The acclaimed anime director Satoshi Kon’s short career began in 1984, at the age 21 when he published a manga called Toriko while still at University. In the following years, Kon established himself through his work as a manga-ka on a handful of other works before becoming Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga and animation assistant, which led to work on the classic manga Akira, a 1991 live-action Otomo film, and as an art director on Otomo’s segment Magnetic Rose from the 1995 anime anthology film Memories. In a relatively short period, he became an animator with a strong track record and vetting by an industry god, which subsequently gave Kon the opportunity to launch a career as a director of anime.
In 1997, Studio Madhouse’s famed founding producer Masao Maruyama (amongst others) took a chance on Kon and gave this opportunity to direct his first animated work. Surprisingly, this was no small gamble either, as Kon was given the chance to helm a feature-length project of his choosing. For this first work, Kon decided to adapt a psychological thriller by author Yoshikazu Takeuchi entitled Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis. The project was an arthouse film the like of which had never hitherto graced the medium of animation, and was heavily inspired by the works of Western cinema that made up the majority of influences on the young Kon (and as fate would have it, Perfect Blue would influence Western filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky in turn). Having his mentor, Katsuhiro Otomo’s, name attached to the project as ‘Special Supervisor’ helped the film reach a wide international audience, and from then on, Kon enjoyed near carte blanche in his artistic endeavors.
As for the story itself, Perfect Blue details the life of a young pop idol named Mima Kirigoe who is a member of the struggling bubblegum trio CHAM! But Mima, as the de facto leader of the group has unusually good looks and a talent for a acting, which could prove a much more lucrative option and bring her the mainstream fame she desires. Mima’s agent convinces her overprotective manager Rumi to allow Mima to perform in one final farewell CHAM! show before splitting to act in a low-budget, but high profile television series called Double Bind, which will hopefully lead to big-budget feature work in the coming years and eventually establish Mima as a movie star.
Shortly after taking on the job as an actress on the network, Mima learns of the presence of an obsessive stalker within her life who has apparently been tracking her every move and posting under her identity online at a mysterious site known as Mima’s Room. She begins to grow paranoid, and when the series’ writer decides to add a rape scene and a striptease for Mima to act out in the show Double Bind, Mima begins to view herself as impure, dirty, and as a sell-out who has destroyed her previously untarnished, innocent persona as the lead singer of CHAM!. She begins to grow paranoid that her every move is being watched and analyzed by a mysterious figure and eventually finds it hard to distinguish between reality and fiction, often finding herself viscerally experiencing the events of the TV series as if they are really happening to her.
As Mima’s sanity begins to unravel, the series’ writer is found dead, and a few days later, the series’ photographer who further scandalized her public image through a nude photoshoot is similarly found murdered. Mima’s constant blackouts and losses of time, as well as the discovery of a bloodied shirt within her closet all convince her that she may be the culprit, although unknowingly and unconsciously. The scenario and event of Perfect Blue are often called Hitchcockian, but rarely, if ever, have the thriller maestro’s films been this head-trippy and disorienting. No, Perfect Blue is a thriller more in line with the seventies and eighties works of American auteur Brian De Palma whose stories are more often based on real psychiatric disorders like what will be revealed to be Mima’s case of folie a deux wherein her psychosis has no real biological basis and is instead tied to the psychosis of a close member of her inner circle who is causing all of her paranoia and committing the murders.
Many a postmodern analysis has been made of this anime, and unlike many of those productions that have received such in-depth scrutiny, Perfect Blue is one of the few that deserves or even calls us to review it in such a manner. Often the plot of the TV series within the film, Double Bind, intersects with the events of the ‘reality’ of the situation. Just as Mima performs her striptease scene and is then brutally stripped of her clothing, after which rape is simulated, she is later accosted by the supposed murderer at large and attacked in much the same manner, though the reality of this second encounter is called into question as only moments later, the crew on set appears and begins to clap for her ‘performance.’ The second sequence ends in Mima grasping a hammer and using it to kill her would-be rapist, and although this event seems to be a mere scene from the show, it is later revealed that boy she hit is actually dead.
In Double Bind, Mima kills a man who attacks her, seemingly without cause, and as she experiences the encounter, Mima’s distorted, paranoid vision sees her attacker as the photographer who exploited her in the aforementioned photoshoot. As also stated, this man is later killed with the same weapon, an ice pick, as his daydream proxy was ‘killed’ in the series.
Most disturbingly of all, when Mima learns the identity of the true murderer, she manages to get the person institutionalized. In her later years as a famous actress, she occasionally visits the murderer, who is out of her mind, but medicated and watched after as to ensure that she will never again become a hazard to society or to Mima. When Mima leaves the premises, a duo of nurses wonder if she really is THE Mima, movie star and one-time pop idol, though they decide that the real Mima would not visit such a place as this, and must thereby be a fake Mima, a lookalike. In the last sequence of the film, Mima glares into the mirror of her car and stares into the eyes of the viewers, of the voyeurs who have been watching these events unfold for the past hour and a half. She responds to the nurses’ queries, but addresses the answer to us: ‘No. I’m real.’
In the English dub of Perfect Blue, one would think nothing of this remark as it merely tells us that Mima really is herself once again and that her crisis of identity has been concluded with the incarceration of the murderer who threatened to subsume that very identity within her own. However, in the original Japanese language track, the voice speaking is not that of Mima, but of the one who is supposed to be inside the sanitarium. The implication being that an identity shift has occurred and someone has quite literally taken over the identity of another. If this were true, however, one would expect this Mima to have gone back to her career as a pop idol (for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who has seen the film) rather than remain or continue in her current career as an actress, which has apparently flourished as she is immediately recognized as a movie actress by the nurses.
Again and again, Perfect Blue reveals itself as something of a paradox in which the actions, times, settings, and actors in this animated teleplay are, time and again, mottled and confused. We as viewer-voyeurs are not privy to certainty in the knowledge of whether Mima is experiencing reality, dream, or is acting within the TV series within the film, at any one point. Often, time is dragged out and at others it elapses at such a quick pace as to complicate the viewer’s ability to ‘follow’ events temporally. And although these approaches to narrative and metanarrative call for postmodern analysis at times, they might also merely be by-products of a story told by an unreliable narrator, by Mima as she is experiencing the events told therein whilst in the grips of a psychosis so aggressive as to render her experience inscrutable and confounding to one on the outside of that experience. Or even more compelling, Kon may have depicted the events of Perfect Blue in such a manner as to make the audience just as uneasy and paranoid as Mima herself. In such a case, the paradoxes that emerge from the narrative are part of the experience of stepping into the mind of one afflicted.
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