If I were to define “imaginarium” (if it even can be defined), it’d be “a reality where you don’t know, or aren’t sure of, what is real.” While it could be argued that’s what our own world nowadays feels like, let’s keep things civil and simple by looking at this concept through the lens of a medium, specifically through film. Despite the inherent complexity in the concept of “imaginarium,” creative media is the perfect place to explore it since movies, novels, videogames etc. are where the real and unreal meet, and produce limitless possibilities. Be it storytelling and plot progression, exploring complex characters vastly different from who we are, or visiting worlds we could scarcely imagine, media could itself be the definition of “imaginarium” since it’s where we take reality and recreate, forge, or even outright annihilate it, to order to suit our goal of looking at something “different.” But what if we just look at it as a genre, and not an entire philosophy unto itself? Where would be a good body of work in which to look at it, examine in an insightful manner, and see different kinds if imaginariums? Well, I’d argue that some of the best examples of the imaginarium in action can be found in the works of animation legend, Satoshi Kon.
Despite having a relatively short career for an animator, and being dead since 2010, Satoshi Kon’s work not only became a staple of the anime landscape, but it even reached and influenced the work of directors such as Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan (the latter of whom I’ll discuss later on). Like Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Hosoda, and Makoto Shinkai, Satoshi Kon released several anime films that were successful both within and outside Japan, but while his works didn’t break too many box office records, Kon consistently received critical acclaim. From the quality of the animation, to his writing, to his awe-inspiring editing, Kon’s films have been remembered and revered for nearly a decade since his death by both anime fans, and more mainstream film savants. While his body of work can (and deserves to) be looked at for his various skills as an animator, I’m discussing his films here because he ended up being the master of the concept of imaginarium when it comes to showing it on film, since he regularly played with the idea of undefinable reality. A dreamscape that pushes and eventually bends reality to the point where it’s unrecognizable. A past that ends up reshaping the here and now. Even a time of year that allows for miracles to happen, so much so that you end up not questioning the implausibility of what you’re watching. It’s rare to see a director have such a good grasp on a subject that might still be years ahead of its time, but perhaps thanks to the liberties one can take with animation, Satoshi Kon be considered an auteur of the imaginarium.
Warning: this will contain SPOILERS for various Satoshi Kon movies.
Perhaps we should start simple by looking at one of Kon’s earliest works, Magnetic Rose. Released as part of the 1995 anime anthology Memories, Magnetic Rose is where Kon had the roles of writer, background designer, and layout animator for just this one short film. This was before he would become a fully-fledged director, but even here you can see how Kon played with the idea of undefined reality. Rose centers on a salvage crew in space who respond to the distress signal of a derelict space station, in an area of space known for being dangerous. When the crew enter the station, they start to find themselves delving into a place that makes less and less sense, and start to find themselves trapped in a reality comprised of both the past of the person who created the station, and their own personal memories. Rose is a simple, short, but nevertheless incredible depiction of a “basic” imaginarium: where the place you started radically changes, and you eventually can no longer tell where, or even when, you truly are.
The most obvious way Rose portrays its imaginarium is its setting: what starts out as an old space station reminiscent of an Alien movie, quickly morphs into a classical European palace. Given how it’s a private space station, having it be designed this way can make sense, but this drastic style change alone gives the entire setting an alien feeling in an oddly human sense; a centuries old aesthetic, right in the middle of a sci-fi tale set in space. As the salvage crew explores further on though, they begin to realize this illusion is more than just skin deep: all the food and drinks on the station are either fake or far too old to be consumed, the impeccably designed hallways and ballrooms are all empty and devoid of anyone who could marvel at it all, and instead of a lively atmosphere the whole place is permeated with the tone of a haunted mansion. And haunted turns out to be right on the mark; as the scavengers move deeper into the station, they find the disembodied spirit of the woman who created the station (her consciousness was recreated inside a computer program that controls the entire space station, which in this context is relatively normal sci-fi stuff) as a means to cope with her broken heart after her lover left her for another woman. Ever since, she’s lured curious travelers in, hypnotizing them to live in her own escapist reality, and as she pushes her past life onto others, she brings up the past of her victims into the present as well. In a heartbreaking turn of events, one of the crew members is forced to relive the moment of when his own daughter died years ago, a death he himself still hasn’t fully accepted.
