Satoshi Kon. A name that is instantly recognised, and hugely respected within the anime community and business. Known for his distinct thematic elements, and unmistakable tonality of his films. Sadly, the man behind many other critically acclaimed classics such as, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika, Millennium Actress, and Paranoia Agent passed away in 2010 after a very short battle with pancreatic cancer. At the time, he was working on his next film, a fantasy-adventure titled, Dreaming Machine. The production of which has been halted until Madhouse can find a director in line with Kon’s vision and talent.
Perfect Blue, was originally released in 1997, being Kon’s directorial debut with a feature film.
The Idol Life
Mima, is a member of a trio called SHAM; an idol group. In general, an Idol is a young person, admired by society (mainly those who are younger) for their cute, innocent, and physically attractive on-stage image. This is reflected in their music, or more accurately, the music and shows they perform. You could say SHAM is a typical representation of an idol group, at least one from the late 90s. This is important, because Mima, despite all her quirks and issues, is meant to be for all intents and purposes… fundamentally normal.
Idol culture – for the main part – targets teenagers and possible die-hard fans, those who are impressionable. After all, they’re called idols because of their inherent ability to be role models, a product of idolisation. Because, a product is exactly what they are. Their images are carefully manufactured and curated behind the scenes; programmed, and choreographed to perfection.
We see this very much in both the K-Pop, and Japanese music scenes today, twenty years on. A culture that has grown alongside the internet, and the explosion of communication and information. These days, it is not only the respective countries that can be involved in such scenes – it’s a worldwide phenomenon. This invariably creates more demand, more stress. Something which those performing then, would already have been swamped with.
Stress is an emotion Mima is all too familiar with.
Within SHAM Mima is hugely idolised, of course she is, that’s her job. People love her. People love SHAM. For them to be commercially succesful, this has to ring true. In the time before Mima leaves, they are making little, if any, money. But this changes after Mima departs, adding to her insecurity, leaving her to wonder if this change is because of her absence. The moment in the agency shows this – the distance that has grown, not just between Mima and the other two, but between Mima and the Idol life as a whole. From here, she departs the world of idols. At least, the conscious part of her does.
In a Title
Whilst the entirety of Perfect Blue is an exercise in the obscure, its title is something of a mystery altogether.
The title in romanized Japanese is, Pāfekuto Burū – a literal translation.
Colour is a huge theme in Perfect Blue, though that applies mostly to the colour red. Well, almost exclusively so…. So, why Perfect Blue? We can come to the most apparent conclusion, that being blue has always been the colour of melancholia, of sadness, and depression. I think this attributes to the name. After all, the set of circumstances within the film are – in some sense – a perfection of melancholia… even madness. They’re a culmination of various mental states gone awry.
Blue could also be seen in direct reference to the sea, or the sky. The latter being imperative in the ending scene of the film; The sky is clear. After everything – all Mima’s tribulations, the sky is Perfect Blue. Though, Perfect in this sense could be taken rather loosely. After all, nothing is perfect. Usually those things that are perfect, couldn’t be further from the being so. Even going as far as delusion, and Mima is hardly a stranger to delusion.
The colour ‘blue’ also has meaning in filmmaking itself. A term sometimes used to describe a feature that is pornographic, risqué, or erotic in nature. And, whilst Perfect Blue isn’t pornographic, it is certainly mature. Both in its thematic content, and what is shown on-screen. The term was popularised by Andy Warhol’s film, Blue Movie in 1969.
The Internet’s Beginnings
In 1997, the internet was just grasping a hold on the general population. Now, being born in 1996, I can’t say I remember this time. Though, I am old enough to remember the times of logging into AOL through a DSL modem, and what terrible times they were… In all seriousness, the internet was, and still is, a frightful thing. Despite being in its early days, it plays an important role in Perfect Blue.
Mima receives a computer from her manager Rumi, a piece of hardware that in 1997 would be far from cheap. No doubt, it is part of her ‘plan,’ her scheme to get inside Mima’s head, to – in a sense – acquire her identity.
It is through the internet that Mima discovers her ‘fan page,’ something which is in fact a lot more insidious. It is a diary. A diary of her life in intricate detail. And yet, one she has no hand in writing. Regardless of whether it was solely Me-Mania, or in cohort with Rumi in the creation of this, it illustrates how dangerous and destroying the extra freedom the internet brings can be. Even at a time when this was little realised outside of select circles. Maybe it isn’t as important a theme as others might be, but it is a driving force behind Mima’s issues. One that couldn’t easily be replicated without the accessibility that the internet brings.
