The death of Japanese anime director Satoshi Kon in 2010 at the age of 46 created a great deal of buzz around him which extended well beyond the confines of anime fandom and reached the global cinematic community in general; indeed, during his relatively short career Kon managed to make a big impression on some of today's leading filmmakers, notably providing the inspiration for Christopher Nolan's Inception and Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (both 2010). A critical evaluation of Kon's entire career, however, remains a difficult task because there simply isn't enough to evaluate—even with four theatrical features and one television series to his credit, any attempt to summarize his work would have to conclude that it feels more like a beginning of something promising that was cut short (personally, I always thought it a shame that Kon's final film—the pretentious, messed-up Paprika—also became his most hyped and best known work).
With no chance of new works from Kon, scholars and fans have naturally turned their attention to his early pre-directorial career. This is not only a chance to discover more stories by Kon, but also to discover more pieces in the great puzzle, to reveal more of his legacy which consists of a tragically small body of work. The recent translation of Tropic of the Sea, a collected edition of a manga (comics) series drawn and written by Kon in 1990, is an obvious response to this interest.
The plot follows Yosuke, a teenager in a small seaside town whose family is charged with guarding a mysterious object believed to be a mermaid's egg. Trouble starts when Yosuke's father turns his back on this tradition, collaborating with corrupt businessmen who wish to turn the town into a holiday resort. A violent reaction follows, and (as expected) it is up to Yosuke to save the day.
Tropic of the Sea represents Kon's first complete professional solo work—the first ever original story by him, told from start to finish (two other collaborative manga projects and one more unfinished solo manga series followed in the mid to late 1990s). Those looking for the roots of Kon's later works in the volume will easily recognize his love for modern Japanese landscapes: the small seaside town is drawn with great detail, and the slow process of traditional structures being replaced with modern houses and tourist-traps becomes painfully obvious as the story progresses. As a story of a place, rather than characters, Tropic of the Sea is a great atmospheric work. Kon's familiar character design, very much influenced by his mentor Katsuhiro Otomo of Akira fame, is also strongly present in the series. Much like the environment that surrounds them, most of Kon's characters are realistically proportioned, less round and cartoony than those usually associated with anime and manga. This does not come at the expanse of the characters' expressiveness, and as in Kon's films, character react with great emotion (at times bordering on theatrical performance) to the catastrophe that slowly develops around them.
But readers familiar with Kon's theatrical works will be surprised by the story of Tropic of the Sea, which is mostly a low-key, linear affair. Even when telling seemingly small human stories (as in his 2003 Capraesque comedy Tokyo Godfathers), there was also something grand and epic about the way Kon directed his films, coupled with constant movement between time periods and different modes of reality. There is none of this in Tropic of the Sea: this is a straightforward story, told with very few twists (none of them really surprising) and no real Earth-shattering events until the apocalyptic climax. And Kon, as it turns out, just isn't good enough at telling small-scale stories. Though Tropic of the Sea is fairly short (200 pages), the plot is very repetitive, and there's a feeling of foot-dragging throughout it. Part of the problem is Yosuke's character, who remains an indifferent, tired, and aimless protagonist that readers have very little reason to care for. The afterword suggests that this portrayal reflects Kon's own state of mind while drawing the series, but it doesn't help in making Yosuke likeable. I suspect the problem goes deeper—while reading Tropic of the Sea it occurred to me that Kon simply can't create a compelling male protagonist, as opposed to the unforgettable female leads of his films (especially in his 2001 historical drama masterpiece Millennium Actress).
It is perhaps unfair to judge Tropic of the Sea in light of Kon's later works—like many others, he followed a weak professional debut with bigger and better things. But as noted above, we would have never seen Tropic of the Sea in English if it weren't for Kon's later achievements. Those looking for early signs of these achievements in will find a rewarding experience in reading the volume. It's too bad that there isn't enough substance to justify reading it as an independent work.
When he's not working on his PhD researching animation as a text, Raz Greenberg works as a content editor for an Internet company, and spends his time writing reviews, articles, and stories. His articles have appeared in Strange Horizons, Animated Views, RevolutionSF, and Salon Futura; his fiction has appeared in FutureQuake, Murky Depths, and Ray Gun Revival, and in several Hebrew genre magazines in his home country of Israel. In 2010, a short story by him was nominated for the Geffen Award, given by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy.