Perfect Blue (1997) is a Japanese psychological thriller anime film directed by the late Satoshi Kon, who’s known for his animated works that explore themes such as voyeurism, performance, and reality to comment on society and the human psyche.
The director would go on to direct other renowned anime films such as Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003), and Paprika (2006) – films that, like Perfect Blue, would go on to be discussed by film theorists for the reoccurring themes that Kon would come to be known for.
This film is based on the novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis (1991) by Yoshikazu Takeuchi and stars the voices of Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Masaaki Ōkura, and Shinpachi Tsuji among others.
Perfect Blue allegedly inspired scenes from Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Requiem for a Dream (2000). Both shared similar scenes and themes with Kon’s film, while the latter even remade a scene from Perfect Blue as an homage to it.
WARNING! PERFECT BLUE IS RATED-R. IT DEPICTS SCENES INVOLVING MURDER, RAPE, NUDITY, AND MENTAL ILLNESS.
Pop-idol Mima Kirigoe (Junko Iwao) decides to make a career change and becomes an actress, shedding the “good girl” image she had by taking on gradually more risque and mature roles. After discovering that a mysterious stalker has been masquerading as her online, Mima spirals into madness, endangering herself and everyone around her while being haunted by the ghost of her former life.
From the get-go, director Satoshi Kon does a spectacular job distinguishing Perfect Blue from the overly stylistic anime of the 90s. Despite its use of subtle shojo anime imagery and lively J-Pop tunes, Kon’s masterpiece delivers tonally the message that this is a horrifyingly plausible tale that’s certainly more pertinent now than it ever was before.
The film succeeds in creating a surreal and frightening environment by means of creative editing, a compelling mystery, and realistic characters. With all that and its spine-chilling twist, Perfect Blue permeates you – leaving you thinking about it for days on end.
Perfect Blue is fearless in the pursuit of its narrative – showing explicit detail scenarios and moments important to the film but are almost too difficult to watch.
SPOILER WARNING STARTING HERE! GO WATCH THE FILM, THEN COME BACK! OTHERWISE, SKIP DOWN OVER TO THE CONCLUSION.
Perfect Blue explores themes of identity, reality, duality, voyeurism, and performance. It’s even been said to shares many themes common in Alfred Hitchcock classics such as Psycho (1960) and Vertigo (1958) in its presentation of mental breakdowns and broken identities.
From the very beginning of the film, we’re already introduced to the kind of overlapping narrative that Perfect Blue presents. The very first shot of the film is that of a copyright-friendly group of Super Sentai look-alikes fighting a villain – not the kind of scene you’d expect from what should be a psychological thriller. But, it’s quickly revealed to be a live performance at a sort of festival where the main character Mima and J-Pop group, CHAM!, will be holding their final performance together.
It’s this kind of confusion between what’s real and what isn’t that Perfect Blue gradually builds on as the film progresses.
What follows are juxtaposed shots of Mima-rin performing as a pop idol and Mima as a normal person doing the most mundane things such as grocery shopping – building on the duality that while both aspects of the character are one-and-the-same, they are also completely different.
Mima has, at the beginning of the film, two identities – Mima-rin and Mima Kirigoe. The former is what people, like Me-Mania, know her as; it’s the persona that the public follows and the persona that they believe to be real.
Japanese pop idols literally live a double life. Upfront, they’re heavily curated, heavily marketed, and heavily scripted personas that should be nothing less than perfect in the eyes of the public. But behind the scenes, keeping up the expected image of innocence can be very stressful for an idol – even a little scandal would spell the end of a career. Even more so, many idols only earn as much as the minimum wage while working long hours and having to deal with being objectified and even harassed, often sexually, by their management and their fans – both things Kon touches on in Perfect Blue.
Showing us Mima’s everyday life early on accomplishes two things: It, without much need for dialogue or exposition, introduces us to the character and immerses us in her life. But, more importantly, it also creates a clear divide between both personas.
As Perfect Blue progresses, this distinction is gradually blurred to the point that even Mima becomes unsure of what she is or who she is or if she’s actually real. She begins to experience a severe mental breakdown – unable to distinguish between her roles as an actress, her former identity as a pop idol, and her true self.
It is, at this point, that Mima becomes an unreliable narrator; it’s from her sole perspective that the film’s story is told from. And we, the audience, are drawn into this confusion by means of seamless transitions between scenes, seemingly nonlinear storytelling, and surrealistic visuals.
Contrasting between the sharp cuts and dull colors of the film’s first act, Perfect Blue spirals into a mix of indistinguishable scene changes, overlapping dialogue, highly saturated tones, and confusingly repeating shots – going as far as presenting scenes as if they were part of Mima’s real-life only to later show that they were scenes from the TV show she’s acting in.
In multiple scenes, we’re even led to believe that Mima’s illusionary doubleganger takes on a life it’s own – returning to perform with CHAM! and killing the photographer among others.
The film’s antagonists of Rumi and Me-Mania struggle with the film’s themes themselves, much like Mima.
Rumi represents duality in herself and with Mima. As an ex-pop idol herself, Rumi like Mima for most of the film is unable to let go of the life that she was presumably forced to let go of. She sees herself as both Rumi the talent agent and the so-called real Mima-rin, the pop idol persona that the real Mima shed at the beginning of the film.
Despite starting out as dreary and uninteresting, Rumi becomes somewhat more interesting when she runs off in tears during the infamous rape scene – the scene where Mima metaphorically kills off her innocent Mima-rin persona, leading to Rumi’s eventual take over of that identity.
Whereas the real Mima stained the image of the Mima-rin persona, Rumi embraced it and eventually took it as her own – killing off anyone who stood in the way of the heavily curated and innocent reputation of Mima-rin.
Me-Mania serves as the initial antagonist of Perfect Blue before the Rumi reveal. He represents what happens when the false pop idol persona is taken as truth – leading him to become unable to fathom the reality that his perception of Mima-rin was never real.
In a way, that is heavily relatable in a sick and twisted sense. Think of how you would react to knowing that the reality that you were led to believe was never real at all.
Like Me-Mania, all of us who follow celebrities, influencers, and personalities create our own versions of those people; versions that only really exist for us. And in an age where social media rules, this is more evident than ever.
Social media allows us to follow each other and be followed. It opens us up to that level of curation that only celebrities had access to back in the 90s. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram allow us to create avatars and personas that we control just about every aspect of our online image – filtering down our identities to likes, follows, and shares; essentially allowing us to create an entirely new identity apart from our own.
And in that way, Perfect Blue is even more relevant now, in the advent of social media, than it ever was back in the 90s. It’s more real, more plausible – and more importantly, it could very well happen to you.
Despite being the director’s theatrical debut, Perfect Blue is a seminal psychological thriller that’s too good to pass up. Disorientating yet poetic in its presentation, the film succeeds in delivering a tale that continues to be relevant to this day. Intercutting the real and the surreal seamlessly, it effortlessly draws you into Mima’s disillusioned sense of reality. It’s brutal and violent and unpleasant, but it’s also smart and thoughtful in its approach.
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