I think I’ve seen Roujin Z described a dark comedy fairly often, but one that is set within the plot boundaries (I guess) of a science fiction film. Or even of a monster movie, since there is definitely something large and dangerous threatening the city here.
Roujin Z Rōjin Zetto(1991)
But one obvious theme that gets discussed just as regularly, is the treatment and care of the elderly.
It’s obviously a topic that doesn’t get a lot of attention in any film medium, not just anime, so I was glad to see it in Roujin Z. It adds a lot of sombre moments, and painful ones too, the kind of ones that you’d hope policy-makers and bean-counters would take heed of.
Okay, so here’s the premise phrased as a question – what if a high-tech bed, one that doubled as a life-support system for the elderly, went on a rampage? (Okay, there’s a LOT more to it than that, but I don’t want to go into spoilers here. Also, I’m feeling a bit lazy).
Despite all of my reading about the film, it took me many years to finally find and watch Roujin Z, and I went in with pretty high expectations, noting director Hiroyuki Kitakubo and writer Katsuhiro Otomo (amongst others like Satoshi Kon), behind the scenes.
I was certainly not disappointed either – as it is amazing from start to finish, from animation to story and character, setting; it’s all executed so well to my eye.
Perhaps especially the characterisation.
It’s not jam-packed with one-note characters for a start.
Instead, the themes are played out via the conflicts both between and within the leads, as much as it is via the technology.
And more disconcerting than the militarised aspect to Kijuro’s bed, is the supposed dignified, helpful aspects – such as the management of bodily functions. The well-intentioned but misguided Takashi embodies the tragic need for such a device, and it’s great to see him drift away from antagonist to take a stand against the larger threat, military stooge Yoshihiko.
Other smaller characters are nice mixes of principled and cowardly, and even the ‘horny old guy’ trope so common to anime doesn’t just lumber its way through the anime; as the elderly residents who band together to save Kijuro reveal more than one facet to their actions.
Visually, I was of course super-happy to see lots of detail and integration of character and setting/background, to see the old school ‘solid’ use of colour to evoke different lighting effects. Another stand out aspect were the flashbacks, they had a sombre tone, matched by the softer colours, and the ‘disappearing’ of the characters.
Getting back to character now, before I finish, I meant to mention her before, but Haruko is a classic anime heroine, kind, strong and moral, and determined enough to get some justice without superpowers or gadgets.
Great ending and the final shot is a nice surprise too.
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?
Greetings! Today I wanted to share my first collaboration post – Curtis and I have teamed up to review and discuss Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers 🙂
It was heaps of fun to work together on this and I hope you’ve got a few mins to take a look – and if you’ve never seen the film, I do recommend hunting it down, something that should be easy enough with a new dub on the way I hope.
Katsuhiro Otomo had been involved with two other anthologies (and one afterwards) prior to Memories, and while I’m still hunting down Neo Tokyo, I’m pretty confident in saying that Memories will remain my favourite.
And maybe there’s a certain amount of nostalgia in that – some of the stuff we see as teenagers seems to cling to us for decades after, right? Well, this is one of those titles but I think most anime fans would enjoy at least two out of the three shorts in this anthology regardless of the production context or their age.
let me re-phrase, if you like science-fiction and a bit of light horror, maybe
some dark comedy or allegory, then Memories
has you covered.
The anthology is made up of three pieces – all based on Katsuhiro Otomo’s short manga works, and features three directors.
For me (and for most folks it seems) the stand out is Magnetic Rose (dir. Kōji Morimoto), which is as haunting as it is beautiful. Everything about it is top notch and I’d recommend seeing Magnetic Rose if you had to choose just one.
Now, I’m definitely biased as there’s a lot of involvement from some of my favourite industry figures – there’s the Otomo source material and a screenplay by Satoshi Kon and music by Yoko Kanno, but the nightmarish search of the ruined ship and its decaying memories really is mesmerising.
The other two stories, Stink Bomb (dir. Tensai Okamura) and Cannon Fodder (dir. Katsuhiro Otomo) are just as well put-together but for me not quite as good as the opener – Stink Bomb has some moments of dark comedy but it’s closer to a tragedy in the end, and features such great animation too.
The final short is easily the more distinctive when it comes to art style, but perhaps due to its allegorical nature the message seemed stronger than the story; it feels closer to being a vignette actually.
I actually would love to see more of the anthology format today, as it seems to have resurface only occasionally across the last twenty years.