It is also hugely pertinent in today’s climate and social structures. How the internet represents us, and how we are represented by it. The fact that, our online self is a fictional, curated image. One no different to Mima’s Idol image while performing in SHAM. It is this that makes Perfect Blue as frightening in 2017, as it was in 1997, if not more so.
From SHAM, to… Shambles
Mima decides it’s time for her career to move on. On from the intensive constructs of the pop-Idol, and into the trying world of acting. A decision that isn’t looked upon favourably by her agents; considered an outright disaster by Rumi, who was herself, and Idol in her past – albeit, not a remotely succesful one.
After filming only a couple of low-key scenes, with only a few lines, Mima is thrown into the depths. Specifically, a rape scene. Despite not being an actor, it’s not hard to imagine intimate scenes are the hardest to film, and even harder to do well, with believable emotion. Though, the inflection of emotion isn’t a problem for Mima, instead the surplus of it – how it affects her in the negative. How the scene is too real for her already fragile psyche.
Mima is impossibly tense, she is reeling from the abrupt departure from SHAM, no matter how intentional it was. The filming of this scene pushes her over the edge. (Rumi too, but more on that later.) It is depicted almost literally, her head teetering and dipping over the stage. The scene itself is jarring, with fast cuts, and a disjointed, brilliant soundtrack. It allows us as the audience to feel wholly nervous, to feel – in some sense – what Mima does; vicariously experiencing her fear and anxiety of the scene, and what follows.
It’s these simple, yet effective directorial inputs that make Satoshi Kon’s work so fascinating. A scene is almost replicated later in the movie when Mima is assaulted. This time, out of the relatively ‘safe’ confines of filmmaking. Despite this, no matter the increased reality of the second time, it fails to stun us as much as the first. After all, by this point, Mima is a changed person. This also reflects in our spectatorship of her, we become acclimatised to the bloodshed, to the insanity of the narrative.
Colour: Red in Motion
At first thought, naturally blue might be the colour of Perfect Blue. It’s soon revealed this is not the case. Red is the definitive colour of Perfect Blue. Red, in its distinct nature stands out more than anything else, in the scenes that are often dark, muted, and apprehensively brooding.
Red constructs the emotion surrounding Perfect Blue. More importantly, around Mima, and her paranoid delusions – around the tearing down of what she once believed reality to be – and what she quickly comes to perceive it as. Red sticks with us throughout, regardless of her mental state. It’s the one thing we have to hold onto, the one constant in an otherwise rapidly changing landscape.
Red has always been symbolic of blood, love, passion, fire, violence, and sexuality.
Throughout the history of film, red has represented these thematic elements, conveyed them in ways that are both obtuse, and subtle. You only have to look towards the likes of American Beauty, Schindler’s List, Crimson Peak, The Shining… a list that in reality could be near endless. In all of these films, red is integral to both story and meaning. The exact same can be said for Perfect Blue.
Red in Perfect Blue is symbolic of more than a one thing. Sure, it symbolises the blood shed around Mima, be it her doing or not. Yet, it also conveys a sense of the extreme in all areas of Mima’s life: In the stresses of being an Idol. In the shocking reality of filming a rape scene at such a youthful stage in her acting career. In the ritualistic obsession of her stalker, Me-Mania, and the delusions of her manager, Rumi.
Red gives us the sense that everything is not alright, that in fact throughout the entire film, it’s anything but… It isn’t a subtle effect; it isn’t supposed to be. Satoshi Kon throws it in our faces with the knowledge it is going to be seen, no matter how passive the spectatorship. After all, even if not looking at a film with critique in mind, our eyes are programmed to pick up on these things, to translate the images into meaning without us even realising. That is why composition and cinematography always matter. Satoshi Kon knows this as well as anyone; visuals are emotion. Emotion is narrative.
Chasing the Mirror’s Reflection
It’s clear that Mima’s time being an idol has affected her in many ways. After all, switching between her real self, and her ‘stage’ self for the fans, must be at the very least tiring. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to believe that a person might be able to slip into the wrong identity, essentially becoming the act without realising it; forgetting her real self behind in all the commotion of showbiz.
