Translation by Yota Koutani
Vertical Comics, May 19 2015
(Note: a review copy of this book was provided by Vertical Comics.)
Dream Fossil is a trip. The collected stories of Satoshi Kon have little in common other than their creator and the fact that they’re all snippets and facets, daydreams of life. As he honed his artistic and storytelling craft, Kon’s topics ranged from baseball to robots to historical Japan. Are they all amazing? Nope. To borrow a metaphor from the book, there are some strikes and some home runs—but that doesn’t really matter. Kon, rather than his varied subjects, is the focus of this anthology.
Before Satoshi Kon helmed any of his hit anime projects—Paprika, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Perfect Blue and more—he was a mangaka. Not only did he write and illustrate his own doujinshi and serialized stories, but he also worked on Akira with Katsuhiro Otomo. He collaborated with Mamoru Oshii on Seraphim 26661336 Wings and crafted his very own OPUS. It’s no exaggeration to say that Satoshi Kon was a master storyteller. Sadly, he died in 2010 at the young age of 46, and we—his fans—are left to mine his existing material and mourn the loss of whatever beautiful, insightful stories he didn’t have time to tell.
Dream Fossil offers us a window into Kon’s artistic evolution over the course of five years. The earliest story, “Toriko – Prisoner,” was created in 1984; the latest, “The Adventures of Master Basho,” is from 1989. With one exception, the short stories are arranged in chronological order, so the reader can easily track improvements in pacing, panel dynamics, artwork, dialogue, and storytelling craft. Kon improves by leaps and bounds on all fronts. It’s almost dauntingly impressive.
There are a few standout stories that—leaving aside the intellectual pleasure of seeing Kon’s craft improve—make the entire volume worth checking out. The first story that I really took a liking to was “Kidnappers,” about a third of the way through Dream Fossil. The earlier stories are primarily slice-of-life shorts about the experiences of high school boys—playing baseball, interacting awkwardly with girls, getting boners (you read that right)—and that, combined with the slightly ham-fisted dialogue and jarring transitions, is just not my cup of tea. “Kidnappers,” though, follows a child who has been kidnapped by an inept guy who leaves the keys in the ignition as he’s calling in the ransom demand at a payphone. Of course, a young car thief comes along and takes off with the van, child included. The rest of the story is action and pure comedic hijinks. It’s light and fluffy and fun.
I enjoyed the story “Guests” for similar reasons. In this short, Kon tells of a family who just moved into a surprisingly affordable house. As the father chortles about what a good deal he got and as the mother bustles about setting up the home, their kids notice the ghosts. Kon combines horror tropes with humor—such as when the father is chased out of the bath by a ghost he doesn’t want to admit he saw. The family dynamics are rendered sensitively and well, and the tension continues to build until it hits an unexpected resolution.
“Waira” is a beautifully rendered story set in (from what I can tell) the warring states period of Japan. Again, Kon crosses genres. This time, history and action are melded with suspense as a lord leads his few remaining soldiers through a dark mountain forest haunted by a savage being known to the locals as Waira. The environment around the lord’s party and their pursuers is dark and lush, comparable in detail to the work of Shigeru Mizuki. And just wait until you see Waira: it’s nearly breathtaking for the reader, and is certainly so for the characters who face off against it.
One of my favorite stories from the collection is “Beyond the Sun,” in which an elderly woman is treated to an unexpected outing as her hospital bed rolls all the way from the hospital to the beach. The hospital staff—particularly the heroic nurse who cares for her—chase her through the chaos left in the wake of her trundling bed. It’s incredibly funny, and immediately reminded me of Roujin Z—an anime movie by Katsuhiro Otomo that is practically the same story, but was released several years later. Hmm, connections, you ask? Joe McCulloch explores those here.
An unexpected treat in Dream Fossil is the short, full-color story “Picnic,” which was originally published in Kodansha’s “Akira World” in 1988. In another post-apocalyptic Tokyo, two young people venture back to their old neighborhood, which is now submerged within polluted water. The story is highly environmental; there’s no action to speak of, merely exploration through eerily beautiful destruction. The final scene is of the two explorers standing together in a dark room surrounded by fireflies. When I read it, I was immediately transported to the moment I stepped into Yayoi Kusama’s installation You Who are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies. Both Kusama and Kon’s imagery of beauty mixed with emptiness prompt conjoined feelings of wonder, awe, joy, and poignancy.
And therein lies what I consider to be Satoshi Kon’s greatest strength: he presents scenes and characters with such depth and pathos that they can be many things at once to many different viewers. Somehow, Kon was able to capture the fact that life is never one thing—it’s many. People, events, and places are multifaceted, and Kon didn’t shy away from that complexity, he embraced it. In Dream Fossil, we’re fortunate to be able to see this a few more times. I’m thankful that Vertical brought Kon’s remaining pieces to the English-language market.