When it comes to modern anime cinema, Satoshi Kon is the man to beat.
With classics like Paprika and Perfect Blue under his belt by the mid-2000s, his psychedelic, deeply unsettling animated worlds were rightly considered some of the most impressive and internationally impactful of the entire industry. He was halfway through the production of his latest movie, Dreaming Machine, when he died after a short bout of pancreatic cancer, and I’m still genuinely gutted that he’s not around to keep making his utterly singular movies long into his career. I came to his work relatively recently, after his death, and his cinematic legacy is still an extraordinary thing to behold: if you’ve yet to explore his movies, they’re an absolutely unique experience, deservedly iconic in their trippy, unsettling strangeness.
Dreaming Machine, especially, seemed like a really interesting endeavour for Kon – he pitched it as a “fantasy-adventure targeted at younger audiences”, the first of his movies that would be explicitly appropriate for audiences not of able-to-access-adult-therapy-classes-required-to-cope-with-his-films age. Though not much is known about the plot, Kon also revealed that the movie would have no human characters, and instead would follow three robots, Ririco, Robin, and King, on what he described as a kind of robot road-trip.
Dreaming Machine was Kon’s follow-up to perhaps his best internationally-known movie, Paprika, and the title alone seemed to tie it in to at least some of the same themes that he covered in that neo-noir-ish sci-fi classic. The storyboard and script had been completed at the time of Kon’s sudden, tragic demise, and one of his final requests to Mayoa Maruyama, the director of the Madhouse animation studios where Kon’s talent had been fostered over the course of the preceding two decades, was to ensure that the film was finished. In a blog post published shortly after his death, Kon expressed his fear that the movie would remain unfinished: “When I told Maruyama-san about my concerns about Dreaming Machine, he just said, “Don’t worry. We’ll figure out something, so don’t worry”…I wept. I wept uncontrollably.”.
Kon also admitted in that blog post, which is a genuinely heartbreaking but also deeply heartfelt read about a man, his art, and his life in the face of death, that his singular vision might have left the staff he worked with unable to carry out exactly what he had imagined. So much of the movie had existed with him, in him, that he was concerned that it might never take shape outside of him.
And, with the community and the studio left reeling after Kon’s death, Maruyama seemed set that he wouldn’t let that happen. In early 2011, a few months after Kon’s passing, Maruyama revealed that the movie had been put on hold due to financial difficulties, but that he still intended to get Dreaming Machine made and released within five years. Susuma Hirasawa, the musician from whose song the movie had taken its name and whose work had been a huge influence on Kon’s own cinema, released a new version of Dreaming Machine, recorded just weeks prior to Kon’s death. The composer also spoke of his dedication to the unfinished film – “we must carry out his dying request, to complete this work, even without a director to question”. Everyone wanted to see Dreaming Machine brought to life, a passion project and final tribute to the absurdly brilliant Kon and his art.
But the issue became finding someone who could live up to Satoshi Kon’s iconic reputation. Kenji Isoto, one of the leads working on the film, revealed in 2014 that he was taking a break from Dreaming Machine to work on another project, and shortly after Kon’s death, Muruyama left Madhouse to start MAPPA, another production company. The five-year anniversary of his passing came and went, and, due to a myriad of financial difficulties, Dreaming Machine remained unfinished.
But it wasn’t just the money that was an issue for Dreaming Machine – Muruyama spoke in 2016 about the state of the film’s production, and revealed that he had come to the decision not to pass off his storyboards and the work on the film so far to another director; “Dreaming Machine should be Kon’s movie, him and only him, not someone else’s. That means we cannot and should not “compromise” only to finish it. I spent years, finally reached this hard conclusion”.
It’s honestly a decision that I understand. Kon’s work was so utterly singular and unique that to ask someone to pick up where he left off seems almost cruel. The pressure of completing Kon’s last film, despite his commitment to seeing it made, is something that I can’t imagine any director wanting to take on – what if you messed it up? What if the film, that already sounded quite different to Kon’s other work, just didn’t match up to his oeuvre? While it’s deeply sad to think that Kon didn’t get to see this last wish fulfilled, in some ways, releasing Dreaming Machine feels like, to me, an end to his work, and, selfishly, I’d prefer to leave it open a little longer.
Though the studio has not ruled out the possiblity of a director picking up the movie in future, at the moment, Dreaming Machine stays as it is – unfinished, but Kon’s. His art was so unique and utterly his that, in some ways, it feels right that Dreaming Machine remains Kon’s work, even if it never fully sees the light of day.
A few completed scenes from Dreaming Machine are set to appear in a French documentary about Satoshi Kon’s life and influence on the industry, though I couldn’t for the life of me find a release date, and a handful of promotional stills from 2009 hint towards the movie’s robot protagonists against another one of Kon’s hyper-detailed sci-fi backdrops. In an excellent interview with Dazed, Maruyama admitted that Dreaming Machine had been “frozen in time”; a time before Kon’s loss, a time when he was still the venerated, vital creative force in the animation and movie industry that he should have rightly been for decades to come.
But maybe that’s not fair. Kon is still that force in the industry, even ten years after his death, and it’s hard to imagine that he ever won’t be. His impact on anime, on animation, on cinema at large really can’t be understated. And more than that, it was what gave him joy when he was alive – in his final blog post, he said simply that “Satoshi Kon was happy as an animation director”, and I think that passion, that joy comes through in all of his work, his detail-orientated brilliance, not a metaphorical animated hair out of place. Released or not, Dreaming Machine is surely an extension of that joy that he brought to his movies.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Little White Lies)