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PERFECT BLUE: Philosophic Meditation or Schlock Exploitation?
Satoshi Kon explains his anime slasher pic (sort of).
By Andrew Osmond
December 02, 1999
PERFECT BLUE, which reaches U.S. video shelves this week while continuing circulation in art house theatres, has been subject to a staggering range of critiques and interpretations in recent months. According to some pundits it's no more than schlock exploitation. Others see it as practically a philosophical meditation. Roger Corman called it 'Hitchcock partnered with Walt Disney.' Elsewhere, it's been claimed to homage (or debase) such sources as A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, Bunuel's DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE, Dario Argento's STENDAHL SYNDROME (denied by the director) and Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5 (confirmed). And doesn't the surreal, solipsist, nightmare tone recall anime maestro Mamoru Oshii classics like BEAUTIFUL DREAMER or GHOST IN THE SHELL?
But enough already. What is the film about? Well, 'perfect' in Japan has connotations of 'complete, ultimate, or total.' 'Blue,' as you might expect, is a signifier of depression. The phrase aptly describes the experiences of Mima, a luckless young Japanese pop singer trying to advance her stagnating career. The film opens with her abandoning frilly girl-group Cham, much to the dismay of her passionate fanboys, and becoming an actor. Her first role is in a tacky crime drama, where the only way to bolster her presence is to consent to a rape scene - both the most harrowing part of the film, and also the most perversely clever, as the actors have to pause during the filmed assault. And then... well, as a resident of Elm Street might say, this is where it gets weird, if not downright obscure.
Mima starts seeing a phantom version of her past self, decked out in Cham costume and mocking the real Mima as an impostor. People start dying in very nasty ways. A Mima fan web site seems to rewrite her life. And finally, Mima's own sense of reality breaks down. She experiences subjective time loops, dreams in dreams, a growing sense of becoming a fictional character, losing her identity. It could be a depiction of conflated (false?) dreams and memories of an unglued mind. Or maybe it's Mima skipping between parallel realities, like the hero of JACOB'S LADDER. Or, if you prefer, this is a film trading on contrived and pointless conceptual twists, like David Cronenberg's eXistenZ earlier this year.
'It's the difficulty of figuring it out which is at the core of the film,' PERFECT BLUE director Satoshi Kon told Animerica (1) magazine. This is Kon's directorial debut, but he has an impressive history in the anime medium. Among other things, he set-designed ROUJIN Z, a future-world satire that got unusually high mainstream attention for portraying the concerns of the elderly. He was also animation supervisor for 'Magnetic Rose,' the striking opening chapter of the brilliant and underrated anthology feature MEMORIES. Readers who've seen the segment will need no reminder of the its power; for those who haven't, think, 'ALIEN meets MADAME BUTTERFLY.' (It makes sense when you see it.) Both ROUJIN and MEMORIES, incidentally, involved AKIRA director Katsuhiro Otomo, who recommended Kon for director of PERFECT BLUE, and is acknowledged in the film with a planning assistant credit.
Of PERFECT BLUE, Kon says, 'If you saw the film many times in order to distinguish between the objective reality and Mima's subjective experience, I think the film's flavor would disappear. So long as you accept that it's meant to be inexplicable, that's fine.' But isn't that a big requirement? Does the film have a natural explanation or not? 'It's not clear what is meant by natural, but there's a natural explanation for me as creator since I distinguished between subjective and objective when making the storyboards. However, some scenes lead from sequences of reality to illusion, so I guess it's hard for the audience to tell which is which. But as I said, it's not the object of the film to distinguish them.' So there you go.
One related theme more familiar to US audiences is the pressure of celebrity. Mima's struggles to break free of a manufactured persona would have been familiar to, say, Norma Jean a.k.a. Marilyn Monroe. Indeed, as Otomo pointed out, one could imagine a remake of the film with Whitney Houston or Geri Halliwell in Mima's shoes. One of the neatest conceits in the film is the opening sequence, which cuts from Mima the pop star performing to rapturous crowds, to Mima the person shopping in the supermarket. It also serves as warm-up for the weirder dislocations later on.
'Regarding the opening,' says Kon, 'I wanted to express that for Mima the stage job is juxtaposed with ordinary life. For her, public and private are indivisible. She's not able to differentiate between them as a member of society.' However, Kon sees a universal gap between the public image of any person and the true individual beneath. 'I think that's a problem everybody has, male or female, famous or anonymous. I mean, there's a gap between the image people see of me and what I see myself. PERFECT BLUE is about the tragedy caused by the gap becoming too large.' (EVANGELION, the fan-favorite anime SF serial, covered similar thematic ground.)
Subtexts aside, what are Perfect Blue's assets? The film looks good, at least to anyone who can see a sub-Disney frame rate without saying 'herky-jerky Japanese crap.'' At worst, the visuals are adequate to carry the story; if the human extras sometimes look animatronic, the locations have the usual solid, naturalistic feel one associates with anime. At best, the effects can be truly startling, most notoriously with a graphic murder, which combines murderous and sexual satisfaction in the most blatant way possible, through near-subliminal edits. (Due to the delusory nature of PERFECT BLUE, the murderer's identity is open to debate.) And this leads on to the film's biggest stumbling block: the violence. With its splattery killings and sexual assaults, this is not a film for viewers averse to screen violence in animated form. Gore for gore, it may only be a few notches past AKIRA; what makes the film more upsetting are the protracted and intense attacks upon the heroine, which sometimes feel like gloating exploitation, though the fact we care so much about Mima is itself a point in the film's defense.
More than a slasher-movie victim or male fantasy-icon, we're obliged to follow Mima as she struggles to break beyond the pop-culture stereotypes that enmesh both singers and - let's be honest - many anime heroines too. (Kon has despaired of anime's fixation with 'beautiful, big-eyed little girls.') Whether she succeeds is up to the viewer to decide, as is the wider question of whether this is a genuinely substantial film, or a polished exploitation flick with bolt-on pretensions. For this writer, I'm still not sure, though I lean toward the former conclusion. Despite Satoshi Kon's warning, it's a film that rewards repeated viewings. Weirdly, it seems to get much better with each new trial. (1) Animerica Vol 7 No 6, p28-9. The interview was carried out by this writer; thanks to Jonathan Clements, Tony Kehoe and Motoko Tamamuro of Manga Max for translating the e-mail replies.