Retrospective: Perfect Blue (1997)

Year: 1997

Runtime: 81 minutes

Director: Satoshi Kon

Writer: Sadayuki Murai (Based on Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi)

Starring: Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto

By Calum Cooper

*Warning: The feature contains spoilers for Perfect Blue*

25 years ago, Satoshi Kon’s anime horror film, “Perfect Blue” (1997), was released in Japanese cinemas. A disturbing and visually mercurial spectacle, its horrific themes were matched only by the artistically perplexing presentation, which often left viewers as anxious as the central heroine. What makes “Perfect Blue” stand out from other anime, and even from Kon’s other works, is how frighteningly well it has aged. This is a rare movie that, a quarter of a century after its release, is actually more unsettling today than it was 25 years ago.

Mima Kirigoe (Junko Iwao) is a member of the popular J-Pop singing group CHAM!. Think a Japanese pop equivalent to a Disney Channel star. Wanting a career change, Mima decides to leave the group to pursue a full-time occupation as an actress, accompanied by her manager Rumi (Rica Matsumoto), who isn’t as confident about the career change as Mima is. Some of Mima’s fans are disapproving of her decision, with one especially obsessive fan voicing their displeasure through the website “Mima’s Room”, a blog containing posts that seem to be written from Mima’s perspective, each of which is disturbingly accurate in its detail.

Mima eventually succeeds in securing a role on a television detective drama, but the drastically more mature expectations of the role start to weigh down on her. Between this stress, the terrifyingly accurate information on Mima’s room, her fear of being stalked, and the lingering regret of leaving CHAM!, Mima starts to have visions of a doppelganger. This doppelganger takes the form of her past image as a pop idol and frequently taunts her by claiming to be “the real Mima”. Mental anguish and downward spirals ensue, especially when the people around Mima start being murdered one by one.

With prominent figures like Guillermo Del Toro doing more to champion animation as a medium for all ages, “Perfect Blue” is a prime example of how animation can be a remarkable tool for genre films specifically geared towards adults. Some of this is to do with the rather shocking content, which is in no way suitable for children. But much of it is also to do with how it uses animation to portray the psychosis that Mima is undergoing throughout the film. At odds with who she is, and under intense pressure from various sources of stress, her slip into a fragile state of mind is creatively and hauntingly realised. Looped scenes, visual parallels and the deliberate disruption of coherence via the editing and direction create an atmosphere of intense distress. The fact that Mima’s role in her new television show is eventually revealed to be undergoing multiple personality disorder only adds to the uncertainty of what is real and what isn’t. Just as Mima is losing her grip on reality, so too is the audience in a way.

Where “Perfect Blue” truly terrifies is in its exploration of themes such as identity and voyeurism. Mima is essentially having an existential crisis as her doppelganger berates her for being a tarnished version of what she was once. Yet this brings into question the concept of perception and being in the spotlight. When “Perfect Blue” premiered in film festivals in 1997, the internet was only just starting to realise its full potential. The internet features heavily in the film as an obsessed fan of Mima’s uses his blog to vent his frustrations over Mima’s career change by means of adopting Mima’s persona in some kind of sick role play. Mima’s role as a public entertainer has put her on an involuntary pedestal in which others of whom she has no relationship with have formed mental attachments to an image of her – to a public persona – rather than Mima the person for who she is. They believe they know her inside and out when really all they know is the image of a former pop idol – effectively just an avatar.

“Perfect Blue” showcases how damaging such faux personal attachments are through Mima’s psychosis as breaks under the various negative labels that others are associating with her.

The rise of social media has enhanced and even expanded this problem by capturing large swathes of ordinary people in its net. Many of us have, at one point or another, looked at someone else’s Twitter, Snapchat or YouTube, and gotten the impression that their life is extraordinary compared to ours. Such comparisons can lead to jealousy, depression and even resentment. Yet in reality those snippets we are seeing of these people are, in one way or another, performative. It is dissimilar yet also comparable to how we view celebrities, such as Mima in the case of “Perfect Blue”. Despite the portrayal of seemingly glamorous lives, these people still experience the same anxieties and problems that we do, just in different circumstances. In that sense, we are becoming jealous not of those people for who they are, but of the persona they are putting on for the sake of social media.

This contemporary issue is especially prevalent when it comes to women, as “Perfect Blue” demonstrates with frightful accuracy. Female celebrities, politicians and influencers are often held to impossibly higher standards than their male counterparts, and as such tend to experience much more scrutiny, dismissal, jealousy, and particularly unhealthy attachments by obsessive strangers who idolise them, whether in the pursuit of a faux connection or to subconsciously live through them. This all demonstrates a horrific level of voyeurism that has grown into a whole new monster through the contemporary means of social media.

“Perfect Blue” showcases how damaging such faux personal attachments are through Mima’s psychosis as breaks under the various negative labels that others are associating with her. Her willingness to break away from the chaste image of her pop idol status is described as smutty, and even her doppelganger views her as something that has been tarnished. The murders that occur around Mima happen specifically to those who were influential in her newfound acting career, as if someone is trying to correct a mistake that doesn’t exist. When she comes face to face with her stalker, he tells her that he has been sent by “the real Mima” to eliminate the imposter, when in actuality he is holding on to his own entitled image of Mima, and is causing severe distress and, eventually, physical harm to Mima the person.

Even the final twist of the film, that it was Mima’s manager Rumi behind everything, adds interesting dimensions to the themes of voyeurism and idolisation. The fact that the film’s ultimate villain is another woman is especially compelling, as it highlights the ways in which even women can add to the struggles of other women by subscribing to the same high standards. These standards are often set by patriarchal forces, or at least by forces that objectify and commodify women in the public spotlight. Even women can be guilty of such objectification. Such treatment threatens female mental health at best, and female safety at worst.

In that sense, there is something delicately feminist at the core of “Perfect Blue”. Rumi is herself a former pop idol and so, distressed by Mima’s radical change, begins to experience her own form of psychosis in the form of multiple personality disorder. By physically and adopting the role of “the true Mima” she is effectively Mima’s haunting doppelganger given life, which she does as a means to vicariously live through Mima and relive the glory days that she has since lost and Mima has since traded in. None of it is glorified or, god forbid, fetishised, and is instead portrayed with the full impact of anxiety that it warrants. When viewed through the lens of how public relations to public figures has evolved through the increased exposure of social media and the internet, and the already nail-biting climax involving a chase through the streets somehow manages to take on even more petrifying dimensions.

Add it all up, and you have a phenomenal horror film that has aged, maybe not like a fine wine, but more like a haunted fable that just gets scarier the further time passes. Through its powerful themes, mesmerizingly intense visuals and delicate, empathetic portrayals of a vulnerable central character, Satoshi Kon’s debut remains as hypnotically fascinating as it is engagingly stressful – even more so all these years later. One of the greatest tragedies of modern cinema is that Kon was taken away so soon after only four films. With such an imaginative knack for horror and animated splendour, his mark on the medium of anime could have been even greater than it already is. Yet one that fans of animation and horror can take comfort in is that “Perfect Blue” remains an ingenious work of terrible voyeurism and mental instability all these years later. Given its track record, its themes are only coming to become even more resonant with time.


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