Already before Perfect Blue I wrote a script for another director [Katsuhiro Otomo], an episode of the omnibus film Memories called Magnetic Rose. It was also a story of confusion between memory and the real world. Because I didn’t direct it myself I was a bit concerned about how it was turning out. On many occasions I thought I would have done things differently. I got my chance to realize those thoughts with Perfect Blue. So I already had an interest in that kind of plot, to consciously compose the story in such a manner… To be honest, I care very little about the idea of the stalker in Perfect Blue. The storytelling aspects interest me much more. Looking at things objectively or subjectively gives two very different images. For an outsider, the dreams and the film within a film are easy to separate from the real world. But for the person who is experiencing them, everything is real. I wanted to describe that kind of situation, so I applied it in Perfect Blue. [Kon Satoshi, Midnight Eye Interview]
While all of Kon Satoshi’s work explores similar themes, the thematic line that runs through Magnetic Rose, Perfect Blue, and Millennium Actress (his first three works) is the strongest and easiest to identify. All three films are stories about the confusion between reality and fantasy, the subjective nature of perception and memory, and the identity of the female performer. While Kon explored many of these themes within the script for Magnetic Rose (which I discussed in the previous post), he was finally able to take the helm as director in the 1998 Perfect Blue. The result is an astounding cinematic tour de force. In her essay “‘Excuse Me, Who Are You?’: Performance, the Gaze and the Female in the Works of Kon Satoshi” from Cinema Anime, Susan Napier elaborates, “I use the term tour de force because the film’s brilliant use of animation and unreality creates a unique viewing experience, forcing the viewer to question not only the protagonist’s perceptions but his or her own as he/she follows the protagonist into a surreal world of madness and illusion” (33). For this essay, I would like to examine the themes Kon addresses within Perfect Blue as well as the formal and narrative techniques that he employs to express them. Finally, I will conclude with a discussion of the film’s ending and interpretations.
Kirogoe Mima is one-third of the pop music group CHAM. Under the encouragement of her management, Mima decides to quit the idol world and pursue a more profitable career as an actress, much to the chagrin of her fans and her agent Rumi. After leaving CHAM and getting cast in a small role on the TV psychodrama Double Bind, Mima begins to receive hang-up phone calls, threatening letters, and discovers a fan website called ‘Mima’s Room.’ Dedicated to her life as a pop idol, ‘Mima’s Room’ contains a disturbing diary (supposedly written by Mima herself) that contains startlingly accurate accounts of her daily activities.
Determined to distance Mima from her clean image as a pop star and earn her a bigger role in Double Bind, Mima’s management convinces her to film a graphic rape scene and pose for nude photographs. Her image as an innocent pop idol completely destroyed, Mima begins to have confrontations with a mysterious copy of herself; a doppelganger that appears in reflections, television and computer screens, and bounds aroundTokyo defying physics and sporting Mima’s CHAM uniform. It is at this point in the movie that reality, Mima’s hallucinations/dreams, and the plot of the TV show begin to merge.
The doppelganger begins to appear more frequently, calling Mima an ‘imposter,’ a ‘filthy woman,’ and accusing her of tarnishing her image. It is also revealed that the man behind the ‘Mima’s Room’ website – who calls himself Mi-mania – is stalking her and has been convinced by Mima’s doppelganger that she is a fake who needs to be killed to protect the ‘real’ Mima.
To make matters worse, the TV show’s writer and producer are brutally murdered in a fashion similar to the murders in the show. As Mima’s grasp on reality becomes increasingly fractured, she loses track of time and starts to wonder if she is the one committing the murders – exactly like her character in Double Bind. She begins to rely on the online diary to keep track of what she’s been doing and questions whether this internet version of her is ‘more like the real me than I am.’
As the film reaches its denouement, we see a scene that suggests that the plot of Double Bind is actually reality – to protect her psyche from the trauma of being raped, Yoko has assumed the identity of the young actress ‘Kirogoe Mima,’ who does not exist in real life and is a symptom of Yoko’s personality disorder. However, the scene is rewound and we see that it was just the final scene of the TV series. With filming complete, Mima feels a vague sense of relief and heads to the dressing room to change. However, she is attacked by Mi-mania, who attempts to rape and kill her (the ‘imposter’) to protect the ‘real’ Mima. During the struggle, Mima hits him over the head with a hammer and runs for safety. She finds her agent Rumi in the hallway and when they return to the set, the body of Mi-maniac has disappeared. Did Mima imagine it?
