Ranking Satoshi Kon

Perfect Blue

I love to share my opinions on the internet, and one of my favorite ways to do so is with a good, old-fashioned list. Therefore, I want to try out consuming all of the media from a director, author, or studio and ranking all of it. The plan is to have these lists stay ever-active. If new media comes out, I will rank it. As I rewatch over the years and my opinions change, I will swap or edit entries. This seems like a fun way to engage with a lot of my favorite artists, so I am excited to see where this goes.

There is no one better to kick this list off with than the incomparable Satoshi Kon. Kon is my absolute favorite director of all time. Everything he has ever made is a masterpiece in my eyes and it hurts me deeply to know he died so soon, given what he could have created if given more time. Regardless of how much I love all of his work, though, some of it is better than others, and that’s where this list comes in. I am going to be ranking his four major feature films and one TV series from worst to best (or more like “almost perfect” to “absolutely perfect”). While I am aware that he made some short films and OVAs for other shows, I want to stick to his full-length, complete works for the fairest possible comparisons.

Spoilers may exist in each entry, so use caution!

Paprika

Something had to be at the bottom. Paprika is an interesting film because it feels like the most experimental of Kon’s work and is almost transitional in nature. It’s clear to me that he was on the cusp of making something absolutely phenomenal for his next film and Paprika was an experiment on his way to the brilliance that was to come. Unfortunately, this was his last movie, as he died before releasing anything else.

There is much to admire when it comes to Paprika. The visuals are the most eye-catching of all his films and his usual style of weaving back and forth between fiction and reality until what actually happened in the film is fully up to the audience’s interpretation is on display as usual. Using dream invasion as a means of telling the story really allows Kon to let loose with his ideas and it shows. Given that the plotlines may look similar at a glance, this movie always gets compared to Inception, but I don’t think that’s a fair assessment because the films may start on the same premise, but they go in wildly different directions in execution.

Overall, what’s tricky about Paprika is I’m not actually sure whether I like this film that much or not. It’s the hardest of Kon’s works to understand because it gets a little too choppy with the editing, and while I mentioned the visuals being eye-catching earlier, sometimes that was true to the point of distraction. The problem is that I can’t separate out my belief that this film was Kon on his way to achieving greater heights from my actual opinion on the movie in isolation of Kon’s premature passing. Therefore, I’m going to rank it at the bottom of the list, but with the caveat that I still think this is well worth a watch.

Tokyo Godfathers

It’s weird to rank Kon’s most down-to-earth work immediately after his wildest one, but I think that explains a lot about him as a director. Since he didn’t make all that many films in his lifetime, he spent a lot of time in his works testing the boundaries on both sides. Personally, I like when his films go a little more out of the box than Tokyo Godfathers did, but not quite so far out of the box that it feels like it’s on another planet like Paprika.

Tokyo Godfathers is a Christmas story, plain and simple. While there are hints at the dreamlike direction that Kon is so well-known for utilizing, for the most part, this is a very grounded story about the impact of homelessness and being part of a population that regularly gets swept under the rug on society. It’s a touching and heartwarming tale that really showcases Kon’s ability to tap into the human side of characters. It’s likely to become a Christmastime staple for me going forward, and the only reason I don’t rank it higher is just the personal preference of enjoying Kon more when his works are on the wild side.

Perfect Blue

Ask ten random Satoshi Kon fans what their favorite of his films is, and eight of them will likely respond with Perfect Blue. That’s for good reason, of course. This psychological thriller is one of the most, well, thrilling, that I have ever encountered. The twists and turns kept me on the edge of my seat for the entirety of the film as I followed the actress protagonist through her life. Kon loves to bring the audience in and out of the movie the actress is filming, to the point where it is up to viewer interpretation which scenes are part of the movie and which are actually happening, which just adds to the mystery and rewatchability.

