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An In-Kon-venient Truth

Back in 2010 the anime world was left reeling by the shock death of director Satoshi Kon. Posthumous plaudits poured in for the celebrated auteur whose filmography demonstrated real quality over quantity, and who sadly died with his final film unfinished.

Kon was one of a handful of truly visionary directors who could command full control over the projects they direct, his success allowing him the freedom to create some truly unique and influential films. He had reached the point where he could be mentioned in the same breath as Hayao Miyazaki, Katsuhiro Otomo and Mamoru Oshii, and during his long career he worked with both Otomo and Oshii on the likes of Akira, Patlabor 2 and Memories.

Aside from being a hugely talented filmmaker and artist, Kon had the rare ability to transcend anime fandom and appeal to the mainstream, creating critically acclaimed works that graced international film festivals and influenced Hollywood. He legitimised anime, proving to the general public that a complex and intelligent story was possible in the animated medium. All of which makes Manga Entertainment's recent tweet all the more depressing.

Last week Manga rep Jerome Mazandarani tweeted in response to user query about their loss of the rights to Kon's debut film Perfect Blue. Brushing aside a bizarre suggestion that it had something to do with Darren Aronofsky's ballet film The Black Swan, Jerome stated "We did not renew the license. Kon's films don't sell. It's sad but true. We have finite resources for acquisitions and it is a new release driven business."

It's a real shock to hear that Kon's films, often regarded amongst the best anime has to offer, don't sell, but it does appear to be borne out by the distributor's actions. Both of the Kon films previously licensed by Manga - Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress - have not had their licenses renewed, and those licensed by Sony - Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika and the compilation film Memories - are either unavailable or on sale for budget prices. Only one of Kon's films is available on Blu-Ray here (Paprika), whilst his TV series Paranoia Agent - released by MVM - is the only part of his work still actively licensed.

You can't blame the distributors for their past actions, they licensed the films, put them out there and appear to have seen modest returns on their investment. But the fact that they appear to have given up on them shows how far the industry has dropped its sights since before the financial crash. Back when these films were licensed there was a genuine desire to promote anime to the general public, to widen its appeal beyond a niche audience, and films like Kon's were at the forefront of that push. Now I don't see that. I understand times are tight and several companies have exited the market or significantly reduced their output due to financial strains, but that ambition to grow awareness and acceptance of anime has gone.

Companies seem content to sit on their laurels and focus on the audience they have, older titles are sidelined in favour of the next big Shonen Jump series and the releases we see here become increasingly homogenised. Jerome later tweeted in response to queries about award submissions 'do we want every man and his dog to dig anime anyway?', and whilst he admitted himself he was playing devil's advocate in the discussion my answer would be yes, I do want every man and his dog to dig anime. Awareness is the lifeblood of the medium, increased awareness and acceptance leads to increased sales and increased funding for future titles. Looking for sales within an increasingly isolated fan community stilts growth and innovation, as companies try to appeal to the perceived tastes of a small market and what it is certain to buy. Sometimes you have to take a risk and push something you think is good in order to reap the rewards, Perfect Blue was one of the first releases Manga brought to DVD and was briefly amongst their flagship titles. It's an excellent film that deserves to come to Blu-Ray, even if it needs some promotion through other releases. If not Manga, then maybe Studio Canal (formerly Optimum Releasing) could give it a go - it fits their anime release ethos of concentrating on high quality films.

I know it is somewhat daft to expect companies to push titles that don't sell during a recession, but we are drifting away from a situation where anime was beginnning to be seriously discussed by critics and known by the public, to a situation where Studio Ghibli films stand alone in the public consciousness. Kon's films provided a complex, adult counterpoint to Ghibli's family-orientated fare, and provided a better gateway into anime as a whole. Like Akira in the early 90's, Satoshi Kon's films show a dark and original brand of storytelling that is unlike anything the West can normally offer. They intrigue, excite and confuse, messing with your head and making you want to see more, and for that reason they're important to anime in the UK. If the fandom is to grow it needs titles that can appeal to - or pique the interest of - a wider audience, and offer something original. Kon may sadly be gone, but his films are not and they remain one of the best adverts for anime that we have. They are worth pushing.

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