Dreams and Realities of Satoshi Kon

August 27, 2010

There exists a physical world as we know it. You could be having lunch with your friends and that would be one reality. Then there are virtual worlds imagined by our mind, conscious and subconscious. You may be figuring out in your head how your friend made that delicious looking bento, or if you happened to see her eating a banana, you might just instinctively imagine her performing fellatio for a split second. Just different layers of reality but always existing in separate zones, insoluble like oil and water. Or are they?

"There is no reason to differentiate virtual world from real world because reality includes that virtual world." - Satoshi Kon

Animation is a wonderful medium, erasing boundaries between what is real and imaginary like no live-action can. Animation is magic, we viewers the bewildered audience, and Satoshi Kon the illusionist. His spells are truly one of a kind. We are often left wondering whether the vision we’re seeing is real or simply a projection of character’s emotional and psychological states. Are we looking at a retired actress telling her story to reporter at this very moment? Or a woman pursuing her love? Or is she just relieving her past experience of chasing after a train for film. As we go on watching the story of Millenium Actress, the walls that once stood between real and imaginary dissolve effortlessly, and what is left is a crashing of different realities into a maelstrom of striking imagery and “uncontrollable drama”.

"For the main character, the past and present tense could exist at the same time, even though such a thing is irrelevant for other people. For Ordinary people, past is past, present is present" - Satoshi Kon

If ‘time’ was keystone to the bridge between Millenium Actress‘s realities, then Perfect Blue was a perfect crisscrossing of emotional states of main protagonist. In Kon’s own words, he “connected her imaginary world and reality so that the audience can follow her crossed-emotions”. Mima might have been smiling after acting out a grueling rape scene, but when we watch her stabbing the screenwriter in frenzy next, followed by her ‘waking up’ in filmshooting (as if it was just dream) or in bed with her bloody hands, it makes Perfect Blue far more bizarre and surreal than any super-budget dream-reality films like Matrix or even Inception.

I won’t spoil a thing about Perfect Blue (since that’s just pure evil), but I’d just like to mention an utterly, utterly unforgettable and terrifying imagery of a certain character standing in front of mirror, where the mirror is projecting a harsh truth suppressed by the unconscious state, as if to mock the imaginary vision that the character is mistaking for reality. You can also find the same menacing traces of Perfect Blue in Kon’s Paranoia Agent, especially the brilliant episode 4.

Left: Perfect Blue, Right: Paranoia Agent

Perhaps one of the reasons why Kon’s dream-infused portrayal of our world is so affecting is because dreams are only a step away from reality, not against it. Paranoia Agent was most in-depth in that regard, presenting horrifying hallucinations that many characters (each representing a part of microcosm that is modern Japanese society) experience as a consequence of complex forces exerted by the society. But what elevates Paranoia Agent from boring social critique to absolutely ravaging psychological thriller is the constant warring of paranoid dreams (innermost thoughts and desires) and illusions of Shounen Bat (escape), all portrayed in Kon’s cinematic fashion. Lies and illusions are at odds with reality. Dreams are our inner most thoughts and desires materialised in bizarre and irrational forms.

"After all, dream is where our repressed conscious mind vents" - Paprika

And Satoshi Kon is the Illusionist who, with the kind of magic no animator can hope to replicate, fills our vision with that very bizarre and irrational forms and presents our world as it is with past and present, conscious and unconscious, fears and desires. It’s truly unfortunate that The Dream Machine will never be anything like Kon’s (assuming they get to finish it), and even more tragic that many wonderfully eccentric ideas, stories, characters and images stored inside his imagination will never be animated.

Thank you Kon for showing me the world like no one can.

"The dream is uncontrollable, an uncontrollable drama. I want my movies to be inspired by dreams in that it has the same vital power, an uncontrollable creative force" -Satoshi Kon


16 Responses to “Dreams and Realities of Satoshi Kon”

  1. Martin Says:

    Kon’s skill at portraying the lifelike and the fantastical, then blending them seamlessly and making both as convincing as each other, was probably utterly unique in the medium of film. Certainly in the realm of animation, which is perhaps surprising since the very nature of animation is the ideal type of cinematic approach for the job. In that sense he was pushing the envelope in what we believed animation was capable of.

    In addition to that, he showed a knack for clever editing, a dry wit in his storytelling which extended to hard-hitting social commentary and an imagination that gave viewers a surprise at every turn. Ultimately though, all this hinged on human stories: people’s lives, what’s inside their heads…his films are occasionally cruel and shocking but show humanity, compassion and hope underneath it all.

    I suppose the biggest reason why I admire Kon’s work is because he was utterly unique yet that unique-ness was very accessible.

    I’ve been rediscovering all this by rewatching his work, but also noticed that, despite the blurring of real and imagined, how each is thematically different. Perfect Blue is a tense psycho-thriller; Millenium Actress is a romantic biopic; Tokyo Godfathers is a comedy-drama; Paranoia Agent is a detective thriller; Paprika is science fiction. All share the same director yet all different. And all are among my favourites.

    Really, I could go on and on. Thanks for a great post…it’s always great to read what fellow fans see in this stuff, often details I myself missed.

  2. I don’t have the ability to engage the director’s body of work the same way you guys do, so there’s little for me to say except I feel good about what you say here — even if I don’t know if I really understand it.

