There are many stereotypical views of anime: that it’s strangely pedophilic, that it’s for kids, and/or that it’s all tentacle porn. While, yes, for the most part this is true, there are are still plenty of examples where anime transcends these trivial stereotypes and becomes something truly worth placing next to the greats of pop culture. One can of course point to Cowboy Bebop or the insanely popular Ghibli films, like Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, but there are far more underrated works that deserve attention, particularly those of director Satoshi Kon. To be clear, it’s not that his works are without critical acclaim, rather it’s that his movies are criminally under-watched by the anime community and the movie audience at large. Perfect Blue, his first film, is a masterfully crafted psychological thriller that has been commonly compared to a Hitchcock film. While I disagree that the two are linked in any way thematically or stylistically, it’s hard to not compare how well the two directors handle the genres and mediums they operate within.
Perfect Blue centers around Mima Kirigoe, the former lead singer of the pop group “CHAM!,” who decides to go into acting despite the pop idol stigma around her. Her first project, the gritty crime drama series “Double Bind,” leaves a few fans upset, particularly the mysterious stalker “Me-Mania.” Mima receives a fax reading “Traitor” and an explosive letter in the mail, but is continually assured by her manager Ruma Hidaka that she should just ignore it. Ruma urges Mima not to going along with the writer of “Double Bind,” who wants her to participate in a rape scene that will lead to her part becoming bigger. In order to help her career and not let down everyone who helped her get to where she is, Mima goes through with it, but not without hesitation as it means the sure death of that innocent pop star image she had. A website she finds that chronicles her life in an eerily accurate way doesn’t help either, as it idolizes that pop star persona of hers and soon she starts hallucinating that this very persona is criticizing her. As her career starts to spiral out of her control, her state of mind fragments and her sense of reality slips away dramatically.
Perfect Blue is an interesting look at the entertainment industry and how daunting it can be to its young entrants. The dynamic and clear-cut characters that populate the sets and meetings give the film a sense of reality, but leave it a little cold (as it should). While it’s not clear what age Mima is supposed to be, the film is most certainly a tale of reaching maturity and shedding your childhood, and this is unfortunately best shown in the rape scene shoot. The similarity between the costume she’s wearing on set and the costume she wore on stage as part of CHAM! make it abundantly clear that she is “letting” her childhood be violently destroyed. What’s left of her afterwords is unclear.
Satoshi Kon does a brilliant job of messing with the audience’s sense of reality through the characters’ delusions. The dual appearances of “Idol Mima” to Mima, as a way of taunting her and degrading her actions, and Me-Mania, as a way of egging him on ever closer to violence, confuses the audience into wondering if the delusions could possibly be connected by some supernatural force. As Mima’s sense of reality completely breaks into a series of loosely connected and repeating scenes, we as the audience have no sense of what’s real and what’s not.
Despite its discontinuous nature, Perfect Blue has a fairly simple narrative and the confused reality that the audience experiences throughout the film ultimately adds to the enjoyment of the journey to the end. Satoshi Kon could have left such confusion out, but he didn’t because, unlike most directors in anime, Kon has a sense of artistic style as well as narrative structure. Kon approaches an anime film like a film and not an anime, keeping himself separated from the Otaku culture that most anime producers are inevitably pulled into. Surpassing even great directors like Hayao Miyazaki, Kon has a fantastic sense of editing and cinematography. There are shots in Perfect Blue that will leave any cinephile stunned at their beauty, accentuated by clever editing techniques.
Perfect Blue has a slow first two acts, but its tension keeps you believing that it’s building towards something. If you wait patiently the third act will blow you away by proving that Perfect Blue is not just a fantastic anime or an exciting thriller, but an impressive film. Period. The animation isn’t the highest quality, but it gets the job done (and better than live action could). Many people brag about anime’s “mature storytelling” all the while showing those they brag to a series that arguably is no more mature than an episode of CSI, however Perfect Blue actually lives up to this claim. I highly recommend it to not only anime fans, but to anyone seeking a good mystery/thriller film and to those who scoff at anime as just pantsu-filled cartoons.