After having worked my way through Satoshi Kon’s entire filmography, I am left completely in awe of his filmmaking prowess. It is such a shame that Kon, one of very few directors in animation who made realistic, adult-oriented dramas, passed away at the young age of 46 from pancreatic cancer. Even though it has only been five years since his passing, you can already feel the lasting influence of his work.
Countless essays, reviews, and videos have been made about Kon’s masterful cinematography and pacing with some even going so far as to throw out comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. For this article, I will specifically focus on the opening scenes of Kon’s four films, which are unique because all of them open with a one to two minute sequence that establishes the overall concept of the film with just visuals and music alone. A lot of animated films used to do this historically, but it has fallen out of use in recent years. Satoshi Kon brought it back, and his opening sequences are among the best in animation.
Perfect Blue (1997)
Satoshi Kon’s directorial debut is about a J-Pop idol who decides to leave the idol scene in favor of acting. It also involves a stalker, a murder mystery, and psychological drama. Kon manages to establish all of this with an expertly crafted and incredibly dense opening sequence.
The sequence begins with the protagonist, Mima, nervously getting ready to go on stage. She takes a deep breath, and then steps out to roaring applause followed by a dissolve to the main title. From here, things get surprisingly complex. Essentially, what Kon does here is establish the premise of the drama, interspersed with the concert that Mima is currently performing. It begins with a shot of Mima on a train, anxiously singing quietly to herself. Presumably, this happened a while before or after the concert started, but we are seeing it as the concert is happening. In other words, an event that occurred in the past/future is being shown parallel to an event happening in the present. The music, which simply consists of a J-Pop idol song, helps to bridge the gap between these two seemingly unrelated scenes.
Kon’s infamous use of “match cuts” also contributes to the continuity of this sequence. A match cut is simply a cut between two unrelated shots, where a specific action or object links the two. In the case of this cut, Mima is quietly singing to herself on the train, moving her hand nervously to the rhythm of the song as she listens along on earbuds. Kon then immediately cuts to Mima singing on stage, moving to the rhythm of what is implied to be the same song.
Kon uses another match cut later when Mima moves her head to the right, then it cuts to Mima in a supermarket, moving her head to the left. I guess you could call this a “contrasting match cut.” This scene actually helps to set up the stalker and mystery part of the narrative, although the viewer is unaware at this point in the film that the stalker is actually in the supermarket with her. Along with the contrasting match cut, the J-Pop music also cuts out abruptly. This starting and stopping of the music takes the viewer “in” and “out” of the concert scene. In this way, the music is acting as an entrance and exit point, accompanied by the use of match cuts.
Eventually, the film cuts back to the concert using another contrasting match cut. Mima moves towards the camera as the walks out of the supermarket, and then we cut to the concert, where she is moving away from the camera towards the audience (who are holding cameras, ironically). Subsequently, another match cut is used to take us out of the concert using Mima’s forward momentum to carry us to another scene involving the forward momentum of Mima panicking on a bed. Ingeniously, Kon then zooms out to reveal that this is actually a TV screen in a meeting room where Mima’s agent is arguing with a TV producer.
Next we cut back to the concert with a creepy POV shot of the stalker staring at Mima. Right when the lyrics of the song say “The angel of love smiles at you”, it cuts to an even more creepy shot of the stalker’s grinning face. Finally, the concert ends, also bringing end to the opening sequence of Perfect Blue.
Let’s look at what Kon was able to accomplish with this one scene: He showed a performance of an entire song, briefly interrupted by shots of future events which established Mima acting career, her agent and the TV producer’s argument, the stalker, and even foreshadowed a future scene that makes reference to the supermarket. This is indeed a very dense sequence, held together almost entirely by match cuts and music.
Millennium Actress (2001)
Millennium Actress, Satoshi Kon’s sophomore film, tells the story of an actress desperately chasing after a man she loves. Kon uses the drama of the films that the protagonist Chiyoko acts in as a mirror to reflect her actual reality. The film starts in the present when Chiyoko is an older women living a simple life. The opening sequence begins with a scene from a sci-fi film that Chiyoko acted in later in her life, and then the camera zooms out to reveal a man, Genya, watching this film on his TV. He then hits the rewind button, which causes us to briefly see her entire acting career play out in reverse. This sends us into the opening sequence.
For this opening sequence, Kon cuts between key scenes from the movies that Chiyoko acted in when she was younger, and scenes of the aforementioned Genya driving with his parter to meet with Chiyoko in the present for an interview. Throughout this sequence, the viewer actually sees many key scenes that will be featured later on in the film, but because they have been decontextualized, they do not functionally spoil the story. Kon achieves this by using….you guessed it: Match cuts and music.
The first match cut uses an airplane flying over a desolate, war battlefield to cut to a spaceship flying in the same direction in the desolation of space. These are scenes from two of Chiyoko’s films. This forward momentum is then carried further into the next match cut to Genya and his partner who are driving in a car, once again in the same direction.
Genya casually looks out the window at a nearby passing ship. This is used to match cut to Chiyoko riding on a ship, an important transitionary part of her childhood, although the viewer does not know this yet.
Next we cut to Genya waiting in his car as a train passes in front of them. This is used as a match cut to Chiyoko running frantically beside a train, another critical moment from her past.
And finally, the opening sequence comes to a close with a wide establishing shot of the area where the abandoned film studio that Chiyoko used to work now stands, getting ready to be demolished.
