but I felt as though I had been forgiven in that instant.
My biggest regret is the film "Dreaming Machine". I'm worried not only about the film itself, but about the staff with whom I was able to work with on the film. After all, there's a strong possibility that the storyboards that were created with (our) blood, sweat and tears will never be seen. This is because Satoshi Kon put his arms around the original story, the script, the characters and the settings, the sketches, the music...every single image. Of course there are things that I shared with the animation director, the art director and other staff [members], but basically most of the work can only be understood by Satoshi Kon. It's easy to say that it was my fault for arranging things this way, but from my point of view I made every effort to share my vision with others. However, in my current state I can only feel deep remorse for my inadequacies in these areas. I am really sorry to all of the staff. However, I want them to understand, if only a little bit. Satoshi Kon was "that kind of guy", and, that's why he was able to make rather weird anime that was a bit different. I know this is a selfish excuse, but think of my cancer and please forgive me.
I haven't been idly waiting for death, even now I'm thinking with my weak brain of ways to let the work live even after I am gone. But they are all shallow ideas. When I told Maruyama-san about my concerns about "Dreaming Machine", he just said "Don't worry. We'll figure out something, so don't worry."
I wept uncontrollably.
Even with my previous movies, I've been so irresponsible with the productions and the budgets, but I always had Maruyama-san figure it out for me in the end.
This time is no different. I really haven't changed.
I was able to talk to my heart's content with Maruyama-san. Thanks to this, I was able to feel, at least a little, that Satoshi Kon's talents and skills were of some value in our industry.
"I regret losing your talent. I wish that you were able to leave it for us."
If Madhouse's Maruyama-san says that, I can go to the netherworld with a little bit of self-pride after all. And of course, even without anyone else telling me this, I do feel regret that my weird visions and ability to draw things in minute detail will be lost, but that can't be helped. I am grateful from the bottom of my heart that Maruyama-san gave me the opportunity to show the world these things. Thank you, so very much. Satoshi Kon was happy as an animation director.
It was so heartbreaking to tell my parents.
I'd really intended to go up to Sapporo, where my parents live, while I was still able to, but my illness progressed so unexpectedly and annoyingly fast that I ended up calling them on the telephone from the hospital room as I was closest to death.
"I'm in the late stages of cancer and will die soon. I was so happy being born as a child to you, Father and Mother. Thank you."
They must have been devastated to hear this out of the blue, but I was certain I was going to die right then.
But then I came back home and survived the pneumonia. I made the big decision to see my parents. They wanted to see me too. But it was going to be so hard to see them, and I didn't have the will to. But I wanted to see my parents' faces one last time. I wanted to tell them how grateful I was that they brought me into this world.
I've been a happy person. Even though I must apologize to my wife, my parents and all the people that I love, that lived out my life a bit too faster than most.
My parents followed my selfish wishes, and came the next day from Sapporo to my house. I can never forget the first words out of my mother's mouth when she saw me lying there.
"I'm so sorry, for not bringing you into this world with a stronger body!"
I was completely speechless.
I could only spend a short time with my parents, but that was enough. I had felt that if I saw their faces, that it would be enough, and it really turned out that way.
Thank you, Father, Mother. I am so happy that I was born into this world as the child of the both of you. My heart is full of memories and gratitude. Happiness itself is important, but I am so grateful that you taught me to appreciate happiness. Thank you, so very much .
It's so disrespectful to to die before ones parents, but in the last 10 plus years, I've been able to do what I want as an anime director, achieve my goals, and get some good reviews. I do feel regret that my films didn't make a lot of money, but I think they got what they deserved. In these last 10 plus years in particular I've felt as though I've lived more intensively than other people, and I think that my parents understood what was in my heart.
Because of the visits by Maruyama-san and my parents, I feel as though I've taken a big burden off my shoulders.
Lastly, to my wife, about whom I worry the most, but who has been my support until the end.
Since that time-left pronouncement, we drowned ourselves in tears together so many times. Every day was brutal for both of us, physically and mentally. There are almost no words for it. But the reason why I was able to survive those difficult days was because of the words that you said to me right after we received the news.
"I'll be at your side [run with you] until the end."
True to those words, as though you were leaving my worries in the dust, you skillfully directed the demands and requests that came rushing towards us like a landslide, and quickly learned how to take care of your husband. I was so moved, watching you deal with things so efficiently.
"My wife is awesome."
No need to keep saying that now, you say? No no. You are even more awesome now than you ever were - I truly feel this. Even after I have died, I believe that you will send Satoshi Kon to the next world with grace. Ever since we got married, I was so wrapped up in "Work, work" that I was only able to spend some time at home after the cancer - such a shame.
But you stood close to me, you always understood that I needed to immerse myself in my work, that my talent was there. I was happy. Truly happy. During my life, and as I wait for death, I just can't express my gratitude to you enough. Thank you.
There are so many things, countless things, that I worry about, but everything needs an end. Lastly, to Doctor H who agreed to see me to the end in my home, even though it's something not done these days, and his wife and nurse, K-san, I would like to express my deepest gratitude. Medical care in a private home is very inconvenient, but you patiently dealt with the numerous aches and pains that cancer brings on, and endeavored to make my time until the final goal called death be as comfortable as possible. I can't say how much you helped me. And you didn't just deal with this difficult and arrogant patient as if it were just your jobs, but communicated with me as human beings. I cannot say how much of a support you were to me, and how much you saved me. I was encouraged by your qualities as human beings several times. I am deeply deeply grateful.
And, this is really the last thing, but from shortly after I received that pronouncement in mid-May until now, I've been lucky to have the cooperation, help and mental support, both personally and in business, from 2 friends. My friend T, who has been a friend since high school and is a member of KON'Stone Inc, and producer H, I thank you both from the bottom of my heart. Thank you so much. It's hard for me with my measly vocabulary to express my gratitude adequately to you both. My wife and I have both received so much from you.
If you two hadn't been there for us, I am sure that I'd be anticipating death while looking at my wife here as she sits by my side with considerably more trepidation and worry. I am really in your debt.
And, if I may ask you for one more thing - could you help my wife send me over to the other side after my death? I'd be able to get on that flight with my mind at rest if you could do that for me. I ask this from my heart.
So, to everyone who stuck with me through this long document, thank you. With my heart full of gratitude for everything good in the world, I'll put down my pen.
Now excuse me, I have to go.
Kon Satoshi's legacy can be seen in the work of many contemporary animators and filmmakers who draw inspiration from his innovative storytelling techniques and captivating visual style. His films continue to be celebrated at film festivals, retrospectives, and through critical analysis, solidifying his place as a visionary in the animation industry.
Kon Satoshi's contributions to animation and storytelling are nothing short of extraordinary. Through his films, he explored the depths of the human mind, bridging reality and imagination in ways that continue to resonate with audiences worldwide. While he may no longer be with us, his legacy lives on, inspiring new generations of artists and storytellers to push the boundaries of creativity and animation. Kon Satoshi will forever be remembered as a true visionary, an artist who dared to challenge conventions and create works of art that will stand the test of time.