Or maybe it’s more that I’ve missed them? Obviously I remember Short Peacefrom 2013 and I was also excited to see that Studio Ponoc’s second work is also an anthology (Modest Heroes) so the anthology approach isn’t ‘gone’ at all but it did seem like it was no longer in fashion for quite a while there.
I still feel sad that fans will never see another Satoshi Kon film – but at least I can always re-watch the ones he made.
Millennium Actress is one that’s sometimes described as a mirror of Kon’s far darker Perfect Blue, but this film is not really a stroll in the park either, as it’s quite sombre, even at times heartbreaking.
Millennium Actress is a drama that doubles as a sort of love-note to cinema itself (and especially Japanese cinema).
It has love, jealousy, bitterness and desperation mixed together, presented via a blend of reality and a seamless integration of clips from films that feature actress (and main character) Chiyoko, whose search for a lost love spans decades across the course of the film.
The way her recollections and stories bleed into the present and then in turn incorporate the interviewers as well, is awesome.
If you enjoyed the uncertainty of ‘what is real’ from Kon’s later film Paprika then you’ll probably like Millennium Actress too, though it’s not science-fiction/thriller.
In fact, if you don’t like dramas/films that have a deep focus on character/are heavily intertextual*, then you might not like this at all, now that I’ve started on the comparisons 😀
This is also the first to feature Susumu Hirasawa on the OST of a Satoshi Kon film (a relationship that continued for several collaborations) and introduced me to his work. One of my favs from the film is below:
*Heaps of the references were well beyond me, but if you’re a student of the film history of Japan, you’ll probably recognise some parallels with the lives of actresses Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine.
If you’ve seen and enjoyed Inception, you’ll probably like the film that inspired it in so many ways – Paprika, though obviously both movies tackle themes and ideas that have been well-explored in the past.
Paprika (Papurika) 2006
And while Paprika is an adaptation, I think you could almost call Inception the same thing, though between the two, one text adapts a novel and the other kinda adapts the aesthetic and some central concerns of Kon’s movie.
All the films directed by the late Satoshi Kon are superb, I reckon – and yep, I’m obviously a fan – and Paprika is no exception.
I tend to think that this one, a surreal psychological thriller, is maybe his peak as a director, even if Millenium Actress is perhaps more heartfelt and I personally enjoy Perfect Blue the most.
But as an adaption of the 1993 novel (a novel I did read but only after seeing the film), I found the movie to be a much more consistent work from top to bottom. I’m unfairly comparing the two mediums here, but sometimes surrealism works better in the visual.
Here’s a synopsis:
In the near future, a revolutionary new psychotherapy treatment called dream therapy has been invented. A device called the “DC Mini” allows the user to view people’s dreams.The head of the team working on this treatment, Doctor Atsuko Chiba, begins using the machine illegally to help psychiatric patients outside the research facility, using her alter-ego “Paprika”, a sentient persona that she assumes in the dream world.
Generally, the use and mis-use of the DC Minis are the crimes that the Doc (and my fav character, Detective Konakawa) must investigate. And because reality and dream is blended so often in the story, they certainly have a tough time of it – stumbling after uncertain clues and unclear adversaries.
But I was hooked for every moment, never quite sure what the characters would face next. And due to that uncertainty around reality, there was heaps of room to bring in something you’ll probably notice me mention more than once on the blog, Intertextuality.
Since Konakawa studied film-making, and his recurring dream relates to that, there are plenty of allusions to classic Hollywood cinema and other texts throughout the film. (And there’s a Monkeyreference too!) but it was also fun to see the art of cinema and film-making itself referenced as well.
There’s more to Paprika than its allusions of course, from the themes of identity, obsession, love, memory and the fear of technology – it’s also equal parts creepy and touching (at times).
While you can expect a certain amount of classic anime tropes to appear here, just as many are subverted really well – especially via the supporting cast.
When compared to Perfect Blue (which most folks consider, probably rightly, as Kon’s masterpiece) I think Paprika is not so relentlessly dark. There are more than a few light moments during the film, especially thanks to Paprika herself, but also in part due to the surrealism, which can be equal parts comedic and disturbing.
In terms of a recommendation, I think the R rating (or ‘M’ if you’re in Australia) is still fitting even if they tend to change over the years, so Paprika is not one for the youngest of teens but should impress if you’re into psychological thrillers.
Now, I feel that I haven’t spoken too often about specifics for this review, but that’s quite on purpose – as I don’t want to spoil one of my fav movies too much!