Musically, the entirety of this sequence is scored with plucked strings and a dreamlike melody to help accentuate the passage of time, along with a unique use of the human voice, a commonality in the soundtracks to Kon’s films.
In the opening sequence to Millennium Actress, Kon does an impeccable job of quickly and efficiently bringing the viewer through a variety of key moments from Chiyoko’s past, while also making us aware of what is occurring in the present. This sets up the film nicely so that he can spend the remaining 90 minutes contextualizing everything that he showed us during the opening scene.
Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
Tokyo Godfathers is about three homeless people who find an abandoned baby in the street of Tokyo on Christmas Eve. They make it their goal to find the mother and return the baby. It is a somewhat bizarre tale, an interesting mixture of drama and comedy. The opening sequence begins with one of the homeless guys boldly declaring that the baby is a “Christmas present from God!” and that “She’s our baby!” to the shock of the other two characters, followed by a truck wheeling in the main title. Next, the camera pans around the city, focusing in on various signs and billboards which display the staff credits as opposed to the usual advertisements. This simultaneously introduces us to the locale, and the staff. The music is an upbeat, jazzy track with a cool underlying groove.
The camera then continues to pan around, following the three main characters (four?) as they walk around the city with the baby. Soon the opening sequence comes to an end as the three homeless people begin to converse about what they should do.
Even though this opening sequence is comparatively shorter to the previous two, Kon still manages to give us all of the information we need to dive into the film. The characters, the setting, the musical and visual style, and the dilemma, are all established in just a minute or so. Kon is truly a fantastic director who has an uncanny ability to cram an insane amount of development into a very short time frame without relying on dialog.
Paprika, unfortunately Satoshi Kon’s final film due to his untimely death, is by and large his most well known work. Based on a novel of the same name, it tells the story of a women named Atsuko who uses special technology to enter into people’s dreams in an attempt to help them overcome psychological issues. While inside dreams, Atsuko adopts a separate persona named Paprika.
The film opens with Paprika giving a man her business card as she is about to leave, just having finished one of her dream-entering adventures with him. He looks at the back of card, and then flips it over revealing her name and the main title of the film at the same time.
This propels us to one of my personal favorite opening sequences from Satoshi Kon. I just have to mention the music at this point. The music for this scene is simultaneously the most strange, awkward, and super catchy song I have ever heard. This piece, and the soundtrack as a whole, is significant for being the first film score to use a Vocaloid, in this case the Lola sound bank. The music is composed by avant-garde and electronic composer Susumu Hirasawa, who also provided the scores to Millennium Actress and the currently unreleased The Dream Machine, Satoshi Kon’s unfinished film to be released posthumously.
The music and sound design is definitely a highlight of Paprika. This track in particular is difficult to describe in words, but it does a fantastic job of setting a unique, dreamy, somewhat outlandish musical texture for the film. And then of course, there is the cinematography.
The opening scene follows around Paprika as she drives around the city on her moped, making a few stops along the way. Unlike the opening sequences of the previous films, Paprika’s opening does not tell us much about the story or characters. Rather, like the music, it creates an underlying textual and emotional style to be carried throughout the rest of film. It also serves a very important purpose: To highlight the relationship between Atusko and her dream persona, Paprika. At this point, the viewer does not know about this relationship, but by the end of this opening scene, they do.
The fluidity of this opening sequence is quite breathtaking. The rhythmic and repetitive nature of the music definitely contributes to this fluidity, but it is really the shot composition that keeps things moving smoothly. The sequence begins with Paprika flying down the highway on her moped. She passes a truck, and there is caricature of her on the side of it. This caricature jumps off the truck and soars through the air. Next we see Paprika inside of an advertisement on a billboard, and then she moves from one billboard to another seamlessly.
In a way, these billboards are kind of like a screen projecting Paprika. This aids in moving to the next cut, my personal favorite, of Paprika inside of a computer screen. She then moves outside of the confines of the screen and appears in the real world.
Paprika leaps out of the office, down the hallway, and outside. She is now visibly transparent, so if the viewer has somehow not figured it out already, Paprika is not actually real. After all, she is just the dream persona of Atsuko, although the viewer has not seen Atsuko yet. Subsequently, there are some cool time-bending shots, followed by this awesome shot of Paprika in a restaurant. Some guys approach and start flirting with her. She remains composed as she speaks with them, but the nearby reflective surface shows her actual inner emotions with a face of disgust.
Next is an odd cut that moves into the next shot by zooming through a man’s t-shirt, followed by a cut to Paprika on the highway again with her moped.
A car passes in front her, obscuring her from view, and then in the consequent cut, she is driving the car. I have to admit, I did not notice this cut until I started analyzing it while writing this paragraph, so my mind is currently being blown.
A car passes by, once again obscuring her from view, and then bam: Atsuko is driving the car.
This reveals to the viewer that Atsuko and Paprika are somehow related, although they do not know all of the details. At this point, the entire purpose of this opening sequence has been accomplished: Introduce the setting, the style, and most importantly, show (don’t tell!) how Atsuko and Paprika are related to one another.
Satoshi Kon is a genius.
Satoshi Kon proves that cinematography is an extremely potent and emotional facet of a film. Even if a scene has good dialog, humor, action, pacing, or music and sound design, one of the primary aspects of film that separates it from other mediums is the visual aspect. There are a lot of things that contribute to the visual aesthetics of a film, but cinematography is arguably one of the most important, and Satoshi Kon’s cinematography in particular is quite beautiful.