Perfect Blue (1997) Review

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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.

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 1.03.56 AMPerfect 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.

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 1.05.47 AMPerfect 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.

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 1.07.22 AMSatoshi 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.

Satoshi Kon picDespite 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.

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Princess Mononoke (1997) Review

Note: I meant to publish this article months ago and just found out today that I hadn’t… oops

So as a writing crutch I’ve been comparing the other Studio Ghibli films to the epic fantasies that they so iconically do. Being one Ghibli’s most notable and praised films, Princess Mononoke is the epitome of that epic fantasy. It’s a crowning jewel of animation and visual storytelling and it deserves it’s place as one of the best animated films of all time, if not one of the best films of all time. It’s not as light-hearted as most other Ghibli films, but what it lacks in charm it makes up for in tense engaging drama.

While defending his village from a Boar God turned Demon, Ashitaka gets burned by the creatures touch and is now cursed to die unless he finds a way to remove the mark. Following the boars trail leads him to a small village producing two things: Iron and rifles. It’s their guns that killed the boar and turned him into a demon, and it’s their cutting of the forest that’s causing the wolf clan, including the wolf-adopted human San, to attack them. While Ashitaka fights to maintain peace and find a cure, the leader of the village Lady Eboshi strives to obtain the head of the Great Forest Spirit that nurtures and protects the forest and its creatures.

Princess Mononoke is in many ways a retread of Miyazaki’s previous environmental masterpiece: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. It has a lot of the same themes and makes a lot of the same ideological arguments, but Mononoke does it far better, if only because it has stronger characters to give such heavy-handed messages. What he created in Mononoke, and I can’t emphasize this enough, is a powerful story. There are scenes in here that after they conclude you will realize you spent not blinking. He’s tapped into something that can’t be describe, that magic of storytelling. I truly wish that there weren’t so many other great American films that same year so this could have won best picture.

Mononoke is chock full of unique and intriguing concepts. Right off the bat I was fascinated by the predicament the hero is in. A lethal infection that also gives him inhuman strength, but grows as his hate and anger grows. It would be the perfect superhero origin. From the way the women in the village act, to the interactions and relationships between the creatures of the woods as well as the idea of legendary larger versions of the beasts we know today and the day-to-night changes of the Great Forest Spirit. These interesting concepts are worth the trade for me from the more simple and charming Ghibli film, because they serve as the fuel for the more dramatic world that’s established. It’s a true testament to the adapted script that it was able to convey these ideas seamlessly to a western audience.

Mononoke is a far more serious film, with a story developed for four years by Miyazaki. While other Ghibli films can be hard to invest in if you aren’t immediately engaged by the material, I would argue it’s hard NOT to get invested in the movie at all. Mononoke delves into a few very basic human conflicts that we’ve been struggling with since the dawn of man, and unlike Nausicaa presents them in a slightly more unbiased light. Instead of Nature over Man, the movie prefers Coexistence, but they still give you no answers as to how this is supposed to be achieved, they just intertwine it into the plot. Anyway, the story of Mononoke is well developed and without a ton of cliches, leaving you genuinely uncertain of where it’s going until it actually gets there.

The art design here is absolutely amazing, let alone the animation. The animation here is, in my opinion, the peak of Ghibli’s capabilities as it is their last cell animation work, as well as the most ambitious of theirs to animate. The backgrounds, creatures, battles, everything is more impressive to me then the arguably better animated, but more subdued Spirited Away or Howls Moving Castle. Back to the designs though, I don’t know if there’s background in Japanese culture, but even if there isn’t I’m still amazed at the unity and yet individuality to all the designs. The characters all have distinct and detailed looks to them, with visual aspects I’ve rarely, if ever, seen. I think San’s design is half the reason people like her so much, despite the fact that Ashitaka is arguably the hero of the film. Ghibli has a habit of not only making things beautiful, but also things incredibly gross and the possessed boars are the the most memorizing and disgusting things to look at outside of a gore scene in a horror film.

Assuming you get the Miramax release of this, the dub is absolutely amazing. I’m not going to go over all the actors, but I will assure you that the dub gets the characters across well, with no hiccups that other dubs may have. It was left in the hands of Neil Gaiman, who has a great respect for folklore and mythology, which is why not only is the adapted script so good, but the dub as a whole. It’s truly one of the best dubs out there so don’t feel bad if you don’t want to see it in Japanese, because you aren’t missing anything. Due to the gore and mature storytelling, this really isn’t a movie for kids, so please wait for teenage years to show this one. It does have important themes that I want kids to learn about, but I highly doubt a kid could sit through it.

Princess Mononoke, in all of it’s beauty and mystery took me for a ride quite unlike anything before. I truly felt immersed in the world I was watching and the characters were all worthy companions on the journey to the end. It’s easy on the eyes, ears, and mind as most Ghibli films are, if not more so. I only wish there were more films out there like this one. This is not only mandatory anime watching, but it’s a movie you need to see before you die. End of story.