PERFECT BLUE (1997)
Updated: Apr 18
Satoshi Kon’s perfect anime debut
Director: Satoshi Kon
Cast/Voices: Junko Iwao, Rika Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, Masaaki Ôkura, Yôsuke Akimoto
Related films: Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika
Before his untimely passing in 2010, Satoshi Kon was the brightest shining star of the up-and-coming anime directors in Japan. Perfect Blue was his first feature film. Its impact skyrocketed his career to the top tier of the Japanese anime scene and beyond.
Perfect Blue was the stepping-stone that let Kon develop his art and create timeless anime classics like Tokyo Godfathers (2003) and Paprika (2006). His later films might be more accessible and refined, but few anime debuts stand the test of time like Perfect Blue.
The surreal story is about a young actress who is haunted by the demons of celebrity and fandom. The narrative takes inspiration from film noir. It kicks off when Mima - the star of a Japanese idol group - decides to shift her career and become an actor.
Her decision sets in motion a domino of consequences, which makes Mima slowly loose her grip on reality. Where does the idol-persona end, and the actor-persona begins? Where is the true Mima in all this, and is the memory of her former self even relevant anymore?
«If Alfred Hitchcock partnered with Walt Disney, they’d make a picture like this.»
Her new job as a supporting actor requires her to get down and dirty. It forces her to cast aside the innocent idol-image. Dancing provocatively is one thing, doing nude photos and rape scenes in brutal movies is a new level of mental strain on her fragile mind.
Mima’s cocktail of madness is intensified by a stalker who has stolen her identity. On a webpage of his own design, he is speaking on her behalf. His words express disgust with the film industry in which she tries to break through. This sets in motion a string of murders. The people who have taken part in Mima’s fall from grace are savagely slain.
The haunting atmosphere is in stark contrast to the sugarcoated design of various music venues, film sets, shopping streets and tiny apartments in Tokyo. The switching between idol-group pop songs and a frightfully eerie score further strengthens this contrast.
The characters are profoundly deep (especially for a film lasting a mere 80 minutes) and the story is believable, in as much as the dreamlike environment allows it. Both characters and the Tokyo landscape are beautifully drawn, even when depicting brutal murders and gloomy back alleys.
The film starts in a rather slow pace, but before long you’ll feel as confused as you are mesmerized by the protagonist’s inner struggles. Only a few drops of clarification are offered when the movie Mima acts in breaks the 4th wall of Perfect Blue, and explains part of Mima’s mental state to our face.
Between the lines
Given that the last remark coincides with your own understanding of the film, it is interesting to consider the implications. If the movie within Perfect Blue is a reflection of Mima’s reality, it stands to reason that Perfect Blue tries to tell us something about our own reality; perhaps a comment on the life stories we act out every day, with both fake and real personas.
As such, the theme of Perfect Blue is in line with the rest of Kon’s filmography, in the sense that it uses surrealism to explore the human condition. In this context he explores the mental strain of inhabiting alternate personas, exemplified by the Japanese idol-phenomenon.
Idol groups are bands (commonly) consisting of lip-synching teenage girls. Their main purpose is to look cute and dance slightly seductively in front of hordes of middle-aged men. Both the idol-fans and the idols themselves are perfectly aware of the charade that is going on. A charade that Kon juxtaposes with Internet personalities, job personalities, actor personalities and media’s ability to distort he lines between dreams and reality.
Fake personas are everywhere, and all around us. It is the (white) lies we tell when choosing to withhold certain sides of ourselves, or boost the more accessible sides in other situations. Who is to say when the persona takes hold and becomes more you than the original version you started with?
Mima is not the only one who shows signs of split personality. Also, her stalker and her agent are clearly changing faces in different situations. Her agent hides the truth about Mima’s manic fans, in the guise of a caring mother-figure. Likewise, the stalker puts on a protective mask when people are defiling the image of his most precious fascination.
Pop-music, teenage idols, violent murders and ruthless violations;
Perfect Blue is the potpourri from which nightmares are made of.
Again this makes for some interesting food for thought. As the pop-idol persona comes to life through the stalkers identity theft, the fake Mima soon becomes more real to her fans than the real person. No one wants to see the new her, in the «real» world of acting; everyone wants the fake idol-version.
In some sort of twisted way, Kon manages to make the middle-aged fandom of teenage idol-groups seem innocent. Considering the sordid morality of the film industry, provocative dancing doesn’t seem so bad, given that both «singers» and fans are willing participants in the ongoing charade.
The most terrifying aspect of Perfect Blue is the idea of getting lost in the darkest corner of your own mind. Mima’s journey down the rabbit hole becomes increasingly disturbing as her grip on reality starts to slip. In the end we even start to question whether her agent and stalker are real or just figments of her imagination.
Perfect Blue has been described as an anime version of Hitchcock. In this day and age, it is more fitting to compare the film with Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Black Swan (2010). Aronofsky himself has acknowledged the commonalities and hailed Kon for his work.
Similarly to Aronofsky’s films, Perfect Blue perfectly manages to transfer the character’s confusion to its audience. Mima constantly confuses dreams and reality. What is real or not, isn’t revealed until the end of the film, and perhaps not even then …
For one, a lot of the sequences that appear to be happening to Mima in real life, turns out to be nothing more than scenes from the film she is currently working on. This is a tool of confusion, which is applied over and over, and never loses its appeal or effect. Like Mima we all drift into a dreamlike state, only to catch small bits of reality along the way.
Perfect Blue is somewhat unrefined, compared to Kon’s later films. It would have served the story well to develop the plot and characters even further. That being said, taking into account that Kon was given a scrapped movie script, which he transformed into anime magic, the attention it got seems appropriate.
Perfect Blue is the kind of film that is somewhat ruined after first viewing, since much of its suspense lies in the unknown. On the other hand, it is more than layered enough to be interesting on repeated viewings. The density alone is the reason why this review turned into one of the longest reads you will find on JCA.
Whether you dig surrealism or not, this is a film well worth tracking down. Kon fans already have this in their collection of course, but anyone interested in anime should give it a chance. Perfect Blue is one of a kind, strangely captivating, creepy as hell, and highly recommendable if you enjoy films that challenge your mind.
Beyond Ghibli: IDOL - The Terrifying Reality of Perfect Blue
Imdb: Perfect Blue
Peach’s Almanac: Perfect Blue - Exploring Satoshi Kon’s Masterpiece
Wikipedia: Perfect Blue