This is a series of articles discussing themes present in anime director Satoshi Kon’s works. Kon was an auteur with a unique sense of style, time and reality. Here, I will be discussing how Tom Ford’s 2016 film, Nocturnal Animals, exhibits strong thematic and visual connections to Satoshi Kon’s oeuvre, namely Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. This piece contains full spoilers of Nocturnal Animals and Perfect Blue.
Kon’s Blurred Reality
Threading Satoshi Kon films with modern Hollywood movies is not a common connection. Kon’s style usually exists in its own unique place in cinema history. It is best described in the video, Satoshi Kon – Editing Time and Space, as:
How modern people cope with living multiple lives: private-public, off screen-on screen, waking-dreaming… a blurring of reality and fantasy… his most notable habit was matching scene transitions. (Every Frame a Painting)
Kon’s mastery of creating stories is seen through his seamless transitions between memory, fantasy, and reality. The best example of this technique is the film Millennium Actress, which weaves the story of a legendary actress by having her past film roles mirror her personal life. With Kon’s editing, the audience is never positive what reality is being portrayed on screen: the actress’s films or her personal life.
Kon’s first film, Perfect Blue, uses a similar blurred reality story structure. In this, Mima, a pop star turned actress, suffers a psychological breakdown as she slowly loses the distinction between the television screens in which she performs and her private life. After leaving her pop career, her life becomes a waking nightmare spurred by a deranged stalker, Me-Mania, and her clingy manager, Rumi.
In this post, I will compare the cinematic narrative techniques and style between the 2016 film Nocturnal Animals and Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue.
Nocturnal Animals: A Tale of Parallel Plots
Nocturnal Animals is a 2016 thriller directed by Tom Ford about an art gallery owner named Susan (Amy Adams) who begins to feel disenchanted about her life and work. When her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gylleenhaal), sends Susan the manuscript of his first novel (called Nocturnal Animals), she soon discovers that the book’s plot speaks to the pain Susan caused Edward through her dismissal of his passions and her ultimate abortion of their child.
The plot of Edward’s novel follows a family man named Tony and his hunt for the men who killed his wife and daughter. Tony, like Edward, is a sensitive man trying to come to terms with a sudden, grieving loss in his life.
Edward and Tony’s similarities are no coincidence. In one of Susan’s flashbacks to her relationship with Edward, Edward asks Susan to read one of his writing samples and asks for feedback. Not understanding Edward’s writing or creative endeavors, Susan scornfully tells him to write protagonists unlike himself. Edward responds that all authors only write about themselves. Here it becomes clear to Susan that Tony is fully and wholly Edward. This is further reinforced by the fact that both Edward and Tony are played by Jake Gylleenhaal.
Noctunral Animals: A Kon-esque Film
Just like in Perfect Blue, Nocturnal Animals is told through the protagonists’ memories and delusions. This is especially clear as Susan experiences flashbacks to key moments in her relationship with Edward which relate to both their blossoming and destruction. Just as Perfect Blue is told through Mima’s delusions and anxieties, Nocturnal Animals’ visual and emotional core is presented through Susan’s increasingly diminished psychological mental state. Although Susan’s mental fragility is not as prevalent early on, it becomes clear as the film wears on.
For example, after she reads the devastating murder scene of Tony’s wife and daughter, Susan calls her presumably college-aged “daughter” and tells her she loves her. This scene feels completely real and is presented as so until it is revealed that Susan aborted her and Edward’s only child. It is possible that Susan had a child with another man, but this “daughter” is never mentioned again in the film. What further supports the theory that Susan’s call is a delusion is the mirrored cinematography between her “daughter” and Tony’s daughter; they both lie in the same position when showed on screen.
Susan’s breakdown becomes clear when she watches a video of her co-workers’ infant on her phone and sees a demon screeching at her. Similarly, Mima’s breakdown becomes clear when her posters in her apartment start talking to her and accusing her of not being the real Mima.
A New Visual Narrative
Although the original novel which Nocturnal Animals was based upon was released in 1993, four years before Perfect Blue, Nocturnal Animals‘ filming techniques recall Satoshi Kon’s style, namely the idea of blurred reality: the seamless transitions between reality and memory, dream, or fantasy.
The blurred reality trick that Nocturnal Animals accomplishes lies in presenting three parallel stories: the fictitious (Edward’s novel), the memory (Susan’s flashbacks to her relationship with Edward), and the reality (Susan’s current life of past regrets and present hallucinations), which end up being one in the same. Or another way to phrase it, the stories are self-contained but congruent.