The part that I find most unbelievable is that this is Kon’s first major work. This man came right out of the gate with a masterpiece like this. The narrative control that he had to carefully manage in order to keep the line between movie set and reality just blurry enough to be interesting but not so blurry as to confuse the audience astounds me every time I think about it. Mima is also an endearing protagonist as the viewer gets to know her reasons behind wanting to leave her idol group to become an actress.

If I have any reason for ranking it lower than the other films, it really just comes down to art style. Maybe it’s because this was Kon’s first work, but I didn’t think the art on display was as strong as his future works. Art style isn’t a huge deal to me, but since I love all his films so much, something like this can be enough to knock a given work down a few spots.

Paranoia Agent

Satoshi Kon’s only full TV series, Paranoia Agent, is a weird one. Given that I’m talking about Kon, though, it should have been a given that he wouldn’t make a normal show. Most episodes of this show play out more like a series of twenty minute shorts loosely tied together by the existence of a shadowy antagonist that looks like a kid with a baseball bat.

Paranoia Agent is probably Kon’s most divisive work, and I can understand why. In a lot of respects, I probably shouldn’t have it above Perfect Blue if I take the entirety of the show against the entirety of the movie. Some of the episodes don’t hit as well as I would like and the ending is a bit predictable and anti-climactic. Here’s the thing, though: When this show has a hit, it hits hard.

There is one episode in this anime called “Happy Family Planning” that is the single-most masterful episode of anime that I have ever watched. This one episode is Satoshi Kon’s magnum opus, in my opinion and is even better than my number one spot. It has everything that Kon does well, distilled into twenty minutes. Misdirection, plot twists that feel like they come out of nowhere but were actually brilliantly telegraphed the whole time, and a dreamlike feeling that takes the viewer on a journey. Keep in mind before watching this episode, though, that it is incredibly dark and deals heavily with topics that may be disturbing for some viewers.

Overall, I didn’t give Paranoia Agent number one because I believe that the show, when taken as a whole, is good but uneven. I did give it number two, however, because “Happy Family Planning” is one of the best episodes of TV I have ever seen, and there are a few other episodes that aren’t far behind it.

Millennium Actress

Here we are, at number one. I didn’t expect much going into Millennium Actress. I didn’t know anything about the Japanese film industry, so I was worried the references to movies scattered throughout this love letter to Japanese cinema would fly right over my head. They all did, but I fell in love anyway.

Millennium Actress came out after Perfect Blue, and in many respects, I think they are sister films. Satoshi Kon was exploring the impact of fame on young women, and went in two separate directions with these stories. Perfect Blue aimed to highlight the dark side of cinema and fame, whereas Millennium Actress feels more like a love letter. I always recommend that anyone new to Kon watch both of these films back-to-back, as I think it perfectly highlights who Kon is as a director and what he has set out to do.

As a movie, Millennium Actress is also a pretty simple plot like Tokyo Godfathers, but since a lot of this film takes place on movie sets just like Perfect Blue, Kon has the opportunity to play with weaving the story in and out of the fictional worlds the protagonist is experiencing. The transitions between scenes is absolutely masterful and a little smoother than in Perfect Blue, showing Kon and his team’s evolution in style. The artwork also noticeably stepped up its game

I’ve watched Millennium Actress many times now, and in an effort to understand it better, I’ve even started picking up classics of Japanese cinema. I don’t think this film is for everyone. It’s possibly his slowest-paced work and the film references, while it never bothered me that I didn’t understand them, may be off-putting to some audiences. Overall, I want everyone who has even a passing interest in Kon to give it a try, because it may be a pleasant surprise.

Conclusion

This was incredibly difficult to do. I love Satoshi Kon’s works, so trying to rank movies and shows I already love is filled with tough calls. Unfortunately, since Kon is no longer with us, I will not be adding to this list, but I will move things around as I inevitably rewatch over the years. This is likely to be the first of many lists like this, as I really like the idea of doing a deep-dive into an artist or studio’s history and being able to edit and rearrange the list over time, so I hope this was as fun to read as it was to write!

What’s your favorite Satoshi Kon work? Who should I do a list like this for next? Let me know in the comments below!

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