By Justin Graham / June 19th, 2013
Perfect Blue is a psychological thriller first released by Rex Entertainment in 1997. Based on a novel of the same name by Yoshikazu Takeuchi, it marked the theatrical film debut of director Satoshi Kon, who would later go on to direct Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika, and the television series Paranoia Agent before tragically succumbing to pancreatic cancer in 2010. As the first entry in his brief filmography, Perfect Blue is alternately enticing and repelling, but consistently powerful, its visuals striking and bold. At times, they may be too much for some viewers, but Perfect Blue as a whole is a memorable tale that makes intelligent use of its medium.
The film’s story is focused on Mima Kirigoe, who is introduced as a young pop idol and central member of the J-pop trio CHAM. It opens with Mima’s final performance with the group, as she has elected to leave the music world to pursue a career as an actress. This move is met with mixed support from her managers, as well as her fans, but she’s made up her mind.
Mima’s foray into the world of acting begins with a small role in a television drama called Double Bind, a mystery drama of dark subject matter and thematically a complete contradiction of the pure pop idol image that had been her public persona for over two years. With that in mind, it doesn’t take long for her career move to draw the ire of certain fans. What starts as a series of increasingly threatening letters sent her way escalates into murder.
Perfect Blue does a fantastic job of establishing Mima as more than just a pop idol princess. Away from the stage, she’s like any other normal person: she lives in a small apartment with stacks of dirty dishes, she keeps pet fish, and she complains about the stresses of her job to her mother over the phone. And the source of her stress is severe, as she not only transitions from one high-octane career to another, but is introduced to the darker underbelly of her pop idol fandom through a website called Mima’s Room, a fan website featuring a diary of Mima’s activities as written by an unknown party down to exacting, terrifying detail.
Against so much uncertainty, Mima’s life begins to unravel, not only through an obsession with the website, but through repeated sightings of a stalker and, finally, the mounting deaths of her associates. The tipping point that leads to these murders comes when she agrees to an expanded role on Double Bind that requires a scene in which her character is raped in a strip club.
Though I don’t wish to dwell on it, it’s an important scene in the movie. It is also intensely uncomfortable to watch, but intentionally so. Despite the act’s fictitious nature, Mima’s managers are visibly repulsed and sickened watching the video feed of the filming. The only brief but still uncomfortable levity comes from the occasional cut to change camera angles or do a retake. And there comes a point during the scene where the reality of the shoot and the fantasy of the script mesh, becoming all too real, not only for Mima and the audience of Double Bind, but for the audience of Perfect Blue, as well.
It is after this scene especially that Mima’s world becomes a recurring nightmare. She hallucinates visions of her pop idol persona, who expresses disgust at what she’s become, and she imagines being back with CHAM, who, since her departure, have become more successful. As the deaths begin to pile up, she questions whether or not she, or her idol persona, is acting out of desire to stop those that have destroyed her comfortable bubblegum image. Her life as an actress and the life of her television character become confused, blending together in her mind to the point that she loses track of the borders between fantasy and reality.
The ending, which I will not give away, is one that takes this fractured view of reality and winds it into something that is both twisted and satisfying. The twists aren’t forced for shock value; they exist because they make sense, and they bring resolution to the hallucinatory nightmare that has become Mima’s life. The truth is strange, unsettling, and yet brings a sense of closure to all that occurs.
Through all of this, the horrific visions, and the disarming, repetitious cuts and sequences, the film is remarkably subdued for an animated feature. Perfect Blue could just as easily have been made as a live-action piece with restrained special effects. And yet, there’s an aptness to its presentation—the dreamlike qualities of its darker moments are arguably more affecting because of its nature as an animated work.
Fitting Mima’s career origins as a pop idol singer, music plays just as much of a role in the story. The film opens with CHAM performing “Ai no Tenshi” (“Angel of Love”), which, on the surface, is a fairly standard piece of pop—catchy and charming in a way, but also vapid and manufactured.
But through the context of the film, it takes on a dark edge. In a way, it represents how Mima’s most demented fan perversely views her: a pure, angelic being of perfection. On the other hand, the song is used as a direct means to lure one of the killer’s victims to a grisly death.
If there is any obvious flaw to be found in Perfect Blue, it’s in the unfortunate manner it dates itself. Japan of the late 1990s lagged behind North America in terms of understanding of the Internet and its general proliferation, and so there is a brief scene as the computer-illiterate Mima (and the audience) is taught the basics of the World Wide Web and how to use a browser—in this case, the unintentionally comical choice of Netscape Navigator.
But such a flaw can be easily overlooked in the context and scope of Perfect Blue as a whole. Harder to overlook is its legitimately disturbing and gruesome visuals. While it’s indeed an excellent film and well worth watching, some viewers may find the content too much and should be well-advised ahead of time. Nothing presented is truly offensive in the context of the narrative or in the manner of its depiction, but it can be very difficult to stomach. And though some may be put off, those who are willing and able to handle the film’s darkest moments will find themselves in for a tense, unsettling ride worth watching to the end.
Perfect Blue was released on DVD in North America by Manga Entertainment. The DVD features both the original Japanese audio with optional English subtitles and an English dub. The film is not rated but is recommended for mature audiences only due to graphic violence, nudity, and graphic sexual content, including a depiction of sexual assault.
anime of the pastManga EntertainmentPerfect BlueRex EntertainmentSatoshi Kon