Perfect Blue (Pāfekuto Burū) 1997
Not for kids, obviously.
As a side note, I found it surprising that here in Australia my DVD release (the uncut version) is rated MA rather than R, which would be more in line with the rest of the world.
Which I guess is meant to be a segue into a point about content – Perfect Blue is a psychological thriller featuring early internet culture and horror elements, a fair amount of gore and sexualised violence. There are other films out there that are more full-on but this is still a confronting adaptation*.
It’s also compelling on every level; from the intertwined elements of narrative, character, and sound to the visuals and the script and acting – I feel like it’s hyperbolic of me to say, but it’s probably a masterpiece.
I know that’s a loaded word but I can’t give everything I review here a rating of 3 or 4 stars, can I? 😀
So, preamble aside – I should mention the premise finally:
The film follows Mima Kirigoe, a member of a Japanese idol group, who retires from music to pursue an acting career. As she becomes a victim of stalking, gruesome murders begin to occur, and Mima starts to lose her grip on reality.
And that blurring of reality and fantasy when I first saw the film was so immersive, and I love it now too, even though I know what’s going on when it comes to those subsequent viewings.
I was definitely wrong in my prediction about who was responsible for the murders when I was younger. But if you’re quicker than me, you won’t need any second or third screenings to see all the clues, because they’re nice and clear and so the truth doesn’t seem like it comes from out of no-where. There’s no cheap, empty twist.
But I hope if you have never seen Perfect Blue that you still experience a bit of surprise at the ending.
And if you were inclined to watch this film more than once, I hope you also get a chance to focus on the mechanics. I won’t go deep into the production and story elements but I want to use just two classic examples, editing and camera/point of view, to discuss how effortlessly Perfect Blue establishes that feeling of unreality and positions the camera as an unreliable narrator.
[From here, I think it’s possible to see and/or infer spoilers, so tread with caution]
Onscreen, we are shown Mima as the following over the course of the story:
- Idol turned actress/centrefold
- A character on drama Double Bind
- Blogger from ‘Mima’s Room’
However, the intercutting between scenes, locations and roles is often done without viewer cues for time or space.
This is one way that Perfect Blue visually represents that blurring between real and unreal. And when the cutting-rhythm between picks up its pace to show Mima’s state of fear and disorientation, the same effect is cast onto the viewer too.
Here, I’m thinking especially of a long sequence in Mima’s room where she’s waking up over and over when the frequency of cut becomes fast as 2 to 3 seconds compared to maybe an average of 5 or 6 seconds elsewhere. Obviously, it’s not a strobe effect (not yet) but the audience doesn’t get a lot of time to interrogate what they see. Instead, you’re dragged along, just as unsure as Mima is about exactly what’s real.
On to camera!
Camera (and its role in creating point of view) when it comes to storytelling is clearly a very versatile tool.
But I want to focus on when it presents as ‘objective’ and ‘omniscient’ by nature of its ability to see and show things beyond what a main/point of view character perceives.
Again, as with the editing** what I’m always thrilled to notice here is how unreliably the camera operates in the film.
Kon takes advantage of our assumptions. Firstly, if we are shown something on screen that Mimi is not aware of then it is true. This is definitely a feint but it’s aided by the storyline and the idea that the camera is objective – the idea that it shows us, the audience, truth.
We see what Mima cannot see/remember, even if Mima is not involved in events because we need that extra information to think that we’re ‘ahead’ of Mima, that we might know who the killer is and why they kill.
Secondly, we assume that we’re generally riding along in Mima’s point of view during the film. This is another natural assumption. It’s her story, her struggle, and we spend the most amount of time watching her, invested in her life. When the narration moves beyond Mima and her immediate surrounds, it’s almost always to show how other folks are interested in Mima.
These assumptions help the camera to operate in that sly way of the unreliable narrator.
In a movie asking us ‘what is real?’, the scenes it chooses to show us are often clothed in Mima.
When we witness Mima murdering the sleazy photographer and right after see her inability to recall how bloody clothes appeared in her wardrobe, we accept that what we’ve seen is truth. After all, Mima has been having trouble keeping track of reality and we know she deeply resented filming the rape scene at the club. Of course Mima is somehow involved in the murder! And yet… just because the camera showed us something from ‘her point of view’, doesn’t mean we must accept any of that at face value.
