Are You Sure You Weren’t Dreaming?
by Ipe Cervantes
Perfect Blue (1997)
D: Satoshi Kon
S: Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, and Masaaki Okura
The opening scene of Perfect Blue playfully shows a Voltes V-ish group of superheroes called Powertron fighting against an evil master robot. Playful because we’re not getting that type of anime in Satoshi Kon’s debut movie. What we will witness rather is an anime operating along the same vein of a live action psychological suspense. In fact, this animation has drawn comparisons to the popular oeuvres of Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. Missing are mythical creatures, sci-fi and fantastical backdrops, and the physical comedy that populates most anime.
Soon, we discover that Powertron is just part of a stage show, a front act to the last performance of a moderately successful bubble gum pop group CHAM! as a trio. After two years, our protagonist Mima decides to leave the group to further her career as an actress. A pop idol’s career has no longevity and she and her manager, Tadokoro, feel that it’s time to move on to new terrains such as playing a role in a psychological drama series, Double Bind.
Indeed, the transition to becoming an actress proves to be difficult. First, Mima’s first gig is pathetically meager. She has only three shots of exposure on the show while saying only one line of the script. To make things worse, she discovers that her former group is enjoying a newfound success as a duo. Her other manager, Rumi, thinks that the career move is a mistake, that Mima should be singing on stage. But Tadokoro is not giving up. He successfully convinces the screenwriter and the producer of the show to give Mima a meatier role that will increase her exposure.
Meaty it surely is. Mima’s new role on the show is a stripper who is raped by patrons while performing on a club. Rumi, who’s watching behind the camera while on the shoot, is so devastated: she walks out. I myself am sick to my stomach while watching this scene. It’s ambivalent whether Mima is actually raped or if it is just a simulation. But it is crystal clear that she is exploited. The scene is unforgettably brutal, intense, yet effective.
This new role angers her devoted fans. They feel that her immaculate image is tarnished. Now, Mima is starting to get conflicted herself. Sometimes she feels that her move is a mere hurdle real actresses need to overcome. But sometimes she actually feels violated. This inner battle is exacerbated by a ghost of her pop idol self that materializes every once in a while, insisting that she’s the “real Mima” and that the new, tainted Mima is an impostor. It’s also not helping that a blog she discovered earlier, Mima’s Room, continues to describe the daily minutiae of her life perfectly—from identifying the first foot she steps off the train to enumerating the items of her grocery.
Her troubles don’t end there. The people who are part of her new bold image are viciously murdered with an ice pick. This includes the writer who gave her the stripper role and the photographer who took her nude modeling pictures for a magazine. Is the brutal killing done by the mysterious, creepy, awful-looking fan whose life is devoted to stalking Mima? Or is it her after all? Probably unconsciously killing the victims? Or maybe it’s all just her hallucination—her stalker, the murders, her ghost. These are the frustrations and questions Mima and the audience face.
Perfect Blue’s brilliance is in its narrative inventiveness. Interspersing sequences of reality, fiction, dreams, and fantasy makes sure that the audience experience Mima’s confusion as well. We question what is shown on screen. Is it real? Is it not? These questions will definitely keep the audience glued on screen until the end. Don’t worry if you’re a fan of answers. There’s an unambiguous, albeit unnecessary, resolution in the end.
But love or hate the ending, the film is definitely a work of genius. Sure, Perfect Blue’s visuals may have lacked Hayao Miyazaki’s lush outburst of imageries but does it matter if it equals the former in emotionality? Its visual “simplicity” (which I find beautiful) is toppled by the film’s incredible pacing and understated music, both lending perfect tone in conveying suspense and thrill.