An Architect's Gifts: Close-Up on Satoshi Kon's "Tokyo Godfathers" and "Paprika"

The final two features by the great animation director showcase his reputation for elegantly crafted stories that interrogate reality.
Marc Saint-Cyr

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Satoshi Kon's Tokyo Godfathers (2003) is showing December 18, 2017 - January 17, 2018 and Paprika (2006) from December 19 - January 18, 2018 on MUBI in the United Kingdom in the retrospective Satoshi Kon, Anime Maestro. 

Tokyo Godfathers

It could be said that consistency and eclecticism make up two sides of the auteurist coin, in which the artist's voice can be seen and felt across a body of work that is either noticeably focused in subject matter, thematic concerns, or stylistic approaches (Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Wes Anderson) or wildly varied in any or all of those areas (Louis Malle, Steven Soderbergh). In that respect, Satoshi Kon got to have it both ways with the final two completed animated features in his oeuvre, the satisfyingly odd parting pairing of Tokyo Godfathers (2003) and Paprika (2006). Sorely missed these past seven years since his premature death from pancreatic cancer on August 24, 2010, Kon had carefully established a reputation for creating intelligent, elegantly crafted, high-quality animated works whose brilliance hinged as much on his masterful command over cinematic grammar, detailed art, and well-written stories and characters as they did on his stories' fantastic, elaborate, often frightening departures from and interrogations of reality.

With just four completed features, as well as his 13-episode anime series Paranoia Agent (2004) and the script he wrote for "Magnetic Rose," the Koji Morimoto-directed segment of the animated omnibus film Memories (1995), Kon earned his way onto that special plane of reverence occupied by such beloved directors as Vigo, Dreyer, Tati, Bresson, Tarkovsky, and Erice—"that handful of filmmakers," as Phillip Lopate describes so well in his essay for the Criterion release of Tarkovsky's Solaris, "who, with a small, concentrated body of work, created a universe." Even by the time Kon began work on Tokyo Godfathers, his own cinematic universe had, with his dark, dazzling directorial debut Perfect Blue (1997) and his brilliant follow-up Millennium Actress (2001), become sufficiently distinctive, large, and well-established enough in its wildly inventive forays between the layers of reality and fiction, past and present, reality and reflection, to accommodate an "odd-one-out" venture into new territories that noticeably (yet refreshingly)  deviated from its predecessors—Tokyo Godfathers is more linear and steeped in realism than either of the previous films—without wandering too far away from his vision. Then, following Paranoia Agent, he looped back to the familiar territory of dreams, nightmares, and the subconscious in Paprika, both a return to form and a thrilling venture into new thematic and technological domains that, with the remnants of his uncompleted final feature project Dreaming Machine, will forever tantalize fans with the unrealized possibilities of the worlds Kon had his sights set upon before his untimely passing.

For those wishing to trace a thread of thematic and stylistic consistency from Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress to Kon's third feature, though it doesn't partake in his other works' elaborate examinations of media stardom, fan devotion (and obsession), and the mediums of television, cinema, and the Internet, a sly trace of his fascination with illusion and spectacle can be found in Tokyo Godfathers' opening scene, a nativity play at a soup kitchen that foreshadows the arrival of an abandoned baby into the lives of three homeless people (middle-aged alcoholic Gin, teenaged runaway Miyuki, and flamboyant transvestite Hana) on Christmas Eve. Like Kon's other works, but in a very different way, Tokyo Godfathers is very much concerned with identity, its narrative cleverly peeling away the layers of appearance, defensive self-deceptions, backstories both fabricated and true, and hastily drawn assumptions and judgments that would keep its heroes trapped in confining stereotypes ("homeless," "drunk," "homosexual," "outcast," "foreigner," or simply "deadbeat/bum/loser") to uncover their true stories in which cruel circumstance, emotional torment, pure rotten luck, and ensuing guilt played their parts in bringing them to their current situations. As the endearing band of outsiders pursue and find penance, redemption, and forgiveness throughout their quest to return the baby to her true parents, they become further humanized and inflected with emotional nuance by Kon and co-writer Keiko Nobumoto's patiently told tale.

The extent of that tale's roots in realism, running deeper than ever before or since in Kon's world, is what sets Toyko Godfathers so far apart from his other works—and what ultimately makes it such a rich and deeply satisfying entry in his filmography. Here, it's worth recalling how the deep veins of humanism found in the films of one of Kon's greatest heroes, Akira Kurosawa, have at times been eclipsed by the more decadent, overtly splendid qualities of his style and storytelling, exemplified by the broader appeal and fame of Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, and the larger-scale, late-career feats of Kagemusha and Ran, overshadowing films more wholly dedicated to sensitive portraits of human strife and endurance like One Wonderful Sunday, Red Beard, and Dodes'ka-den. Anchored by Kon's unflinching focus on real-life subjects (the homeless, gay, and immigrant portions of Tokyo's population) that have themselves gone neglected and under-recognized in the arts and media, Tokyo Godfathers is cut from the same cloth as that splendid bouquet of lesser-known Kurosawa triumphs, the films of Aki Kaurismäki, and key early Fellini works such as La strada and Nights of Cabiria—all Neo Realism-inflected humanist fables with touches of magical realism lovingly and carefully blended into the proceedings to charge their stories with the inspiring, universal vitality of myths and fairy tales. While ably managing to hit its own stride between convincing sweetness and sorrow, Kon's film, because of its animated form, may appear as a ready vehicle for flourishes of fantasy and the unreal, ever ready to give way to unlikely miracles (seemingly inspired by Hana's belief that the abandoned tot is a blessed messenger of God, making them her dedicated, divinely protected servants), unsettling dream sequences, and ethereal visions of angels appearing to the characters in the snow. Though it does include a few such fanciful touches, Tokyo Godfathers limits them to just a handful of scenes, counterbalanced by Kon's extreme devotion to hyper-realism, his focus on the essential details of his scenes, characters, and environments, and his overriding commitment to the substance, form, and flow of his films' narrative contents, as serious as that of any great novelist or live-action filmmaker.


