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Satoshi Kon

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Paprika DVD

From Aaron Cumberledge, responding to my favorable comments about Paprika, the Japanese animated feature directed by Satoshi Kon: In my opinion, Paprika is Satoshi Kon's weakest film to date. It's mostly eye-candy, and although some scenes are beautifully constructed (the rape scene recalls some of Kim Ki-Duk's most haunting images), the overall film is lacking.  I would be very interested in hearing your ideas about his other films—particularly Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers—and I was wondering if you had gotten around to seeing either any of them in the intervening months.  I expect you'll have a few issues with the animation (especially in Tokyo Godfathers), but both films are thrilling examples of distinctively animated storytelling.

Aaron wrote again after I saw Millennium Actress on DVD and told him I enjoyed it but found it too easily imagined as a live-action film.

From Aaron Cumberledge: I completely understand what you are saying with regards to anime films often seeming like live action. In fact, Satoshi Kon's first feature (the ambitious but fatally flawed Perfect Blue) was originally slated to be made in live action.  Why the switch to animation?  Budget.  I've never managed to locate budget numbers for any of Kon's films, but he has repeatedly stated that the budgets for his first two films (Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress) were incredibly low. Granted, any filmmaker is likely to complain about budgets, but it's fairly clear from some of the more limited animation in the films that Kon is not dealing with large budgets.

Millennium Actress DVDFurthermore, even mainstream, high-budget anime films are usually made for less than $20 million US (I believe the record is around $21 million US), and Millennium Actress was certainly not expected to be a blockbuster. If one were to compare Millennium Actress with Tim Burton's Big Fish (a contemporary live-action piece with a similar premise), the budgetary deficiencies in the former become clear. I would estimate, based on other productions from the same animation studio, that Millennium Actress probably cost between $3 million and $4 million US, while Big Fish cost $70 million.  Granted, I'm comparing the budgets of a Japanese film and a Hollywood film, which is hardly fair, but the financial difference is staggering.  (If you'd like a Japanese-only comparison, perhaps the CGI-heavy Casshern at $6 million—still double the cost of Millennium Actress—will suffice.)

The choice for a filmmaker like Kon is not whether the film should be made in live action or animation.  The choice is simply whether to make the film or not. If it does get made, he'll have to use animation, because his limited audience and relatively limited budget won't allow the film to be produced any other way. I assume you'll agree with me that if the drawn version is the only possible version of the film that can be made, it's better than nothing. One of the reasons that I find your commentary fascinating is that, unlike myself, you seem to consider yourself an animation fan, first and a film fan, second; I often find myself looking through questionable animation to examine the film underneath. In the case of Millennium Actress, I found the film to be superb (I will admit that some of my enjoyment may be due to my love of Japanese films and their history), even if the animation was not.

Perfect Blue DVDFrom Benjamin De Schrijver, responding to Aaron's comments above: Information about Kon's budgets isn't that hard to find, as he has mentioned them in numerous interviews. In this one, he says the budget of Tokyo Godfathers was about $2.7 million dollars. In another interview, he mentions that Paprika cost about the same.

Perfect Blue might have been a live-action project first, but the other films (and television series) by Kon certainly haven't been. They're his creations, apart from Paprika, which is a book adaptation. Satoshi Kon has also repeatedly mentioned in interviews he has no real desire to direct live action, because he feels more at home with drawing than mise-en-scène. He is not making his films in animation because of budgetary reasons.

On a more personal note, I fail to understand how any animated film can be faulted because it is too easily imagined as a live-action film. Drawing is inherently different from photography because photography reports, while with drawing, every line on the paper is a decision made. Choices have to be made in terms of what to leave in, what to leave out, etc. This is not to say that photography doesn't require any decisions, but to point out that a drawing will automatically have different nuances than a photograph. You can stretch this to animation and live-action film. As a result, no matter how realistic you get with your animation or how grounded in real life you go with your story, the effect achieved will include these different nuances, which means the film will be an inherently different experience from the same film in live-action. Both media have their own qualities and limits, and contrary to what people seem to believe, there is no overlapping between them whatsoever.

