The Classic Dark Anime That Inspired Darren Aronofsky

The death of Satoshi Kon in 2010 from pancreatic cancer at age 46 robbed the world of the chance to catch up with his artistry. In the early 2000s, anime already had die-hard devotees in America, but the art form started to gain traction outside of that fanbase with Disney's advocacy of Hayao Miyazaki's family-friendly films. Kon's madcap fantasias couldn't be marketed the same way, since they dealt with adult subjects and collapsed Japanese history and film history into each other to surreal effect. 

Kon's first feature film was 1997's "Perfect Blue," the story of a pop singer who announces that she's giving up music for an acting career and takes a role on a TV crime series. A violent stalker who wants her to stay in pop starts murdering people around her, and the stress gives her hallucinations involving her character from the show. The theme of characters being haunted by sinister versions of themselves stretches back at least to the literature of the 19th century, but Kon applies it to a specifically Japanese cultural context, using it to comment caustically on the boxes in which both J-pop and TV dramas can trap women.

Ambitious Western filmmakers have picked up Kon's sophisticated handling of themes and psychedelic visuals as grist for their stories — perhaps none more so than Darren Aronofsky.

Through a Glass, Darkly

Aronofsky denied using "Perfect Blue" as inspiration for his 2010 Oscar-winning horror film "Black Swan," but this comes off as highly disingenuous when you consider that he reportedly purchased remake rights for Kon's film so that he could reference specific shots in "Requiem for a Dream." Aronofsky not only uses mirrors in a manner similar to Kon's, he also details how the sexist pressures of the entertainment industry (here represented by a New York ballet company) ravages the body and the mind of the woman at the center of his story. Even the names of the protagonists are similar, with Mima of "Perfect Blue" becoming Nina in "Black Swan." The film's quotient of body horror is a prominent feature in plenty of anime in general and not just Kon's films, but having it play out in live action with Natalie Portman's performance makes "Black Swan" a potent work.

Images of beautiful young women serve as currency in entertainment industries all over the world, and when you happen to be one of those beautiful young women, that can't help but alienate you from the likeness of yourself. Satoshi Kon and Darren Aronofsky (and later Edgar Wright in 2021's "Last Night in Soho") examined how that alienation and the dislocation of portraying a character who is different from oneself can crack the door open for mental disorders and the loss of one's own identity. The line between fantasy and reality becomes frighteningly permeable in not just "Perfect Blue" and "Black Swan," but in Kon's "Paprika" and Aronofsky's "π" and "Requiem for a Dream," and it's what imbues these movies with such nightmarish power.