Up until recently I never got around to seeing Perfect Blue (1997) and now you’re not even paying attention to the rest of this sentence because you’re too busy squawking “ZOMG! What kind of anime fan are you if you’ve neverseenPerfectBlue!?!?!”
Jeez, relax people! It was on my to-watch list for a long time. For years, it was stupidly out of DVD print and was not streaming anywhere.
I knew all about this movie based on its thunderous reputation. Lauded, awarded, and showered in accolades on all fronts, this is one anime movie that counts directors Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky as fans. It was also selected for the weird movies honor roll at one of my other gigs. Perfect Blue isn’t the only Satoshi Kon movie discussed there, either. Then it’s in the top-favorite movies list for YouTube celeb Nostaligia Critic. IMDB reviews of Perfect Blue (it’s rated 8.0 there! 8.0! Citizen Kane (1941) is ranked 8.3, for context) descend into gasping fawns like “the Alfred Hitchcock of anime.”
You Internet masses are going to boil me in oil no matter what I say about this movie. Might as well say what I think.
I think Perfect Blue is a very good movie, a very very very good movie well worth the running time to check it out. Are you panting, barking fans duly appeased? Now go fetch this ball! (*fake-throws a tennis ball and watches all the eager weeaboos scamper away*)
Good… Now while they’re distracted, I’ll say it for the rest of you…
Some of you have Perfect Blue a little wrong
In the first place, it’s far from what I’d call a must-watch for “TWUE ANI-MAY FANZ.” It’s a movie that is steeped in Western sensibilities, even though it’s about a distinctively Japanese corner of pop culture. It is, instead, a great introduction into anime for incoming fans, similar to the works of Studio Ghibli. It’s still a recommended movie for anime fans to see, but don’t drop your One Piece binge marathon, this can wait.
Second, it ain’t noway nohow an Alfred Hitchcock kind of movie. Hitchcock used dream sequences, hallucinations, and fake-outs very sparingly in only a couple movies. Half of Perfect Blue‘s runtime is composed of these. Instead – hold onto your rabbit-head masks! – it’s an anime David Lynch, furthermore made before the two David Lynch movies that it will most remind you of: Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006). There’s even a scene close to the climax of Perfect Blue that is so similar to a scene deep within Inland Empire that I began to think uncharitable thoughts about Lynch’s originality.
Still, if your humble author is going to wade into all of the above hyperbole for this movie and then, unprovoked, turn around comparing it to one of the greatest surrealist directors of our time, that tells you Perfect Blue has something interesting going on.
Hang onto that thought, because you’ll need it to get through the opening. Perfect Blue, over an eighty-plus minute runtime, has a watertight three-act structure. Act one is slow as a simmering chili pot to get rolling, setting you up for a twee little pop star drama. Act two gets darker and faster. Act three straps you into the roller-coaster for a ride through Bonkers-land.
Now, I like a movie with a good sense of momentum, but perhaps this is a bit too much whiplash. It’s too slow at one end and filled with too many hairpin turns at the other. Perhaps this is a good place to explain:
What is Perfect Blue about?
For a spoiler-free synopsis, Mima is a Japanese pop idol in an idol group called “CHAM.” She’s ready to retire the old loli-doll outfit and go get a serious career already. She chooses to get into acting, and starts taking mature, even scandalous, roles in a hurry to shed her previous image. The trouble is that her career change doesn’t seem to sit well with:
- her mom
- some of her producers
- some of her fans
- a weird-looking snaggle-toothed guy who might be a stalker
- a mysterious entity on the Internet making a blog about her
- Mima herself in the mirror
That mirror image is Mima literally getting haunted by her past. Past-Mima takes on a seeming life of her own, becoming a ghostly apparition that is slowly solidifying into a doppelganger that taunts her as Mima’s own life becomes decidedly less carefree. The problem here is that this is one of those movies told entirely from inside the protagonist’s head as she’s slowly going crazy. Thus it jumps from dreams to hallucinations to real life, but then somebody yells “Cut!” because she’s an actress filming roles, of course.
On a side note, if you like movies about actors because that gives you the opportunity for twice the fake-outs, you’ll love Curtains (1983)! But back to our present movie:
What’s real? What’s hallucination? What’s a real-world threat who’s setting Mima up in a doppelganger fantasy in order to drive her schizo? There’s interpretive theories all over YouTube, you just dive right in and take your pick! As is always the case with rambling stream of consciousness descents into madness (something like half of horror cinema), viewers get as fatigued as Alice in Wonderland, exasperated with this world of chattering delusions.
Perfect Blue is still weirdly relevant
It is jaw-dropping how much this movie managed to forecast from its 1997 release year:
BLOGS! A good five years before the concept of a blog became popular, a major plot element in Perfect Blue is an updated blog about Mima on the Internet. The Internet was still just becoming popular with the mainstream at the time. There was arguably “blogs,” so to speak, going back to the Usenet days, but blogs didn’t really take off until Google purchased Blogger.com in 2003.
Pictured here, “Mina’s Room” on Mina’s “Microple Maclindows” computer.
Cancel culture. In modern times, we have Twitter storms of raging fans screeching every time a celebrity scratches their nose, let alone takes a sudden swerve in career. Again, we had divided fan bases before 1997, and places on Usenet like the rec.* and alt.* groups for said fans to whinge upon, but nothing like the head-hunting pitchfork mobs we see crop up now – or the throngs of opinionated fans and exploitative photographers dogging Mina’s every public appearance.
Disney idols. The main protagonist of Perfect Blue follows a character arc very similar to many a former female icon of innocence and purity. Just like any young adult celebrity tearing up their Disney contract to head for the nearest Playboy centerfold shoot, Mina struggles to reclaim her image and ends up having even less control over it, while her escapades make chum for the tabloids. Sure, former child stars going to seed has been a thing since Hollywood, but this movie pegs that story arc with uncanny precision.
David Lynch. Need we say it again? I don’t think anyone as brilliant and obviously original as David Lynch need fear accusations of cribbing, but scenes and similarities between Perfect Blue and Inland Empire are just on the borderline of permissible coincidence. It wouldn’t be shocking to find out Lynch saw this movie and at least paid it homage.
You should still see Perfect Blue
You see, weeaboos, the review wasn’t that bad! Along with the other nice things I’ve had to say about Perfect Blue, it’s also a movie that pays great attention to details. Mina has a fully lived-in looking life, with depth outside her career. Japanese media culture is shown unflinchingly, warts and all. The story has things to say not just about fame and the way we treat famous people, but the social impact of our always-online lives. Finally, the story is told with sweeping cinematic grandeur even for an anime movie. Between the phantom avatar merrily skipping over the streetlamps or a stabby murder scene done in front of a screen mirroring the character, there’s many memorable visions to be found here.
Here’s somebody else with some analysis (but spoilers) about this movie:
But perhaps I should send you off to watch a video by The Who instead. The question “Who are you?” gets asked over and over again in Perfect Blue to the point of becoming an unsolvable koan. In sum, this movie asks that question of every one of us, and further makes us think harder about who we make ourselves.