After a day of dreadful speculation, it has been confirmed that prolific anime director Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress, Paprika, and others) has passed away: the cause of death was pancreatic cancer. Kon was 47.
The title of this post is not hyperbole: I'm not in the business of weighing human lives against each other, but I cannot think of a single person alive in the Japanese animation industry who would have been a greater loss than Mr. Kon. After a long career and a decade in the director's seat of some incredible, reality-bending films, Kon was still in his prime. The man showed no signs of losing his touch; there could have been so many movies ahead of him. Indeed, it remains to be seen what will become of his final project, The Dreaming Machine.
What's also sad is that Kon was the brightest star of a dying breed. There aren't very many people left making big-ticket, mainstream animated films in Japan anymore: established bigshots like Mamoru Oshii and Studio Ghibli (whose work has been in a noticeable decline) appear bored with their jobs. People are whispering in worried tones about what's up with Kon's employers at Madhouse, and those guys just said that Redline (a pet project that, while spectacular, isn't expected to be very popular) was likely to be the last fully 2D film of its caliber ever made. There aren't a lot of people left with the resources or the will to make movies like this.
I'm talking about creators who can afford to work outside the "otaku anime" lines. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't be here if I didn't love my otaku stuff, but you can't get by on the same thing over and over again. We've seen the Japanese animation industry begin to swallow itself over the course of the last decade.
Despite no shortage of interest, the US market didn't work out as planned (that can of worms is too big to get into). Putting kids' anime aside, anime is now almost entirely made for otaku, by otaku. Nobody else will work in animation because the pay is unlivable. The success of anime is completely dependent on the sales of DVDs and Blu-Rays, whose exorbitant prices can only be paid by the most fanatical otaku with very specific tastes. The final result is that animation studios have to hope to buy their meals with large volumes of cynical me-too bullshit.
And then there was Satoshi Kon, a guy who actually had the freedom and the financial backing to forge his own path, someone who made films with mass appeal that didn't lean on otaku-friendly cliche. It can't be overstated how rare this is, how many frustrated creators feel trapped by their industry. Masaaki Yuasa is left, Mamoru Hosoda is left, but the field of great anime creators is so thin right now that just losing one-- much less one of Kon's stature-- is absolutely devastating.
In many ways and by many people, Mr. Kon will be missed. I'm just an animation fan, but I'd like to offer my deepest condolences to those who knew and loved him.
Edit 8/25/10: Wow, thanks to Metafilter and Fark there are more people here today than I've ever had. I have edited the cause of death into the post. While I have your attention, I'd like to link to two more illuminating points of view on this: Anipages Daily and Patrick Macias. Finally, Mr. Kon left a message to be posted on his website after his death, partially translated here and available in Japanese here.
Edit 8/26/10: Kon's final words have been translated in their entirety.