- 20 November 2006
by Jason Gray
Thanks to a steady output of expertly realized and inventively told films, Satoshi Kon has become one of the most visual and popular exponents of anime today. Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers have gone on to wide international distribution, not to mention critical acclaim. The selection of his latest, Paprika, in competition at the Venice Film Festival crowns his achievements so far. Based on the novel by sci-fi author and occasional actor (in films like Gemini and Eli Eli Lema Sabachtani?) Yasutaka Tsutsui, Paprika sees Kon further refining his unique approach to storytelling, giving him free rein to indulge his penchant for the surreal.
First of all, congratulations on Paprika's acceptance into Venice. I really enjoyed the film.
Thank you very much.
I'd like to talk about the genesis of the project. I know that you met Yasutaka Tsutsui, the author of the original novel, in 2003 and that he wanted you to make his book into a film.
That was the first time we met each other and I thought perhaps as a gesture of goodwill or business manners that he would say something like that, but perhaps in the back of his mind he was considering it. I was already a fan of his work, so I was glad to meet him.
Once he did give his blessing to make the film, did pre-production start soon after that or did it start the wheels in motion for production of the film?
At the time of our meeting, the Paranoia Agent TV series was still in production. Completing that series was the first commitment for Madhouse. We were thinking of a project that we could realistically begin developing soon after Paranoia Agent, so it happened quite naturally. We started developing Paprika while we were still in production on Paranoia Agent.
I'm a big fan of that series, by the way. Tsutsui's novel and his work and your work seem to be such a perfect match. I'm wondering if his novels had an influence on your previous films?
Of course. I read a lot of his books when I was in my early twenties, and years later when I began working in animation as a director and telling my own stories, I realized I had been influenced by him far more than I expected. In fact, after I finished making Perfect Blue, I considered making Paprika as my next film, not with Madhouse but with the producer who financed Perfect Blue, but that company (Rex Entertainment) unfortunately went bankrupt. But I did have the idea in my mind of making Paprika back in 1998. When I met Tsutsui-san and got his blessing to make it into a film, it was as if something came true that I'd had in my mind for a long time. The visualization of the film goes beyond the initial concept. It's a film that demanded to be made in this era. It's something I had to make, a personal commitment.
If you had not got his blessing, would you not have made the film?
I don't think I would have. As a film based on someone else's story, without that meeting and blessing from the master, I probably wouldn't have made the film.
Of course there is an element of fate, but in order for a film to come into existence it has to go beyond that. When fate happened to bring us together, I started to think about what the meaning was for me to make Paprika at that moment. All of the films I had made up until that point - Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Tokyo Godfathers - were made through a very realistic method of representation, and the themes and subject matter were also quite realistic. I thought Paprika was a chance to tap a new part of creativity within me by using realistic methods of representation to deal with something more fantastic.
Before I ask about the themes and imagery in the film, I'd like to ask about some practical things like the budget of the film and production time. Is this the largest budget to date you've worked with and the longest production period? How does it compare to your other work?
It's on par budget-wise and time-wise with Tokyo Godfathers.
But was there more use of CG or newer technologies with Paprika than with previous films?
Yes, there was. We considered how far we could expand the possibilities using computer graphics, so the role that CG played in this film was bigger than in my previous work. The biggest challenge was that in all kinds of 3D and 2D animation, there's a big divide between hand-drawn analog animation and digital animation. In all the projects I've seen, it's been difficult to blend them harmoniously. I prefer hand-drawn imagery myself, so my biggest challenge was how to blend them so the textures worked together.
Everything blended very well. Perhaps in a similar way, Howl's Moving Castle used CG as a means to an end to achieve an overall vision, not to stand out.
It's true that the attitude of directors towards how to employ CG differs from person to person. In fact I don't think that type of blending has become a natural part of our everyday lives. Our wish is for analog animation to swallow digital animation.
Going into the themes and visual style of the film, as you mentioned, Paprika has more surreal content than any of your previous films. I do recall some surreal imagery in Paranoia Agent and Millennium Actress, but with this film it's a full-blown display of surrealism. What challenges were entailed in achieving all the fantastical and hyper-detailed imagery?
It's not as if I had a goal in mind when I chose this type of hyper-real technique. Rather, I was hoping to create something that went beyond my imagination. I thought, "What would happen if we did this?" I wanted to surprise myself. It wasn't a plan I set up, but it resulted in something very strange and it gave me a lot of confidence in what I could achieve. As you say, the hyper-real method of creating reality is an "excessive reality." This is different from live-action filmmaking. It's a different kind of reality that challenges us what to emphasize or not emphasize. Each step will create a world beyond what is truly real. Instead of trying to create reality as it is around us, I felt that the surreal world would come out.
Regarding some of the specific imagery like the Japanese doll that destroys the buildings and the parade of characters that includes inanimate objects such as furniture and appliances. Were those elements in the original novel or did you come up with them with your Madhouse team?
The parade itself is something I came up with. It's one of the most important motifs for me, and wasn't in the original story. I didn't feel a strong desire that I had to change the original story, but the novel was very text-based and psychological. Trying to visualize all that text couldn't compete with the novel as it is, so I had to find a way in one visual step to represent the mindset of the novel and that became the parade of inanimate objects. Where that parade goes is also interesting - it overflows into reality. It starts in the desert, which is the furthest point from civilization, through the jungle, over a bridge, and finally intrudes into reality.
One line that I found fascinating was when Paprika's character says that dreams and the internet are the same thing in a way. Do you believe that?
