I'm The Real Thing: Perfect Blue at 20
(Content Warning: Discussion of Sexual Assault)
“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”
- John Berger
The hallucinatory, icepick-sharp anime thriller Perfect Blue begins with a love song. Mima Kirigoe, the fresh-faced star of the pop idol trio CHAM!, is singing her farewell performance to an audience of mostly bored teenagers and older men. As the girls perform dressed like fluffy pink cake toppers, we see one obsessed fan holding out his arm, so that the tiny figure of Mima appears to be dancing in the palm of his hand. Another group of boys becomes violent, throwing cans at the idols and screaming at them to get off the stage. In this opening scene, director Satoshi Kon succinctly captures what it’s like to be a woman operating in public, subject to the male gaze that can turn possessive or hostile at any moment. And all Mima wanted to do was sing.
Satoshi Kon’s films demand our attention, not just for their complexity and inventiveness, but because there are so few of them. With his untimely death in 2010, the anime director left behind only four completed feature-length films and a 13-episode tv series. As a debut, however, Perfect Blue is so accomplished and startling that though his time was cut short, not a moment of his work feels wasted. It introduced a premise he would further explore in Millennium Actress, Paprika, and Paranoia Agent: young women searching for their identities as the line between dreams and reality becomes blurred. Twenty years after its premiere, Perfect Blue has only gained more relevance as a depiction of a predatory celebrity culture and the internet that feeds it.
A cursory summary of Perfect Blue sounds like the stuff of countless direct-to-video thrillers. Mima (voiced by Junko Iwao) leaves her girl group to rebrand herself as a serious actress, landing a recurring role in the detective series “Double Bind” (note that title). As she sheds her “good girl” image, reluctantly filming a rape scene and sitting for a nude photo shoot, a stalker named “Me-Mania” lurks in the margins of her life, and the people responsible for the “new” Mima start to die violently. That thin outline was the plot of the original Perfect Blue light novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi; Kon takes the story of a stalked starlet and elevates it into something disturbing and unforgettable by putting us inside Mima’s disintegrating personality. Perfect Blue is a masterpiece not of plot, but of perspective.
Mima is a woman with two faces. The opening sequence, the earliest example of Kon using animation to cut revealing swaths between space and time, juxtaposes the Mima who sings for her audience to the ordinary Mima who rides the train, buys groceries, and comes home to a lonely apartment. When a smarmy screenwriter writes a graphic rape scene for Mima’s character, she accepts it, not wanting to disappoint the people helping her career – only to scream her agony when she’s alone in the bathtub. (Darren Aronofsky quoted this scene in Requiem for a Dream.) Who is the real Mima? Her fractured emotions take the form of her past pop idol self, the “pure” Mima on posters like the ones plastering the walls of Me-Mania’s room. Mima sees this apparition reflected back at her in windows and computer screens; it seems to become a dangerous physical presence while the real girl fades away. Mima is haunted by the ghost of herself.
Exacerbating Mima’s identity crisis is a website called “Mima’s Room” that claims to be her online diary, publicly posting personal details no one else should know. (The scene where a pale and haggard Mima sits in the dark, reading the posts of the other, online Mima who seemed to have a lovely day, could have single-handedly invented Instagram.) Unlike 1990s cyberthrillers that have become camp cinematic artifacts, Perfect Blue is prescient in its depictions of identity theft, the sharing of our intimate selves online, and the internet as a tool to harass women. Mima’s naïveté about what the internet even is, alongside fax machines and boxy Macintosh computers, briefly inspires a nostalgic chuckle before the messages screaming “TRAITOR!” hit her. We realize that the tools have changed, but the entitlement and misogyny have not.
Perfect Blue damningly depicts the banality of exploitation. There is no single Weinstein-like creep pressuring Mima; her manager cares for her in his own way, but thinks nothing of being part of a machine that demands starlets expose themselves, and then calls them a whore for it. Sure, the role is sketchy, but what can you do? The Greek chorus of otaku that appear throughout the film to comment on Mima’s career mention the “reputation” of her photographer, and in the most shocking sequence, Mima dreams about murdering him, gouging out his eyes with an icepick – literally destroying the male gaze. (This is also the scene that gives us the indelible image of the movie poster: bloody, avenging Mima silhouetted against a projection of beautiful Mima the star.)
Mima is surprised (though we aren’t) when the photographer actually turns up dead. Is she the killer? Kon gives us the scene that would have ended a more conventional thriller, where two detectives appear to dutifully explain that Mima’s split personality committed murder, and now she’s lost in a world of her own delusions. But then a director’s voice yells, “Cut!” and we see the exact same scene again, only we realize that Mima is filming a scene for “Double Bind”. Perfect Blue’s point of view veers between both versions of reality so quickly that there’s no time to meditate on implausibility. Later, Me-Mania attempts to assault Mima on the same set where her simulated rape was filmed (fiction threatening to become reality), and when Mima crushes his skull with a hammer, she stands up into a blazing spotlight and hears the roar of the audience. She’s just given the performance of her life.
Upon Perfect Blue’s international release, western critical acclaim frequently came with the backhanded compliment that it was “good enough” to be a live action film. (For a sign of how odd the marketing was, the U.S. VHS release featured a recommendation from Roger Corman, of all people.) This rides on the misconception that animated films have to be the stuff of sci-fi and fantasy, but the animation is a crucial component for Perfect Blue being such an effective thriller. Satoshi Kon never lets us feel comfortable with our idea of what’s real and what’s an illusion because from the outset we know we aren’t watching reality. Certain visual tricks, such as when Mima’s illusionary tormenter and her would-be killer seem to merge into one being, could not be handled as smoothly in live action. The hyper-idealized phantom Mima who literally walks on air could not be a real woman; that’s the point. Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue hurls us along breathlessly until the triumphant finality of its last line, spoken into a mirror: “I’m the real thing.”