Rumi takes Mima back to her apartment, but Mima soon realizes that it is not actually her apartment. Rumi enters the room, now wearing Mima’s CHAM costume, and she assumes the form of Mima’s doppelganger. It is revealed that it was Rumi/the doppelganger who had been working together with Mi-mania to torment Mima and is likely responsible for the murders of the writer, producer…AND Mima’s manager and Mi-mania himself (for failing to do his job right). After a struggle and chase, Rumi is severely wounded and almost killed by an oncoming truck…until an injured Mima saves her at the last moment. At the film’s conclusion, we see Rumi locked away in a psychiatric ward – still convinced she is the pop idol Kirogoe Mima. Mima is calm and collected, and while leaving the hospital two female nurses wonder if she is really the successful actress Mima or just a look-a-like. Back in her car, Mima looks into her reflection in the rear view mirror and says, “No, I’m real.”
Reality vs. Fantasy
One of the key themes in Perfect Blue is the boundary between reality and illusion. As Tasha Robinson says in “Perfect Blue: Hitchcock for the 1990s,” the film has a “twisted, self-referential storyline that inter-cuts reality with fantasy so fluidly that viewers inevitably take on Mima’s shattered point of view, unable to distinguish the truth until the stunning conclusion” (13). The film is, at its core, a brilliant depiction of Mima’s internal psychological condition. Because the audience only experiences events through Mima’s point of view, we are completely unable to distinguish fact from fantasy. Often, Kon depicts what seem to be real actions only to later reveal that they were actually hallucinations, dreams, or paranoid projections. Thus, the subjective nature of perception is scrutinized. Because perception is inherently subjective, we can never be certain that the reality we perceive is ‘real’ or ‘true’ in the objective sense.
Mima’s discovery of the online diary is the first crack in her identity. She did not write the diary, but it is nonetheless a ‘true’ account of her life. As the boundary between reality and dream blurs, Mima is increasingly uncertain about the ‘truth.’ The rape scene was not real – no penetration occurred – but the outcome is the same as if it had been a real rape; she is traumatized and her reputation is tarnished. Later, the audience witnesses Mima (disguised in a delivery uniform) brutally murdering Double Bind’s producer – but then in a jump cut Mima wakes up back in her room. Did she dream the event or was it real? When Mima finds bloody clothes in her closet she must also ask herself, “If I dreamed it, does that mean I actually did it?”
Kon successfully intertwines reality and fantasy through the skillful use of several cinematic techniques. Most obviously, Kon employs jump cuts throughout the entire film; “We’d cut fast from one thing to another as if it were a fight scene, even if there wasn’t any action involved – [it] helped emphasize Mima’s sense of confusion” (Satoshi Kon, Tom Mes, Midnight Eye interview). As the plot spirals deeper into paranoia and confusion, the scenes get shorter and shorter while the cuts become more sudden and jarring. This not only illustrates Mima’s internal confusion, but literally confuses the viewer as well. Upon the first viewing of this film, it is often hard to make sense of the scenes and piece together the fragmented elements of the plot. This is probably why there are quite a few people who dislike Perfect Blue – they find it illogical, contradictory and write it off as a poorly-made movie with graphic violence and rape.
However, Kon knew exactly what he was doing when he made together Perfect Blue. In his interview with Tom Mes for Midnight Eye, Kon says that viewers are “too used to being treated kindly” and that he has deliberately broken the pattern of “sleepy continuity.” Specifically, he wanted to make it difficult for the viewers to distinguish between dreams and reality. He explains, “Even if the shot or the scene changes, they must be linked within the flow of the story and I thought it would be interesting if the viewers did not immediately grasp they were watching a flashback or a dream” (Kon, Midnight Eye) Thus, Kon uses no techniques (such as fades, cuts, etc) to warn the audience that they are entering dream territory. Furthermore, the repetition of key events and locations during the second half of the film creates a nightmarish loop. This evokes what Freud has described as ‘incoluntary repetition,’ which arouses an uncanny feeling and recalls ‘the sense of helplessness experienced in dream states’ (The Uncanny 342). Thus, the audience’s quest to determine what is dream and what is reality is constantly undermined. Kon also stays away from clichéd movie conventions frequently used to help the audience identify flashbacks, dream sequences and memories. There are no sepia-tones, no grainy film reels reminiscent of home movies, and no Hitchcock-esque whirlpools.
