Perfect Blue (1997)
Written by Sadayuki Murai
Directed by Satoshi Kon
I have tried to get into anime throughout my life, and I just don’t think it’s my thing. When I was in college, I had friends who would regularly consume Dragonball, Inuyasha, or whatever else was on Toonami. I ended up watching several films & parts of shows like Vampire Hunter D, Hellsing, Attack on Titan, among others. I can say that I usually enjoy feature films. I love Akira and Metropolis; I think they push past many tropes that generally don’t click with me in this particular animation genre. Of course, Miyazaki is fantastic, but he exists in a category all his own. Perfect Blue is something beyond anything I’d ever seen before, an anime with clear links to some of the best psychological thrillers of live-action cinema.
Told in fractured chronology, we follow Mima Kirigoe, a member of a J-pop group, as she leaves to start a solo career as an actress. Mima discovers a website called Me-Mania that purports to be her online diary but presents vivid details of her day-to-day life that no one should know. As the actress takes on roles that challenge perceptions of her, with more graphic nudity and sex, it seems to anger the person writing these diary entries. They begin to describe a different reality that Mima is not experiencing. Eventually, Mima gets a job in a big film, Double Bind, but this moment of progress is interrupted when she begins seeing a hallucination of herself dressed up in her old J-pop outfit. There’s also a fan out there biding their time until they can strike and make Mima pay for the betrayal they perceive she’s done.
Perfect Blue is unlike anything I have ever seen in animation in all the best ways possible. This is clearly an adult piece of art with complex themes and situations, characters are nuanced, and the overall story is so intricate. It’s also not shy to wear its inspirations on its sleeve, clearly deriving its narrative from filmmakers like Hitchcock or Brian De Palma. Some profoundly stylish sequences are right up there with some of the best moments from those directors’ best work.
In particular, Perfect Blue feels right in line with movies centered on identity like Vertigo or Dressed to Kill. The story deals with themes of perceived identity by the public and who a person is in private, and how these two things often contradict each other. Mima’s friend & manager, Rumi, is a figure who acts as a sort of conscience for our protagonist, trying to warn her off of specific projects but ultimately letting Mima choose her own path. The fake diary challenges Mima’s view of herself, pushing her to break their perceptions of her by doing transgressive challenging things.
It can’t be said enough how good the animation is here. It’s evident in the dance scenes with Mima’s former band or any sequence that requires a lot of movement. Characters have a fantastic flow to their actions that had me wondering if this had been rotoscoped, the process of drawing animation over film of live-action performers. It turned out that this technique was used sparingly, and most of what we see on screen is traditional hand-drawn animation. Director Satoshi Kon acknowledged funding issues with the film in its early days, resulting in very few rough patches.
As you watch the film, you’ll be questioning the order of events and strange contradictions right from the start. It’s only by the end of the movie that you can look back and begin to piece things together, understanding when things happened to Mima and just what was real and what was something else. To say anything more would start to spoil what is a beautiful discovery to make on your own. After seeing this movie, I became more interested in Satoshi Kon’s work. I’d heard about him for years but never sat down to watch any of his films. He’s clearly a filmmaker who doesn’t see Japanese animation limiting him to a collection of tropes and formulaic plot lines. Instead, animation is a means to present a story you find in live-action movies, but in a manner you could never hope to do without animation.