I have come to accept, although I will never savor, the fact that any attempts for me to appreciate the work of Satoshi Kon will forever be accompanied by a sense of loss. In the end, every career is unfinished, but Kon died (five years ago to the day, no less) right when he seemed to be at the top of his envelope-pushing game — just when he had come to serve as one of the prime embodiments of what the mediums he worked in could be at both their most ambitious and entertaining. Now we have a volume of his art from Dark Horse, an English-language reprint of a Japanese collection, that brings home that point all the more. Any fan of Kon deserves to pick it up, both to enjoy his art and to gain, however provisionally, that much more of a sense of the man himself.
The book is a compendium of illustration and design work from across ten years of Satoshi Kon's career — roughly 1998 through 2008, as marked by the tenth anniversary of the release of his debut feature film Perfect Blue. Most of the work here will be instantly familiar to Kon fans: aside from Blue, there's concept and poster art for Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paranoia Agent, Paprika. The rest is a tantalizing collection of odds and ends from a career that seemed at least half defined by the things in it that went unfinished: The Dream[ing] Machine, the two unfinished manga Opus and Seraphim 266613336 Wings, and pieces from a smattering of other projects that never saw the light of day.
What comes through most for me, in both the "finished" and "unfinished" work, was how Kon assimilated other styles of work so naturally and readily, but without getting stuck in them. Everything he did, in the end, had his name on it first and foremost. For Perfect Blue, he tapped into a vein of creepy European surrealism, the very sort that fueled the giallo films after which the movie itself was patterned. Even the nude image of the movie's main character, Mima (#9 in the catalog), looks less erotic than unsettling; that is, I take it, the idea.
For Millennium Actress, Kon channeled the nostalgic look of Japanese postwar pop art; the fake movie posters he produced for the film are spot-on right down to the typography. With the images for Tokyo Godfathers, the chaos and clutter of the images brings to mind Katsuhiro Ōtomo (for whom Kon worked as an art assistant). The real surprise is with Paranoia Agent, for which Kon did almost no actual design work, but instead left things in the hands of character designer Masashi Ando and designer Kiyoshi Inagaki. "It isn't that I was too busy," Kon explains in his note. "When I first conceived of Paranoia Agent I also wanted to see how much my ideas could be expanded by allowing someone else to do the art. I was looking forward to seeing how things unfolded."
This humility is another attribute of Kon's that has come through both in his art and in his statements about it. At one point he mentions how someone else described a Tokyo Godfathers teaser visual (#42) as "being in the style of Giuseppe Arcimboldo." His purported reply: "Thanks, but it’s not that elegant." Likewise, his afterword to the book is titled "A Note On Self-Aggrandizement," and in it he seems both pleased by and baffled with the progress he had made over the course of a decade. "It's mine, but it's not mine," he says, in the sense that he values the process (and the progress) more than any one of the works themselves.
I once thought, in what now might well be best described as a moment of profound uncharitability, that I would have rather lost Hayao Miyazaki than Satoshi Kon. This line of thought came about only because Kon was, at the time of his death, still in the process of adding to his portfolio and upping his game; Miyazaki, by that point, already felt ossified and reactionary. Having The Wind Rises come out not long after that only seemed to underscore my suspicions all the more. Now I wonder if I was more right than I wanted to admit.
Kon's ongoing evolution and creative omnivorousness comes through with what work can be seen in the book for the as-yet-incomplete Dream Machine. There isn't much: a few character turnarounds, a couple of key images. But apart from how they tantalize readers with glimpses of a project still waiting for a director to step into Kon's shoes and pick up where they left off (good luck with that), they show Kon assimilating yet another style — a jazzy, chrome-trimmed 1950s retro-future look — and making it his own.
What could have been. I have said that to myself I don't know how many times whenever I've dealt with Kon's works, both previously and newly released, ever since his death. I felt that all the more keenly here, so much so that I could barely continue reading after I got to the Dream Machine images. They were like the proverbial Letter To Momo, barely begun and never sent.
But then I stopped, and looked back through all the images that had come before. What makes more sense, I told myself, to lament what we've lost or celebrate what we do have? The former leads only to defeat, a sense of the walls closing in; the latter to inspiration, to a sense that any one's work — alive or dead — is a starting point from which any of us are invited to continue.
So, no more tears from me for Kon. Not because I don't miss him, but because he deserves better than to just be longed for. Buy the book, and find out for yourself why.