Kon also employs layered narration within Perfect Blue’s script to blur the reality/fantasy boundary. The best and most recent example of layered narration is Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, where the events, locations, and timeline of the plot are literally layered on top of each other within the characters’ subconscious. In Perfect Blue, Kon interweaves 3 distinct layers of narration; reality, Mima’s dreams and hallucinations, and the plotline of the TV show Double Bind. As it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish which is which, Mima’s view of reality (and the audience’s) is pushed to the breaking point. This layered narration is at its most complex during the final scene of Double Bind, when we discover that Mima’s character Yoko suffers from multiple personality disorder and the pop idol ‘Kirigoe Mima’ is nothing but a delusion. This causes the viewer to question which narrative is actually real – the original plot or the plot of Double Bind. This narrative twist explains the events of the film so well that it is tempting to accept it as reality – even after Kon rewinds the scene and replays it with different names (Mima’s character actually thinks she is a model).
There is a similar overlap in the levels of narration in a scene where Rumi visits Mima in her apartment. Mima expresses concern that her other personality could start acting on its own. As she says this, she slides rightwards across the screen, the busy detail of the apartment being replaced by a flat back ground. A hand enter frame-right to touch her shoulder comfortingly, as someone says, “It’s all right. There is no way illusions can come to life.” Mima responds “Rumi?” before we cut wide to see her no longer in her apartment with her agent, but on set with the psychologist character and the television crew. The sliding motion across the screen has replaced a cut between one spatial and temporal location and another. Startling in its unexpected transition, the sliding seems to reflect the frightening slippage between reality, the show, and the dream that is taking place within Mima’s mind.
In Perfect Blue, the theme of identity is perhaps the most obvious; after all, the key line of the film is, “Excuse me, who are you?” The entire film revolves around this simple question – Who are you? Finding the answer to this question is Mima’s dramatic need – and the story can only be concluded after it has been fulfilled.
Throughout the majority of the film, Mima is extremely timid and rarely voices strong opinions. Even when she does, it is questionable if she is expressing her true feelings or conforming to the desires of others. Because Mima has such an underdeveloped sense of who she is, she relies on the people around her to define her identity. From the very first frame of the film, Mima is identified as a pop star not through her actions but from the perspective of her male fans. Later, it is her management, her family, her fans, and her deranged stalker who manipulate and control her image to suit their own desires. It is Mima’s own insecurity and confusion with her image that leaves her vulnerable to the attacks (both psychological and physical) on her identity by Rumi and Mi-mania and is responsible for her psychological breakdown (Napier).
Mima herself lacks agency and, in the many scenes where her career is discussed, she seems to lack a voice completely. The fact that Mima has left behind the role of a pop idol and quit singing can be seen as a symbolic ‘loss’ of voice. This loss of voice is a loss of agency and strongly connects Mima to the character of Eva Friedel from Magnetic Rose. (Napier). Eva murdered Carlo as an act of vengeance – both for his personal betrayal and the betrayal of her fans after Eva, literally, lost her voice. Similarly, the murder of the men responsible for the corruption of Mima’s image (the TV writer, director, and her agent) was an act of vengeance for Mima’s loss of agency and her subsequent exploitation (regardless of who actually committed the murders; Rumi, Mi-mania, or Mima herself).
Binaries such as reality/fantasy, body/mind, body/soul are extremely common within Japanese animation, particularly the horror, fantasy, and science fiction genres (Ruddell 21). In Perfect Blue, Mima’s shifts between reality and dream are characterized by the appearances of her doppelganger, a physical manifestation of Mima’s crisis of identity. It seems that Mima’s double is a direct result of her trauma around becoming an actress (something that she more or less was pushed into by her management). In “Nightmare and the Horror Film: The Symbolic Biology of Fantastic Beings,” Noel Carroll states that doubles often stand for another aspect of the self, “generally one that is either hidden, ignored, repressed or denied by the original character” (169). Mima clearly articulates this denial of her former self when she says, “Maybe she is more like me than myself, the self that I hid deep in my heart.” Mima is clearly not entirely pleased with departure from CHAM and longs to rejoin the pop group. Mima’s doppelganger, perpetually dressed in the CHAM outfit, is a representation of the part of herself that she is trying to leave behind by quitting the group. Acting is, after all, displacing one’s own identity.
