A Look at the Film Perfect Blue and what it Did for Anime in Particular, and Film in General
Remember the late nineties? Those heady days when Slobodan Milosevic was the most reviled dictator in the West, Y2K was sending us all into paroxysms of anxiety and doubt, and absolutely no one knew what a Millennial was?
It was also around then that a rising star in Japan’s animation industry by the name of Satoshi Kon released his first feature length work. Specifically a reality-bending, psychological thriller called Perfect Blue.
While not as famous as Kon’s later works, most prominently among them Millennium Actress and Paprika, I believe that Perfect Blue is worthy of consideration. Not only on its merits as a creditable piece of cinema, but also because of role it played in the anime scene of the late nineties. So to that end, I shall first review the film itself and then talk a little about its broader impact on popular culture.
Perfect Blue begins with its heroine, Mima Kirigoe, giving her last performance as a member of the idol group CHAM (for those of you unfamiliar with Japanese idols, just imagine them as pop princesses, but even more blatantly manufactured and artificial with an extra side of childishness), and announcing to the assembled crowd her intention to pursue a career in acting. She soon lands a guest spot on a trashy police drama called Double Bind as the victim of the week’s younger sister.
Despite her producer’s misgivings over both Mima’s new career and more mature image, things seem to be going well. Until Mima receives a threating fax (in case you need another reminder that it’s 1997) calling her a traitor. Shortly thereafter, she discovers an online journal purportedly written by her. Meanwhile, her role calls for her to take part in a graphic rape scene that proves highly traumatic for her. Soon after, Mima begins confusing fiction and reality. The then murders begin…
Like many of Kon’s works, Perfect Blue defies easy classification. It has the bones of a thriller, true enough, but the other elements Kon uses make it something else entirely. Because the film is presented almost entirely from Mima’s point of view, the audience is just as much in the dark as she is . While this is a fairly standard trick in any psychological thriller, Kon builds on it, eventually warping reality as thoroughly and cruelly as Philip K. Dick.
In particular, Kon uses rapid jump cuts to create a sense of disconnection between scenes. The effect is disorienting, comparable to waking suddenly in an unfamiliar place with no memory of how you got there. It’s also possibly one of the best film portrayals of what psychologists call losing time. Basically, it’s when someone blacks out and is unable to recall what they did while backed out. Hilariously enough, though, Kon maintains that these cuts were simply a cost-saving measure. The film also liberally employs the trappings of a slasher flick, with a string of gruesome murders driving the plot.
Unfortunately, while both the jump cuts and the slasher tropes do add to film, they also hinder it. The jump cuts keep the viewer off balance, but they can also make the story feel disjointed and difficult to follow. Often, to a degree Kon probably did not intend. The film can also becomea tad bogged down in the gore and sleaze that come with the slasher elements. In Particular, the brutality of the murders feels gratuitous at times.
Who Are You?
Perfect Blue is on the whole concerned with questions of identity and control. In fact, it is Mima’s desire to have control over her identity that kicks off the narrative in the first place. At first the forces attacking her identity are perfectly mundane, such as her producers trying to maintain a hold on the brand they’ve created around her.
But as the story develops, and her sanity erodes, Mima begins losing all sense of who she is. This is certainly not helped by the antagonists of the film and their desire to co-opt Mima’s identity. Mima’s purported journal, for example, is obviously written by an obsessive fan. Particularly, one who feels they can take possession of Mima by pretending to be her. For the sake of both her physical and psychological survival, Mima must successfully navigate a complex maze of delusion.
Why It Matters
Perfect Blue has gone on to become a minor cult classic in anime fandom. While never finding the fame and critical regard that anime such as Ghost in the Shell enjoy, it is still appreciated as an effective horror story and as the debut of a remarkable director. But does it have any significance beyond that?
Well, yeah actually. The American public’s perception of anime was in fact undergoing a change in the late nineties. Hitherto, mainstream audiences generally thought of anime as mindlessly violent, pornographic, and completely devoid of any artistic merit. And that was when they thought of it at all. To make things worse, those criticisms weren’t entirely unfounded either.
How to Succeed in the Importation Biz
From the eighties onward, it had become common practice among companies like Manga Entertainment to import titles such as Angel Cop, Mad Bull 34, and Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend. All of which functioned as basically Japan’s animated answer to American grindhouse cinema. While one could interpret this as a concentrated attack on the viewing public’s collective IQ, it wasn’t. Really, it was more about cost to profit ratios than anything else. Since these series were so low quality, importers could buy the rights for a song and the company was almost assured a profit in video sales.
It was a decent business strategy. However, in the mid-nineties importers in general, and Manga Entertainment in particular, decided to try something a little different. Manga Entertainment brought a handful of high-quality films, including Perfect Blue, to the US to sell alongside the more lowbrow offerings in thier lineup. While the process was indeed slow, Perfect Blue and titles like it helped elevate anime in the eyes of the general public. Not to mention, give it a wider audience.
Perfect Blue itself has also influenced US filmmakers. Writer-director Darren Aronofsky cites it as one of his favorite films. Even going so far as to purchase the rights from Kon in order to recreate single scene. Specifically, that of a submerged Mima screaming in her bathtub, for his film Requiem for a Dream. Kon and Aronofsky actually became friends because of this. Its influence is also evident in Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan.
Its influence and cult status aside, Perfect Blue remains a very serviceable film in its own right. While the animation has not aged well since its release, both the story and direction are of high quality. Highly recommended.