    I like Kon’s work a lot, and Millenium Actress is a film I made my mother watch with me :3

    Also, Dr. Chiba… mai waifu kfagsdljh;ghajsghadshgjkhlghsajdkgl

  3. vucubcaquix Says:

    @martin Wow, the way you described Kon’s movies is almost word for word how I described it:


  4. 2DT Says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. Great tribute.

  5. Milkymagic Says:

    An excellent blog, one with much insight and worthy quotation from a man who will likely never be replicated for his sheer skill and craft.

    It does feel like his works do reflect how dangerously close dreams and reality tend to be, and the way he did meld Mima’s thoughts into scenes of Perfect Blue was part of why I like it such a great deal. Millennium Actress even seemlessly takes us through the life of a woman who may be living her dreams once more, or even telling a story within such dreams at the same time.

    I’ve always wondered if the aspiring filmmaker that was portrayed in Paprika was the sort of character Kon could relate with? It seems like Kon finds a way to show us realities as though they are indeed thoughts not quite unlike our own, and I’m sure that such a question is something that may have not been meant to be answered and left for us to imagine.

    Truly a fantastic director.

  6. gaguri Says:


    Yea there’s just way too much to say about Kon, there’s even a book about it! (have yet to read it)

    I agree with everything you’ve said, though what fascinates me the most is his dream-infused reality that he uses as, as you say, not as main theme but as narrative technique. He will be missed.


    Thanks, hopefully it wasn’t too confusing I didn’t want the post to turn out that way.


    sometimes wordpress likes to eat comments with links so be wary of that next time.




    I always saw Kon’s character the most in Millenium Actress’s Chiyoko, even more now with his recent passing. And also, that old bald suicidal grandpa with glasses in Paranoia Agent…always wondering “that’s how Kon is look like when he grows old…”. O well, truly a fantastic director indeed.

  7. Atmosphere Says:

    R.I.P. Kon was a great director.

    What’s crazy for me is I started watching Paranoia Agent on the day he died without knowing yet. I checked up on his MAL page after watching a few eps and saw comments about his death. Was so weird.

  8. Omeca Says:

    Rest in peace. What can one really say? A great artist has passed today. Perfect Blue was indeed perfect.

  9. gaguri Says:


    That’s pretty scary. Oh, and hope you’re enjoying that amazing Paranoia Agent while you’re at it.


    In one of Kon’s interviews he mentions how, when watching his Perfect Blue after many years, he’s bit embarrassed to see many flaws and wishes he could’ve changed few things.

    It’s weird because one of my favourite director (Park Chan-wook) said the same thing about his revenge trilogy, including Old Boy (which is not regarded as one of the best film amongst critical viewers). Although we as viewers don’t really think the work we have now is perfect enough (well, I wouldn’t say Perfect Blue was perfect from critical perspective but still brilliant).

    I guess that just means the directors had even better movie in their mind…

  10. Milkymagic Says:

    I agree with your statement regarding Chiyoko having a lot in common with Kon, especially when you read his final words, it’s almost like that sort of character was something Kon could certainly relate with. Especially the way he made the movie illustrated how much he recognized Chiyoko’s position, the perspectives were very intriguing, even to this day.

    Also, I read that interview Kon did about Perfect Blue myself. While Perfect Blue is arguably my favorite Kon film next to Millennium Actress, you do have an interesting idea regarding directors still having great works locked inside their minds.

    Still, even imperfect products can shine through if they accomplish something in my opinion, especially if the highs outweigh a production that was generally considered perfect by other people. Even though I see perfection as simply a structure, you can also have a single moment within a movie reach a viewer if it’s done with the right execution. So in this regard, I feel that some directors do have the necessary tools to make great movies out of imperfect productions, and Kon of all people was very well equipped with making anything great when he put his mind to it.

    But what also makes better movies, no doubt, is the quest for perfection as it were. So that much I definitely respect and identify with, don’t get me wrong there.

    In fact, if I were a movie director myself, I’d probably be like Kon about it too. The first movie would likely teach me what I would want from my career and I’d move toward the path I wanted from that point. Kon’s improved technique was certainly evidence of that.

    Didn’t mean to rant, but I figured I’d add to the discussion considering how interesting your responses were.

  11. gaguri Says:

    Don’t worry about ranting, I always welcome mini-blog posts on my comments. What can I say, you’ve spoken my mind with what you’ve said.

  12. Vendredi Says:

    Madhouse has stated they want to bring Kon’s last movie, “The Dream Machine”, to completion – considering that Kon had known about his health since at least the beginning of 2010, I’m curious (maybe morbidly so?) to see it. From what I’ve heard of it so far the aesthetic look is very different from his previous work.

  13. gaguri Says:

    Having read Kon’s last letter, I have faith in Madhouse’s conviction to bring Kon’s last work to fruition, but I have doubts over how closely it will resemble Kon’s ideal vision.

    Kon knew about his illness for a while but didn’t really let the studio (or his closest families/friends for that matter) know about it. I’m afraid his mention of “Dream Machine” being his biggest regret means he hasn’t completed most of storyboarding/other notes necessary, but I am willing to appreciate as somewhat incomplete piecing of his last creative efforts. After all, it’s unfair to criticise it for being ‘not Kon enough’.

  14. Omeca Says:

    The reason I love your posts is because you always put the art in present tense.

    To you, and to all of us, the art is still evolving. I love you so much!

    FF (Fan-Forever)

  15. […] the most beautiful remembrance I find is gaguri’s, who carefully introduces Kon’s work viewed from the frame of the duality of dreams and…. I can’t help myself but quite liberally from the essay: There exists a physical world as we know […]

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