Saturday, July 16, 2011

Perfect Blue (1998)

Introduction:

When Japanese anime in the 1990s is discussed you usually hear titles like Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop. But one title that seems to slip by is Perfect Blue, the first full length feature by director Satoshi Kon. This film made quite a splash in its initial release, and Kon’s star continued on the rise until his untimely death in 2010. I really admire his work and decided to give his movies the in depth reviews they deserve. So here is the first, the dark twisted mirror called Perfect Blue.

Summary:

Mima Kirigoe (Ruby Marlowe) has been part of the semi-successful girl pop group Cham for a few years. But with some convincing from her agent she’s decided to leave the group and try her hand at acting. At first things go well, she gets a small part in television series called Double Bind. But things start to go badly when she finds that one of her fans is not pleased with her decision to leave Cham. At first the threats are easy to ignore, but when Mima films a realistic rape scene for the series, her fan loses it.

The stress of her new life, the danger that threatens everyone around her and the fact that Cham is now more successful with her gone begins to weigh on Mima. So it’s not a surprise when her reflection starts to talk to her. Just how far has Mima cracked and who is this huge fan that will stop at nothing to make sure the “real” Mima returns to her singing?

Good Points:

  • Masterful use of editing and storytelling keeps the viewer off balance
  • Works well as a mind-bending thriller or an examination of fame
  • Anyone looking for a little skin or blood in their anime will be pleased

Bad Points:

  • The lower budget affects the overall look of the film
  • Did this have to be animated?
  • Only confirms that anime is nothing but perversion and violence

Overall:

This is a wonderfully made thriller that manages to keep you wondering just what is really happening almost up to the last minute. Kon is careful to never confuse the viewer, but we end up feeling for Mima, because we are experiencing the same confusion she is. While its not my favorite film by Kon, it’s a great first feature and well worth seeking out, as long as you don’t mind a very R rated experience.

Scores (out of 5)

Visuals: 4

Sound: 4

Voice Acting: 4

Script: 4

Music: 4

Direction: 5

Entertainment: 5

Total: 4

In Depth Review

To be honest, this movie won’t appeal to everyone. I love dark, dreamlike thrillers, so this is right up my alley. It’s not as bizarre as something from David Lynch or Takahashi Miike, but I feel it could stand toe to toe with something from Christopher Nolan, and even surpass it. But I have recommended it to a few folks who ended up thinking I was pretty twisted for liking it or worse thought all anime is like this.

I think that one of the reasons this movie has been forgotten is because it never broke the mainstream like many hoped it would. Back in ‘98 anime still had an image of being “ultra-violent porn” (Mike and the bots actually use that term for several MST3K riffs in the late ‘’90s), thanks to series like La Blue Girl and movies like Wicked City. Sadly most people only noticed the violence and nudity in Perfect Blue and missed the amazing editing and weaving of the story. Does the nudity seem unnecessary? You could argue it either way. Same goes with the violence, but I’ll get to that later.

The heart of the story is a woman dealing with a crisis of self-perception (much like David Lynch’s Inland Empire). We learn early on that Mima came to Tokyo to become a singer. When we see flashbacks to her life with Cham she seems really happy. But when we see Mima trying to move forward as an actress, she looks uncertain and uncomfortable. Things move too quickly for her, mostly because of the prodding of her manager. When she reads the script describing the brutal rape scene, we only see her eyes, but it’s enough to tell us that she doesn’t want to do the scene. Even as her friend and assistant Rumi (Wendee Lee) attempts to stop the whole thing, Mima says she’ll do it. At each junction she picks the path that she feels others expect of her – the one that will lead to her being an actress. But it is counter to her nature.

Its no wonder her reality fractures. This becomes one of the themes of Perfect Blue, permeating nearly every scene. The movie opens with jarring cuts, leaping forward and backward through Mima’s story. It establishes many things, her world now, her world before, the other players in the drama (including the disturbing fan, Mr. Me-Mania played by the always energetic Bob Marx) and provides the set up for the rest of the movie. But this editing is just as fractured as the reality Mima inhabits about a quarter of the way into the film.

