A review of Perfect Blue

I think Perfect Blue is a first here on the site. I’ve never had a look at an anime film before; they’ve all been series so far. But I’d always heard about how great a director Satoshi Kon was, and how impactful his movies were, and his 1997 debut film Perfect Blue makes a lot of must-watch anime film lists, so it seemed like a natural first choice.

And I’m happy I took the leap here after so many years, because after seeing it I’d say Perfect Blue deserves its classic status. I won’t give away the ending here, but I will be getting into the general plot and character points — I recommend going in raw as usual for stuff I like, but it’s understandable if you don’t want to. Anyway, the very strange screenshot above is probably the most famous image from the film, so it’s not like the extremely dark turn it takes is a big secret. It’s the way the story gets there that’s interesting. (Also, the film is very 18+ and deals with violent and sexual situations, so take the usual precautions if you care to.)

Mima Kirigoe is part of an idol vocal trio with the interesting name CHAM! (a reference to Wham!? But they don’t look or sound anything like Wham!, so maybe not.) At the opening of the film, we get to see these three putting on a performance in a small but crowded city park-looking venue. While their success is still pretty modest, CHAM! and Mima in particular have dedicated fans to cheer them on. Which makes it all the sadder when Mima announces at the end of the concert that this will be her last performance with the group, because she’s decided to leave behind singing and pursue a new career as an actress.

Only it’s not clear how much of that is her decision. Mima is employed and managed by a talent agency, which is in the process of reshaping her from pop idol to actress out of a fear that the pop idol concept is on the way out and that her talents would be wasted in that role. This is happening with Mima’s seemingly reluctant consent and against the advice of one of her agents, Rumi, who had her own shot at the pop idol role years before but didn’t quite make it.

But Mima says she’ll give it her best effort in any case. After getting cast in a small role on a TV drama, she starts to shift into her actress role, but with some pretty obvious difficulties. Some of these take place on the set, with Mima struggling a bit in her new acting work, but many more arise when people around her start getting assaulted and even killed in mysterious ways. This naturally takes a toll on Mima, who also fears that she may be the target of a deranged fan unhappy with her move from singing to acting.

Her fears are understandable. On top of some of the public controversy surrounding her career shift, she also has evidence in the fan site “Mima’s Room”, where an anonymous blogger (back before “blogger” was really much of a thing as far as I know) writes a public diary in her own voice. At first, Mima is amused by this site — slightly weird, maybe, but still harmless, just the work of a dedicated fan. However, as Mima tries to settle into her actress role, the site author writes more personal details about her life, the kind that only she should know about. And though Mima doesn’t realize it at first, throughout the film we see she does in fact have at least one probable stalker, a man who works as a security guard at her idol events and obsesses over her.

The prospect of having an obsessive and possibly murderous stalker, together with the stress of her new job and the continuing assaults and murders of people involved in her professional life, put Mima in a state of near-perpetual fear and even seem to cause her to go through long stretches of memory loss. Will she be able to get through this ordeal with her life and livelihood intact?

I’m not going to spoil that here, because you should really see Perfect Blue for yourself. This is one of those movies with an ending that’s best not revealed beforehand, which I guess is usually the case (though I do think a good story should always be enjoyable even if you already know the ending, but still better to go in without knowing it.) This is the only Satoshi Kon film I’ve seen so far, but even though it’s his first, I can see why he had such a great reputation. It’s not easy to tell any kind of story well, but I think it can be even more difficult to pull off the psychological thriller in a way that doesn’t descend into dumb schlocky nonsense. You need compelling and well-developed characters and an interesting plot, and Perfect Blue has both; it kept me hooked from the first few minutes to the end.

Part of this for me had to do with how sympathetic the protagonist is combined with how much crap she’s put through. Aside from the obvious stalker issue and the possibly related assaults and murders taking place around her, Mima is made to do some things to cement her position as an actress in the public eye that she assents to but clearly isn’t happy about, both having sexual elements to them. The first is a scene written into the drama she’s acting in in which she’s portrayed as a stripper who is raped by club patrons, leading to her character’s psychological breakdown in the drama, and to her own brief breakdown when she returns to her apartment after the filming. Shortly following this scene, Mima is scheduled for a magazine photoshoot that starts fairly tame but takes a racy turn, with the photographer getting her to strip completely.

These sexual aspects of Mima’s new role play a large part in her shift from singer to actress. As a pop idol, Mima had a “pure” image that seems to be typical for performers of that kind. While the idolized singers and performers promoted by agencies can gain a lot of popularity, they’re also expected to be clean in their daily lives and in some cases even to be chaste, with discoveries of secret boyfriends for example leading to public shamings and “graduations”/firings from idol groups. The idol phenomenon is a massive part of pop culture, starting in the 60s and spreading from Japan to Korea and beyond, and while it seems to have declined a bit from its heights, it’s still big business. And that virginal image still seems to be an aspect of it — certainly an unrealistic standard in most cases, but one that idols are still held to as far as I’ve heard.