I hope I was able to explain what I saw in those elements, as it stands that’s probably giving a bit much away re: spoilers, if you’ve never watched the film. If you have seen Perfect Blue, then you doubtless know what I’m talking about there.
Okay, so moving on from production and story elements now, I want to write about one of the major themes, and also quote Kon’s related remarks.
The exploitation of pop idols is one theme that runs through the movie but perhaps not in a didactic way – at least, not via dialogue. Perfect Blue is still a psychological thriller rather than being a drama or documentary, but the entertainment industry and related obsessions are key to everything that happens.
I suppose you could argue that putting a naive singer through such horrors is in and of itself a heavy-handed comment on the industry but it doesn’t strike me as a lie either. Pop idols (world-wide, not just in Japan) are certainly regularly exploited. (Here’s a much better article on the film and topic).
And Horror can not only function to illuminate the evil that humans are responsible for, but become cautionary too. For me, the story of Perfect Blue has that effect.
Getting back to my opening comment, I want to repeat the idea that this film isn’t for kids. Sexual violence is a significant part of the plot. It’s used as a weapon by the entertainment industry, almost as a way to tarnish Mima’s reputation and inflict self-loathing and doubt (and thus, presumably, later make her much easier for the industry to control).
In fact, the writing of the rape scene into Double Bind isn’t really considered a decision worth involving Mima in, the scriptwriter and director are more worried about her agency’s reaction.
The same violence is also both a threat (and action) from a certain character and shot in such a way that definitely evokes terror. (And so if you know that’s something you don’t want to see then skip Perfect Blue.)
Satoshi Kon himself seems to be of two minds about the club scene from Double Bind especially. The special features on my disc include interviews and lectures and in one part, he is looking back on the film from years later, which I found very interesting:
“At the time, it was supposed to be an OVA. We didn’t know it was to be released in theaters. So we thought we had to make it stand out as much as possible. OVAs don’t get a lot of publicity. So I thought we should have a graphic scene, but I went too far.”
“But this scene was too graphic. When I saw this blown up on a threater-size screen, I ended up looking down.”
These quotes make me wonder exactly how much pressure the industry and OVA-era forms put on creators, as well as performers? Is Kon suggesting that he might have made a different version of the same story if he directed it during a different time, after becoming so well-known?
Impossible to know, of course.
Now, I can’t miss an opportunity to mention Darren Aronofsky.
You might know his films, two of which are Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. In the same interview/lectures I mention above, Kon mentions that Aronofsky wanted to remake Perfect Blue and you can see here a famous homage(?) from Requiem for a Dream and if you are familiar with the premise and tone of Perfect Blue then you’ll be right at home with Black Swan.
I’m not as well-read on this issue as others out there but Kon didn’t seem to be too impressed himself.
And finally now, I should mention that nostalgia plays a roll in how much I enjoy Perfect Blue. Both for a time when the internet was young and for something I first saw long ago. (In terms of the technology aging, I think it’d be fun to update things with today’s technology if this film were ever remade).
To my eye, pretty much everything looks top notch from Madhouse in terms of the animation and backgrounds etc but if you’ve been raised on modern, bright anime then the colours here may feel a little dull (which adds to the realism of course).
I don’t want to forget mentioning Masahiro Ikumi’s disturbing score, which will probably echo in your head for a while after watching the film – especially Virtual Mima. Some parts evoke a real clash of analogue and digital and it’s all drenched in tension 😀
This has turned into one of the longer reviews I’ve written for quite a while and so I think it’s time to wrap things up, otherwise it’ll never end.
I think this might be Kon’s best film although my favourite of his is probably still Paprika, but if you’re seeking something equal parts confronting and compelling, then Perfect Blue is probably worth seeing at least once.
*Pāfekuto Burū: Kanzen Hentai as written by Yoshikazu Takeuchi.
**Costume plays a really big role here too.
WordPress is (for whatever reason) not letting me add captions to the images but I want to note a couple of things – the ‘anime billboard/poster’ is funny and I noticed that like in many other films from Satoshi Kon, film-making itself is once again referenced in the story.
The recurring reflection motif is sometimes very ‘upfront’ like in the first image, and other times a little more subtle like in the image two above.
The amount of clutter in a lot of the rooms really adds to the sense of claustrophobia that develops in some scenes.
I also eventually noticed just how often the camera shows us Mima from behind, hiding her face and expression, maybe obscuring her relationship to the Mimi who torments her?