- 11 February 2002
by Tom Mes
Director Satoshi Kon could have wished for a worse film when he made his debut as a director in 1997 with the internationally successful and critically acclaimed Perfect Blue. With its dazzling storytelling technique and strikingly mature subject matter, Perfect Blue finally convinced a lot of people that animation might be more than just a children's medium.
Now, four years after his breakthrough, this former protégé of Katsuhiro Otomo unveils his follow-up, Millennium Actress (Sennen Joyu). Far from falling victim to the dreaded sophomore slump, Kon has created a more than worthy successor. His second film is another example of his virtuoso storytelling as well as a sprawling and enthralling hommage to Japanese cinema history.
What's your reaction to the success and the unexpectedly long life of Perfect Blue?
I can only say it was a surprise. Because in the beginning this project was intended for the video market. As its creator I was actually a bit hesitant about Perfect Blue getting shown in theatres. But it was, and as a result the film was invited to a number of film festivals and seen by many different audiences. I also got to visit many countries, so I was happy with it after all. The film was much more appreciated by those audiences than I'd imagined, so I was quite perplexed at the same time.
Wasn't Perfect Blue originally intended as a live action original video? Could you tell me something about the evolution of the project into animation?
I heard once that Perfect Blue was going to be a live action film, but I don't know much about the process. In the beginning, the novel was going to be adapted as a live action video movie. It was the author [Yoshikazu Takeuchi - TM] who wanted to have a film adaptation and who started the project. He took it to a number of production companies and I heard he also approached the director Shimako Sato, who made Wizard of Darkness / Eko Eko Azaraku, to direct it. In the end, adapting it into a live action film didn't work out, so someone decided the project would be turned into animation. They only came to me after that decision was made, so I don't know much about the process that went before.
The screenplay they had was written by the author of the novel. I never read the novel, but I didn't find his script very interesting at all. So I said: "If you want to stick with this screenplay, I don't want to direct this film. But if you accept that I make changes to it, I will do it." They were okay with that, so I accepted. They wanted to keep three elements of the story: 'idol', 'horror', and 'stalker'. Aside from that I could make any changes I wanted, so we changed many things, even the plot.
So the story of the film is completely different from the novel?
Yes. Especially the idea of a film within a film, and the idea of a blurred border between the real world and imagination, those were my ideas and they weren't in the novel.
I'd like to talk a little bit about your own use of the internet. Your own seems mainly a medium for personal expression, correct?
Well, yes, in a certain sense. Before making animation I was a manga artist. Before that I was in art school, at university. At that time I wanted to make a living by painting or drawing, as an illustrator or manga artist. By coincidence I could debut as a manga artist while I was still in university, but when you make manga you need the talent to create a story and to direct, in the visual sense. Those things I learned while I was drawing manga, so it was a kind of on-the-job training. Later I started working in animation, for which you need to go beyond the techniques of manga, because time and sound come to play a part in it too. And if you want to create a good story, you need dialogue. So you have to take care of many things. In that period I came to the realisation that even though time, sound, and dialogue were all new aspects, at the centre of the creative process were still me and the thing I wanted to express.
Having my own homepage was simply one other method of expression. If you're working with text, then having your own homepage is an ideal vehicle. Also it would be a nice writing exercise. So I decided to start my own website. But it's not intended to explain me or my personality to other people and I didn't expect that so many people would read it. I had many reactions from these people, which surprised me a great deal. It makes me happy if people are interested in my work, but not when they're interested in me. So when I received all these reactions, I didn't know how to keep my distance from them. Maybe that's one of the reasons why I don't write much on my site anymore (laughs).
Did those experiences you had with your own site influence the story of Perfect Blue in any way?
Actually, the experience of making Perfect Blue influenced me to start my own site, so it's the other way around. I opened it after I made Perfect Blue. Before the film I had no experience with the internet. I didn't even own a computer. So for making Perfect Blue I bought a computer and studied.
So the internet isn't part of the original novel either?
No, it's not. For the film's plot it was necessary to have a place where a more authentic version of Mima would appear. By that I mean a version of Mima that was closer to the public image than the real Mima would ever be. Also, it had to be something made by another character, not Mima herself. So I thought about the options and decided on using a website. After finishing the film I wanted to make a diary of the production process and a website was a nice way to do it.
In Europe and the USA, Perfect Blue was seen as a comment on the pop idol phenomenon. Was comment or criticism one of your own main intentions?
No, the film is not based on any criticism. If the audience get the impression from watching the film that the idol system in Japan is like that, I'm embarrassed. Of course I did research before making the film and I visited a number of these idol events, but I didn't see the kind of example that is used in the film. Also, to reveal behind-the-scenes secrets about the entertainment world was never my intention. I simply wanted to show the process of a young girl maturing, becoming confused because her old set of values gets shattered, but who is reborn as a mature being as a result of that. That's what I wanted to describe. But because I had to stick with the idea of an idol, the film came to talk about that particular world.