MB replies: This may sound paradoxical, but I think Benjamin draws far too sharp a distinction between live-action photography and animation. In the hands of the best directors and cinematographers, live action does far more than "report"; everything that's on the screen is as much a matter of conscious choice is as it is in the best animation. Likewise, what might be called the random element—the equivalent of live action's "reporting"—is present in a great deal of animation, most obviously in rotoscoping (it's often just a matter of convenience where a line happens to be traced) but also in animation in other kinds, where the animator is not making decisions of any kind but is simply adhering to a template.

We'll always be aware whether what we're watching is a moving drawing or photographed live action, but I think the experience of watching the one can be very similar to the experience of watching the other—in Japanese animation, in particular, my limited experience suggests, because Japanese filmmakers seem so little interested in animating their characters with anything other than a broad approximation of live action.

Tokyo Godfathers DVDFrom Aaron Cumberledge, responding to Benjamin's comments above: I may as well start off by talking about the Tokyo Godfathers budgetary numbers. I was not familiar with the Home Theater interview, but if anything, Tokyo Godfathers' cost strengthens my argument.  Kon has repeatedly said that Millennium Actress was made for substantially less than Tokyo Godfathers and Paprika, so my $3 million-$4 million estimate was too generous. That makes the deficit between animated and live-action films even greater. This error on my part mostly serves to point out that I am not a Satoshi Kon expert.  I've never done any professional work on Kon.  I'm merely an admirer of some of his films.

As for Kon's claim that he is not interested in live action, my argument is that even if Kon wanted to direct his films in live action (or a combination of live action and animation), he really does not have that choice. Kon's budgets are too small to permit him to do his set-pieces in live action. As his popularity and box-office draw grows, this may change, but currently he really does not have a choice.

Finally, this is nit-picking, but in reference to Kon's post-Perfect Blue films, you said, "They're his creations, apart from Paprika, which is a book adaptation."  Tokyo Godfathers is clearly adapted from the John Ford film Three Godfathers, which is based on the Peter B. Kyne novella of the same name.  This makes Millennium Actress the only non-adapted feature that Kon has directed. It doesn't particularly matter, though, as Kon always makes huge deviations from his source material.

From Benjamin de Schrijver, responding to Aaron's comments above: You're right about Tokyo Godfathers. I forgot, as I always was under the impression that it was more "inspired by" than an adaptation in the sense that Paprika was. Not having seen the original film or read the novella, I can't be sure about that, though. You're also right that Kon probably wouldn't be able to create his films in live action for the same budgets. However, I don't agree that this strengthens your argument. To me, you seemed to argue that Kon creates his films in animation partly because he doesn't have the budget for live-action. What I'm trying to argue is that he doesn't even want to do live-action work, and that animation being cheaper simply is a lucky match.

...And from Benjamin de Schrijver, responding to MB's comments above: Yes, of course live-action can be as crafted and controlled as animation. That is why I mentioned "This is not to say that photography doesn't require any decisions, but to point out that a drawing will automatically have different nuances than a photograph." I am not talking about the process, I am talking about the inherent differences in media. No matter what decisions you make, whether it's in mise-en-scène or type of film or lenses, etc., the camera itself can't do anything but report. With drawing, everything comes from the artist, whether it be a conscious decision, or a subconscious one, or more of an accident than a true decision. It's all lead on paper. What matters is our reaction to the final work. If we took a photograph of someone, and then let the best (classical) draftsman in the world draw the same person from the same angle, what we would experience and feel when watching that drawing would be different than when we look at the photograph. And that's to me still what movies are about—the experience. It's not about the story, or about the characters, but about the experience the whole brings. And because drawing is inherently different from photography, the same film in animation and live-action would bring us inherently different experiences—even if the differences are only subtle. Now, if you say that you think a particular film would've worked better in live action, so be it. But I don't think you can fault an animated film for presenting material that just happens to be material you can also film in live action.

[Posted December 11, 2007]

From Aaron Cumberledge: In regards to the feedback page, the only issue I have with it currently is the omission of one of my shorter paragraphs.  I understand why you cut it, as it was mostly meta-discussion, but I do think it is important to mention somewhere that Kon has shown an interest in combining live action and animation (more details here).

