Satoshi Kon: The Illusionary Artist

Satoshi Kon Photograph. Moumu. Copyright ©Public Domain

(This exhibit is divided into two parts. The first is a video essay that looks at the cinematic techniques in Kon’s work.  The second is an essay analyzing the visual oeuvre of the discussed films.)

Although better known as a prolific animation director, Satoshi Kon established a reputation as a visual artist. He initiated his own drawings and marketed art from his films through magazine advertisements, DVD box covers, billboard signs, and movie posters among others.

Kon’s artwork always evoked the themes of his films and deliver great first impressions. Perfect Blue explores the disillusionment of a celebrity’s public and private life. Millennium Actress works as a pastiche of Japanese cinema, blending several narratives to complete the saga of an iconic film star. All these aspects are cleverly coded through illustrations of those films.

In this section of my exhibit, I will analyze specific themes at work in two illustrations from Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. In addition, I will also use some still frames of his films to supplement the arguments I present.

Perfect Blue

A prime example of Kon’s artistic prowess is prevalent in this illustration of Perfect Blue. This artwork was used as the cover for the film’s DVD re-release in 2007. Here, the main character – Mima – is positioned in the center frame. Her body is a collage of mismatched jigsaw puzzles that form the dress she wears in her performances. The middle portion of the picture dissipates partially to reveal parts of Mima’s nakedness. The color palette of the poster is a mixture of pink and white with some dark patches in and around the edges.

Satoshi Kon. Perfect Blue Re-release DVD Cover. The Art of Satoshi Kon, pp. 7. Copyright MADHOUSE Inc.

When asked what inspired him to create this piece, Kon answered that the imagery of a jigsaw puzzle came to his mind (125). In a way, this makes sense. Perfect Blue is a mystery thriller that slowly reveals the truth and lies of Mima’s identity and her interactions with reality. Mima forms two identities in the film: the pop idol and the actress. The jigsaw puzzles are an important concept when considering to critique the structure of this poster.

Puzzles seem to make up Mima’s persona as a pop star. Shown in her frilly pink dress and tutu, the pop idol Mima is innocent, caring, and downright adorable. These puzzles, however, suggest that her public image is a mere construction. It is an image formed by past perceptions that is reinforced by the public that watches her.

On the other hand, the pop idol is only an illusion of what is actually presented to the viewer and is not representative of Mima’s individuality. The partial nudity is not drawn to exploit her body sexually, but to highlight her vulnerabilities as a public figure. I think what Kon tries to convey in the poster is a search of genuine identity – being comfortable in your own skin rather than hiding behind fashionable clothes. The pop idol is not who she is: it is a false identity other people have made for themselves.

Satoshi Kon. Perfect Blue, 1997. Copyright MADHOUSE Inc.

The naked Mima starkly contrasts with her pop idol image. Hidden by the puzzles that make up her false image, Kon shows us that the “real” Mima is there. What I define by “real” is Mima’s sense that she has moved on from her pop idol past. Her main conflict in the film is her inability to distinguish between who she is and what she was. The image of Mima naked serves as a prevalent theme in the film and connects strongly with what Kon has drawn in this poster. By revealing her nakedness, he is not only making a provocative impression, but identifies her weakness as a human being.

The puzzle pieces act as a gradual revelation of Mima’s true self. Rather than coming together to form one image, the pieces break apart to create a new one. I think what this poster accomplishes overall is the playing of an audience’s perception. It does not greatly challenge the viewer nor works as an optical illusion. Rather, its a picture that forces the audience to ponder about Mima’s image and her struggle to break away from the illusion that haunts her – a similar theme we will see in Millennium Actress.

Millennium Actress

Produced in 2001, Millennium Actress is Kon’s farewell letter to a century of Japanese cinema. His film features a plethora of references and Mima’s fictional portrayals within them. If one is familiar with those references, then the film works well as a pastiche of 20th century film making in Japan. In an annotation in The Art of Satoshi Kon, Kon explained that he wanted posters and subsequent advertising for Millennium Actress to reflect a Japanese style of fun (126). Interestingly, the film incorporates many retro Japanese film posters that feature Chiyoko as the star.

Satoshi Kon. Millennium Actress Main Visual. The Art of Satoshi Kon, pp. 19. Copyright MADHOUSE Inc.

One of the most iconic examples is a homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. Kon’s version is titled “Mysterious Castle” and it features the same elderly spirit character from Kurosawa’s film.

Satoshi Kon. Mysterious Castle. The Art of Satoshi Kon, pp. 25. Copyright MADHOUSE Inc.

Kon’s engagement with his own culture motivated him to avoid Westernizing Chiyoko by drawing her with trendy clothing. His preference for Chiyoko to instead wear a kimono reflects the customary clothing worn during the Japanese New Year’s – hence the connection to the title of the film. In the background of the main visual, Kon has drawn the various characters Chiyoko has acted as, ranging from princesses, samurai, schoolgirls, and astronauts. The Chiyoko in the middle, however, is the center of attention and her bright kimono draws us to her allure as an actress.

Identity plays a role here once again and connects with the illusion of the films themselves. As an actress, Chiyoko has to assume a different identity for each role she inherits. The brightly colored kimono she wears signifies a renewal of things to come. Much like the previous illustration from Perfect Blue, the genuine identity of the heroine is the focus. In Millennium Actress, however, false identities are not present per se, but they appear as intertwining reflections based on Chiyoko’s collective memories. The characters she has played throughout her career all make up who she is. It is difficult to be certain of who she says she is because of the many experiences she has lived through.

Instead of a critique of his country’s popular culture, Kon seems to nostalgically embrace it within this film. Figures like Mima or Chiyoko are forever tied to what they have done in their careers, but are overall presented as human beings. Kon’s illustrations not only piques the curiosity of viewers, but also demonstrates how film lulls us into the stories of individuals, their struggles, and the solutions that help them move on.

Chiyoko becomes much more than a famous movie star. In her lifetime, she has immersed herself in a world of many realities and illusions, loving and grieving for those close to her. Her experiences become our experiences when her films become part of her narrative, even beyond death.

Satoshi Kon. Millennium Actress, 2001. Copyright MADHOUSE Inc.


© Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.


Works Cited

Kon, Satoshi. Millennium Actress Main Visual. 2002, The Art of Satoshi Kon.

Kon, Satoshi. Perfect Blue Re-Release DVD Cover. 2007, The Art of Satoshi Kon.

Kon, Satoshi. The Art of Satoshi Kon. Dark Horse Comics, 2015.

Manisha, Mishra & Maitreyee, Mishra. “Animated Worlds of Magical Realism: An Exploration of Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress and Paprika.” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 9, no. 3, 2014, pp. 299-316.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “The Film and the New Psychology.” Sense and Non-Sense. Northwestern Press, 1964, pp. 48-59.

Millennium Actress. Directed by Satoshi Kon, performances by Miyoko Shoji, Mami Koyama, and Fumiko Orikasa, Madhouse, 2001.

Ogg, Kerin. “Lucid Dreams, False Awakenings, Figures of the Fan in Kon Satoshi.” Mechademia. University of Minnesota Press, 2010, pp. 157-174.

Perfect Blue. Directed by Satoshi Kon, performances by Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, and Masaaki Okura, Madhouse, 1997.