Whenever I describe Satoshi Kon’s manga, I use the term “cinematic", which is the most accurate way of describing how these pieces are experienced in my mind. While his links to the animation industry may play a role in this connection, his works possess an indescribable fluidity which forces my mind to process panels and pacing differently to other manga. This was prevalent within Dream Fossil, a compilation of short stories by the prolific mangaka and animator.
In an interview with long time friend of Kon musician Susumu Hirasawa, he gives a description of a reader’s experience with Kon’s work:
... the reality of [manga/animation] is projected inside the viewer’s mind, and so to an extent, complements what’s on screen. Kon’s style, in a single scene, forces the viewer to internally fill in the gaps while simultaneously creating a sense of realism close to what live action achieves.
This anthology of stories has led to an experience similar to what Hirasawa has outlined. This ultimately led to an exceptionally real, profound and personal journey, in which little elements of my own life, whether it be my relationships with others, my future aspirations or my self-perception were reflected on, along with the characters in these stories. Ironically, it was reading about others that allowed me to better understand myself, as I came to understand them.
The art of emptiness
Some critics of this compilation have labelled the stories as uninteresting, claiming nothing of value is ever explored in them. I could not disagree more. I’m not particularly fond of short stories; they’re my least favourite writing template, and I often cite underdevelopment or lack of immersion as a key reason for this. But Kon’s work are the perfect fit for this medium. Instead of creating grandiose settings or using ambitious forms of storytelling, Kon will focus on one issue of existence, and hone in on it using simple, self contained storylines. "Horseplay" and "Baseball Brats" follow the experience of various middle schoolers attempting to reach the Koshien Baseball league, while "Beyond the Sun" focuses on a nurse trying to save a runaway patient, whose hospital bed has begun rolling down a hill. Though linear in progression, the vacant moments scattered within these stories allow the reader to stop and reflect. And it is through this reflection that these characters are developed, as our own thoughts are ascribed to them.
It’s also important to note that Kon’s works contain several elements of the surreal, whether manifestations of the supernatural, or plots that progress too smoothly to be coincidental. The opening piece, "Carve", sees a sculpture’s pieces materialise in her post-apocalyptic reality. Within a more conventional setting, the story "Guests" documents a newly relocated family interacting with the various spirits that inhabit their house. Even when little happens plot-wise, the reader must weigh the writing, art and characters in order to truly understand what they represent.
But sometimes they really are just simple, uplifting tales, and I can’t help falling in love with the unabashed sentimentality within these stories. "Joyful Bell" sees man dressed as Santa help return a lost child to her family, giving him the opportunity to reflect on his own relationships too. While attempting to get to their beach house, Yoshiyuki and Kosuke unintentionally save a girl named Megumi from her overbearing boyfriend, as the group cycle down the blistering streets in "Summer Of Anxiety". By using our current world as a backdrop, Kon can spend his efforts creating compelling plots which flow excellently. The nostalgic sentiments linked with summer, holidays and high school also aid the piece in providing positive undertones within the reader. Dream Fossil’s charming, profound sentiments can not only be attributed to a great storyteller, but one in a state of introspection.
Much like the fuzzy, fading of a thought, Kon delicately places his stories to bed when they are ready, usually right after they have imparted valuable insight onto the reader.
Some of Kon’s stories, however, did struggle to live within the confines of a short story. There were a few period pieces in this collection (one set during an undisclosed war, and another set during feudal Japan) in which I felt there wasn’t enough time for Kon to fully flesh out his proposed environments. The art of captivation wasn’t an issue for most of Kon’s pieces, but these stories had lingering questions in regards to their content, questions that weren’t answered, but didn’t lead the audience to speculate, remaining underdeveloped in our minds. "The Desert Dolphin", following several soldiers in an unknown desert, contained the limited dialogue of previous stories, yet little in terms of alternative plot progression to mediate for this. Again, when constructing a short story, it’s hard to both convey setting, develop characters and progress a story, and for the most part Kon creates the perfect marriage between the three in others works.
While his period pieces were not a strength, I was intrigued by the way Kon explored science fiction. His sci-fi themed stories were reminiscent of AKIRA, a pillar of modern manga in both plot and character design. It was only after reading the epilogue of this piece that I learned Kon was, in fact, the assistant of Katsuhiro Otomo (creator of AKIRA) at one point in time, which explains their similarities. "Toriko - Prisoner", Kon’s debut work and science fiction epic, was a highlight of this collection, in spite of the story containing a certain emptiness that is only filled when a creator develops further. Similarly to AKIRA, this story follows a group of delinquents who attempt to infiltrate a government base in which trouble members of society undergo “rehabilitation”. While some of his other alternate setting works struggle to convey time and atmosphere, Kon seamlessly transitions the reader from their regular world to this dystopian future. In a genre saturated with poorly constructed and generic worlds, Kon manages to sprinkle his own style over the medium through his unique use of surrealist imagery and anime-like cinematography. Kon was only 21 at the time of this piece’s creation, yet his eye for detail and tasteful balance between writing and artistry shows. In saying that, this is the only story where there is a visible drop in artistic quality, but his panel use and action sequences often rectified this. After all, Kon’s worst art is still better than most artists at their peak.
Dream Fossil provided me with an experience all readers crave; sophisticated, masterfully mapped content with profound overtones and exceptional storytelling. It was within these narratives that I could find out about myself, through little introspective crumbs purposefully placed by Kon. The small act of kindness in "Joyful Bell" presented a selflessness that I intend on practicing, which is often forgotten in a time were self-consumption is rampant. The determination of the students in "Horseplay" instilled a renewed sense of child-like ambition, something often shed in early adulthood. In a world were overcomplicating is seen as the solution for immersion, these stories provide a refreshing simplicity that leaves the reader content with their journey.