We also get a lot of mirror images and reflective surfaces appearing throughout the film. Sometimes they only show us Mima, and other times they show us the being known as Virtual Mima. This creature is dressed in Mima’s pop idol outfit and is endless cheery even as she threatens Mima. The scenes with Virtual Mima are perhaps the best excuse why this movie was animated. With the budget the film had, animation was able to capture these dream-like scenes with surprising skill.

The other theme of Perfect Blue is the audience. Mima is constantly being watched. She may be on stage, in front of the camera, or just walking down the street. But Kon goes out of his way to show us that even a minor celebrity like Mima can feel the pressure of constantly being in the spotlight. Now keep in mind, this was before the internet really took off, before TMZ and all the reality shows took over. We do get to see a website dedicated to Mima (looking like something from Geocities – wow did I flash back hard). But the fan that runs it seems to have extraordinary knowledge of Mima’s actions. She finds it funny at first, but as the film continues and the website becomes more and more disparaging of her acting career, Mima begins to wonder if the stalker may be running the site or worse – if its her.

That is the final horror of this film, Mima loses her grip on herself and her reality. Once we pass the halfway point, elements from the Double Bind television series she’s working on begin to mirror what is happening to her. In addition, she begins to see Mr. Me-mania nearly everywhere she goes. Then there’s the moment where she loses track of her movements – and there’s a murder. By this point Kon has kept the balancing act nearly perfect. After this sequcence, he goes into mind game mode and has some fun.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but this is not a perfect thriller grounded in reality. Perfect Blue is a bit of a game at the end, and you just have to accept the ending and enjoy it for what it is. Some elements will never make much sense when you go back and dissect them, and that is the only weak point of the script for me. The movie is a brisk 80 minutes, and maybe a few more minutes for connective tissue could have helped. But that would have ruined the fractured fury of the conclusion, and I think the movie works fine as it is.

Beyond the editing and shot set up, the animation is a bit on the weak side, probably because the budget wasn’t very high. Many of the crowd scenes lack detail and certain moments look like they were hastily completed. But all the key scenes are really well designed and executed. Kon is also one of the few directors who does not go for the standard AIC anime look. His cast has a more realistic look, adding to the horror a bit more. Back in the ’90s we were still getting some variation in character design style, and it’s always great to see some one shaking it up a bit.

Music and sound are both handled well. Like David Lynch, Kon uses sound to create disconnect for the viewers and the characters. He’s a bit more conventional about in this film, but it still very effective, when certain background sounds begin to overpower the world around Mima. The music is functional, but has a great bit of vocalization that wavers in pitch. It’s used in scenes with Virtual Mima and is creepy as all hell. It gets overused a bit by the end, but is one of the things I always remember whenever I think of Perfect Blue.

The English voice acting is actually pretty good. Most of the cast are veteran anime voice actors worked on Pioneer projects like El Hazard and Tenchi Muyo. They bring the characters to life and Marlowe and Lee are particularly good in their roles.

Sadly this is another film that seems to have fallen out of print. The company Manga had the rights in North America and released two DVD Versions of the film. I have the older version (non-anamorphic widescreen sadly). Looks like an import Blu-ray exists.

For a first feature film effort, Perfect Blue is a stunner. It also shows us all the techniques that Kon would hone in his later projects. His follow up feature, Millennium Actress, builds on the concepts of perceptions of reality, questions of identity and the power (good and bad) of imagination. All these are present in Perfect Blue and it presents a great starting point for anyone looking to delve into his work – as long as you don’t mind your thrillers bloody and twisted.

2 comments:

  1. Good review! The film is definitely a real eye opener into an idol switching careers in the entertainment industry and how some people can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy.

    Would you also mind reading my take on the film and commenting? There are some things I am confused about and need answers too! Plus to me, it seems like a reflection of the industry! http://nynyonlinex.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/perfect-blue/

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  2. I agree with you that there is an element of industry commentary in this as well. The pressures on Mima seem to build, and Kon turns this from simple anxiety into horror. I also think that in these days where everything a celebrity does can be filmed, photographed and disseminated on the internet makes the commentary in this film even more relevant. The power of the internet was just being explored in anime during these years, but Kon really got the jump on it. We'd see some similar exploration in his later works like "Paprika" and in other anime like "Serial Experiments Lain".

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