In any given moment of Nocturnal Animals, the scene could shift from any of these three stories and feel like one larger story. A strong example can be seen when Tony is crying in a hotel bathtub after losing his family, and the next shot is Susan crying on her bed. Susan realizes the hurt that she has caused Edward, knowing well that Tony’s pain represents Edward’s emotional state. In essence, Susan’s abortion of their child inspired the murder of Tony’s family in Edward’s novel.
In another scene, Susan is sitting on her couch watching the fireplace when she reaches down to pick something up, only to find herself transported to the moment when she first meets her current boyfriend. In one swift movement, the editing in this scene switches from reality to memory, which contributes to the larger narrative of the film. This editing style is certainly Kon-esque.
You are Weak: Nocturnal Animals‘ Core
In Nocturnal Animals, moments of repeated dialogue connects each parallel story (this technique is also prevalent in Perfect Blue, which I will touch upon later). This begins with a flashback in which Susan’s mother dismisses Edward as weak. Later, in another flashback, Susan asks why Edward can’t pursue a stable, realistic job, instead of hoping to make it as an author. This eventually culminates to their breakup, in which Edward accuses Susan of thinking him to be weak. With his words, Susan realizes she has adapted her mother’s viewpoint.
At the film’s climax, Edward’s “weakness” takes a pivotal thematic standoff. In Edward’s novel, Tony holds a gun on his wife and daughter’s murderer, ready to shoot. The killer doubts Tony can kill him and calls him weak. Tony does kill him, but the ensuing struggle leaves him blind. The murderer’s actions and crimes literally and figuratively leave Tony blind, as did Susan’s treatment of Edward lack of belief in him.
Excuse Me, Who Are?: Mima’s Psychosis
Like Nocturnal Animals, there is a spoken phrase in Perfect Blue that bridges the film’s parallel narratives of Mima’s television role and her personal life. “Excuse me, who are you?” is a line that Mima struggles to properly deliver on the set of Double Bind, the new series in which she acts. Once her mental stability spirals out of control, Mima finds herself robotically repeating this line in her life off the set. In one scene, a stranger approaches Mima on the street, and she asks, “Excuse me,who are you?” Mima is paranoid and afraid she is being stalked. The screen zooms out to reveal a production crew filming on set.
“Excuse me, who are you?” defines Mima’s uncertainty of her career change and of her mental health. It is a question she does not know how to answer.
The remainder of the film follows Mima as she increasingly loses her sense of self. She is stalked by a deranged fan and her former manager, Rumi, begins to imitate her, claiming to be the real Mima. After escaping her stalker and committing Rumi to a mental health institution, Mima finally returns to a normal state of mind. After visiting Rumi, the film closes as Mima confidently looks at herself in her car’s front mirror and says, “I’m real,” finally answering the film’s lingering question of “Excuse me, who are you?”
Unlike Mima, Susan’s psychosis is not positively resolved. Early in Nocturnal Animals, Susan supposedly sends an email to Edward praising his writing, and asks to meet to discuss the novel. However, she is never explicitly seen sending the email. Near the end of the film, Susan gets an email notification on her phone from Edward confirming her request to meet.
Nocturnal Animals ends with Susan waiting for Edward at the restaurant, drinking liquor by the glass. Edward never comes. One interpretation is that Susan never sent Edward the initial email. As previously stated, the audience never sees Susan explicitly sending it. To explain the supposed notification she received on her phone, it is important to note that Susan called her “daughter,” who was never born, from the same phone. If that was a hallucination of sorts, then the email notification could very well be the same.
Thematically analyzing the final scene, Susan was the weak one the entire time, not Edward. She never sent the email and more importantly, she did not have the strength to trust the man she loved, a man who followed his creative passions and became a published author.
Both Perfect Blue and Nocturnal Animals use similar narrative structures to tell visual stories that span across the protagonists’ memories and their delusional waking lives. Through seamless transitions exploring their psychologies, both Mima and Susan found something; Mima discovered reality and Susan uncovered her building despair.
Nocturnal Animals is a reminder that modern filmmakers can still harness the cinematic narrative possibilities as Satoshi Kon did. Through a challenging and divisive film, it should be recognized as one of 2016’s best and most contemplative film.