Perfect blue (1997): An unknown modern masterpiece 

Hiram Harrington

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Satoshi Kon is not a name familiar to Western audiences, and wrongfully so. The Japanese director, known for his challenging animated features, has proved to be one of the most influential figures in modern cinema. You’ve certainly seen Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but have you seen the equally mind-bending Paprika? Your skin crawled during Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan, so why haven’t you heard of their even more disturbing predecessors? Kon’s penchant for stylish filmmaking has worked its way firmly into the vernacular of epic Hollywood pictures. One strange story, of a woman on the brink of sanity, stands out above all others from his career: Perfect Blue.

Perfect Blue follows the story of Mima Kirigoe, a J-Idol singer-turned-actress. After leaving her wildly successful bubblegum-pop girl group CHAM!, Mima sets out to pursue a career as a serious actress. She is offered a part in a crime series, but the pressure of the role and her drive to succeed soon blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. With a malicious stalker pursuing her every move and publishing a fake diary of her life online, Mima begins a downward spiral into the dark, the insane, and the ultimately murderous.

The title of “modern masterpiece” is not one that should be given lightly. To be a film of such prowess, it must boldly go where none of its peers dared to tread, and inspire others to walk that same path, while maintaining a level of artistic and narrative integrity. To say that in a less utterly self-indulgent way, a modern masterpiece should stir something unlike anything before. Perfect Blue does this in two ways: a bold stylistic vision, and a thrillingly twisted narrative.

Before even scratching the surface of Mima’s story, it is the animation of Perfect Blue that strikes the viewer. Drawn by the art studio Madhouse (fans of Death Note and One-Punch Man may be familiar), there is a fluidity to the art style that sets it apart from the mass-produced anime more familiar to Western audiences (the likes of Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh), with a level of detail that makes it impressive even by today’s standards. It is however, brutally realistic. The choreography from Mima’s girl group CHAM! is drawn intentionally out of unison to mimic the movements of an actual stage performance. Each break in reality is rendered in exquisite colour, incorporating fish, flowers, and body horror in a stunning rendering of the disintegration of the human psyche.

A particularly famous scene shows Mima in the bath, lost in her thoughts with her head beneath the surface. Suddenly, her eyes jerk open, and she screams violently into the water around her. The sound is horribly distorted, but the image of Mima alone in the water has remained infamous. So chilling, in fact, that Darren Aronofsky purchased the remake rights to Perfect Blue solely to have Jennifer Connolly recreate the moment in 2000’s Requiem For A Dream. These raw physical exhibitions of Mima throughout Perfect Blue are an example of Kon’s mastery over the animated medium. The film was originally intended to be a live action film, but due to an abrupt loss of support during pre-production Satoshi Kon pushed for the film to be animated. Each surrealist melt, every bloody confrontation is shown in such a way that makes it inconceivable to an audience that this story could have been told any other way.

Intricate as Perfect Blue’s visuals may be, the crazed story of Mima’s career is the true draw of the film. We sympathise with her desire to better her career almost immediately. CHAM! Is a sickly-sweet archetype of J-pop supergroups, a genre of performance so alien to us as non-Japanese viewers that we instantly understand her desire to distance herself from it. When she decides to retire from this career path, it causes backlash from two major forces in her life: her manager, Rumi Hidaka, and an obsessive stalker known as “Me-Mania”. Me-Mania is the catalyst for Mima’s descent into madness. They run a website known as “Mima’s Room”, where they post diary entries in vivid detail about Mima’s life. As Me-Mania’s rage and resentment increases towards Mima and becomes dangerously violent, Mima begins to blur the separation between this online version of herself and the real thing. This element of Perfect Blue rings unnervingly contemporary as a viewer in 2019.

Films that toy with the idea of a broken reality and mental stability rarely end with happiness for their disturbed protagonists. One only needs to look at the canon of our own cinema history to see that: Shutter Island, Donnie Darko, and many other psychological thrillers end with a main character doomed to continue suffering or meeting their fate. Even in modern rape-revenge horrors that feature women exacting vengeance on their violators are exploitative in their depictions of female suffering. Perfect Blue has oft been criticised for playing into violent stereotypes of Japanese anime. Women on the receiving end of pain and mutilation was a recurring trend in the particular era of manga from which Perfect Blue was born. The more universally recognised series from the time, Akira, featured a recurring subplot of one of the main characters keeping a sex slave amongst the bodies of the women he had murdered, a removed facet some welcomed in the screen adaptation. A traumatic scene in Perfect Blue sees Mima believing she is being raped by her co-star while filming, and is the moment commonly cited as the point at which the film plummets towards the dark. Mima is also shown to commit acts of violence herself, whether accidentally or purposefully because of her warped perception. There are moments of violence in excess; though exploitative, one cannot help but see the beauty in their construction. The major difference between Perfect Blue and other narratives of female trauma is that Mima overcomes the harmful forces in her life without resorting to the same depravity that has been inflicted on her. It’s a rare thing to see women experience a descent into madness and come out on the other side stronger for it.

Perfect Blue is no perfect film. There are glaring problems with its treatment of violence and sexual trauma among others, but it does not attempt to be perfect. Satoshi Kon has presented us with a tale of the dangers of stardom and excess as much as a depraved account of the individual’s capacity for cruelty. The Japanese director’s career was tragically cut short after a battle with pancreatic cancer, leaving a legacy of influence over cinema, but never gaining the wide recognition he deserved. We would do well as an audience to know the man who planted seeds of the strange within the jungle that is Hollywood.