There are four years separating Perfect Blue and your new film Millennium Actress. Is this only due to the fact that it takes a long time to make an animated feature film or are there other reasons?
I don't have the impression that there is such a long interval between the two films. After Perfect Blue I worked on a few projects for other directors. Then in 1998 I already began the first preparations for Millennium Actress and the actual production started the following year.
For both films you worked with writer Sadayuki Murai. Could you describe your working relationship?
For Perfect Blue I was looking for somebody who could write a screenplay. But I didn't know any screenwriters, so I asked the producer to look for somebody who would take my ideas as the basis for the story. It was the producer who then introduced me to mister Murai. Actually, before becoming a screenwriter he worked at a publicity company that handled a lot of idol events, and he knew some of these idols. So he was really the right person for the job. He proposed many intriguing and unconventional ideas for the story, and we got along very well from the start.
Would you like to continue working with him on future projects?
In fact, I'm already in production on my next film, but it's with another writer. Of course, that doesn't mean I don't have a good relationship with Sadayuki Murai anymore.
Could you tell us something about that new film?
It's called Tokyo Godfathers. As animation it is quite exceptional because the main characters are three homeless people: a middle-aged guy, a young girl who ran away from home, and a middle-aged homosexual. They gave up the relationships with their real families and made a substitute family between the three of them. Because of one incident they have to confront their real families again and the realities they escaped from.
The screenplay is finished and we're halfway through the storyboarding process. The animation has already started and should be finished in about a year.
Millennium Actress is very concerned with visual storytelling techniques, like the film within a film. Just like Perfect Blue was, in fact. Are you consciously working on perfecting or developing these techniques?
Already before Perfect Blue I wrote a script for another director [Katsuhiro Otomo - TM], an episode of the omnibus film Memories called Magnetic Rose. It was also a story of confusion between memory and the real world. Because I didn't direct it myself I was a bit concerned about how it was turning out. On many occasions I thought I would have done things differently. I got my chance to realise those thoughts with Perfect Blue. So I already had an interest in that kind of plot, to consciously compose the story in such a manner.
To be honest, I care very little about the idea of the stalker in Perfect Blue. The storytelling aspects interest me much more. Looking at things objectively or subjectively gives two very different images. For an outsider, the dreams and the film within a film are easy to separate from the real world. But for the person who is experiencing them, everything is real. I wanted to describe that kind of situation, so I applied it in Perfect Blue. The producer was very interested in that type of concept and he proposed making another film which would emphasise that aspect. He said he wanted to make a film that was like a trompe l'oeil and from there we made the story of Millennium Actress.
So for Perfect Blue, in the beginning there was a story and to tell that story we applied this method. Whereas with Millennium Actress, the method itself is the aim of the film. But it's a coincidence that these two films use this method. I would also like to try other styles of storytelling.
What is Murai's role in creating this fractured narrative? How much of it is already in the screenplay?
Actually, it's difficult to say. We co-wrote Millennium Actress; I wrote the third draft of the screenplay. For Perfect Blue I was not credited as writer, but when we wrote it, I proposed a lot of ideas that went into the screenplay. There was not much difference between the film and the script. However, even after you've composed the details of the screenplay, in the process of drawing the storyboards - when the characters' faces are made, the locations begin to take shape and the compositions are determined - they change, even though the scenes and plot don't. For example the dialogue changes a little bit. So the final film contains many minor changes to the script. But that entire process is a very smooth one, it's not like one aspect ends and then the next one starts.
Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue both have female protagonists. Why this interest in female characters?
I like women (laughs). Of course with Perfect Blue it was necessary to use a female character because it was about an idol. Between that film and Millennium Actress I had several plans to make films, but unfortunately none of them worked out. One of these plans was a story about a male protagonist. But in the end I made two films about similar characters. This may seem meaningless, but it does mean something. It's because female characters are easier to write. With a male character I can only see the bad aspects. Because I am a man I know very well what a male character is thinking. Even if he is supposed to be very cool, I can see this bad side of him. That makes it very difficult to create a male character. On the other hand, if you write a female protagonist, because it's the opposite sex and I don't know them the way I know a male, I can project my obsession onto the characters and expand the aspects I want to describe. However, my next film doesn't have one central female protagonist and until I made Perfect Blue I didn't describe female characters that much, especially in manga. Once I did, I found out it was easy to write them.
Another similarity between the two films is the depiction of a relationship between admirer and icon. What fascinates you about this kind of relationship?
In this sense, Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress are two sides of the same coin, I think. When I was making Perfect Blue I thought it would be a positive film, but little by little it became negative, darker. That exhausted me in a way. When I started working with the producer on Millennium Actress, based on the premise I mentioned before, I had the intention of making the two films like sisters, through the depiction of the relationship between admirer and idol. So in adapting that relationship I wanted to make Millennium Actress in completely opposite, more positive images. In this way, these two films are very important for me, because they show the dark side and the light side of the same relationship.