[The paragraph in question, addressed directly to Benjamin de Schrijver in response to his initial comments above: As for Kon's claim that he is not interested in live-action, I must clarify one point. The post that you read on Michael's web page is actually a reply to an email that Michael sent me. In Michael's email, he suggested that certain anime films would be improved if they were made using a combination of live action and animation.  When I said "live action" in response, I was referring to this mixture (hence the comparisons with Big Fish and Casshern).  Kon has stated interest in combining live action and animation.]

As for Benjamin's new comments, I'm not sure how long you want the feedback page to get, so I hesitate to write another lengthy response. I feel like we have all said most of what we wanted to say. However, it does seem to me that my point is being misunderstood by Benjamin. To reiterate in a very simplistic form: Kon is a talented filmmaker. Chances are good that he would not be making his films were it not for the (relatively) low cost of animation. Therefore, I think we should be grateful for an animation style that allows Kon to make his films, even if they might be better in live action.

From Bill Benzon: I've been been enjoying the recent Satoshi Kon conversation. It touches on an issue that¹s puzzled me for a while: Why has Japan gone so heavily for animation—TV, feature films, and direct to video—in comparison, well, in comparison with just about anywhere else, but certainly in comparison with the USA. I'm not aware that anyone's addressed the issue in a deep way, nor do I think the answer is necessarily a matter of this or that one key factor. But I can imagine that budget plays a role.

As you know, labor costs are the biggest factor in the budget for just about any film or video project. But some types of subject matter require more and more varied labor than others. For example, one can as easily draw 10,000 cells about a flight to Jupiter in the 23rd century as draw 10,000 cells about a police-procedural or a romance in contemporary Tokyo.  But in live action the science fiction film would be more expensive because it would require elaborate sets, costumes, and special effects, while the police-procedural or romance could be done "off the rack." You don¹t have as many costume designers, set designers, and special effects people on the payroll.

Thus, if you've got an audience inclined toward various forms of fantasy, synthetic/syncretic and alternative realities, then animation looks like a good bet on economic grounds. And anime certainly abounds in science fiction, fantasy, and period pieces. So, if we survey the output of the Japanese film industry as a whole and compare it with our own domestic industry, will we see a higher percentage of films in various high-labor categories? And will many or most of those films be animation? I don¹t know.

Assume that the correlation holds. Now we have to face the standard chicken or egg problem: Was animation preferred because it allowed such fantasy subjects, or did the industry move toward such subjects because it was economically feasible to do so?

Another factor, of course, is the widespread existence of manga, which forms the basis for many anime titles. Why manga? Depending on just how you define it, manga has been around for 100 or 1,000 years. But it didn't really amplify into a mass medium until after WWII. And that, as you know, is when the US comic-book industry was gutted by concerns about juvenile delinquency and such. It's easy enough to say of manga, "Well, Japan is such a visual culture." But that's not much help; it just tacks another label on the phenomenon. Now we have to know what it means to be a visual culture. Perhaps the nature of the writing system is relevant, but we need to do more than simply point to the writing system. And if that's a factor, why didn't manga develop in China or Korea first?

Spirited Away DVDAnd I think Benjamin de Shrijver is on to something when he writes: "What matters is our reaction to the final work. ... And that's to me still what movies are about—the experience. It's not about the story, or about the characters, but about the experience the whole brings. And because drawing is inherently different from photography, the same film in animation and live-action would bring us inherently different experiences—even if the differences are only subtle. Now, if you say that you think a particular film would've worked better in live action, so be it. But I don't think you can fault an animated film for presenting material that just happens to be material you can also film in live action." There certainly is a difference, but I just barely know how to talk about it.

I'm quite fond of a great deal of anime, and don't find its limitations as bothersome as you do—I'm thinking of your remarks on Miyazaki. For example, I love the series Azumanga Daioh, which is a bunch of five-minute vignettes about a group of Japanese girls going through high school together. There's no plot to speak of, and the animation is extremely limited. But I find the series to be utterly charming. I can say a good deal about that, but I can't for the life of me say why it works, even though the animation is much more limited that Miyazaki's, much less classic Disney.

[Posted December 16, 2007]