Although Mima’s double is displaced by Rumi’s real presence in the end, the doppelganger that appears in private to Mima is an imagined shadow self that defies logical explanation. This doppelganger was clearly the product of Mima’s fragile mental state, a state that is subsequently shattered by Rumi’s interference. Interestingly, Mima’s doppelganger is transferred onto Rumi at the film’s climax. Rosemary Jackson points out in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion that ‘figures who attempt [a] return to undifferentiation, in fantastic tales, are doomed to failure” and “terminate with the madness, suicide or death of the divided subject: self cannot be united with ‘other’ without ceasing to be. (90-91). In the film’s climax, Mima only achieves a reintegration of her fractured selves at the expense of Rumi’s sanity. Mima’s words in the film’s final scene “I wouldn’t be where I am today without her” then take on a particular pertinence: by Rumi ‘becoming’ Mima’s double, Mima is able to achieve reintegration.
To visually reinforce the theme of the doppelganger, Kon peppers the film with images of Mima – on TV screens, editing screens, photographs, and reflections. The first reflective device is a train window. Mima is on her was home from a day of acting when her double suddenly appears in place of her own reflection. This speaks not only to an aspect of Mima that she is trying to bury, but as the public image of herself as an innocent pop idol, an image that she is trying to leave behind her to expand her career. One cannot disregard the pressure the Mima feels as a public figure and the consequences that she faces for not living up to the expectations of her fans. Perfect Blue’s preoccupation with identity is visually represented through Kon’s use of reflective surfaces and images. These various reflections – Mima as actress, Mima as pop idol, Rumi as doppelganger – create contradiction and paradoxes the reflect Mima’s increasing confusion about the boundaries between dream and reality.
The double of Mima’s room – one physical and one virtual on the internet – also parallel Mima’s state of mind through the film. Her physical apartment becomes increasingly disheveled over the course of the film. Her pet fish die. She packs up all her CHAM memorabilia. As she begins to lose her grasp on reality, she depends on the neat and tidy virtual Mima’s Room to fill her in on what she did during the day. Wide shots of her apartment – viewed through her window from across the street – are frequently used also visually emphasize her isolation. Mima lives alone in a small, solitary apartment. The singularly lit up space visually isolates her from the world around her.
Kon also enhances the emotional impact of the film by overlaying images and scenes on top of one another. An example of this is the montage sequence that Kon creates to depict both a murder scene (Mima’s nightmare) and Mima’s nude photo shoot (reality). The inter-cutting between Mima’s stripping and the violent murder underlines the level of degradation that Mima undergoes in the photo shoot, and the traumatic effect it has on her psyche. This is something that the viewer senses on an emotional level. Without a word of dialog Kon effectively portrays Mima’s splintering psychological state and her exploitation. He also reinforces the main dramatic question – Who is Mima? Will Mima discover who she really is? Kon’s underlining of this question is the most haunting and recognizable aspect of this film; Excuse me, who are you?
The Female Performer and Her Audience
As mentioned in the beginning of the paper, Magnetic Rose, Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress are strongly interconnected. In all three, the main themes revolve around a central female performer and her relationship with her audience. In fact, female idols seem to be a subject of particular fascination for Kon Satoshi. When viewed in sequence, these three works take the audience from an extremely dark and negative interpretation of the performer-audience relationship towards a more positive and constructive one. In Perfect Blue, the dynamic between Mima and her audience is extremely destructive. Not only is Mima stalked by a deranged fan and attacked by her psychopathic manager, but she is under subtle yet constant pressure to change herself and her image to meet the demands of her management, her fans, the media, and her family. Clearly this is a task she couldn’t possibly succeed in and we see the toll it takes on her psychological state over the course of the film. However, unlike the singer Eva Freidel in Magentic Rose, Mima manages to draw herself out of the nightmare of false identity and illusion.
