Sunday, 6 February 2011

Cinema Strange #4. Perfect Blue (Satoshi Kon, 1998)

Pop idols CHAM in Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue (1998)

The Japanese anime scene exploded worldwide in 1988 with the release of Katsuhiro Ôtomo's Akira, a sci-fi extravaganza that in its wake left a slew of uninspired, ultra violent copycats that would keep the phenomenon on a constant time loop of stale productions. It would be a decade before a fresh voice breathed new life into the anime scene with a psychological fantasy thriller for the ages. Indeed, Ton's Hitchcockian debut is a classic that never puts a foot wrong (unless it wants to)...

What's immediately striking about Perfect Blue is how playful it is. Opening on a Power Rangers style action sequence, we soon pull out to reveal the colour-coded heroes on a stage in a small arena, which the fans run out of into a crowded town centre - which tracks through the crowd Altman style, introducing the audience to the CHAM phenomenon and the members themselves. After the opening title we re-open on Mima (Junko Iwao) on the train, heading to the supermarket. We suddenly cut back to the show as she performs, probably hours later. What continues is a series of shots that cut back and forth between Mima's two lives - one as an actress and one as a singer. We see her collapsing onto a bed, upset, proclaiming "I can't do this!" before the camera pulls out to reveal it to be footage on a TV screen, as her manager Rumi (Rika Matsumoto) argues with an executive over the direction of her career. We then end on Mima onstage, announcing her retirement from CHAM to become an actress, as a gang of violent youths upset the crowd. A glassy-eyed, slightly disfigured security guard takes care of the thugs, but soon begins appearing everywhere Mima goes, sending her faxes declaring her a "traitor', and is possibly the person behind an online chat-room named 'Mima's Room', which perfectly details the events of Mima's day, but also produces sinister thoughts that aren't her own - seemingly decrying her acting pursuits, and longing for the days of CHAM. The non-linear narrative, dreams-within-dreams disorientation and some cunning horror mechanics will continue to delve us deeper into the psychology of Mima but also the obscurity of her reality, and the reality that pop stars, actresses and celebrities must go through on a daily basis. Kon employs every trick in the visual book, but does it with vigor and freshness - the jagged images and intimate, fast-moving camerawork (there are lots of facial close-ups, but also frequently frenetic movement) creating confusion at all turns. It's definitely a film aware of its cinematic heritage, but it also has a keen understanding of the way animation, especially, can be used to manipulate an audience - as the environments are all built from the ground up. As art begins to imitate life (or is it the other way around?) more questions arise, and Ton teases the answers with astonishing assurance for a first time director.

The second feature of really interesting note is the way in which the film uses the Internet (a relatively new concept in 1998) as such a large part of its narrative, and definitely prefigures the true life stories that now emerge all the time of stalkers creating fan-sites and deceiving others of their identity (see Catfish, 2010) - and also the instant-messaging updates that feel an awful lot like Twitter. At first the way Rumi explains the World Wide Web to Mima is quite condescending, but it's vital to remember the time in which the film was made. Kon is quite a visionary in this sense, showing a keen understanding of the ways in which people can abuse the privilege of worldwide communication, and it feeds perfectly into the story. Had he been alive to do so, it seems likely that Hitchcock would have made his own cyber-thriller in much the same way. Mima comes home every night to read more lies about herself online, supposedly posted by the ex pop star herself. Somebody is trying to taint her image, which sounds all too familiar...

The film is also a fascinating mash-up of genres; it's quite noir-ish in places, but clearly fits the mould of a psychological thriller (for me, recalling Polanski's Repulsion, 1965), albeit one with a serial killer sub-plot, which makes great use of twisting the stalk 'n' slash mechanics developed by the likes of John Carpenter on films like Halloween (1978). Indeed, the murder sequences are some of the most exciting - and incredibly bloody - in the film.

The film is also quite a technical achievement. It's sometimes easy to underrate the importance of lighting in an animation, but Perfect Blue makes excellent use of blinding white lights and menacing shadow - the former often used when Mima is tripping into her 'other self'; seeing images of her pop idol persona, questioning who she is and suspecting herself of murder as her psyche collapses around her. And the shadow is often used in darker scenes, notably those involving stalker Me-Mania, a terrifyingly silent presence. Paying his debt to movies like Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960), Kon has nonetheless created an ahead-of-its time thriller, a psychological nightmare about the dangers of voyeurism and obsession, all set to the twisting tunes of family-friendly J-pop. It's an original and exciting vision, like genre cinema without genre, and it has clearly inspired the work of one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers - Darren Aronofsky. Here's hoping it holds up to re-watches, as so few of these films do...


  1. Good review! The film is definitely a real eye opener into an idol switching careers in the entertainment industry and how some people can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy.

    Would you also mind reading my take on the film and commenting? There are some things I am confused about and need answers too!

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