This is the pure image that Mima ends up losing in the course of her work and promotion as an actress, one that she can never get back. As a result, her former pop idol life is closed off to her forever, a fact that she expresses serious regrets about throughout most of the film. While her former colleagues continue on as a duo and gain more popularity than before, Mima’s regrets don’t seem to be attached to any professional jealousy, but really to her second thoughts about her own path in life. What we do for a living does a lot to define us, and being an idol was clearly a big part of Mima’s self-image, and probably even moreso considering how much dedication that profession demands.

At the same time, Perfect Blue doesn’t just paint the entire entertainment industry as a black-and-white villain full of lustful bastards who only want to take advantage of Mima. Those people do absolutely and unfortunately exist in the real world, and more than a few of them — the “Me Too” movement is only a few years old, but the idea of the casting couch has been around for decades, and for a reason. Mima isn’t put through anything like that, however: she’s a capable adult, the ordeals she has to get through are entirely legal, and they’re arguably all a part of the art (though the motive of the screenwriter in putting in the rape scene specifically might be questioned, and what being in a nude photoshoot has to do with one’s acting ability I can’t say.) The fact that one of the actors in that scene whispers an apology to her between takes also makes a lot of sense; for any kind of decent guy, it probably wouldn’t be that easy to take part in such a scene either, even though it’s all staged.

None of that takes away from her feelings about doing these things, of course, especially since it seems she wouldn’t have done them if she’d really had the choice. There’s no question that they contribute to the breakdown of her old self-image, which is replaced with a new one she doesn’t recognize or even necessarily like. And that brings me to the most central point about Perfect Blue: the persona of the idol/actress as separate from the person herself. Throughout most of the film, we’re seeing things from Mima’s perspective as she deals with the hard transition from singing to acting and with the horrors taking place around her. She’s a professional and does her best to take on these challenges, with a stoic sort of “I just have to get through this” attitude. But that public face is pretty different from her private one, which we see in her thoughts and when she’s alone or to some extent with her agents.

Most of us have to put on a sort of persona when we leave our homes, since we can’t totally be ourselves in a professional setting or while out in public, but this difference is naturally a lot more dramatic when you’re constantly in the public eye as a popular singer or actress is. Of course, people have recognized this difference for a long time, especially since actors and other performers have been nationally and internationally famous, so Perfect Blue is very far from the first work to make a comment on the issue. But it addresses that issue in an interesting way. Throughout the film, other people treat Mima the pop idol and Mima the actress like images that belong to them. Though she’s nominally in control, Mima doesn’t seem to have much actual power over her image, leaving it to her agency to change it as they see fit. The fans also play a part in this, with some wanting Mima to maintain that pure pop idol image.

Both of these public faces seem a lot bigger and more important to most of these people than Mima herself does. The problem for Mima is that she’s the one playing one role and then the other — even though her personal and professional lives are separate in some way, she’s still the one who has to put up with all the shit that comes along with these professional expectations and with the more obsessive and dangerous aspects of being in the business. In that sense, the public image and the private person can’t actually be separated, and that’s what puts Mima in danger.

Though I’m not familiar with idol fan circles, I am a bit with the VTuber ones. This is a very new phenomenon I wrote about a while back, a few months after it really hit the West. Though I still see a lot of positives in the whole thing, I can also recognize the potential of weirder, more obsessive elements to come out of fanbases. One of the interesting differences between VTubers and “real-life” idols is that VTubers use a literal avatar to interact with their audiences, creating a much more obvious layer between the public image and the person behind it. I don’t think it’s all that different in terms of the concept, though, and some people do end up “idolizing” these figures somewhat, even knowing that the avatars are just animated models rigged up to follow the user’s movements. And the negatives are there as well: a few of these figures have been sadly targeted in doxxing and harassment campaigns.

In the end, I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with being a fan of these entertainers. That’s kind of the point, after all. Hell, I’m a fan of a few VTubers myself, so I can’t talk shit about that. If they’re good at their jobs and are promoted well enough, it’s only natural that they’ll get a lot of fans, and there’s plenty of good that can come out of that. But that’s true only as long as the difference between the public avatar and the private person behind it is recognized and respected — whether that avatar is a figurative one in the form of a real-life pop idol figure or a literal one in the form of a VTuber model. Otherwise, you can end up with a situation like the kind presented in Perfect Blue, which is not something you’d ever want.

That said, you would certainly want to watch this movie, because it’s good. It does the bizarre psychological drama right, and you can probably draw some comparisons with the works of guys like David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch — stuff that’s weird but to a purpose, not just for the hell of it (or for that matter Darren Aronofsky, whose film Black Swan is supposed to have taken a lot of inspiration fromĀ Perfect Blue.) That “weird not just for the sake of weird” style just happens to be my thing too, so given this promising start, I’ll be looking out for more of Kon’s work in the future.