doomsey reviews Perfect Blue

Perfect Blueaka Pafekuto Buru (Original Title)
81 min., 1997
Written by Sadayuki Murai
Directed by Satoshi Kon
Language: Japanese
My rating: ★★★★

Welcome to Mima’s Room!

* * *

Perfect Blue opens with a show by the fictional idol-pop group Cham, which in Japan means a group of heavily-managed and provocatively-attired young women, with an average age of maybe 15, on stage dancing to catchy but unremarkable tunes. Cham is getting toward the end of their shelf-life as a pop-idol group, and the lead singer, Mima, has decided to leave the group and move on to a new career as an actress. At the end of the show, Mima announces that she is leaving Cham, and the crowd explodes with violence at this decision. A fan, unnamed but called “Uchida” in the credits, stands out, trying to interfere with hecklers so that Cham can complete the show in peace and getting himself beaten up in the process.

On her way out, Mima overhears a fan talking about “Mima’s Room,” and finds another reference to it in a fan letter. Her manager, Rumi, tells her that this is a reference to a web site. So Mima, somewhat computer illiterate, buys a computer (one of the few things in this 1997 film that actually seems dated) and visits the web site. Purporting to be written by an “alternate Mima” that did become an actress, the web site scares her; it is clearly not her, but it describes her life in detail that few people would be able to manage: details about her room, what she did, things that happen on set.

And these things that happen are strange; Mima receives an exploding package, which injures one of her colleagues when he opens it on-set. Meanwhile, Mima is doing well; although she starts with a small role in her show, Double Bind, she is popular, and the producer asks the writer to expand her role in the series. Rumi argues that she should have stayed as a singer, and is particularly concerned when Mima is presented with a script wherein her character is raped at a strip club.

This is the breaking point. Rumi can’t stand to watch and flees while they film, and afterward Mima starts to lose track of the difference between her reality, her acting, and her memories from Cham. She hallucinates. Mima’s Room takes the perspective of a “true” Mima, still in Cham; Mima wonders if she is actually this person. Uchida returns to stalk Mima. People related to the show are murdered. Mima wonders what is real.

A theme pervasive across Kon’s work is the fine lines between illusion, reality, and perception. In his later work this is managed well; in Perfect Blue, his first film, this theme is clearly evident but the lines themselves are not well defined. Mima is confused about what is real; so are we. Most likely this is intentional. Perhaps Kon is trying to keep the perspective of the audience from being any more “real” than that of the characters, so as to better draw them into the film. But as a result, it is unclear what is objective reality, what is an act, and what is only in the heads of the characters. And when the actress who plays a psychiatrist in the show reminds Mima that illusions cannot come to life, she is speaking to the audience as much as she is speaking to Mima.

Much like the script, the visual style of Perfect Blue lacks the polish of Kon’s later work. Perfect Blue has his fluid animation style, and characters with realistic but slightly exaggerated features (Uchida’s face and teeth are misshapen; Rumi, a former idol, has clearly let herself go), but it doesn’t have the striking palette and obsessively detailed backgrounds we find in his later films. The music, by Masahiro Ikumi, is an unobtrusive combination of J-pop and buzzy electronica, and has less “punch” than I would have expected.

The voice acting, on the other hand, is very well done. Mami in particular is a difficult role, requiring a wide range of expression from pop music to murderer. The role is played by the prolific voice actress Junko Iwao, most notable for playing Tomoyo in Cardcaptor Sakura, who is also (like many Japanese voice actresses) a J-pop singer with several albums of her own. She is convincing across the entire range of the character, a performance that is most notable in the perky emptiness of the character after filming the rape scene.

“Perfect Blue” also hews closer to the traditional horror mode than Kon’s other films. This is a bit unfortunate. The main plot—if you ignore the confusion about reality versus illusion that is the true heart of the movie—follows the ordinary horror trope of the psychopath stalker/serial murderer. There is a fair amount of violence and blood splatter, several gory murders on-screen, and plenty of broken glass and sharp weapons. But the film is at its best when it strays from these horror basics, into exploration of the psyche and the impacts of delusion and illusion on the lives of the characters. In his later films Kon sticks closer to these themes, but the more conventional Perfect Blue falls just short of its potential, giving too much screen time to the trappings of mundane horror and not enough to the psychological exploration at which Kon excels.

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