Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Perfect Blue

Grade : A+ Year : 1997 Director : Satoshi Kon Running Time : 1hr 21min Genre : , , , ,
Movie review score

Inspired by the Atlanta release of “Paprika,” and as part of my filming date “ritual”- as it were- to look back at some of the great films of years past as inspiration as I make my own films, I looked again at “Perfect Blue,” the 1997 thriller that was the debut effort for anime director Satoshi Kon. Going on 5-6 years since I first watched it, and 10 years since its’ initial release, it remains (to this somewhat amateur anime viewer, at least) one of the art form’s great triumphs of recent years. It utilizes what’s unique in the medium of animation to tell a story that would be trickier to do in live-action (though not impossible) while also remembering to tell an involving and intelligent story.

What struck me most in the film this time around is, while set within the Japanese entertainment industry, how spot-on prophetic the film has become as an indictment of modern American culture as well. Especially in recent years where “pop icons” like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton have been dragged through the mud by the tabloid press as their image has gone from that of the cheerfully “pop” role model to the troubled young woman as the demands of career (to prove yourself as a viable, more adult, star, for example) have made the necessary transition difficult. Of course, their public recklessness does nothing to help the issue. But I wondered what the impact of watching Kon’s film might be to any of these three (just to name the more prominent cases)- might it be taken as a cautionary tale, or would the psychological distress its’ main character goes through hit a little too close to home for them? Seeing as though none seem like the type that might like anime (I could be wrong, though), it’s unlikely any of them would watch it.

That doesn’t make it any less worth watching. Even if you only have a passing interest in anime, no interest in it at all, or if you’re just a hard-core film buff, “Perfect Blue” should be required viewing (same goes for Kon’s films after it, “Millennium Actress,” “Tokyo Godfathers,” and “Paprika”; he belongs in the same conversation as Hayao Miyazaki and Shinichiro Watanabe as one of the great anime filmmakers). It’s the rare anime rooted in some sense of reality, as opposed to the outright fantasy most come from, and its’ thriller story is as intricately told and morally fascinating as anything in Hitchcock’s filmography. It’s also one of the most intriguing examples of fractured narrative in the past 10 years, and it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. It’s clearly the best way to tell the story.

One might even say it’s the only way to tell this story, based on the novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi, of Mima Kirigoe, a member of the top-selling pop trio Cham who- at their last concert- bids her pop career goodbye to work as a serious actress on a television drama. She appears to make the transition well, but it’s not long until her character’s story gets much darker than she maybe anticipated. She accepts the challenge (including filming a scene where her character is raped), but the threats of a deranged fan, and the killings of some of her coworkers cause the illusion of the TV show and the reality of life to merge into a paranoia laced with hallucinations of her pop star self and an uncertainty about what’s real and what’s on the show.

In “Perfect Blue,” Kon does what’s most essential when dealing with fractured narrative filmmaking, in that while the story onscreen appears disjointed, the story is always following a through direction towards its’ conclusion, meaning that while time and reality might be played with and rearranged, there’s always a sense of the story building upon every scene, upping the tension whether it’s a fantasy sequence, a flashback, or the “present day,” as it were. Before long, your thoughts about what’s real and what’s fantasy- or rather, in the case of “Perfect Blue,” what’s a part of Mima’s TV show- are as messy as the protagonists. You’re left questioning the same things she does, and left in the same sense of emotional distress as her stalker, who operates a web page (mind you, in the very early days of the internet), pretending to be Mima, with a little too personal of details.

This isn’t an entertaining film except in its’ structure; the subject matter itself is unsettling and more mature than most anime deals with. But that’s Kon for you- one look at his other films (even “Paprika,” which seemingly breaks from that clear sense of reality his other films take place in), and you’ll realize your in the hands of a storyteller who uses the tools of his trade at the service of his story, and isn’t interested in telling stories than show off his tools as a storyteller. That I haven’t really dealt much with the striking visuals in his film speaks higher for the film than if I were just paying lip service to the animation, which still holds up after 10 years. Looking back at the film, though, what most impressed wasn’t the lasting impression of the images onscreen but the unfortunate relevance of the story still; in writing this review, one other victim of the media’s voraciousness came to mind. She died the same year this film came out. I’ll let you figure out who I’m referring to.

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