Reviewed by Cassie Jo Ochoa
When you get a documentary that’s about a beloved, deceased figure there are a few expectations in place. A full biography, starting from birth and going until their death, that treats their career track as a central but distinct part of their identity. Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist, which was featured at the Nighstream Film Festival, sets itself apart and keeps the artist himself largely behind a curtain. What audiences get instead is a film that holds each of his works up to the light and lets its impact tell the story, while giving brief glimpses into the director himself. This has its pros and cons, but Satoshi Kon: The Illusionsist serves as both a love letter to a legend and the films he left behind.
The first thing that becomes explicit really quickly is just how short Kon’s career really was in relation to his relatively short life. Four films and a miniseries are really it in terms of output, although Kon did have a career as a manga artist prior to making the leap to animation. Yet as the documentary goes on each work is given a perfect balance of behind the scenes stories and critical examination that emphasizes how significant an impact Kon made on the scene in such a short time. Each talking head is given the time to talk about their relationship to Kon, whether they worked on one of his projects or are simply admirers who saw what his work ultimately culminated in. Time is taken for every single project in a level of depth that doesn’t turn into a summary of each film. It’s mini lessons in why each film works and the themes discussed without holding audiences hands or spoiling the ending. For Kon’s last project, the unfinished Dream Machine, time is spent instead on the plot and what the production would have looked like and ultimately those who know Kon coming to terms with his passing.
Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist is a bit of an anomaly. For people who love his work the major takeaways will be about the man himself, which emphasize more who he was as an artist rather than as a person. For people who have only been exposed to his work through directors who have embraced his vision, it’s a touching examination of his impact on modern films. It’s a deceptively simple film that showcases the scope of Kon’s impact on both anime and live action films without losing focus that the art is what truly mattered. It’s a fitting farewell to an iconic director.