Perfect Blue (1997)

D: Satoshi Kon
S: Voices of: Junko Iwao (Japanese version), Ruby Marlow (English version)

Thought-provoking psychological thriller from the novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi which deals in the kind of elastic reality frequently featured in the films of Brian De Palma (Raising Cain, Dressed to Kill) in which a subjective world view blends with an objective one to the point where the audience itself is eventually implicated in the collapse of the central character's rationality. Pop singer Mima Kirigoe (voiced in the Japanese language version by Junko Iwao and in English by Ruby Marlow) decides to abandon her career as a plastic pubescent icon in favour of a more dramatic and adult persona as a 'serious' actor. She takes a role in a television drama series about a serial killer which involves simulated rape, murder, and a nude photo shoot for publicity. A web site devoted to (and apparently created by) her pop persona then begins to document 'her' objection to her change of direction. When a series of brutal murders occur in reality which have uncanny echoes with those taking place on the TV show, she begins to fear for her sanity. Could she be committing the murders herself out of a deep-seated reaction to her own inner shame at what she is doing? Is she rehearsing scenes from the script or playing out scenes from her fantasies? Are her constant black-outs a sign that reality itself is crumbling? Can illusions become real? What is the self if not a persona?

There are a lot of interesting moments in director Satoshi Kon's animated film. It has a lot to say about stardom, stalkers, self, and the socio-psychological questions raised by the two personae of this female character. On one hand her pop star image is based around the usual Japanese doll/child clichés, which allows the primarily male fans to fantasise about possessing her in an innocent but not entirely wholesome way. On the other, her new 'serious' image involves acts she herself considers degrading, which though liberating her on one level and making the sexual side of herself explicit to her audience, traps her emotionally and psychologically on another, deeper, and more dangerous level. The psychological duality of a woman's attempts to find her real self in a world of representation and persona plays well in an animé film. Its simplistic animation and stylised realism allows Kon to take subtle (and not so subtle) digs at the Manga/animé form itself which can lend itself to an excessively 'comic book' approach to reality (the film opens with an amusing gag about a Power Rangers-type show which fans complain looks too fake when done on stage (as opposed to the 'reality' of the TV show). Watch also for a drawing of a drawing of the standard wide-eyed cutesy character of Manga and animé which decorates a subway car). Though the animation itself is unsophisticated, the drawings are quite detailed, and Kon makes great use of visual correspondences between scenes in different versions of reality to keep the viewer on edge. Scenes which may be taking part on TV, in 'reality', or in the minds of either Mima or her stalker are literally drawn to resemble one another, and as the narrative becomes increasingly fragmented (when Mina begins blacking out and waking up in her apartment), the audience is equally unsure about what is real and what is not. This both evokes and represents the sense of claustrophobia and paranoia which envelops its central character, and thus matches form to content quite neatly. It is unsettling and gripping at times, and seems to get better as it goes.

This is not the most original material in the world, of course. We have seen elements of this kind of thing before in a variety of films including at least two named The Fan (1981 and 1996). The level of graphic violence and sexual imagery is relatively new and the detail on the pitfalls and paradoxes of stardom for young females in Japan adds interest. The story is involving and works hard to downplay the more traditional flourishes of Japanese animation in favour of exploring the psychology of its central character. It does eventually prove disappointing though as the resolution, though not unexpected, is unfortunately literal and almost as problematic as a portrayal of Japanese femininity as those it has questioned throughout. It is also, despite the in-jokey final image of Mima's face in the rear-view mirror of her car (shades of Taxi Driver?), altogether too upbeat for its own good.

The vocal acting in the English language version is not bad (thank God), but the American accents do not sit well with the Japanese setting and character design. Viewers are therefore recommended to seek out the subtitled version, though this brings its own problems in terms of appreciating the intricacies of design and draughtsmanship in the animation.

Perfect Blue is worth seeing, though it will inevitably still appeal to a relatively small audience predisposed to the animé form. Despite its many good points, it will not reach the cross over audience that Akira did (Katsuhiro Otomo is credited here as a 'special advisor'). Made as a live-action feature, it would probably have appealed to a broader market, but it could equally have descended into a cheap made-for-video exploitation flick. In Kon's hands it keeps an adult tone and an aesthetic edge which makes it above average.

Note: The Region 2 DVD features both the English language and subtitled versions, plus interviews with some of the cast and a fairly incoherent one with Kon himself. It also features an additional audio performance by the fictional pop band (called CHAM: read 'Sham', geddit?) which only those with a taste for Japanese pop music will think of as much of a bonus.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.