In both Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress, Kon explores the way an audience can inject itself into the narrative of film and it’s a great visual representation of the fact that we are never ever an entirely passive audience. In Perfect Blue, the audience has a very negative effect on Mima, who is very young and has a completely undeveloped sense of WHO SHE IS, until the resolution of the film. We, as the literal audience, are exposed to this – in the beginning we are consuming Mima’s image just as the fans in the story are – she is portrayed as an object of desire, something to be consumed. Simultaneously, however, Kon is showing us the effect that our desires are having on Mima’s psychological condition – it’s essentially tearing her apart.
Susan Napier identifies this as ‘the role of the gaze’ and points out that “much of the film’s action is determined by the variety of gazes directed at Mima.” Mima’s management is primarily concerned with her monetary value to the agency, her fans consume her visually, and her stalker Mi-mania sees Mima as something that should be possessed and controlled. Even Rumi, who seems to be Mima’s only ally through the course of the film, wants to possess Mima’s image – by literally being her. In particular, the televised rape scene is interesting in this respect. The viewer sees Mima in her scene through a variety of mediums – directly on screen, through the televisions playing the scene to the director, and reflected in the lens of the camera itself. Additionally, Mima is also being viewed by a variety of spectators, including her management. Mid-rape, Kon stops the action and Mima and the actors must hold their awkward positions while equipment is rearranged. The actor playing her rapist whispers, “I’m so sorry” to Mima. This isn’t the climax of the plotline, but I think Perfect Blue definitely reaches a very strong emotional climax with this scene. As the audience, we are complicit in her rape; we are consuming it for our own entertainment. At the same time, however, it is horrifying to watch because we understand the impact this is going to have on Mima. It plays a role in Mima’s character development, but it also makes us as an audience stop and say, “This is horrible. Why is this entertainment?” At this time, however, it is prudent to point out Kon Satoshi’s intentions with Perfect Blue;
No, the film is not based on any criticism. If the audience gets the impression from watching the film that the idol system in Japan is like that, I’m embarrassed. Of course I did research before making the film and I visited a number of these idol events, but I didn’t see the kind of example that is used in the film. Also, to reveal behind-the-scenes secrets about the entertainment world was never my intention. I simply wanted to show the process of a young girl maturing, becoming confused because her old set of values gets shattered, but who is reborn as a mature being as a result of that. That’s what I wanted to describe. But because I had to stick with the idea of an idol, the film came to talk about that particular world. [Midnight Eye Interview]
Regardless of Kon’s intention, Perfect Blue can serve as a useful jumping off point for a discussion on the nature of the idol culture inJapan and the position of women in media in general. Mima’s entrance into the acting world and her subsequent exploitation in rape scenes and nude photography is not an unusual course of events for young Japanese idols. The visual consumption and commoditization of women is also common enough in bothJapan and theUnited States to merit further discussion. Hopefully, members of the audience will notice their reaction and start to exam some of the other ways we consume the images of women in the media.
Perfect Blue is a complex film and it does far more than tell a suspenseful story. Kon Satoshi uses dreams, hallucinations, and doppelgangers within a complicated layered narrative to draw the audience into Mima’s fractured identity and perception. The entire film is a prolonged attempt to make the audience experience what Mima is experiencing, including her inability to distinguish between the real and the false. The climax and resolution of the film all revolve around Mima’s sole dramatic question: Who am I? Of course, the climactic revelation that Mi-mania was only a tool in Rumi’s delusional plot is problematic. The stalker’s willingness to believe that Rumi is the real Mima (despite obvious physical differences) seems forced and too coincidental to be completely believable. Additionally, Rumi’s psychosis (that she is Mima) dovetails too neatly with Mima’s delusions that she is being tormented by her pop-idol alter-ego. When Rumi’s reflection finally betrays the false Mima’s true identity, Kon continues the visual imagery of Mima struggling with her phantom alter-ego long past the point when she is actually struggling with the flesh-and-blood Rumi.
