Hero, second class. That is the designation given the artists of animated films. Their work receives the highest praise, yet at awards time they are deemed creatures of some cuter, smaller species. Satoshi Kon rankled at that niche status. "I'm an anime director," he said. "People can take it or leave it." Well, Kon was a great Japanese filmmaker, period. His death on Aug. 24, at 46, of pancreatic cancer, robbed world cinema of one of its most acute, probing artists.
At first a manga comics illustrator, Kon graduated to filmed anime with the 1998 Perfect Blue, about a pop singer stalked by a fan. More lurid and luscious than ani-master Hayao Miyazaki's film fantasies, Perfect Blue took cues from the giallo melodramas of Italian director Dario Argento.
Kon's 2001 follow-up, Millennium Actress, was a gentler mix of suspense and movie lore a tribute to live-action Japanese films, from Yasujiro Ozu's delicate family dramas to the Godzilla epics of a devastated Tokyo. The 2003 Tokyo Godfathers bears traces of John Ford's Three Godfathers and at times is as warm as a Christmas hearth, but Kon made the adoptive trio members of Japan's homeless class.
His last completed feature, 2006's Paprika, is also his most complex. The key to this murder mystery is a movie palace where all dreams seem real. Kon's oneiric imagery certified animation's power to put viewers into a state of alert hypnosis. No wonder that his last project, which he called "a road movie for robots," is titled The Dream Machine.
Kon learned of his death sentence May 18. In a statement published posthumously, he wrote with staunch tenderness about his family and co-workers and asked two of them, "Could you help my wife send me over to the other side after my death? I'd be able to get on that flight with my mind at rest ... Now excuse me, I have to go."
In his art, in his life and in his grace in leaving it, Satoshi Kon was a hero, first class.
This text originally appeared in the Sept. 13, 2010 issue of TIME Magazine.