At the very start of the film, we see a clear divide between the two lives of Mima. The camera rapidly switches between SHAM’s performance, and the apparent mundane day-to-day business of the off-stage Mima. It is this that crafts her character, the reason why we are able to feel so much for her. After all, if we do not perceive her as a real, human person, how are we able to sympathise with her rapidly shifting situation and perspective? As Perfect Blue progresses this distinction between her two personas fades; becoming one, or both at the same time.
Mima no longer knows who she is.
We glimpse this psychosis through Mima’s visions of herself in the environment: in mirrors, in windows, and in the dark reflections of the train’s glass. We watch, helpless as Mima’s new life is sent astray by the ruminations of her previous life, with the visions of the person she used to be. The part of her mind that is trying to pull her back into that life, and the spaces it occupied. This is compounded by the effect Rumi has on her. How Rumi manipulates her into believing she has killed, that she is the one who is actually insane. When the reality is, Perfect Blue is the depiction of shared madness between many characters, and how the experiences of one, affects another.
Perfect Blue deeply explores identity. Who is Mima? Who is Mima without SHAM, and without being an idol? This is the question both Rumi, and Me-Mania ask. Something which they throw themselves into, feeling that it’s their responsibility to protect Mima, to force her in the direction they think she should be headed in.
Me-Mania is terrifying. He is without doubt the most chilling aspect of Perfect Blue. And, not only in his visual appearance, but in his mind, and his motivations – the lengths he will go to in an attempt to preserve the ‘true’ vision he has for Mima. He is obsessed with her. He buys all the magazines which show her in an erotic light, I believe he also killed the photographer, and then the clothes were planted in Mima’s closet by Rumi. Though, being unsure is part of Perfect Blue’s narrative. In the almost identical replication of the rape scene, Me-Mania attempts to rape Mima in the same fashion, both despising and loving her – motivations that a regular person could never understand. Mima fights him of before he is killed. It’s unclear as to whether Mima herself does this, or Rumi in her ‘Mima’ persona. Though, it does not matter. The point at which the characters are separated is long gone.
It’s this absurd obscurity that only Satoshi Kon can craft so perfectly, that makes me wish he were still around to gift the anime industry with his writing and direction.
The Becoming of Another… or of Yourself…
Mima’s agent/manager Rumi, is at first an unsuspecting character. She’s just there, guiding Mima – doing what managers do best… or so we initially think.
It comes to our attention that Rumi might not be the person we think she is. This is hinted at as she storms from the set of Mima’s rape scene filming, her eyes full of tears. At the time, we put this down to affection and care for Mima, or apprehension regarding her new career path. Though, in reality its depths go a lot further down, into the pure black.
Following this, Rumi’s motivations become a lot darker. She murders those she believes have tarnished Mima’s reputation and purported innocence. She does this, under the disguise of Mima herself, wanting to embody the person she never was – the idol she never turned out to be. Now, this is probably not a conscious decision on Rumi’s behalf, but because of how she suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder. Hereby switching between her real self, and the person she perceives to be the real Mima. Ultimately, like much of Perfect Blue, Rumi has completely lost touch with her identity – on what makes her Rumi, and what makes Mima, Mima. It is this that makes the last third of the film so disorienting, and in a sense, muddled beyond comprehension. This is intentional. We are not supposed to understand all things – in the way they happen, and when they happen. For Mima doesn’t, and we see the world of Perfect Blue through Mima’s eyes alone.
At the very end, Mima visits Rumi who has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. It is clear that she is still suffering from the disorder and delusions, seeing herself as Mima, believing that’s who she truly is.
What’s interesting is how Mima reacts to this. On the outside she appears at peace with it. The blue of the sky would indicate this too, possibly even giving meaning to the film’s title. Mima sees herself in the car’s rear-view mirror, and utters: “No, I’m real.” So, is she recovered from her breakdown? It would appear so… the colour is vibrant and saturated in comparison to inside the hospital, where the only true colour is derived from Rumi’s flowers which are the exact shade of SHAM’s costumes. We believe Mima has moved on from the terrible things she has recently experienced. And, the nurses recognising her possibly hints at Mima still being in the acting industry.
But… has she really moved on? For all we know, she could be still swimming deep in her delusions. This is what makes Perfect Blue so wonderfully fretful… as the audience we never truly know anything concrete. Satoshi Kon masterfully blends the lines between reality, performer, and utter delusion.
Perfect Blue is a masterpiece in cinema.
What do you think of Perfect Blue?
Thanks for reading!
-Chris Peach (follow me on Twitter, and consider supporting Peach’s Almanac on Patreon!)