Perfect Blue can be analyzed on a variety of levels. In terms of the film’s connection to the anime genre, Kon’s use of binaries is probably the most important. There are numerous anime that deal with binaries such as reality/fantasy, male/female, modernity/tradition, organic/synthetic, body/mind, and body/soul – Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Serial Experiments Lain, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Armitage and so on. Perfect Blue falls neatly into this category, as Mima struggles to establish a distinction between reality and hallucination as well as establish her own personal identity as opposed to the public image of her created by modern society (the media, the internet, and her fans). The fascination with binaries within Japanese animation can be connected back to the country’s own history.Japan has undergone several periods of rather extreme and somewhat forced Westernization – first during the Meiji period and later during the post-war American occupation. Because so much of modernity is a foreign transplant, it makes it much easier to delineate betweenJapan’s traditional past andJapan’s modern, Western-influenced society.
Similarly, the image of the young girl or ‘idol’ has attained iconic status in Japanover the last two decades. The young girl has become a signifier of contemporary Japanese consumer culture in its obsession with the ephemeral (youth and beauty) and the material. The aspect of vulnerability (readily apparent in all shojo figures) is of particular significance in relation to contemporary Japan, underlining the fact that the country is intensely aware of its unique place among nations – economically powerful but militarily vulnerable, with its centuries old traditions seemingly threatened from both within and without (Napier). The simultaneous exaltation and consumption of young women within pop culture is a fairly routine occurrence in Japan; the female as a cultural icon has increasingly come into ascendance in the postwar period, though Japanese women have far less political and socioeconomic power than their American counterparts. In this sense, Perfect Blue is at its core an examination of Mima’s struggle to establish a strong sense of personal identity within modern Japanese idol culture. While Magnetic Rose explores a similar theme and reaches an exceedingly negative conclusion, Kon Satoshi’s films on a whole have very positive representations of women that subtly exalt the feminine over the masculine. Much of the positivity and conviction demonstrated by Mima’s character in the last few minutes of Perfect Blue are present in Kon Satoshi’s next work, Millennium Actress, where the protagonist’s involvement with the Japanese film industry is a constant source of strength and courage throughout her life.
If you look at a dream overall, it’s very difficult to discern the meaning. However, as time goes on, there might be certain meanings in the background. Movies that you can watch once and understand entirely – that is the type of movie that I don’t really like. [I wholeheartedly agree with you hear, Kon] However, if you are able to understand 70 to 80 percent of what’s being relayed, and there’s still some percentage left that would allow for your own interpretation…that’s the type of movie that I do like. There might be a certain part that you don’t quite understand, but there is a portion that rests in your heart. [Kon Satoshi, Midnight Eye interview]
Carroll, Noel. “Nightmare and the Horror Film: The Symbolic Biology of Fantastic Beings,” Film Quarterly: A Selection, Eds. Brian Henderson, Ann Martin, and Lee Amazonas,Berkeley,Los Angeles, andLondon:University ofCalifornia Press, 1999.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny” (1919), Art and Literature,London: Penguin Freud Library, 1985.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion.London andNew York:Methuen, 1981.
Kon Satoshi, dir., Perfect Blue (Yume Nara Samete). DVD.US: Manga Entertainment, 1999.
Mes, Tom. “Midnight Eye Interview: Satoshi Kon,” Midnight Eye (2 November 201), URL: http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/satoshi_kon.shtml
Napier, Susan. “Excuse Me, Who Are You?”: Performance, the Gaze, and the Female in the Works of Kon Satoshi,” Cinema Anime, ed. Steven T. Brown,New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2006.
Robinson, Tasha. “Perfect Blue: Hitchcock for the 1990s,” In Science Fiction Weekly, 5.129 (Oct. 4, 1999), http://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue129/anime.html
Romney, Jonathan. “Review of Perfect Blue,” Sight and Sound (August 1999), URL: http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/review/176
Ruddell, Caroline. “Breaking Boundaries: The Representation of SplitIdentity in Anime,” Animation Studies, vol. 2, 2007.
Scheib, Richard. “Review of Perfect Blue,” The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review, (1998), URL: http://www.moria.co.nz/horror/perfectblue.htm
For a discussion of Kon in relation to Fincher and Lynch, see the article “Satoshi Kon” by the French critic “Jay” in Otaku (May.June 2003)” 20-2 1.