The rendering of realistic subjects into animated forms, be they stop-motion, hand-drawn, or computer-generated, has time and time again compelled laboring artists and intended audiences alike to better appreciate the extraordinary beauty and complexity of ordinary surroundings and elements—surfaces, textures, the peculiar beauty of forms and shapes found in nature and the man-made. In this respect, Tokyo Godfathers captivates as not just a great work of animation or a great Neo-Realist fable, but also as one of the great city films, leading us through an impeccably composed vision of Tokyo drawn from reference photographs Kon took throughout the city, comprised of enticing havens of glass, light, and warmth offered by the many storefronts, restaurants, and hotels that beckon to Kon's cold and hungry protagonists, the shadowy alleyways and ubiquitous trash heaps through which they forage and burrow, colossal office buildings and skyscrapers that loom high above the frozen streets, the fiery beacon of orange and red light that is the Tokyo Tower, glowing like an ever-present giant heart or furnace in the center of the snow-shrouded kingdom through which the Tokyo godfathers travel. These rich, multilayered compositions revitalize our perception of urban settings as only a patient and skilled craftsman of Kon's caliber could bring about.

All of his films are elegant constructions, but Tokyo Godfathers, to its benefit and ours, is his most straightforward, its particular elegance partly lying in the invisibility of its style, the fleetness of its pacing and construction, its unconditional devotion to its characters, and the lovingly crafted imagery that helps anchor and sustain its sprawling quest narrative. A first viewing may inspire an appreciation of Kon's ability to grasp and develop the singular power of a good story told well, while subsequent return visits will surely allow for the pleasure of discovering afresh just how much artistry and technique went into this enchanting tale.

Paprika, based on Yasutaka Tsutsui's 1993 novel of the same name, marks a full-fledged return to and elaboration upon Kon's favorite themes of reality's subjective flimsiness, the powerful influence fantasy, fiction, memory, the media, and the human subconscious have upon that reality, and the complexity and artifice bound up in the construction of identity while also taking flight on its own wings, as if gloriously liberated from the comparatively grounded proceedings of Tokyo Godfathers. A fantastic thriller surrounding the theft and misuse of a futuristic device called the DC Mini that allows the user to infiltrate people's dreams, Paprika is filled with scenes and images of flight. It soars as the titular character (a spritely dream alter ego to the serious Dr. Chiba Atsuko, head of the DC Mini's development team) does in the opening title sequence across a Tokyo that looks noticeably more polished and clean than the worn metropolis seen in Tokyo Godfathers, an aesthetic surely owed just as much to Kon's increased reliance on CG animation as the conscious move away from the trash heaps and cardboard encampments of his previous film. Some might see the DC Mini and the slightly cumbersome scenes of explanatory technobabble from the scientists surrounding its capabilities as making up one of Kon's more contrived efforts at incorporating the fantastical into the hyper-real animated worlds he creates and ever-so-gracefully deconstructs, but they don't hinder too greatly the sheer outlandish brilliance of the dream that quite literally runs amok throughout the film, appearing as a crazed, gargantuan parade of appliances, objects, animals, dolls, statues, robots, and toys. The characters' musings on the correlations between dreams, cinema, and the Internet are even more irresistible, both expanding and encapsulating Kon's favorite meta-fascinations beautifully—it's hard not to imagine cinephiles particularly relishing the explanation Konakawa, a police detective also investigating the DC Mini's theft, gives using filmmaking terminology to describe the layout of his dreams to Paprika (while sitting in an empty movie theater dressed as Akira Kurosawa, no less); the backstory involving a short film he made in his youth and its ties to an unsolved homicide case, consequently closing off the world of movies as a place of repressed traumas and forbidden pleasures for the tortured Konakawa; and Paprika's illuminating comparison of early REM cycles to "artsy film shorts" in contrast to the "feature-length blockbuster movies" produced by longer REM cycles. Indeed, with Paprika Kon, operating as both artist and a smitten admirer, seems to be reveling in the tempting allure and dazzling properties of cinema by way of the freedom of dreams, indulging in ingenious, physics-defying feats with a command of style, pacing, creative richness, and pure whimsy that puts the comparatively clunky and mirthless proceedings of Christopher Nolan's Inception to shame.

But Paprika contains nearly as many instances of falling as it does those of flight, and Kon makes sure to illustrate the dangers of madness that can also arise from dreams and fantasy, most disturbingly evoked by the streams of nonsensical speech that pour from deranged DC Mini users, the acts of violence and destruction they unknowingly bring about, and the increasing strangeness of the dream parade of creatures and objects, a seemingly unstoppable procession of mobilized lunacy ready to clamor into and disrupt the stability of the real world. After spending the time he was given reveling in the creative powers the mediums of animation and cinema granted him, that Kon's short, superb career should end with such a cautionary yet affectionate tribute to the imagination remains one of the more intriguing aspects of his captivating legacy—as if to say dreams, for all of their alluring qualities, are just as dangerous as they are essential to reality.

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