Manga Prefiguring Anime: The Themes of Satoshi Kon’s Work

The following is a guest post from Kory (@ImpassionateK). Kory studies manga at the Mango Mines  for the Fandom Post and Manga In Your Ears. He’s marginally OK at it.

Seven years ago, the world lost a creator whose talents were generational. Satoshi Kon was taken too early as a result of pancreatic cancer sometime after making storyboards for what would be his next film, and what may never be his final film, Dreaming Machine. He wrote a heart-wrenching blog post on his website, chronicling his journey through his illness and listing the regrets he held as a result of it. The sequence reminds me of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (To Live) where the protagonist, Watanabe (played by the incomparable Takashi Shimura) finds out he has stomach cancer and wants to do one last thing for the world after a life of meaningless government work. Satoshi Kon, who touched the lives of millions in Japan and abroad, had certainly done enough to uplift and especially entertain in his short 46 years of life.

Kon is best known for his anime works—“Magnetic Rose,” Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paranoia Agent (which I haven’t seen), and Paprika—but before and during the Perfect Blue years, Kon was making manga. Most of the stories are, to be frank, not as good as his anime creations, but they’re all still worth noting. Four books of his manga were published in English:

  • Dream Fossil, a collection of short stories he did from 1985 to 1989, including his best known short, Toriko (not the food manga)
  • Tropic of the Sea, a strange story about a centuries-long tradition involving eggs and mermaids and blessings
  • Seraphim 266613336 Wings, a yet stranger tale of war, disease, and Christian mythology set in China and co-written with Mamoru Oshii (more on this later)
  • Opus, Kon’s final (and best) manga about a mangaka falling into his own manga world

There are some hints to the themes in Kon’s movies in these manga pages; most notably, an interest in the line between a reality and a fantasy. It was clear very early in Kon’s career that he was interested in worlds that separate two lives (think Perfect Blue and Paprika), as in Dream Fossil’s “Guests,” “Joyful Bell,” and “Toriko.”

The idea of losing your own grasp of reality was first explored in “Joyful Bell,” a story about a man in a failing marriage who finds a lost child that brings him back to realization that there are things worth fighting for. It’s chilling how much can be reframed for both characters by the presence of a child. It’s in “Toriko” where the idea of Perfect Blue really starts to emerge, though in a much different context and formation; there is not yet CHAM! in Kon’s work. “Toriko” is the two chapter coda to Dream Fossil from 1984; the original manuscript is actually lost, so these pages were taken from the Tetsuya Chiba Award Collection, and as such look much worse than the rest of the book. “Toriko” is about an authoritarian world where they send trouble kids away to the all-powerful Center. Without spoiling exactly how it skirts those lines between reality and dream, I will say that there is a cynicism in Kon here that I wouldn’t quite expect from his anime works.

But he also very clearly has a love for the absurd (think Tokyo Godfathers), as shown in Dream Fossil’s “Kidnappers,” “Beyond the Sun,” and Opus. “Kidnappers” is about a kidnapper who has his car, with a child onboard, stolen by a carjacker; the carjacker then becomes a kidnapper trying to return the kid but can’t because he jacked a car. That kind of absurdity is just the right kind of hilarious, like a group of three homeless people finding an abandoned baby. “Beyond the Sun” is about an old lady whose hospital cart goes out of control and eventually ends up destroying a large part of the city and she surfs on it. So Kon has these ridiculous and/or absurd ideas coming out onto the pages of his manga, and I feel as if Kon’s comedy was never truly utilized beyond Tokyo Godfathers.

Opus is roughly one part serious and two parts comedy. It’s about a mangaka, Chikara Nagai, who accidentally falls into his own manga world where he’s revered as god by some and hated for being the same god by others. The way every character in there sees it, he is the god that carries out their lives and that is either a refutation of their own free will or a sign that god has plans for all of them. But since he is in a manga world, one can wander just far enough off the established page to where backgrounds were lazily drawn in and hide between terrible background design and two-dimensional buildings. It’s quite funny.

Both Opus and Seraphim remain unfinished, but Dark Horse added an addendum with notes found from Kon’s files where Nagai comes out of the Opus manga and has a conversation with Kon himself. Kon’s got chops.

Kon’s work with Oshii, Seraphim 266613336 Wings, is his most intriguing, and also most unlike him since all of the writing at the beginning was done by Oshii with Kon doing the drawing. Beginning with chapter 13 until it’s hiatus in chapter 16, Kon and Oshii were credited as co-creators. Kon, who had worked with Oshii prior as a layout supervisor on Patlabor 2, was the veteran this time around, having worked in manga for the previous 10-odd years. He pushed back against Oshii during the process, halting his own work until he received a satisfactory answer, according to their editor at the time, Takashi Watanabe, thus leading to the dual credits. The manga itself is about a disease spreading across the world that turns people into angels, each hallucinating and in some state of trance and having lost every sense of their former selves. Nothing about its themes scream Kon, but they surely scream Oshii. There does seem to be more and more Kon coming out of its pages beginning around chapter 10, but the very idea seems like something straight out of a proverbial Patlabor 4 or something.

With the exception of Opus and a few shorts out of Dream Fossil (“Guests” and “Kidnappers” were probably my favorites), Kon’s manga works don’t quite hold up as well as his anime. But it’s interesting to go back to the beginnings of a man taken too soon from this world, and a shame to imagine what could have been with the range of story ideas he displayed in Dream Fossil.

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