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Perfect Blue – Celebrity Virtue

Satoshi Kon passed away on Tuesday this past week, of pancreatic cancer. He was 46, which is far too young for anyone to die, but his death is made all the more painful by the fact that he was one of the greatest directors working in animation today.

Kon’s films frequently contain the kind of surreal, dreamlike imagery and nonlinear storytelling that characterize the films of directors like David Lynch, but with a more animated, fantastical approach. He’s the kind of director that is a perfect fit for the anime medium, although Perfect Blue isn’t the best example of that.

CHAM is one of many low-tier pop-idol groups in the late 90s with a small but devoted fan base

Perfect Blue is his first film, a very loose adaptation of a novel by the same name, made in 1998. It follows the career of Mima Kirigoe, who leaves the pop-idol group CHAM to become an actress, despite her childhood dream of being a singer, because of the promise of a bigger career. She gets a bit part in the drama show Double Bind, which turns into a reoccurring role and turns her into a minor celebrity.

The turning point is when she is asked to be the victim in a rape scene for Double Bind. Her longtime manager (and former pop-idol), Rumi Hikada warns against it, saying it will ruin her reputation, but Mima accepts for the good of the her managing company, and her career.

Her fans from CHAM are put off by the transition away from her squeaky clean pop persona, and start harassing her. She receives threatening faxes and phone calls, a stalker follows her everywhere, and people involved with her projects keep getting murdered.

In 1997, the use of the Internet was really edgy and novel in a movie. It's a very realistic use of it, too, especially for an era when the word 'cyberspace' was still being uttered unironically

Meanwhile, Mima herself is on the verge of a breakdown, torn between her desire to be successful with the things she has to do to achieve that success. Reality and fiction become blurred and leave her with questions she can’t answer: why is someone who knows intimate details of her life posting a journal in her name on the (then novel and unfamiliar) Internet? Why are there bloody clothes in her dresser? Why can’t she remember long stretches of time? Is she becoming her character in Double Bind, a serial killer with multiple personalities?

The answers are surprising and clever. As a psychological thriller, Perfect Blue is excellent. It has a tight pace that quickly catalogs Mima’s rise to minor fame, subsequent breakdown and apparent redemption in under 90 minutes, with enough red herrings and potential causes of the ontological dissonance to keep people guessing. But the things that make it unique are the direction and editing that allow Kon to create this sense of confusion.

The gossiping of CHAM's devoted fan base acts as a chorus of sorts, murmuring about what's going on in the film

As Mima gets more and more distressed, and her life spins further and further out of control, Kon’s editing becomes quicker and more frenetic. Scenes intercut quickly, sometimes in mid sentence, and scenes from Double Bind become intertwined with real life, to suggest the parallels between Mima and her character. The result is a surreal atmosphere that leaves the viewer, much like Mima herself, unable to figure out what’s going on.

Events happen rapidly and without context, as if they had simply been fated. It’s an excellent visual representation of Mima’s own disorientation and lack of agency.

Mima's nude photo shoot is another part of the reluctant shedding of her pop star image

This blurring between reality and fantasy would become a hallmark of Kon’s work, but here it’s at its most stark and realistic. Most other works that have the two intermingling—including many of Kon’s—often have to resort to science fiction or fantasy gimmicks in order to make sense narratively, which typically undercuts the effect.

But Perfect Blue makes its very clear that nothing of the sort is happening (from the repeated line on Double Bind, “Illusions can’t become reality”), while making it appear that something fantastical is actually going on.

Apparently, Darren Aronofsky bought the film rights for Perfect Blue just so he could homage this scene in Requiem for a Dream

Kon begins setting this up early, even before Mima’s world starts getting out of control. The best example of this is the rape scene, which is probably also the film’s most memorable scene. From the start, it’s evident that this isn’t real: it’s just shooting a show, but when the camera starts rolling, the frame tightens to just what would be on screen and completes the illusion. Then the director calls ‘cut’, the extras start rustling around and murmuring and the man raping Mima is apologizing for having to do this.

The only substantial problem I have with Perfect Blue is that it doesn’t really need to be an animated film. I guess it makes the gruesome murder scenes look less corny than they would in live action, but it’s not like there isn’t an entire cottage industry devoted to making movie violence look as realistic and painful as possible.

Mima's ever-cheerful pop persona lives on, in the form of a hallucination that acts as her conscience and tormentor

It does allow the hallucinatory manifestation of Mima’s pop-idol alter ego, who torments her as she strays farther from her dreams as a pop idol, to be more convincing. I can’t think of a way to easily make pop-Mima as vibrant and mobile as she is in the film—hopping nimbly through Tokyo atop lampposts, or merrily leading real-Mima on a mad chase through a radio studio—at least not on the direct-to-video budget Perfect Blue was made on.

Mima is followed everywhere by her stalker, known only by his online handle, MR ME-MANIA (a play on the pronunciation of Mima's name)

For the most part, though, this could be a live action film: it’s mostly people talking, or making a TV show, in late 1990s Japan. But it would still be a really, really good live action film. One of those classic movies film geeks tell other film geeks in freshman dorms, “you have to see this.” For anime, that’s one of the highest forms of praise I can give. And a reason why Kon will be sorely missed.

Rumi Hikada, Mima's manager, is her confidant and resident authority figure

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  1. January 29, 2011 at 11:22 pm

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