Before we lost Satoshi Kon, and before he had made a dreamscape spy movie, a yuletide comedy/drama about homeless people, a postmodern masterpiece of TV anime, and a meta-cinematic fantasia about Japanese film history… before all that, he made a tight little psychological thriller called Perfect Blue (1997). The film’s style has been compared to those of Hitchcock, Argento, and de Palma, and while it shares their interests in obsession, subjectivity, and nail-biting suspense, deep down it’s pure Kon. His is a world where self-definition is all-important, and where our identities can be shaped by the images that surround us.
This is the crisis that threatens to destroy Mimarin, a Japanese pop star who tries her hand at serious acting with a small role on a TV crime drama. Her fans aren’t happy with this change in career, and they’re encouraged by a website called “Mima’s Room” that purports to record her every thought and move; together, this fan backlash and invasive website shatter Mima’s confidence and rip away any veil of privacy that she may have had. But while her privacy disappears, she’s still secluded, made emotionally and verbally inert by all the traumas she’s undergoing. Then the murders start…
Perfect Blue is one of the tragically few animated horror movies. Thankfully, it’s also an extraordinarily good one. Even though it’s Kon’s first feature film, it shows a director fully in control of his medium and his ideas. Every scene is bursting with subtext, whether it’s about the relationship between fans and celebrities or the media’s impact on female body image. Kon also demonstrates a talent, crucial to later films like Millennium Actress and Paprika, for mixing Mima’s subjective experience and loosening grasp on real life with the film’s literal reality. This nonstop ambiguity comes fully into play during the film’s big final revelation – one which took me by surprise, and upended my assumptions about all the preceding events. (I won’t give it away in writing, but if you’re really curious, an out-of-context visual spoiler is here.)
This is also a very creepy, very violent movie, combining Repulsion-style internal horror with extremely graphic slasher-style killings. But the killings are never gratuitous or contextless, as they feed into or build off of Mima’s own traumas. Her bloodthirsty stalker, like the rest of his obsessive ilk, feels that Mima owes him something for all his loyalty. When she insists on continuing her career the way she wants, he decides she’s a fake and has to die. It’s particularly telling that this decision follows Mima’s participation in a brutal televised rape scene – one that, according to her online doppelgänger, she didn’t want to make in the first place. Due to her association with a sexual act, she has been tainted and now she’s no longer the same Mima. The girlish illusion in a pink dress has been shattered.
This is one of the movie’s most eloquent, well-developed points: the male fans want ownership of their pop star’s sexuality. They have a picture of her in their minds and it must be maintained. (This is relevant across a wide spectrum of celebrities; think about all the singers and actresses whose personal lives have been distorted for publicity’s sake to mesh with their onscreen appearances.) And all the slut-shaming that Mima receives for doing the rape scene worsens her fears. As the movie goes on, the slender and fleet-footed vision of who she used to be, complete with pink ribbon and tutu, comes to dominate her life. In a great scene, the fake (or real?) Mima skips freely down a hallway, unburdened by gravity; meanwhile, the real (or fake?) Mima gasps for breath and struggles to keep up.
This is the issue that Perfect Blue dramatizes so ably in horror form: for her adoring public, the real Mima is a fake. She’s not demure, graceful, or pretty enough; she has her own opinions and desires. She has a weight and realness to her that prevent her from bouncing down a rainy street like her eternally smiling double. But this double, this duplicated image, is the only version of her that can satisfy the fans, and this fact obliterates her self-esteem, as well as her sanity. The process of being a celebrity, of forging the illusions that define music and TV, blur her very notions of who she is. If you’ve seen any of his other movies, you know: Satoshi Kon was the perfect director to take on those problems in Perfect Blue.
I’ll close with a fun illustration of Kon’s debt to American slasher movies. By chance, I happened to recognize a shot that had been quoted from the obscure, gory film The Toolbox Murders (1978). Directed by Dennis Donnelly, it stars Cameron Mitchell as a handyman who perpetrates of the titular murders. It’s a pretty ugly, misogynistic piece of work, with a suitably batshit ending, but at least Kon found it inspiration. Feast your eyes: