In enthusiast circles, Satoshi Kon is revered, so much so that it is easy to forget how relatively unknown he is to the wider filmic audience. There is a whole generation of filmgoers who will only know Satoshi Kon, if they know him at all, as an allusion in Black Swan (2010) or Inception (2010) Explained YouTube videos. This documentary clearly has this in mind, aiming to reveal the influence, impact and genius of the singular animator. It is a breadth rather than depth approach, favouring an accessible style and a focus on art over artists. The result is interesting. It would be hard to argue that Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist is a great documentary but it is easy to see that it may well be the right documentary: the one that the work needs in order to inform an existing audience and to generate a new generation of Satoshi Kon-verts.
For those who do not know, Satoshi Kon is an anime director (and a mangaka). In his tragically short life he made four films (Perfect Blue, 1997), Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003) and Paprika (2006), one short (Good Morning, 2008) and one TV show (Paranoia Agent, 2004). This relatively short filmography is, however, not reflective of his influence: with these works changing the landscape of animated film, inspiring future animators and shaping the work of even live action filmmakers in the subsequent decades. This documentary take us, chronologically, through the work of Satoshi Kon. We learn about how his first film came to be – and how that later influenced Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan – and then every work is contextualised, lightly analysed and generally spoken about. The approach is conventional: it is a talking head documentary in which notable figures shed light on the work of Satoshi Kon with no intrusion from the documenter (Pascal-Alex Vincent).
What is nice about this style is that it foregrounds the work of Satoshi Kon, as opposed to exploring him as a person. With posthumous documentaries, there is always the temptation to postulate about the inner details of those no longer with us. Satoshi Kon did not give us these details (the film alludes to his privacy at a number of points) what he did give us was a filmography. This filmography is unpicked here, not as a way to analyse an artist but to make tribute to them. Satoshi Kon is revered because of his work so Pascal-Alex Vincent focuses on the work. It is a commendable choice and makes for an informative watch, and for a respectful experience. There are candid comments in the documentary but always with the clear knowledge that the subject cannot give their own side of two-sided narratives. Personal information is kept very minimal and only ever used as a way of illuminating the work itself.
This is in line with the overall aim here, Pascal Alex-Vincent is clearly a great admirer of the work of Satoshi Kon and has thus made a documentary which conveys the reasons for that admiration. He has picked his subjects well, each figure has a clear area of expertise and feels like the right person to talk about their chosen subject. We have animators talking about the animation; writers talking about that process; voice actors conveying that experience and wider filmmakers commenting on Kon’s influence. The most notable name here is Darren Aronofsky, who appears regularly to talk about his overt admiration – and relationship with – Satoshi Kon. Aronofsky’s work is so clearly inspired by Kon and seeing this more known filmmaker pay homage is, actually, very touching. Yes, it feels only right but another big filmmaker – one specifically influenced by Kon’s Paprika – is notably absent. Voices from live action filmmaking are very interesting, though, as they nicely showcase how a great filmmaker transcends the form they work in and influences film in general. Another well chosen voice is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse‘s (2018) co-writer and co-director, Rodney Rotham. Spider-Verse was such a critical and commercial hit, one notable for its experimentation with form, and it is lovely to see this influential work detail its own influences.
This is all part of the sense of reverence that spreads through this film. This may sound hagiographic but, once again, this is where the focus on the work rather than the individual helps. This is a group of people giving wider insight into works that mean a lot to them. The stories are varied and are worth telling. The film as a whole, though, is very brief and only touches the surface. It is an interesting balancing act though, as it tries to service distinct audiences. For those familiar with Kon, it aims to give you trivia and wider information in order to deepen your appreciation – and it does this nicely. The film is also aimed at those unfamiliar, trying to give a taste of each film while never giving too much away. It does this well, also, as the information given showcases how impressive the works are, and would nicely contextualise a first viewing. However, the act of pleasing both camps does make for a broader experience.
On the whole, it is wise that the film does not interrogate, that it only informs. We are given enough analytical information to prompt independent analysis rather than a deep evaluation that would do the thinking for us. This seems to be the point here: this is not a comprehensive portrait of an artist, it is a means to an ends. Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist wishes to whet your appetite. It wants you to revisit Kon, to further glean out his brilliance, or it wants to push you to visit Kon for the first time. Again, this means that – in and of itself – the documentary is nothing special. It does serve a purpose though and does it with utmost respect. This is a companion piece rather than an independent work but the information given is really fascinating and truly valuable.