This essay was not originally written for this blog, so the style might seem a little different. I’m currently busy with work so I’ve decided to lightly edit this and post it here. This post contains spoilers for Memories, Perfect Blue, Paranoia Agent, Millennium Actress and Paprika and I recommend watching them before reading.
Kon Satoshi (1963-2010) made his cinematic debut as the scriptwriter for Morimoto Kōji’s Magnetic Rose (1995), which was released as part of Katsuhiro Otomo’s anthology film Memories. Despite not being directed by Kon and so lacking much of his unique visual style, Magnetic Rose still contains a lot of the themes that Kon would go on to explore in his later works. The film revolves around an abandoned spaceship discovered by a salvaging crew who hear an odd signal emitting from it. Exploring the ship, the two salvagers realise that it belongs to a deceased opera singer named Eva Friedel, whose consciousness lives on inside the ship’s computers, and who has constructed a space where memories of her past glory and lost romance can live on forever through technology such as holograms and robots.
Kon’s later work also examines these themes of the interplay between technology and the human subconscious. His films serve to create a link through animation of our lived experiences in the real world and a parallel world of the ‘other’ that is created by contemporary media and technology. This can be fictional technology as in Magnetic Rose and Paprika (2006) or real-life technology such as the internet in Perfect Blue (1997) or cinema in Millennium Actress (2001). In either case, Kon’s thematic preoccupations remain the same; how the advancement and rise of the information age has shaped the human psyche and lead to the creation and proliferation of contemporary anxieties.
In Magnetic Rose, the technology used by Eva to preserve her memories is never properly explained; it is a sci-fi construct that is left intentionally vague by Kon, its existence having to be presumed by the audience. However, this is perhaps the only one of Kon’s technological devices that works this way. Even the DC Mini, the central invention at the heart of Paprika that allows the protagonists to view and enter into people’s dreams, while fictional, is often compared to and seen as analogous to the internet. As Paprika explains to Detective Konakawa when they meet in an online chatroom, ‘Don’t you think dreams and the internet are similar? They are both areas where the repressed conscious mind vents.’ In the climax of the film, the bartenders from the website also appear in reality, as the boundaries between the dream world and reality start to crumble. As such, we can think of the DC Mini as partly Kon’s metaphor for the internet.
The internet plays its biggest part in Perfect Blue (1997), Kon’s first feature as director. Although Mima, the film’s protagonist, starts the film not knowing how to use a computer, her interest in the internet is triggered by a note from a fan which reads ‘I’m always looking at Mima’s Room.’ Although the note refers to a website, the initial assumption by both Mima and the audience is that the fan is looking directly into Mima’s apartment. Kon uses this misunderstanding to create this link in the mind of the viewer between the virtual internet space and the physical space of Mima’s room.
The internet space is important within Perfect Blue because it represents the creation of an alternate Mima by the website’s host, a stalker fan who goes by the handle Me-Mania. In his blog posts he pretends to be writing from the perspective of the ‘real’ Mima, a figure who desires to remain a pop idol and resents her new acting career. As she reads through it, the website starts to infect the mind of the real Mima, who starts to see the Mima of the blog in her own reflections – such as through car windows, or in the reflection of the powered-off computer screen itself. In this way, the internet Mima bleeds into real life because of the power of the internet – through the manipulation of the virtual space, the blogger creates an impact on the real-world figure of Mima.
A similar trick is pulled with the TV show that Mima acts in; “Double Bind”. During scenes showing the filming of “Double Bind”, Kon deliberately frames the shots to leave out the cameras, or shows the show through the TV cameras, so that until the show’s director shouts cut, the viewer isn’t sure if what they are watching is from Perfect Blue or from “Double Bind”. Near the end of the film, the characters from “Double Bind” even refer to Mima by her real name when exposing the murderer within the show’s narrative, although this is later revealed as one of Mima’s delusions. Kon uses editing like this in order to blur the lines between “Double Bind” and reality, demonstrating the effect the show has on Mima’s psyche by starting scenes in Perfect Blue at points where the audience is unsure of whether the scene is a non-diegetic insert or not.
