In his lifetime, Japanese animator Satoshi Kon directed 4 feature films, with a fifth titled Dreaming Machine indefinitely on hold due to his untimely death in 2010. While Kon initially started working as a manga artist, it was evident even in those early days which direction his work was headed in. Currently, Kon is considered to be an anime auteur because of his recognizable style that has influenced numerous filmmakers. What sets apart Kon from his peers in the anime community is the stories he chooses to tell. The four films leading up to Dreaming Machine all tackled similar themes concerning characters lives – past vs. present, online vs. offline and dream vs. real. Many of them struggle with identity issues, usually due to a merge of two personas that is often shown as an unsettling experience. Using these characters Kon has heavily integrated social commentary into his films, whether with the intention to warn against the dangers of fantasy or to emphasize the importance of love and perseverance. Even if this is the first time you are reading the name Satoshi Kon and you haven’t seen a single one of his films, you might be familiar with his style in a different way.
If you haven’t seen Perfect Blue, maybe you’ve seen Black Swan. Darren Aronofsky has openly acknowledged Satoshi Kon’s influence on his works, although it is arguable if it can be called just influence.
Many have argued that Aronofsky’s Black Swan, though a new take on the classic story, seems strikingly similar to Kon’s Perfect Blue, to the point where the two leads Nina and Mima even have similar names. It would be hard to argue that this take on the Black Swan is entirely derived from Kon’s film particularly because of the animator’s emphasis on the setting where his stories take place, which is usually Japan. Culturally, the two stories are far apart because of the differing attitudes of the people around the main characters. While Mima finds herself in danger from obsessive fans who idolize her and producers who envy her alike, Nina is the only one who poses any danger to the people around her because of the delusions she’s facing. However, the sexualization of these two women is tackled quite similarly – both for Mima and Nina the act they seem to dread leads to success since they get the roles they want and the question remains whether it was worth the cost.
Ultimately, the most striking similarity lies in the scenes where Mima and Nina are followed by a doppelgänger, which is the cause of their eventual breakdowns. Unlike Nina, Mima’s paranoia is not completely delusional and can be partly justified since there are disruptions in her life which serve as evidence of real danger caused by her doppelgänger as well as people around her who mean to harm her, while the danger in Nina’s life seems to be confined to her delusions. In the end the use of a mirror as a weapon is once again quite similar in the two films, but where Mima does not actively try to kill her lookalike, Nina aggressively attacks it, leading to very different outcomes.
While it is clear Aronofsky was more than a little inspired by the works of Satoshi Kon, he never hid from his admiration and even wrote an obituary for the late artist who inspired him, emphasizing the importance and impact of his work. The same cannot be said for Christopher Nolan, who so clearly was influenced by Kon’s final film Paprika yet has never admitted to it. If you haven’t seen Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, surely you’ve at least heard about Inception.
The stories essentially share the same idea, there is a new technology allowing people to go into others dreams. Even the two main characters of Inception Dom and Ariadne resemble Konakawa and Paprika, the main difference being that Inception centers around its male characters while Paprika doesn’t. Once again, changing the setting to be in America rather than Japan changes much of the story, and certainly having the use of the device be for selfish reasons rather than for the aid of others separates the two films greatly. Still, it is undeniable that certain scenes are too similar for it to be mere coincidence.
Ultimately, the question of theft and originality is a strange one. While many say that no story is truly original, is there really a right way to use other peoples work to create something new? It is a particularly tough question when considering how many adaptations are made to bring stories from the East to a Western audience, resulting in a type of movie surgery which if not done correctly can lead to a grotesque creation. However, it is worth mentioning that most adaptations come with good intentions, the most common reasons usually being a director wanting to share their favorite works with an audience that might be reluctant to watch foreign films. There is an argument to be made that audiences deserve more credit than Hollywood gives them, and that they might be glad to get acquainted with the original work if it were more available. However, it is still a fact that modern society holds on to some stigma towards older or foreign films, so no matter the amount of marketing involved an anime like Paprika would have never preformed as well as Inception with its all star cast. On the other hand, Kon and his peers are not exempt from influence as many popular Eastern movies are adaptations of Western stories, such as Ozu’s Tokyo Story which takes after Make Way For Tomorrow. In the end it seems like influence is inescapable. It goes without saying that Black Swan and Inception are not bad films, they are both great works, but in the case of the latter, it is not the influence that is the problem but the lack of acknowledgement and credit where credit is due.