Tropic of the Sea
Created by: Satoshi Kon
Published by: Vertical
ISBN: 1939130069 (Amazon)
Somewhere in the region of the turn of the millennium, I encountered Satoshi Kon for the first time. I want to say it was 1999, but I may be off a year or so. It was during a period of time when I was reckless with money and would buy dvds by the fistful when lonely. Amidst all the Criterion editions of movies I sometimes didn’t even like, I also spent a bit of time browsing through Suncoast’s and Tower Records’ anime sections. I wasn’t yet an anime fan, but I was intrigued. And so, Perfect Blue caught my eye and with its cover blurb referencing amalgamation of Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock, I was sold. I wasn’t overly enamoured with either director, but I nursed at the time deep pretensions of film-crit aspirations, so I thought this was something I ought to take an interest in. Due diligence and all that. I was in my twenties and pretty lame.
As it turned out, it would take me later viewings to come to appreciate Perfect Blue. I initially approached it merely as psychological thriller, entertaining so far as it went, but ultimately hollow. Again, I was young. Apparently though, the film crawled deep enough into my mind that when his next film, Millennium Actress, reached the U.S., I was there to snap up a copy right away. And then the same with Tokyo Godfathers and Paranoia Agent. As well, I counted myself lucky enough to catch Paprika a couple times in theaters. A small part of me was ruined when word arrived of his passing. He was young, not yet forty-seven. That’s me in six years. One of the most talented and prodigious and interesting animated filmmakers, removed from the game before ever arriving to the zenith of his potential. I doubt there will be many deaths of creators that will stay with me so strongly.
Kon had something going on in his films that was delicious. His art was top-notch of course, but I found the greatest pleasure in letting his stories wash over me. He had a kind of thematic interest that resonated with my own, even if he wasn’t anything like my mirror. Throughout his decade-long burst of animated works, we see Satoshi Kon intimately concerned with the nature of reality and the question of identity. And in Tropic of the Sea, first published in 1990, we find prototypical presence of both concerns.
Reality notably bends and twists and absconds with itself in Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Paprika, Paranoia Agent, and the “Magnetic Rose” segment of Memories. It becomes intentionally impossible for both characters and audience to sensibly walk the borderlands between dream and memory and the life as lived. It would not be hard to see Kon advocating for an existence that sits beyond or alongside the empirical—that perhaps to see the world wholly in terms that can be seen, measured, and tested is less an embrace of reality than the normative paradigm would dictate. Perhaps Kon’s works are meant to clammer somewhat for revolution. Not for something so base as political change but for something more sweeping: a means of understanding our world in terms of swirling mystery and worlds between and imagined experiences that inform reality behind our backs. To we of the rational expectation, we of the scientific rigour, we who demand evidence for belief, it all sounds a bit loosey-goosey—but Kon, for whatever he wanted to convey, was aware of how wacky his worlds would seem. He largely lets them unfold without comment but will occasionally drop clues that he has met our skepticism and that our skepticism doesn’t matter. Because in his worlds, skepticism is the bastion of the foolish.
And yet in my world, I am built of skepticism and cynicism. Raised in a world of dogmatic beliefs (American nationalism, non-denominational Protestantism, capitalism, a Left Behind-style eschatology, and a decided cultural segregation between sacred and secular), I found myself in my brief history since adulthood at several points of contention between what I perceived as rational and what was possibly—at best—wishful thinking. I am, for as much as I believe in some things, deeply cynical and critical of most everything (even things I still believe). I’ve been wrong too many times for dogmatism. And for good or ill, I’ve been wrong too many times not to approach every last thing in life without a measure of skepticism. My identity—my personal understanding of who I am and what I’m for—is in constant flux.
And again, as a reminder, Satoshi Kon’s works are all, every one, concerned with the question of identity. Perfect Blue says so outright on its marketing, grabbing hold of Mima’s question, asked and answered in the film, “Excuse me. Who are you?” Kon presents a woman whose career decisions may or may not be at odds with who she really is—or perhaps she will become who her career decisions demand. Millennium Actress explores the Vonnegutian maxim that we should be careful who we pretend to be because we are who we pretend to be, only without the ominous overtones. Tokyo Godfathers wonders at the reality of three of the homeless, questioning whether they are vagabonds or kings, and challenges both character and viewer to better grapple with the meaning of each. Paranoia Agent concerns a community whose identity is an ethical-social torpor forged of a post-war sluffing off of responsibility. In each of these Kon attempts to let his characters divine the truth of their own existences. He pushes people to self-evaluate in a world where dream and mystery collide and perhaps allows the self-inspecting person to finally stop from seeing through a glass darkly. It seems that Kon felt that dream-blurred reality was essential to the acquisition of true self-sight.11And I suspect that had he lived, we would have seen more of the same from his on-the-nose titled Dreaming Machines. Alas for our loss.
And these themes are nascently present in Tropic of the Sea. In this older work Kon only lightly treats the infringement on reality by the mysterious, but it’s still present and essential to the foremost question of the protagonist’s identity. Yosuke is the hesitatingly apostate son of a family of mermaid priests. Yosuke’s grandfather is a true believer, though he has passed his priestly duties on to his son. Yosuke’s father has never believed but, as may happen, an additional trauma turned his faithlessness into a light kind of antagonism. Yosuke struggles to make sense of strange dreams or visions or memories that may validate his grandfather’s faithfulness. He feels himself agnostic, but the intrusion of the unexpected may prove his unbelief inadequate.
Tropic of the Sea is more forthright in its use of the uncanny, making the supernatural impossible to deny—by tale’s end,22Or…TAIL’s END!! Ar ar ar. Sigh. none of the characters remain skeptical. That’s a little bit too bad and Kon will happily play cards closer to vest in the future, but the story’s still engaging and stands well as a solid mermaid story. In fact, though originally published in 1990 (amusing counterpoint to Disney’s neutered, feckless Little Mermaid), Tropic of the Sea's US publication in 2013 marks a bit of serendipity. Kon’s mermaid, though substantially different in realization, rides similar cultural waves as last year’s beautifully wicked Sailor Twain. Mermaids in Tropic have priests that honour them daily because they are dangerous. They don’t sing about life above the waves. They don’t play and frolic. They are demigods and their involvement in the world can be a joy or terror. Sailor Twain's South was a beauty capable of great horror, but Tropic's mermaid is a horror capable of great beauty. It’s rather nice to see these powerful, non-pacified visions of the mythic see light once more.
Kon’s art here is interesting, a cross somewhat between his later animation style and the over-detailed charm of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. I’m not sure how deeply indebted Kon is to Otomo for his technique in these early efforts, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the influence was heavy. Tropic's character art (shadowing, line dynamic, etc.) could have been drawn by Otomo himself but for one distinction: Kon’s figures aren’t so stumpy as Otomo’s. In Akira, Domu, and Mother Sarah, everyone looks a little squashed. It’s a part of Otomo’s signature and that’s fine. But when we see the proportions of Kon’s characters (in terms of limb and torso length), it becomes apparent how much more natural Otomo’s characters could have appeared. I’d be interested to see how Kon would have drawn a manga circa 2005 to see if his style truly changed or if the simplicity of his anime works was merely due the limitations and requirements of the medium.
Tropic of the Sea, while especially delectable for fans of Satoshi Kon, is still entirely worthwhile as a standalone fable of science vs supernature, of technology vs the unknown. It’s fascinating to see Kon’s favourite themes in evidence even in this early work and I’m grateful that Vertical took the initiative to bring this to English publication at last. Kon is one of our era’s creative treasures and any chance to see his hand at play is a fantastic opportunity. I was glad not to miss it.
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