The screen is just as important a technological device to Kon’s exploration of the subconscious as the internet is, as it crops up in almost all his projects. In Perfect Blue it’s the television show “Double Bind”, while in Paprika and Millennium Actress, Kon focuses on the cinema. Detective Konakawa of Paprika, for example, is obsessed with the cinema, and it goes so far as to invade his mind and his dreams. Still hung up on a short film he made in his youth, Konakawa’s subconscious interprets the world through cinematic images; he dresses like Akira Kurosawa and the action set-pieces of his dreams make direct references to films such as Tarzan the Ape Man and From Russia With Love. Although the cinema related plotline of Paprika takes a backseat to the film’s exploration of dreams, the effect of it is to crystallise an idea common to Kon’s work; that of the saturation of the mind of the modern person with memes derived from movies, television, books and myths.
Cinema as a technological device that is in constant interplay with the subconscious mind is more directly examined in Millennium Actress, a biopic of a fictional Japanese actress Chiyoko Fujiwara, whose life and career are loosely based off that of real-life actresses Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine. In Millennium Actress, a film which seems to share much of its basic plot structure with Magnetic Rose, two documentarians find themselves taking part in the recollections of Chiyoko’s life, focusing mainly on her search for a man she met only for a brief time. These memories are told mainly through Chiyoko’s time on film sets, but the reality of her memories and the films she acted in start to blend together until both the diegetic and non-diegetic audience become confused between what Chiyoko actually experienced and what is the plot of her films. Kon’s style, however, seems to posit that the difference isn’t actually important. Chiyoko uses the visual language of the films she starred in in order to inform the emotions of her life story.
In a sense, Chiyoko’s reappropriation of the visual language of classic Japanese cinema shows a female character who is able to take control of the male-created technological spaces in which she mostly resides. Technology in Kon’s films is almost always the realm of the masculine, with perhaps the exception of Eva’s ship in Magnetic Rose. The use of the internet in Perfect Blue is defined by the male stalker Me-Mania and the DC Mini in Paprika is created by the male inventor Tokita and hijacked by the facility Chairman Inui. Nevertheless, Kon posits that the women who inhabit these spaces of the male gaze are occasionally able to break through them. Although Mima suffers a breakdown because of the pressure of the male gaze, there is some suggestion at the end of the film that she is able to reclaim her own identity and escape this. Chiyoko and Paprika, however, are able to traverse these male created spaces with ease and use them for the sake of forming their own narratives. Gardner sees this as a criticism of Kon’s work, writing that the issue is ‘oddly never problematised’ in Millennium Actress, despite Kon’s blatant criticism of it in Perfect Blue but it’s clear that Kon was trying to tell a different story here – he himself described the film as taking the same technique as Perfect Blue but using it to tell a more fun adventure narrative, perhaps one where the female character is allowed to thrive and fully claim these male spaces.
In Perfect Blue, Paprika and Millennium Actress, then, Kon deftly uses technology to explore the inner lives of his central characters. Perfect Blue shows how a male-controlled virtual space can cause enough pressure on its female protagonist in order to trigger a breakdown, while Millennium Actress shows a female protagonist take control of those spaces in order to tell a personal story of love through the language of cinema. In Paprika, the character of Konakawa shows how the space of cinema influences the subconscious of people’s lives, but it also aims to do something slightly larger with its central plot, which is to explore notions of collective consciousness.
