Satoshi Kon thought he was making a mere straight-to-video release when he began production on Perfect Blue. To his surprise, the project was rescheduled for theaters. At that point the director had already made Perfect Blue under the assumption it would not be seen by the general public, so it was unclear how everyone would respond to the film’s incredibly dark portrayal of Japan’s entertainment business.
Kon’s Perfect Blue has little in common with its source material. Much of what viewers see in the 1997 film is the work of Kon and screenwriter Sadayuki Murai rather than a faithful adaptation of Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s light novel. Things left untouched were the setting and Mima Kirigoe’s occupational hazard. Of all the changes, the biggest was the genre switch. Takeuchi conceived a disturbing but straightforward tale of stalker horror, whereas Kon specifically wanted to make a psychological thriller. What might seem like a lateral move was more of an opportunity to bring out the emotional innards of the victim, as well as accentuate how her specific industry blurs the line between fantasy and reality.
The overarching theme of Perfect Blue is already underway within the first minute. An outdoor tokusatsu stage show has three suited performers scaring away their opponent; Kingburg’s offense is causing a disturbance in the online community. The relevance of this minor production is echoed in CHAM’s performance. Idol Mima (voiced by Junko Iwao) and her bandmates dance in front of a crowd made up exclusively of men. Meanwhile, several hecklers hurl soda cans on stage and shout disruptively. Mima’s ability to evade the projectiles and ignore the din, all the while never missing a beat of the choreography, points to this not being an isolated incident. CHAM’s own Kingburgs must be dealt with, though, and the apparent defender is the group’s security guard and Mima’s most devout fan, Mamoru Uchida (Masaaki Ōkura). Even his first name means “protect” in Japanese.
Patrick W. Galbraith and Jason G. Karlin analyze both the popular idol (aidoru) industry and its influence on society in their book, Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture. When explaining why some people are more susceptible to idol fanaticism than others, the authors call these entertainers an “ideal construct” or a “‘mirror’ reflection.” The idol business incidentally encourages these fantasies by designing alluring yet unrealistic images for their “products.” Single, chaste, and attainable are only some of the ways these young men and women are presented, all in an effort to attract consumer-fans and keep them coming back. Of course once that artificial persona is revealed or stripped away, fans like Uchida are not always going to react rationally.
In its original context, the term otaku applies to any person obsessed with a facet of pop culture. This can include anime, music, and video games. The word is not used as lightly in Japan as it is in the West, though. Here it has simply become a term of endearment among anime fans, but parts of Japanese society still have a negative perception of this large subculture. Serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, dubbed the “Otaku Murderer” by the media, had a lot to do with those ill feelings. His high-profile case caused a Japanese moral panic regarding anime and manga in the nineties. Kon, on the other hand, understands otaku are not a monolith; he depicts a great deal of passionate yet fairly well-adjusted fans in Perfect Blue. Uchida represents the minority, those being the extreme otaku who devote their lives to their interest and have trouble separating fact from fiction.
Uchida is not the only character with a weakening grip on reality in Perfect Blue. Mima, who has spent years training to be someone else, is now undergoing a second transformation. Everyone around Mima has reservations about her career switch. Aside from CHAM’s split fanbase, Mima’s manager and confidante Rumi Hadaka (Rika Matsumoto) negotiates between disapproval and accommodation. Uchida, or Me-Mania, comes to reject Mima as an actor once her new public image starts to clash with the first one. This brings about a dangerous delusion in the form of a fictionalized online diary called Mima’s Room, supposedly written by Me-Mania. As anticipated, the real Mima cracks underneath the pressure of not being more like the Mima on the website.
