The initial plan was to share a review or two of recent shows, detailing certain feelings on the directions the anime medium have been moving into as of late, but this just feels too important not to post up, and inquire of readers. As the news came about regarding the sudden, and tragic passing of one Satoshi Kon, much has been shared regarding this one man’s profound body of work, and the loss that the anime/film community has clocked. But has it really been gauged in a way that the average admirer of the filmed arts could best understand? I cannot pretend to have the vernacular dexterity to pull off such a feat. In only four films,and one television series as a director, as several jobs as a writer, background artist, and assistant animator, there is no real way for me to best encompass such a thing in anything resembling a blog post. But I can at least attempt to illustrate what it is that hurts the most about this particular blow to the film world, and the burning questions it proposes.
To even better visualize my own personal feelings on the matter (which I’ve also commented on my own pages), place yourself in a time where anime itself had its own cadre of dependable director names granting the art form an reasonable amount of respectability. Say what some will about names such as Osamu Dezaki, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Rin Taro, Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki, Katsuhiro Otomo, Mamoru Oshii, there were at least several personalities that could easily be run off to anime neophites as a means toward giving anime cinema such credibility. Through such diverse visions, and concentration toward idiosyncracy, it was a great means of allowing new fans into the fold easily, and with a minimum of trouble. Whether folks opened up to these works or not was beside the point, these works were clearly well expressed pieces that gave gravity to a hobby that many would otherwise have written off as merely a carnival of big eyes, and big guns. And even as most were working within the guidelines brought forth by their commercial investors, it was easy to see that many of these directors were allowed to explore their creative limits with risible amounts of freedom, and vigor. One could easily see some of these works in an art house showing, opening up great wells of possibility, not merely for the animated method itself, but for the filmmaking as well.
Which is why in the post-AKIRA age, the future felt brighter than ever for international anime & art house fans that so many names were being heard of in fanzines, and genre publications. For several decades, a storm had been brewing in the east, and it felt as if world recognition was at long last within grasp. As Otomo’s influence gained ground through the 90s, and still no new film from the man had surfaced outside of his acclaimed omnibus, MEMORIES, the promise shown by collaborating Hiroyuki Okiura, surreal anime auteur Koji Morimoto, and the scribic stylings of Kon himself, Magnetic Rose felt like a gleaming ball of light, just waiting on the precipice. In merely 30-plus minutes of screentime, the future seemed bright. And when Perfect Blue allowed Kon to shine through on the promise of that short, it was akin to a revelation. The merging of Japanese Anime, Global Cinema, and a unique voice that is unquestionably Kon’s helped usher in what could have been a singular artistic coup.(and in some ways, still was)
Flash forward to today…
We can say what we will regarding a worldwide economic recession, and a glut of material congesting the bitways. It just stands to reason that there are no real remaining guiding lights in the world of anime currently. As much as some may wish to believe it, there simply hasn’t been much forward movement in regards to encouraging fresh new perspectives when one speaks of anime filmmaking. In fact, not only is it less likely to see any major animated feature films on japanese screens, there are also a dying few willing to (let alone allowed to) risk tinkering with the form in any evolutionary manner. With a failure here, a ratings or financial setback there, even noted directors are unable to get a project off the ground. In an era most resembling the limp-addled Hollywood system, we are very lucky to even have some work from our most prestigious elders. But what of the future?
Where are the auteurs of today? No one is really willing to take the risk. In many ways, the anime world has experienced its US cinema in the 1970s era where we had a multitude of names to depend on for strength of vision, and compelling storytelling. One would have thought that the beginning of the US anime bubble would have fueled more fervor toward giving more visionaries the free reign to explore. In a move that seems more comical than ever, many of these companies were happier in producing visually impressive, yet spiritually rote, stale works based on current TV series, rather than allowing the sparks to fly. And now we have warehouses filled with unsold videos. While it is true, nothing could compare to the sheer amount of stupid money wasted on inferior product in the bubble heyday, but at least there was room to experiment.
The enmity between artists, and the commercial interests that fund them has always been strong, but it has never been this restrictive, paranoid, and utterly empty.
So who to turn to now? Hosoda? As much as I love his works, I still find he has quite a ways to go, and still feels very much like a commercially pressured workman rather than an auteur. Shinkai? If he decides to play around a little more with genre, and gets away from tropes, he could be decent if given a budget, but this still feels too questionable. And as big a fan as I am of Anno & Tsurumaki, I still feel like they are under as much pressure as everyone else. Imaishi? Who knows? (Even Ishii & Koike’s REDLINE looks to be the last of a dying breed-it certainly has the feel of it all going down guns blazing–literally.) The shadow of commercial tinkering feels ever more present than ever, adding to the feeling that despite the hidden talents lurking within the key animation staff, few to none will ever get the chances allowed to the directors of the past. So perhaps within the worlds of independent animation (where the staff & budget are near nonexistent) is where we need to be looking. I recently reviewed Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s Eve No Jikan, and while far from perfect, is a promising means to seek out what can likely be a solution. We certainly cannot expect many more works from Miyazaki (Whom I feel has gone beyond caring), and Oshii(whom despite all of the Japanese media industry’s hopes will only cater to a very specific audience-esecially now). Even Hiroyuki Kitakubo(Blood, Roujin Z), and Shinichiro Watanabe(Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo) are having trouble getting dependable work that isn’t under a terrified corporate stanglehold.
There was something utterly free about the world Kon helped illuminate the world to. Very counter to even mainstream Japanese film, his works had an empathic streak that was truly heartfelt for visions so seemingly cold on the surface. There was something alive, vital, immediate in his characters & even environments that embraced a nations dreams, nightmares & wishes in ways few contemporary visual storytellers are able to accomplish. Burning twice as bright, and living half as long. Upon receiving the news of his death via Twitter as word began to spread, this quickly caused my innards to twist, and then sink…as a very familiar feeling began to take hold.
My early college days where when rock began to experience a bizarre contraction between the retro & the personal, and fewer well known rock bands drove that home better, and with more sheer abandon than Nirvana. So upon the morning of April 8th, 1994, the news popped on that Kurt Cobain had indeed vanished, only to be found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, a part of me purely refused to accept it. And then the words came from inside, and the infamous note was read on the air by his wife, Courtney…and it all came crumbling down. Whatever one may feel about the event, it was clear that an artistic voice had indeed been silenced, and that the world would have to find its own way. I wasn’t able to stave off this feeling for months. It was as if a part of myself had been shed off without my permission. A feeling of violation of all that was honest in popular rock. The only other time I felt this type of loss where upon the death of my grandmother to cancer, and perhaps my mother’s feeling years before when John Lennon passed on. The gaps left behind by those dearly departed can be huge, and at times immeasurable. And in an art form in such a state of flux, it is almost impossible to forsee where all of this is going to go.
But what we can do is by looking back, and embracing forward, boundless motion. Animation is about illumination, examining the unknown within ourselves, to see that which can only be seen in the mind. Limits can be liberating, just ask the many who have come before the animators of today. Learning the best out of those who have inspired us, to usher in new methods beyond the quick sale. To see the possibility, and to never accept what is as the final end-all-be-all. Kon showed us this realm of unending possibility with an unmatched eye, and great sensitivity. It is his promise to us should we be willing grasp it. The question is, what are you to do about it?
For more on the legacy of Satoshi Kon;
Also worth the read from ANN: