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by Mark Jenkins,
unless otherwise noted.

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AUGUST 27, 2010

An Aftertaste of Paprika:

Satoshi Kon (1963-2010)

An expanded version of a 2007 interview with the Japanese anime director, who died earlier this week at 46.

By Mark Jenkins

Opening in D.C. this week is a film I reviewed for NPR, LEBANON.

Although not as well known as Spirited Away director Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon may have been his generation's greatest director of anime for adults. The 46-year-old filmmaker, who died Aug. 24 of pancreatic cancer, explored territory associated with Alain Resnais and Nicolas Roeg in such stream-of-consciousness films as Paprika, his last U.S. release, and Millennium Actress. He also ventured into social comedy with Tokyo Godfathers, which adapted John Ford's Three Godfathers to the world of West Shinjuku's homeless encampments.

I interviewed Kon in April 2007, while he was in Washington to promote Paprika, a boggling exploration of dreams, nightmares, and Japan's collective unconscious. A brief version of that conversation was published on Washington City Paper's webpage at the time. In honor of his too-short life, here's an expanded version of that interview, which began with Kon's laughter when asked if he considered his film akin to a hallucinogenic drug experience.

I didn't think about that possibility at all. I have never done psychedelic drugs, so I wouldn't really know. I'm not able to imagine that what I conceived in my mind would be the same as the images one might get from taking psychedelic drugs.

It's not so much the images themselves as it is blurring of the line between reality and illusion.

That was the intent. I don't believe movies ought to offer safe territory, where the audience watches from a distance. I don't think that's what the movie experience is about. What happens between the screen and the audience is of interest. To have a meaningful experience as an audience member, to be moved by that experience, is important. The goal is to force the audience to participate in the movie.

This film is adapted from Yasutaka Tsutsui's novel. How much of the novel's story and tone did you retain?

I have great respect for Mr. Yasutaka. When I create my movies, their values have been greatly influenced by Mr. Yasutaka's works. It was impossible to compress the novel into 90 minutes; it would have been a very long story. People who appeared in the novel had to be deleted; certain episodes could not be included. Mr. Yasutaka, who viewed Paprika after it was completed, said that in a sense the movie was very true to the novel. He said that it was faithful in that it had an attitude of breaking through common-sense notions.

Your films, like so much anime, are full of transformations.

I don't think that's unique to Japanese animation. Animation is where something that is immovable, seemingly not alive, comes to life, becomes something that moves. It is the idea of animism, life forces being breathed into these things. It's that energy, that life force, that changes that thing into a living being. The notion of metamorphosis is an important part of animation.

But Japanese folklore has many stories of shape-changers, part-animal creatures like the tanuki and the inari.

Yes, indeed. Japanese animation is very much influenced by those folk tales. But I feel that changing the shape of a thing, or how it appears, is interesting to watch.

In the film, the surreal parade that courses through the city is full of traditional totems, like Shinto gates, Buddhist statues, and maneki-neko -- the beckoning cats seen outside bars and restaurants.

These are things that were thrown away, that are now returning. A hundred years ago in Japan, there was much religiosity. In these modern times, it's become rare. Go to a Shinto shrine, and you might see the gates. Go to a Buddhist temple, and you might see the statues. You might see maneki-neko, and all of these things are now coming back. It's as if they've all returned from the unconscious. Of course, it cannot be helped that these things are being thrown away. However, I would like to see that they not lost completely.

The overlap between reality and illusion is a continuing theme in your work. Why does that compel you?

There is the reality that we are living, and there are also the thoughts we see. It seems as if these are separated. However, we ourselves experience this in quite a synthesized manner. I might be here in this restaurant in Washington, talking to you today, and my consciousness is focused on this interview at hand. However, I might also notice that you remind me of a teacher I had when was in junior high school in Japan. And so that brings me back to that time and place, which is different from this time and this place. I wanted to see if it was possible to create that overlap between reality and illusion.

Why are so many of your protagonists are female?

Whether it be a movie or manga, or any other kind of work, you need to create work that engages your interest. And what's interesting is that element of mystery. I pursue that by creating works in which women become the protagonist. Women are mysterious creatures. I have women be protagonists so that I may wonder what the heroine is thinking.

Paprika says, "Don't you think that dreams and the Internet are similar?" Is she speaking for you then?

Yes. I think the structure is similar. You dream when you're alone, and are not very aware of what you're dreaming. In fact, it's that unconscious state that gives rise to these dreams. The Internet is similar, in that you are linked to a larger world where you can receive information and knowledge. The individual is linked to a world of dreams.

Tokyo Godfathers was based on a Hollywood film, and Paprika has several references to Hollywood movies. Why do you draw from American rather than Japanese films?

I have also been influenced by Japanese movies. In Paprika, you may have noticed, there was a character who imitates Akira Kurosawa. However, I was brought up during the rapid economic development period in Japan, after the war, and the United States occupied Japan for a time. Many Japanese people were dreaming about having a Japan that was as plentiful as the United States seemed to be. Many people worked very hard in order to make a country that would be as rich as the United States. Naturally, many of us looked to Hollywood movies. These were movies where things seemed very bountiful. So the image sources I rely on, time and again, are Hollywood movies.

Your surname, "Kon," is written with the character meaning "now" -- the same character that begins "konichiwa" [good day]. Is that a common name in Japan?

There aren't too many of us. It seems that our ancestors originally came from China. If you look me up on the Internet, you'll see my name written as "now." However, in my family register, it's written a little differently.