If you’re a fan of anime or manga, it’s somewhat inevitable you’ll come to learn of the wider landscape of the Japanese entertainment industry. One of the biggest parts of this is idol culture, where celebrities (mostly female) are subject to intense scrutiny by a near-obsessed fanbase. Pretty much every culture is celebrity obsessed but none perhaps more than Japan. Western culture might morbidly thrill to watching a celebrity’s public image crumble, but in Japan, the public image is something to be maintained at any cost. This can reach the rather tragic situation that if one of these women dares to show a facet of humanity, her fanbase can lash out in the extreme. It’s this bleak subculture that late visionary director Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue sets out to explore.
Mima is a singer in CHAM, a J-Pop idol trio. Advised that she could expand her career, Mima hesitantly announces she is resigning from the group in order to pursue a career in acting. That very evening she receives a threatening fax decrying her as a ‘traitor’ and soon after, those involved with her career begin to be brutally murdered. Trapped between her own regret and the horror of an increasingly darker situation, her mental balance spirals out of control. What is real and what is fiction? Who exactly is Mima Kirigoe?
As said, the idol culture isn’t a pretty picture. It presents obvious potential for stories laden with social commentary, with its promise to grant young women’s dreams at the cost of denying them human expression, combined with the legions of male fans who sit in obsessed judgement of these semi-artificial personas, ready to dump them for the next fresh face.
Satoshi Kon’s works are known for their exploration of the human psyche, and more specifically how we tell the difference between dreams and reality and the emotional triggers that throw this out of balance. These are masterfully expressed themes throughout Perfect Blue. We’re introduced to Mima as a believable young woman with a minor celebrity career, nothing over the top saccharine or negative. Just a believable and relatable protagonist aiming for fame. The dark situation she becomes locked in starts to challenge those conceptions for both herself and the audience. I want to be cautious in what I say because I don’t want to spoil the experience for those who haven’t seen the film yet, but the presentation of cinema itself is a unique factor in exploring Mima’s mental pressure. Sequences are linked in such a way that you are kept constantly on your toes and almost feel like you’re having a mental breakdown yourself. It’s incredibly artistically done.
One of the more overt signs of imbalance is ‘virtual Mima’, a ghost-like embodiment of the character in her CHAM costume who appears to constantly heckle and belittle the ‘real’ one with accusations of lying to herself, and that the increasingly adult themed work she’s accepting has soiled her in the eyes of her audience. The undertaking of such work is presented in painful sequences which are intended to be difficult to watch while highlighting the questionable decision to make a business out of this. The strongest of these involves a sexual assault sequence being added to the drama Mima is co-starring in, where the horror of the act is juxtaposed against the pedestrian filming of the sequence, making it exceptionally uncomfortable to watch on many different levels at once.
In some ways it might be possible to misread the film as criticising idols who wish to leave behind a squeaky clean image as being the same ‘irredeemably tainted’ that Mima starts to believe herself to be. I call that a misread because instead the film seems to be criticising the fact that the idol culture traps these women between two such extremes in the first place. They must either be angelic frozen children or go completely to the other extreme, rather than allowing them the freedom to be and portray real people. The way the Japanese entertainment culture treats women as product rather than people and seemingly puts a ‘disposable’ in front of ‘human resources’ is firmly in the film’s sights.
It says a lot that a film from the late 90’s still has a lot worth saying on idol culture today, but one element that hasn’t aged quite as well is the usage of the internet. Mima becomes aware of a supposedly fan-made blog styled as her diary and becomes increasingly alarmed at how in depth it is in regards to her daily life. While still workable and effective as a creepy plot element, it definitely feels like a late 90’s response to the web and loses something in the face of the age of social media where commentary and tidbits run rampant.
The film is presented in a choice of English Dolby Digital 5.1, Japanese LPCM 2.0 and Japanese DTS-MA 5.1. I chose to watch the film dubbed and it’s actually a pretty good performance. Older anime movie titles often suffer for poor dubs but there’s plenty of experienced talent at work here, with the worst I can say being the few times Ruby Marlowe’s Mima sounds a bit too energetic, compared to the reserved animation but made me buy into the character within moments. Wendee Lee also does well as Mima’s supportive manager Rumi — who better to portray a no nonsense, good-hearted woman of the industry than one herself?
The animation is dated, but holds up well and looks all the better for a Blu-ray transfer. It’s actually nice to venture back to the days when you could expect good consistent cel animation, rather than suddenly being hit with a blatant CGI element. One of the best parts is the carefree gliding-skipping of virtual Mima, especially when juxtaposed against the more realistic animation of ‘true’ Mima giving chase. It’s the kind of thing you could only pull off in animation and done in just the right way to deepen the mystery of if she’s a delusion or not. Points also for the awkward grin displayed by the recurring apparent stalker Mr. Me-Mania, done in such a way you’re not sure if you’re judging him based purely on looks or if he’s as creepy as his appearance.
The Collector’s Edition comes as a DVD/Blu-ray set with some nice packaging and art cards. On the disc itself, the focus is mainly on brief interviews including Kon himself and the Japanese voice of Mima, plus her English voice and two other key dub cast members. The interviews don’t go on too long, but do reveal some interesting facts, such as the process Ruby Marlowe used to distinguish the portrayals of Mima and virtual Mima. There’s also full English and Japanese versions of a CHAM song that is key to establishing themes of the story, plus the international and Japanese trailers. I advise not watching those until after the film, as the international trailer actually spoils things to try and sell the movie.
Perfect Blue is a legendary film, and after finally getting the chance to watch it I can only say this is deservedly so. Anyone can make a pointlessly dark story, but it is the mark of a true master to do a dark story that is thought provoking, challenging, makes best use of the media presented, and in some way uplifting. Satoshi Kon may sadly no longer be with us but he left an incredible library of works for audiences. Make sure this one is in yours.