When Kon saw Perfect Blue on the big screen, one scene in particular made him hang his head and feel embarrassed; he thought he had gone too far. The part in question is Mima’s simulated rape. After Mima’s acting agent Tadokoro (Shinpachi Tsuji) requests she be given more to do in her guest role in a drama series, the show writer conceives a sadistic scene where Mima’s character is assaulted by a group of men inside a club. This graphic set piece becomes the most pivotal point in the protagonist’s journey; it is the death of an idol and the birth of an actor. Mima’s white outfit resembles the one she wore during her final CHAM performance, and for everyone who was present during the filming, their perspective of her has changed, for better or worse. The drama’s staff finds perverse pleasure in seeing an idol be violated, whereas Rumi is brought to tears. Tadokoro is regretful after pushing for more screen time, and Me-Mania’s hatred of “impostor” Mima only grows.
The above moment hits very hard for both the viewers and Mima. While it is technically another performance, the trauma is real. Mima initially approaches the scene as a professional and acknowledges the artifice. But, as her co-star apologizes to her in between takes, Mima’s state of mind changes. From there everything starts to feel all too real as Mima bids goodbye to her former self. Once the shoot is over, a somber Mima sits alone in the dressing room, wearing black clothes. This is the mourning period before she can move on.
From color choices to mise-en-scène, Kon makes every effort to expose Mima’s interiority as she continues to lose hold of herself. Nothing goes on here without it being crucial to character study. Every second and frame adds meaning to the story. An increasingly disarranged apartment reflects Mima’s own deterioration; two fish surviving after the others die en masse refers to dual identities; the frequent use of the color red underscores the expanding chaos in Mima’s life. Most importantly, the internet’s presence is less about the evils of online culture and more about the fabricated reality inside the machine. In the same vein, all parts of Mima’s life — the idol business, the TV drama, Mima’s Room, the photoshoot — are manufactured. In short, nothing was ever real for Mima.
The time comes when Mima is forced to face her fears head on. After Mima’s drama Double Blind wraps, she is caught off guard by Me-Mania. In the same place where the idol part of herself essentially died, Me-Mania is prepared to kill the impostor so the “real” Mima can live. By now Perfect Blue has gone to considerable lengths to illustrate Mima’s severe identity crisis, but Me-Mania is the most blatant manifestation. He embodies all of her doubts and paranoia. When it looks as if Me-Mania will succeed, Mima takes back control of the situation. As gratifying as it is to see her prevail after being tormented from all sides, Mima is not out of the woods just yet.
Yoshikazu Takeuchi kept his book’s ending uncomplicated by having just one villain. However, the film presents a game changer shortly after Mima escapes Me-Mania’s attack. Using the otaku as a red herring, Perfect Blue is able to draw attention away from the actual killer. Someone close to Mima developed a vicarious relationship with her; they fed on the nostalgia while also overidentifying. Watching Mima then willingly give up something they crave only led to a tremendous break in reality. The escalating violence, the body count, and the killer’s one-by-one method all naturally invite comparisons to slashers and giallo films. Like the more meditative examples of those subgenres, Perfect Blue avoids indiscriminate murders and easy-to-digest motives.
As suffocatingly bleak as Perfect Blue gets, Kon left viewers with a glimmer of light. Mima’s ordeal was, in a word, nightmarish, and not a lot of people would come out of that unscathed. This new venture began with Mima doubting and loathing herself. Looking into mirrors was near impossible without succumbing to those constant ill feelings. Mima clearly had the talent to do whatever she pleased, although massive insecurities on top of others’ underestimation held her back. Later on as Mima visits her assailant in a psychiatric hospital, they each gaze into different mirrors, looking at distinct reflections. The deuteragonist remains trapped in their desired image while Mima is grateful to see only herself. “No, I’m real,” she says in the film’s last few seconds, indicating she now believes in herself. This confidence is what finally ends the overlapping of reality and fantasy.
Satoshi Kon sadly left this world too soon, but in such a relatively short time, he became one of Japan’s most innovative modern directors. With Perfect Blue, he put a new and exciting spin on the psychological thriller. The timeless story and the complex characters, not to mention the fascinating visual language from start to finish, are only some of the reasons why fans keep coming back to Kon’s unparalleled debut.
Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.