It's hard not to react skeptically to word of the death of a man whose work you love and respect. When word began circulating that Satoshi Kon's death had been reported on Twitter by a colleague, there was shock and dismay. It couldn't be right.
Then Otakon's own staff confirmed it, after talking directly to Masao Maruyama of Madhouse (one of Kon's own colleagues), and the gloom set in for real. The man had only just hit his stride, it seemed. His newest production hadn't even been released in English yet (let alone completed), and there was word circulating he'd been in the middle of yet another project.
There wasn't a production of his that I didn't admire in some way. Perfect Blue was the first time I'd seen someone take conceits from giallo horror productions and apply them to animation — not just the visuals but the pacing, the plot convolutions, the atmosphere of paranoia and dread. Paranoia Agent was episodic TV at its best, further evidence (along with shows like The Wire) that the format has evolved into a storytelling methodology on a par with the novel. Tokyo Godfathers wasn't quite as flat-out visionary as his other work, but I had an affection for it all the same; it showed he could do more with his direction and character designs than just bludgeon you with visual overload.
And then there was Paprika, which more than a few people (me included) believed to be Christopher Nolan's uncredited inspiration for Inception. (It's debatable at best, since the original novel wasn't even translated into English when Nolan started work on his project some eight years back.) Paprika deviated from its source material, but for some of the same reasons Mamoru Oshii broke from the original story for Ghost in the Shell to create his movie: to use it as a launchpad for his own ideas.
What I liked best about Kon was how even his most outré concepts were made accessible and engaging. I liked the way he populated Paprika with his own insights and imagery, far more so than the way Oshii did with Ghost. (You can only see so many basset hounds before you want to reach through the screen and shake Oshii by the shoulders.) Too many artists of substance are inward-looking, revisiting personal obsessions that can only mean so much to an audience. Kon strove to turn his inner mirror always outwards. Andrew Osmond's overview of his work dubbed him "the Illusionist", but like all magicians he understood the best magic trick is the one that lets you see reality all the more clearly. He dazzled you with brilliance, and not because he was also trying to baffle you with you-know-what.
It will be strange to see his last work in this light, and to ruminate on what else could have been. If nothing else, I hope his passing encourages that many more people — not just anime fans, but moviegoers, anyone interested in visionary art generally — to revisit his work, and to continue down the road he had been building.