While contemporary Japanese media gains popularity, some insist that the true golden age of Japanese animation lies behind us. From Studio Ghibli and their beautiful animations in Howl’s Moving Castle to Mamoru Oshii and his thought-provoking work in Ghost In The Shell, there’s no shortage of iconic films preceding the 21st century. One such well-known figure spearheading the subtler and darker side of the animation industry, crafting movies that blend fantasy and reality, is Satoshi Kon.
Fantasy vs. reality
Describing his life’s work is a whole different story entirely, but what better way to talk about his style than to discuss his debut that is considered to be his most famous work: Perfect Blue. It’s the perfect depiction of his views on the potential of animation, and the thin thread that separates fantasy and reality.
Perfect Blue portrays the life of Mima Kirigoe, a member of the pop-idol group CHAM! who decides to pursue a new career as an actress. However, her life begins to spiral downwards after her departure from the idol industry. Her work as an actress becomes increasingly demanding for both Mima and her manager Hidaka, and begins to interfere with Mima’s life outside the spotlight. Slowly yet surely, each distressing event drives Mima further towards insanity, to a point where she becomes unable to distinguish between the real and the fantastic.
What is excellent about this film lies within its criticism of the reality behind the perceived glory of stardom. In her pursuit of breaking into the acting industry, Mima’s prior J-Pop idol image continues to haunt her. Her shift in career proves challenging when the show producers are reluctant in fully utilising her skills because of her ‘innocent’ and ‘modest’ appearance.
Identity, femininity and autonomy
Desperate for success and driven by resentment, she begrudgingly agrees to do an explicit sexual assault scene. The prospect of which quickly becomes too psychologically taxing for her, catalysing the beginning of Mima’s fragmentation in self along with the loss of identity, femininity and autonomy.
From a historical standpoint, women have been subjected to conform to the binary expectation of either ‘pure, doll-like girl’ or ‘immoral, sexually liberated woman’ and sometimes a mixture of both. This either-or notion of femininity is not overlooked by Kon, as the two concepts are juxtaposed throughout the movie.
Additionally, having an apparition of Mima’s demure idol identity antagonise her real counterpart urges the audience to regard the idea of what is real: how is Mima to determine that her pop idol persona is not her true self? What if it was a manifestation of her deepest desire all along?
It is also worth mentioning that she is only a young adult. What is supposed to be a period of self-exploration is instead dedicated to making a brand of herself. Consequently, she sacrifices her ‘self’ in the sense that she is no longer the sole architect of her image. Scrutiny coupled with relentless projection from the public, particularly from obsessive fans, has depersonalised and denaturalised the development of her character, ultimately voiding her of any autonomy.
A recurring theme in Perfect Blue’s construction is the use of reflections to convey the conflict between reality and unreality that Mima faces as well as to transition between scenes, resulting in a film with polar concepts woven so seamlessly that the viewers find themselves torn between horror and disbelief, pushed blind into uncomfortable depths of their own perceptions.
The evolution of colour and intensity
Kon’s masterful employment of parallel characters in reflections plays further on the duality that develops in the main frame but ultimately transpires between reflections and their reflections, such that Mima’s innocence is always implied yet shrouded behind the façade of the character. In this kaleidoscope of reflections, the viewer is forced to consider whether they are watching the film or an inverted reflection of the film, and to doubt the aggressor-aggresse complex.
The film manages to sustain suspense by vagueness of direction: is this a scene from the movie, a scene from Mima’s drama, or merely Mima’s figment?
The traditional cues such as music and lighting used to indicate new scenes are absent in the film’s most intense moments and shots are often anachronistic in setting, adding nothing but further uncertainty to the already confused palette the viewer has been digesting.
As transitions pick up their pace, particularly during the climax, the line between ‘sense’ and its ‘interpretation’ blurs to an unsalvageable degree. We are left with an acute feeling of hopelessness and horror at the world in the film, and on further reflection, at the world around us.
Perfect Blue is a plummet through and at the same time a profound study of the abyss between sanity and reality. Not only is the film a haunting account of a celebrity’s spiral towards mania, it is in itself an uncertain hand reaching out into the darkness of human relations, evolving in cinematic depth and immediacy of inquiry as Mima’s world collapses before her. Perhaps what inspires this fear in us is not a cinematic ‘trick’ or appeal to pathos, but that we see in the dark colours of the film a passing reflection of ourselves.
All in all, Perfect Blue is a highly recommended film in the genre of psychological thriller. In the words of a sub-continental writer, “If you cannot bear these stories then it is society that is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society, which itself is naked.”
Written by Hassan A., Sofea Qistina and Winstor Foo
Cover photo credits: The Film Era