Satoshi Kon’s Hollywood Matrix: How an Anime Mastermind Shaped American Cinema

Screen Shot 2017-11-27 at 11.14.22 AMThis article originally appeared on on 04-03-2015

The year is 1998 and animator Satoshi Kon has just released his directorial debut, Perfect Blue. The story of Mima Kirigoe, a pop singer attempting to change her image to become a serious actress, allows us to question the blurred boundaries between perception and reality when she is stalked by an obsessive fan and the ghost of her on-stage persona. Across the Pacific Ocean, the closest offering in theatres is Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show. Truman’s crisis with reality occurs when he discovers his entire life has been a TV show and his loved ones are paid actors. However, The Truman Show is mostly a social comment on reality TV, and therefore doesn’t come close to Perfect Blue’s delve into the mind-bending topic of a ‘subjective reality’. Why isn’t there anything with the depth of Perfect Blue in mainstream cinema at this time? Well, because Satoshi Kon hadn’t yet shown us how.

Just over one year later, the Wachowski sibling’s sci-fi/action epic The Matrix is about to change the path of mainstream Hollywood; Firstly with its use of never before seen effects such as the famed ‘bullet time’ sequence, and secondly by questioning a mainstream audience’s capability to comprehend and accept false realities. It is important to note that before The Matrix, big-budget action movies simply could not include this now-familiar subject and still expect to be widely successful at the box office. Take Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as a key example. It features groundbreaking special effects alongside the subject matter of perception and reality.

“I think, Sebastian, therefore I am.” – Pris, Blade Runner (1982)

Nowadays, Blade Runner has a passionate cult following and has had long-lasting success, but this couldn’t be further from its original box office nightmare and its widely negative reception in 1982. The absence of this theme in Hollywood goes even further back, with adaptations such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next opting for an approach that is grounded in understandable reality (which is vastly different to the novel). For this reason, The Matrix becomes a phenomenon – but who did the Wachowski’s take influence from in order to achieve this? The widely accepted answer is anime and their key to success was Satoshi Kon visual technique.

With The Matrix’s glaring similarity to Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, it comes as no shock that the Wachowski siblings are huge fans of Anime cinema. Whilst The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell are stylistically and thematically similar – it is Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue that provided a way for the Wachowskis to communicate some of Ghost in the Shell’s challenging concepts of persona in a visually stimulating way. Consider the moment in Ghost in the Shell when the Major merges with the Pupper Master: Two ghosts in one shell or, in other words, two souls in one body.

The scene shows the Major’s first person perspective with minimal movement, but the plot moves forward through heavy exposition within their dialogue. This technique works for Ghost in the Shell, but almost certainly wouldn’t for a sci-fi action blockbuster in mainstream Hollywood. Now consider how the Wachowskis use ‘the construct’ in this scene to unload exposition whilst toying with our sense of time and place.

From entering inside television sets to shelved guns appearing from nowhere, Kon’s influence is a key element to fitting this scene for a mass audience. If you remove the word ‘digital’, Morpheus’ words even sum up a major theme behind Perfect Blue:

You’re appearance now is what we call you’re ‘residual self-image’. It is the mental projection of your digital self… ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

Within this scene, we can already see two ways Satoshi Kon’s techniques made it into American theatres. But it doesn’t stop there. In fact, it is interesting that the first Hollywood movie influenced by Kon is named The Matrix, as his work instantly began a matrix of its own within American cinema. As well as creative influence on Hollywood post-1998, Kon’s influence also impacted the financial side of Hollywood. The Wachowskis brought in $1,632,989,142 worldwide with The Matrix, showing that a mass audience was ready to contemplate the theme of perception and reality in a huge way.

Previously, showing reality to be subjective was seen as a recipe for financial disaster, risking leaving audiences feeling unintelligent and ripped off. Consider the number of well financed movies that covered these topics once Satoshi Kon’s Hollywood matrix was in motion. Fight Club (1999), American Psycho (2000) and Vanilla Sky (2001) are just a few prime examples of this topic entering American theatres during this period – all of which performed well at the box office, translating to financiers that this particular philosophical theme has a place in mainstream Hollywood.

But his influence went far and beyond his directorial debut. In fact, many directors have made visual references to Kon within their own features. Most notably, Darran Aronovsky played homage to Perfect Blue in Reqium for a Dream and Black Swan, which bears an undeniable similarity in terms of plot.

With these acknowledgements, it becomes obvious that Kon wasn’t just influencing some of Hollywood’s biggest names, but had in fact started (and continued to push forward) an entire movement in cinema. Whilst his influence was ‘snowballing’ in the U.S., perhaps even into the work of those who had never seen his movies, Kon continued to push the boundaries of what his audience are capable of comprehending visually to move forward and multi-layer his stories. Millennium Actress, his 2001 effort, is a coherent jigsaw that rewards viewers for their undivided attention as the story of an actress’ life is told through her many on and off-screen personas. To coherently show this, Kon uses minimal straight cuts and seamless fades whilst time and place weaves between dream-like fantasies, vivid memories and a grounded reality.

It would have made sense for Kon’s influence in Hollywood would have filtered out once he continued to push the limitations of understandable visual boundaries. But instead, he remained a miraculous inspiration on many of the last decade’s highest grossing films. Along with Aronofsky, the director who has proudly acknowledged Kon’s influence in his work is Christopher Nolan – Hollywood’s poster boy for intellectually demanding blockbusters responsible for The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and The Prestige. In fact, the similarities between Kon’s Paprika and Nolan’s Inception are so great that it could be argued the latter is an Americanized adaptation of the former.

In this respect, Satoshi Kon’s Hollywood Matrix is a ball that continues to roll beyond the great director’s death. The very idea of a huge blockbuster centering on the blurred lines between perception and reality becoming an international box-office hit was almost completely non-existent before Satoshi Kon. Instead, the two aspects of cinema were separated into two categories that, in the eyes of financiers, were never compatible. In modern day, we all know this is wrong due to all of the films referenced above. We have Kon to thank for the rare but all important blockbusters that pose philosophical questions of our reality. René Descartes famously once said “I think, therefore I am”, but it was Satoshi Kon’s Hollywood Matrix that masterfully brought that philosophy into theatres and inspired America’s commercial filmmakers to do the same.


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