Review: The Art of Satoshi Kon

The Art of Satoshi Kon is a lovely and unique companion to any collection of Kon's animated works. Let me start this off with the most boneheaded thing I have to say: I'm no art critic.  I don't really care that much about art qua art and I've never offered what I thought was a meaningful, reliable interpretation of a painting in my life.  I have far more interest (and ability) in dissecting the formal qualities of things with more... motion; things that have narrative structure.  And it is the genius of Kon's work with visual narratives in film that has made him one of my favorite creators.  My interest in this art book is because of how much I love his work overall.

If you asked me what made Satoshi Kon great, I would never point you towards an art book, nor would I point you towards his manga (at least not first off).  I would point out how he shored up his consistently surrealistic style by masterfully deploying simple but underutilized film techniques.  In his manga work, particularly OPUS, Kon builds just enough normalcies into his world to give the surrealistic high points of his story a little extra oomph.  But because both of these mediums showcase Kon's talents specifically because of their narrative structures, I expected to find very little illuminating about his art book.

The Art of Satoshi KonInstead, what I found was a charming and almost unwitting guide, narrated by Kon himself, to a visual style that acts as the foundation of his higher-level narrative flourishes.

The thing is, though Kon's strongest ability is manipulating sequential visual narratives--both static and moving--to heighten surrealism, these narratives themselves are not playing out in a normal world.  These are worlds where the lines are often literally blurred between fact and fiction.  So, it's not enough that he is able to present the events of this world as unfolding in an idiosyncratic way; rather, the world itself must be fuzzy around the edges, comprised of weird little bits that fluctuate between hiding in the shadows and making themselves far too familiar.

Much of Kon's ability to build a weird but familiar world visually is on display in familiar promotional images from all of his films.  These are welcome and necessary, but really only add to his corpus by being accompanied by Kon's own words about them in the appendix.  What are far more interesting are the glimpses at the concept art that Kon worked on, some which Kon himself points out pre-date any official work on the title itself.  One portrait pre-dating Millennium Actress shows Chiyoko as a young woman with a background consisting of dated wallpaper and the iconic key from the film simply hanging on her neck.

But of course, one of the reasons the concept art is so powerful is because it displays Kon's singular vision for his films.  I swear that someone familiar with Kon's work could look at this portrait of Chiyoko and feel many of the same things that the film itself elicits from its viewers.  I am similarly taken by his proposal art for Paranoia Agent.  What are more indicative of who Kon was as an artist at a very basic level are the original works towards the back of the book which tell their own story, as well as the few glimpses of concept art for works which will likely never be released.  These works are accompanied by nothing, but display the same kind of blurry-but-distinct visual surrealism that Kon was so talented at putting in motion.

To study Kon, watch his films and his shows.  To peer deeper into his style and see his raw talent, read his work on manga.  To understand a little bit extra about how Kon saw the world--or at least, his world--this book is a welcome addition.

Score: 4/5

The Art of Satoshi Kon Artist: Satoshi Kon Publisher: Dark Horse Comics Price: $29.99 Release Date: 8/5/15 Format: Art Book, Hardcover; Print