Magnetic Rose is ultimately about two souls dealing with the past traumas that broke them, but while one dealt with it by never moving on and forcing herself to live in an eternal recreation of it, the other is able to break free from the illusion, even though he is ultimately left to drift alone in space with no help in sight, while the woman once again captures a victim to play out her fantasy with, until another poor soul gets caught in the trap… Magnetic Rose is a simple but altogether still powerful imaginarium where people are lost in reality due to painful pasts, and are stuck there if they can’t accept what’s happened and move on. Looking back, I’m actually reminded of the Terry Gillian film The Fisher King, another tale of people unable to move on from their pasts, and instead escape into their own made up fantasies in order to cope with the cruelty of a life that’s been all too real in taking away loved ones from them, but surprisingly it’s the Terry Gillian movie that ends on the vastly more hopeful note. Kon would later move onto feature length films, and (perhaps thankfully) none of them would be near as bleak as his earlier work here. But he was far from done in playing with uncertain realties.
It would almost be a crime to talk about Satoshi Kon without looking at what is easily his most famous film, 2008’s Paprika. His last feature film, Paprika was notable for not only being his most mind-bending instance of visible imaginarium, but for also being a notable influence on the 2010 American movie Inception. I bring up the work of Christopher Nolan because while Inception is also an imaginarium, I see both of these movies as almost perfect examples of the artform of film itself as imaginarium. I talked about this concept earlier, and while both of these films are prime examples of this, they do so in markedly different manners. While Inception is a vastly more apparent example, where each character almost perfectly fits the role of a crew member (Leonardo DiCaprio’s character as the director (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Nolan himself), Ellen Page’s role as a screenwriter, Ken Watanabe as executive producer, etc.), and the film’s story reflects fooling someone into believing an unreal reality in order to pass over an idea to them, Paprika isn’t quite on the nose, and is overall more subtle about it. Instead of using the entire concept of the medium, it just uses the well-known nature of film and filmmaking to describe and detail just one character, and how they see things via their knowledge and love of the medium.
Like Inception, Paprika is also a mind heist of sorts, but instead of going into the dream to steal information for a corporation, Paprika involves a new technology going awry, internal corporate strife, and a detective trying to makes sense of a recurring dream of his own. Said detective turns out to be something of a film buff (possibly a self-insert character for Kon himself), being not only knowledgeable about classic films such as Tarzan movies, crime dramas and others, but also the unspoken “rules” of the medium. The best instance of this is when he’s talking to the titular character Paprika (inside a movie theater, to get the point across as furthest as possible), and explains to her the 180-degree rule, with the film’s own perspective flipping over when it shouldn’t in order to fully detail the discomfort of what happens when a movie breaks said rule. Paprika is an excellent example of where film breaks its own “laws” in order to bring the dream/imaginarium to life, culminating in a dreamscape invading the real physical world. With editing that’s incredible in both its transitions and sheer speed (without overwhelming or losing the viewer), and visuals that constantly change form yet never fully disintegrate, Paprika is an extraordinary example of form following function: when you’re supposed to bend reality to the point of collapsing in on itself, you can’t ever keep just a single form. When the dream is the reality, reality’s rules and laws are no longer concrete, and you can use that to your own advantage.