Paprika’s examination of the concept is perhaps slightly shallow, given that the film devotes much of its screen-time to action set-pieces and the side story of Konakawa’s personal history. However, the image of the parade which marches through the dreams of various characters in the film before crossing over to reality in its climactic finale, is certainly important in informing Kon’s views of the collective unconscious. The parade is an all-consuming force of imagery, from common household items to iconic symbols such as the Statue of Liberty or the Virgin Mary. In a sense, the parade can be seen as a kind of pop-art monster, where mass culture imagery ends up consuming the minds of those infected by it, sending them into a comatose state. When it breaches into reality, the parade transforms ordinary people around it into cartoonish representations of endemic contemporary Japanese problems; from a crowd of men transforming into mobile phones crouched below mini skirt wearing schoolgirls, to a bunch of hikkikomori-like walking TVs who proclaim, ‘If there’s nothing, then I won’t do anything’.
If Paprika shows how dreams are influenced by the mass media iconography around us, then Paranoia Agent, an anime made by Kon between production of Tokyo Godfathers and Paprika, depicts a more nuanced look at how society and mass media feed off each other. The collective unconscious in Paranoia Agent is attacked by a similar style of monster to the parade in Paprika, but Paranoia Agent goes some way to showing the conception of that creature and linking personal narratives to the creation of collective ideas. In this way, Paranoia Agent becomes the culmination of the themes explored in Kon’s earlier, and indeed later films.
The story of Paranoia Agent revolves around a mysterious attacker nicknamed ‘Shōnen Bat’, who attacks those suffering from the stresses of modern-day Japanese life, essentially putting them out of their misery and allowing them some brief respite from their anxieties. Shōnen Bat first attacks Tsukiko Sagi, a famous character designer responsible for the creation of Maromi, an equivalent to a Sanrio-like character. Maromi and Shōnen Bat are seen by the show as two sides of the same coin; creations of Sagi’s that influence their way into the collective unconscious and so take on a mind of their own.
Shōnen Bat starts as a shadowy sketch drawn by Sagi at the police station but through gossip and rumour becomes a fully fleshed out urban legend with genuine influence on the real world. Much as the parade escapes into reality through the DC Mini in Paprika, Shōnen Bat escapes into reality simply through repeated exposure through modern forms of communication. Although this isn’t ever linked to specific forms of technology as in Kon’s other films, there’s an indirect suggestion that the proliferation of technology our fears are becoming linked with other people’s anxieties. In essence, Paranoia Agent shows the effect of an increasingly interconnected society is to project individual and internal stresses onto a larger societal scale.
What’s important about Paranoia Agent for discussing Kon’s fascination with contemporary anxieties is that the show highlights how modern Japanese paranoias are being constantly mixed in the subconscious with technologies and media. As a prime example of this, take the character of Makoto Kozuka, whose delusions make him see his world as equivalent to a Japanese RPG video game. The detectives’ interrogation of him takes the form of a Millennium Actress-esque trek through his delusions, with the difference that Kozuka seems to be driven mad by his delusions, and unable to control them in the way that Chiyoko can, eventually ending with his suicide by way of Shōnen Bat. Media also shapes the self-perception of crooked policeman Masami Hirukawa, who sees actions such as his affiliation with the yakuza and his perverse stalking of his own teenage daughter as the actions of the protagonist in a macho manga – a figure of intense justice and masculinity.
Meanwhile, Harumi Chuono’s story tackles some of the same themes as Perfect Blue, with Harumi stuck between seeing herself and her prostitute alter-ego Maria. As in Perfect Blue, Harumi is torn between Japanese culture’s two opposing expectations for women. As Harumi, she is the perfect teacher, kind and considerate towards her bratty student Yūichi. As Maria, she’s the perfect prostitute in servicing her clients. But the two sides of her are in constant conflict, which is represented in the form of the phone answering machine, which plays Harumi messages from Maria.
In this way, Paranoia Agent solidifies the themes of Kon’s other works. In focusing on multiple characters in different walks and stages of life, Kon uses Paranoia Agent to show the idea of how the modern world has shaped everyone’s subconscious, not just that of those involved in the entertainment industries, or, as in Paprika, the ‘dream’ industries. Instead, Kon illustrates an infiltration of modern media and technology into every element of the collective consciousness. In Kon’s works, that infiltration goes further than just into the way people think, it affects how they see reality. Because of that distinction, it’s worth showing the cinematic techniques Kon uses to communicate those ideas to the audience beyond just the plot and dialogue.
