On August 24 last year, the anime world was jolted by the untimely death of one of its most creative talents, Satoshi Kon, 今 敏. When he succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the unreasonably early age of 46, Kon left behind a legacy comprising a small catalogue of animated films that are rated among the best of the genre. GIven his age, his greatest works were undoubtedly yet to be made; though fans will have one more opportunity to savor the creative talent of Kon as MADHOUSE studios is currently preparing to release his unfinished film, Yume-miru kikai – The Dream Machine, sometime this year.

All original images: millennium actress, perfect blue, paprika, yume-miru kikai : : copyright Madhouse Ltd

Female protagonists enmeshed in dreams, nightmares, merging realities and memories: these are the traits that help define most of Kon’s works. His works are mostly dark and surreal. It’s not surprising that David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Brian DiPalma and Phillip K Dick are often referenced when his work is being discussed. In fact, when asked about the masterful Paprika, Kon once quoted a description of the film as a collision between Hello Kitty and Phillip K Dick.

Hailing form Hokkaido, Kon absorbed a media diet of manga, anime and American movies in his youth and went on to study graphic design at Musashino Art University in Tokyo’s western suburbs. His media career began while he was still at university; in 1984 he published Toriko, a manga title that had some success and enabled him to find work as a manga-ka. He progressed from illustrating manga to animating, creating layout art and scriptwriting for a couple of anime legends, Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) on various animated film projects. This work provided the training that led to him directing his own films, the first of which was Perfect Blue.

Perfect Blue

This was Kon’s first anime project as a director, when in 1997 he was asked to take on the project that had originally been devised as a live action drama. It was also the beginning of the partnership between Kon and Madhouse studios, who produced the film. Perfect Blue, パーフェクトブルー, based on a thriller of the same name by Yoshikazu Takeuchi, was extensively reworked by Kon and scriptwriter Sadayuki Murai. The result is a dark psychological thriller that explores through its main character Mima, a pop singer turned actress, the world of pop idols, stage personas, fanaticism, an increasingly elusive reality and an emerging Internet in a rich cinematic and often adults only style that uses shifting points of view and film worlds within film worlds to create its nightmare moods and tell its tale.

Millennium Actress

Sennen Joyū,千年女優, as its otherwise known, was released in 2001. Kon again partnered with scriptwriter Murai for this project, which looks at memories and in some ways mirrors Perfect Blue. Kon has said that the film is about the light side of the idol-fan relationship. It also features a female protagonist, an aging actress named Chiyoko Fujiwara, who recounts her life for an admiring documentary director. In this film, Kon merges the events and periods of Chiyoko’s actual life with the drama and historical settings of her dramatic life, creating illusory worlds in which the documentary maker also appears. The episodic narrative is enriched by Kon’s borrowing of various historical art and film styles to evoke the different periods alluded to in the movie. This beautiful work is acclaimed for its humanist qualities and emotional resonance.


Following Millennium Actress, Kon changed direction and made Tokyo Godfathers in 2003, a light, realist film, with allusions to the baby Jesus story, about three homeless people that find a baby on Christmas Eve. In 2004, he took up his familiar theme of shifting reality, when he drew on previously considered ideas for a 13-part TV series, Paranoia Agent.

His fourth feature film, made in 2006, was Paprika, パプリカ. It was based on a 1993 novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, a science fiction writer who had long been one of Kon’s influences, and as such the film adheres very closely to the original work. Paprika delves into the world of dreams and mixes them up with a shaky reality to create a surreal and compelling work. A troika of scientists led by Dr Atsuko Chiba are helped by her alter-ego persona – Paprika – to try and recover a device that is being used to enter peoples’ dreams. The ensuing narrative descends into ever greater depths of surrealism to produce an extraordinary cinema experience. The award winning film was an influence on Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film about dream realities, Inception.

The Dream Machine

夢みる機械 –Yume-miru kikai, translated as The Dream Machine, is Kon’s fifth and final – and as yet uncompleted – film. Kon decided with this film to create a work for a younger audience and decided to create a fantasy adventure starring robots. He perceived the film as a futuristic folk tale and from what we know the story is set in and moves among different future tenses. Though we can assume it will be unlike the more adult oriented movies outlined above, Kon did say that though adults would find different nuances to the younger viewers.

Kon commenced this film in 2009 and production halted for a time after his death, resuming in late 2010 with chief animation director, Yoshimi Itazu, taking over directorial duties. The film’s release date has yet to be announced by Madhouse, but we do know that it will be sometime in 2011.

Kon was a master dreamer and we look forward to his last vision. Dream on Satoshi Kon.

the dream machine