What I wrote was that the internet and dreams share the same quality of giving rise to the repressed subconscious. I think in countries like Japan and America and other countries where internet is prevalent, people can anonymously seek or release things they can't speak of offline, as if there's a part of the subconscious that's uncontrollable and comes out on the internet. That is very much like dreams. This may be a very visualistic analogy, but I've always thought we drop down into dreams, and when you're sitting in front of your computer and connect to the internet, you're also going down into some kind of underworld. I've always thought those two images had something in common. I'm not trying to say that dreams and the internet are good or bad, I'm trying to saying that there's good and bad that cannot be judged in both worlds. Some people say that in the virtual world, different rules exist or try to say that a lot of vicious things happen there, but I don't think there's a reason to differentiate the virtual world from reality because reality includes that virtual world.
The internet is a kind of mirror that reflects everything good and bad in society.
Regarding Konakawa's character and his filmmaking dreams and hearing him talk about his days as a young filmmaker was really interesting as someone who went to film school myself. It's the first time I can recall a character with a fear of movies. I'm wondering if any of those elements are autobiographical and if you have any comments about that subplot.
There probably are aspects of me reflected in certain parts of the film, but not because I have a fear of films. This was something that was in the original novel, but aside from Konakawa there was another character in the book called Nose who wanted to be a film director, but in order to cut down on the number of characters that appear in the film I decided to combine them. The fact that Konakawa suffers from this anxiety and represses his past connects that with cinema.
He was shooting a cops and robbers film as a young man and then later became a cop in life. This was unique to the film, then?
Yes. In the original novel there's a passage where Paprika and Nose watch a movie together.
One of the main characters in Millennium Actress who documents her life in film also crosses the line into the story itself.
The element of the filmmaker was in the original Paprika novel, but if it had said he wanted to become a novelist it would've been very difficult to visualize. I had used cinema in my movies before, in Millennium Actress.
I loved the scene where Konakawa explains to Paprika what "crossing the line" means in filmmaking, and he's dressed like Akira Kurosawa, with the trademark hat and dark shades.
I'm happy that you picked that up. I think it'll be the overseas festival audiences who will react to that and not the young anime fans of Japan, who probably won't recognize him at all. But that's okay - if somebody likes the film and finds out about this person called Akira Kurosawa and decides to watch a film of his. It's not Akira Kurosawa, but Konakawa who wants to be Kurosawa.
Regarding the Venice Film Festival, is it the biggest competition one of your films has been accepted to thus far?
I haven't quite grasped the meaning of it all, so I feel that going there will answer that. It may be rude to say, but I wonder if it is that important. If a colleague of mine at Madhouse was invited I would say "That's great," but when it's me it would sound too arrogant. I do think it's an honour, but I'm trying to stop myself from becoming too big-headed and save judgment until I get there and see what it's all about.
How do you feel about being in competition with your former mentor, Katsuhiro Otomo?
I do think it's a strange coincidence, and I haven't seen his film myself, but it just happened to be that the Venice programmers decided to program them both in competition, but I don't have any thoughts beyond that.
I wonder if Marco Mueller knew you had worked together in the past.
He probably did. I haven't been in touch with Otomo very much so I don't know how he feels about it, but the drawing process isn't included in a live-action film. On top of that, he made a film based on someone else's original manga. Nevertheless, for his film to be invited to such a large stage must be an honor for him.
When you go overseas to a film festival, do you feel that you're representing Japan in some way, or just yourself as a filmmaker? How do you view your own participation in foreign film festivals?
I don't feel I'm a representative of Japan at all, nor am I representing myself. I represent the film and the staff of 100 or 200 people behind it. I'm not the sole author of the films I make. With the internet, it's easier for crew members to get an idea of what audiences think of the film, but it's important for filmmakers to see in real time how a film is received by an audience. It's particularly precious to go to a place where you can't communicate with spoken language, but through the film, there is some kind of communication that happens.
I'm curious whether you'll ever make a live action movie, which is something I'd love to see.
I have no interest in making a live action movie at all, in part because I like drawing so much. Although I understand that directing means creating mise-en-scene, whether with real actors or CG, personally I don't think it's something I'd do because I'm not adept at it. I'm much better at drawing.
My favourite aspect of filmmaking is editing. I think your cutting is some of the best I've ever seen, which is why I would love to see it used in a live action context.
Editing is very important to me in making films, so I'm happy you mention it. I think editing for live action and animation share some similarities but are fundamentally different. If you show a photograph or a painting for five seconds, the volume of information is different. However you shoot a photograph or film, there's a lot of visual texture, colour and extra information to take in. Whereas in animation, only what is intended to be communicated is there. If I had a chance to edit live action, it would be much too fast for audiences to follow. In animation, the audience understands this momentum. But as an audience member, I gained an appreciation for editing through watching live action movies.
What's your view of the state of animation in Japan as is it now, where it's going and how you see your position within that field?
As far as Japanese animation, I'm not in the habit of giving overviews in that way, but I know from personal experience the number of animated productions is increasing and that there's not enough staff to go around. Which directions animation will go in is something I never really thought about, but I do think that there needs to be more education because the crews aren't maturing. Those people who have access to the technology are often over 40 and they can't work forever. For animation to continue at the same level or to go beyond is going to be difficult. As far as where my own filmmaking is going, I have an idea for a children's story, but with the same kind of realistic techniques. I've honed those techniques over the years and they're difficult to just stop using. So, I think changing my subject matter will force me in new directions.