While I have many favorite anime movies, be it defined within a genre, year, etc., it’s a Kon film that holds the special honor of being my all-time favorite Christmas movie: 2003’s Tokyo Godfathers. Set in the days between Christmas and New Year’s, Godfathers follows three homeless people in Tokyo who find an abandoned baby in the trash, and their subsequent journey to find said baby’s parents. As you might expect, the film does examine the pasts of the three central characters, from who they were before they were homeless, why they became homeless, and even why they choose to remain homeless, but unlike his other works Tokyo Godfathers doesn’t bend reality, at least not in an obvious way. There’s no exploration of dreams, no creative recollection of the past, no questioning of what’s really happening, at least not directly on screen, that is. The story of Tokyo Godfathers is filled with twists, turns, and coincidences that could cause average viewers to question what they’re seeing happening before their own eyes, and that’s what makes this film a favorite of mine: instead of the character questioning the reality in the film, it’s the actual viewer questioning the film itself. And even odder than that, all the coincidences, all the lucky breaks, all the moments of fortune throughout the film, they’re are all weirdly believable. Despite being his most overtly “realistic” film, Godfathers might actually be Kon’s most subversive imaginarium: one where it’s not the characters themselves questioning what they’re seeing, but the audience itself that’s unsure.
You might think there’s no way a film, or any form of creative fiction, could achieve this weird balance of believability that pushes so much without breaking itself in the process, but I’d argue Godfathers somehow does so, in a manner that’s almost impressive when you think about it. One of the homeless characters by chance coming by and saving a mob boss partly responsible for his debt? A dying man having a winning lottery ticket, only to die a few minutes later? A character being saved from a lethal fall by a fortuitous gust of wind? It all sounds like Hollywood fluff, stuff that only happens outside of reality… but in Tokyo Godfathers, events and moments like this happen every ten minutes. When I watched it for the first-time years ago, the question that continued to pop up in my head wasn’t “how is this happening?”, but “why is none of this bothering me?” While this was surely in part to just how fun the film was, I’d also argue it’s because of the film’s genre: it is a Christmas movie. It’s the season for miracles, after all.
As a sub-genre, holiday movies are where we go in with expectations lowered more than usual, willing to more readily accept what we’re about to see, because we want to. We want good things to happen to the characters we end up empathizing with, and because the central characters in Godfathers truly earn and deserve our sympathy (three homeless people, consisting of a man divorced from his family due to past mistakes, a teenage girl who accidentally stabbed her father in a confrontation she regrets so much that she can no longer face him, and a trans woman who lost her significant other in a freak accident), we are even more sympathetic than usual. Godfathers sets itself up in an incredible position of a genre, characters, and medium where not only anything is possible, but we the audience allow anything to be possible. And Tokyo Godfathers makes as best use of its circumstances, by not only following this group of misfits on their journey to find the parents of an abandoned baby, but by slowly but steadily detailing their pasts, who they have become by being changed and humbled through a life on the streets, and ultimately what they end up going through in trying to reunite a newborn with its parents. I regret not being able to explain this in further detail, since it’d mean spoiling one of my favorite films, and even if I did there’s still a good chance you wouldn’t believe what I’d say. But there’s the majesty of Tokyo Godfathers: when you’re there, watching it, you do believe it.
Satoshi Kon is often remembered as a visionary who went way before his time, dying before he was even 50 years old. We can only imagine just how much incredible animation we lost out on when he died, including an unfinished project named Dreaming Machine that has been sitting on a shelf somewhere in Studio Madhouse since 2010. Apart from Machine, Kon altogether made four feature films, two short films, and a 13-episode long television series. But while we can only envision what could have been, Kon nevertheless has an incredible body of work that cemented his legacy as an auteur animator. From connecting the lines of what was past and present through trauma, to bringing the dream world into the real one to an extent where you can’t tell where one ends and begins, to even creating an environment where the audience itself no longer cares about what should or shouldn’t be “possible.” Mastering the imaginarium through animation: the legacy of Satoshi Kon.
Note: this essay was originally written in March of 2018 for a film studies course, and has been reposted here by the author’s own choosing.
You’re reading AniTAY, the anime-focused portion of Kotaku’s community-run blog, Talk Amongst Yourselves. AniTAY is a non-professional blog whose writers love everything anime related. To join in on the fun, check out our website, visit our official subreddit, follow us on Twitter, or give us a like on our Facebook page. You can follow TGRIP on Twitter @Dennisthatsit, find his other work on Unwinnable.com and aniTAY, and his Gamertag on Xbox Live is “Aventador SVJ”.