Looking over the lists critics have made of films and filmmakers that most impressed them during the past decade, I sorely miss the name of a 46-year-old director only hitting his stride at the time of his death in 2010, Satoshi Kon.
Kon’s four adventurous anime features, “Perfect Blue” (1997), “Millennium Actress” (2001), “Tokyo Godfathers” (2003) and “Paprika” (2006) — each film a further development — established his reputation as one of the world’s pre-eminent avant-pop filmmakers. Given his interest in the possibilities of cyberspace and the nature of mass media, Kon’s films have as much in common with the work of David Cronenberg or Olivier Assayas as with that of Hayao Miyazaki.
The protagonist of his first feature, “Perfect Blue,” is a vapid girl-group singer named Mima, who angers her fans when she leaves a successful trio for an acting career. To act, however, is to fall apart. Mima is driven mad by a demonic stalker and a computer-generated doppelgänger, both of which may be projections of her own insecurity.
“Perfect Blue” is a hodgepodge of murders, rapes and car crashes, larded up with abundantly animated blood, sweat and tears. The 1999 New York Times review was headlined, “This Cartoon Didn’t Come From Disney.” Upon its release, it exploded like a cartoon bombshell in the anime world and beyond. (Madonna used clips as a video interlude for the song “What It Feels Like for a Girl” in her 2001 tour.)
Fragmented, as well as brutal, “Perfect Blue” suggests a giallo horror remake of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona.” It also proved prescient as Mima is trolled by a fake home page created by her sinister admirer. Grudgingly impressed, the Times reviewer Anita Gates wrote that the film “eventually turns into a very interesting play on levels and perceptions of reality.”
The more likable “Millennium Actress” also takes a pop star as its subject. The focus is a retired movie actress named Chiyoko Fujiwara (perhaps inspired by the revered Setsuko Hara, who played a dutiful daughter in the films of Yasujiro Ozu). On one hand, the movie is devoted to solving the mystery of Chiyoko’s past, dealing with lost loves and backstage rivalries. On the other, it pays homage to Japan’s film industry. Chiyoko’s movies range from war propaganda filmed in Manchuria through samurai films, geisha stories to rampaging Godzilla flicks.
“Millennium Actress” is circumscribed yet vast — its title might refer to a thousand years of Japanese culture. Chiyoko’s roles provide a chronicle of postwar Japan; unconstrained by chronology, she walks in and out of period movies. And the camera crew interviewing her for a TV documentary are present as anxious spectators in the various flashbacks.
The use of time-travel, memories and invented film clips in “Millennium Actress” suggest the modernist cinema of Alain Resnais cubed. More classical in its narrative, “Tokyo Godfathers” pays tribute to one movie in particular — John Ford’s 1948 western, “Three Godfathers,” an insufferably cornball saga in which three cattle rustlers (John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz and Harry Carey Jr.) find themselves as the three kings in an allegory about a Christmas foundling.
Although scarcely unsentimental, Kon transposes the Ford movie to the lower depths of Tokyo’s skid row, raising the stakes by recasting the outlaws as three homeless outcasts — a teenage runaway, a surly alcoholic, and (in the Wayne role) a transgender woman — who find an abandoned baby nestled in the trash.
“Tokyo Godfathers,” which the Times critic A.O. Scott called “a kind of neorealist cartoon,” is Kon’s most linear film. By contrast, his final anime “Paprika,” is pure delirium. The surreal premise, taken from a novel by the science-fiction writer Yasutaka Tsutsui, has psychiatrists entering their patients’ dreams through a device called the DC Mini.
“Paprika” plays out in a world that seamlessly merges the individual unconscious with a collective cyberspace. The protagonist. Dr. Chiba, is treating a police detective who once aspired to become a film director. The DC Mini is stolen, occasioning a battle royal in which the doctor’s free-spirited computer avatar, Paprika, bends time and space with impunity and changes her identity at will (at one point to Disney’s Tinker Bell, at another to the Sphinx).
Whenever the DC Mini is activated, the dream world erupts with a tumultuous “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” parade of anthropomorphized toys, gadgets, religious icons, historical monuments and household products. The situation is resolved when, thanks to Paprika’s intervention, the troubled detective becomes the star of his own movie. In the final self-reflexive joke, though, this “gorgeous riot,” as Manohla Dargis called it in her Times review, ends with the detective visiting a movie house showing Kon’s earlier movies.
“Paprika” has affinities to the montage gags in Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock, Jr.,” when a projectionist dreams his way into the world onscreen, but what Kon’s film truly celebrates is the triumph of animation. Reality is as elastic and amorphous as in classic Max Fleischer cartoons like “Bimbo’s Initiation” (1931) or “Snow White” (1933).
Trippier than the mid-60s comic book “Doctor Strange,” as heady as Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” “Paprika” is one of the great movies of the still young 21st century.
“Perfect Blue” is available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and YouTube; “Millennium Actress” is on all of these three plus Vudu. “Paprika” streams via iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime, Vudu and YouTube. “Tokyo Godfathers” can be found on Crackle.