The previously mentioned technique used in Perfect Blue of starting a scene on one image and then adding context in the next shot (normally a wider shot, or a new angle that shows previously hidden information such as the presence of film cameras) is one that Kon uses consistently throughout his films in order to keep the audience confused as to what the screen is showing them; whether that is ‘reality’ or ‘cinema/television/dream’, allowing the boundaries of those worlds to blur in the minds of the viewer. The secondary worlds these characters inhabit that end up shaping their reality also ends up shaping what is ‘real’ within the film itself.
Kon’s editing also accomplishes this is other ways, such as repeated uses of match cuts and graphic matches to transition between scenes and cuts, such as the opening sequence of Paprika, or in nearly every cinema scene in Millennium Actress, most notably the climatic ‘running’ scene, where Kon intercuts scenes of Chiyoko travelling to Hokkaido with scenes of her characters in film running. In Kon’s films, the functions of such shots seem to be to represent a transition between realities and the effect, rather than startling the audience, often seems to be to accustom them to the similarities between these digital or imagined worlds and the real ones.
The use of animation as opposed to live action also seems to be a key part of Satoshi Kon’s filmmaking style, having said that ‘In animation, only what is intended to be communicated is there… if I had a chance to edit live-action, it would be too fast for audiences to follow.’ What’s more, the use of animation allows for easier creation of the kind of match cuts that Kon favoured. When making Millennium Actress, Kon apparently set out to make a film that was like a ‘trompe l’oeil’ and playing with that kind of perspective is a style that seems to fit animation, having originated in Renaissance painting.
Still, Kon’s animation style is more realistic than that of some other anime. This is even highlighted within Perfect Blue, when images from a stereotypical shōjo anime are placed in the background of shots, providing a direct contrast with Kon’s more subdued character designs. This too aids in creating imagery that Kon referred to as ‘hyper-real’, where the more realistic feel of Kon’s character and background designs further emphasise the surreal elements of his filmmaking. The blur between the real space and the surreal space is increased if both share a semi-realistic style.
Kon, then, uses all these techniques in favour of advancing his perspective on the link between technology, the media and the subconscious. Particularly illuminating is this quote from an interview with Kon, where he talks about the role of the internet in Paprika; ‘Some people say that in the virtual world, different rules exist or try to say that a lot of vicious things happen there, but I don’t think there’s a reason to differentiate the virtual world from reality because reality includes that virtual world.’
In that quote, Kon shows how he sees the virtual world as nothing more than an extension of what we consider reality. Although Paprika sees the internet as analogous to dreams, where the subconscious mind can vent, Kon himself seems to see the internet as a mirror to society, one that reflects both the positive and the negative of our contemporary preoccupations and attempts to showcase this through his films.
Both Magnetic Rose and Perfect Blue were made at the start of the internet age, and both seem uniquely prescient in their vision of technological spaces influencing the way in which we view the world. Viewing those and Paranoia Agent, one might imagine Kon to hold a completely cynical view of the influence of technology on society, but a film like Millennium Actress shows a reclamation of new technology, although it is notably set before the internet.
While Paranoia Agent may show Kon working at his most in-depth, it’s perhaps worth looking to Paprika for a more encapsulating take on his preoccupations as a filmmaker. It’s only in that film that Kon manages to mix the optimistic reclamation of technology as a shaper of personal narrative from Millennium Actress with the pessimistic view of it as an amplifier of societal pressures from his other films. Paprika, then, might be the fullest image of Kon’s view of contemporary anxieties, a melange of cinema, the internet, technology and the human subconscious that edits them together seamlessly and highlights their inseparability.