~ an essay on the anime film Perfect Blue (1997).
Perfect Blue, masterfully directed by Satoshi Kon (RIP), is quite simply one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Based on a book, the anime film released in 1997 depicts a compelling and horrifying dual-vision of madness within a young girl, an ‘idol’ named Mima, and the surrounding world she inhabits. It conveys a world — modern 1990s Japan, and the roiling environments and entourages of a pop idol in a career transition — that feels lived in. The city of Tokyo, the conversations, the culture, the business, all of the preceding normalcy of the lives of the people living in it, though animated, embodies a colorful, certified reality. Mima, our protagonist, feels like a manifestly real person, imperfect and subtextually communicated to us with her own quirks, dreams, fears. The sprawling spectacle of star worship and the burgeoning stages of Internet culture backdrop her narrative journey, each depicted as uniquely, inevitably toxic. In Japan and elsewhere, we understand and live out those same cultural signifiers played to extremis here – of obsession, of striving for the worldly rewards of renown, of marketplaces of eyes and wallets hellbent upon violating the privacy and rights and the real, lived-in reality of those we see on our stages and screens within the age of mass media. This stark realism – in the art style, in the people’s motivations surrounding Mima, within her dualistic interiority and her resulting chaotic behavior – serves to magnify the coming, mind-shattering horrors. And that is certainly what this film is —horror. Physically, psychologically, culturally, spiritually —horrifying.
Perfect Blue is a film chocked full of deep symbolism and social commentary. In the carefully chosen words and images, and in the style of the story being told, Mima’s odyssey is open to all kinds of interpretations and critiques concerning our world, psychologically/culturally/systemically. Crafted by a master filmmaker in Kon, there is undoubtedly profound intention to be found within every shot. One video analysis I watched focuses upon the use of ‘color theory’ through the film, and how red signifies madness and the past of her idol self, its appearance continuously foreshadowing Mima’s descent — whereas blue marks the new, actress-Mima and her struggling transformation to find peace and balance within the push and pull of her past and future. Mima’s psychological, perhaps even schizophrenic/multiple-personality, split between her idol-self and actress-self makes for the core conflict within the narrative. Over the course of the film, the classification of which of these dual personas constitutes her ‘true’ self versus her ‘shadow’ self becomes necessarily muddled; perhaps they are both her, perhaps neither are really her — there is no clear answer. PB is an equally thrilling and terrifying psychic deep dive into shadow selves, fame careers, the big business pressure in entertainment, the dark side of idolatry, and the conflict of following your own dreams versus the vicarious dreams of a parent or mentor.
From every perspective there is in and around the components of the machine of industrialized entertainment – fans, producers, writers, managers, performers, stalkers… – Mima’s story is told. More than any of the film’s cultural critiques upon fandom or its hidden symbolisms and recurring motifs (or perhaps subsuming them all into one unified channel), with my words here I wish to focus upon Perfect Blue’s perfect illustration of madness as something borne from material, tangible, environmental conditions and incentives. In my analysis, I wish to focus upon the cause(s) of Mima’s descent. Her mad, reality-breaking, murderous odyssey is something of a natural, even justified, response to the explicit action and implicit expectation created within a global consumerist culture completely composed by the unnatural, all-encompassing, ever-expanding, never-satiated realm of capital.
Mima’s descent into madness is no genetic accident of chemical imbalance within her brain, it is created by the immense pressures of the complex demands of the worldly interests around her, namely her manager in Rumi — who are captured by their own selfish dreams and ideals and greed — who are themselves directly influenced and controlled by the public eye and the consuming decisions of the masses that can make or break their careers through their all-important choice of what they will choose to consume — who, as social creatures, feel individually compelled to construct their identity around what they buy, which idols they worship, which of their fleeting obsessions they can most quickly satisfy with money or online communicae or other myriad blinding consumptions — who, as consumers, are collectively beholden to the existence of the stimuli provided by the managers and cultivators of The Market, corporations and content creators, respectively — who, as producers, are wholly incentivized by what they can consistently offer up to those hungry, buying masses to opiate their interior absences in the form of entertainment without end, which serves the purpose of distracting them all from that inner void that cannot be filled with anything except for genuine love from other human beings, which may be nowhere in sight, nowhere within our continuously individualized, atomized future being summoned in the middle of all this pressure…
This pressure, which is the prime mover of it all — the alpha and the omega — is sourced from the faceless, inhuman presence of capital, from out of its inherent, atavistic, merciless desire to grow, and grow forever. Capital, in this way, turns everything into a means to it — the only real end.
The normalization of every desire within society being capable of fast satisfaction by the market creates this cycle. The limitless desires of the consumer-based economy for leisure and for escape requires a machine to be built to try and satiate it, and therefore perpetuate it, for its hunger for more is infinite. The entertainment industry is born, composed of songwriters and filmmakers yes, but also agencies, production companies, marketing firms, the capitalist investing class behind it all, etc. After the superstructures and supply lines for the entertainment products are forged and put into place, the dreaming performers are discovered, cultivated, manipulated — commodified — expended and then spit out at the other end of the line, for better or worse, to the ultimate ends outlined by the machine’s pulsing heart — once again, to grow itself endlessly. Regardless of all the bodies it exhausts, all the talent it exploits, all of the hearts and minds it utterly destroys, the market-based machine continues without a care to the costs, for there are no people ever in control of its maw.
Perfect Blue shows us that a star at the heart of the machine’s whole operation — a pop idol — can become the worst victim of its inhumane excesses.
In this recursive chain of consequence, as described above, there is no place for Mima’s inner wants or desires — or the patient, struggle-filled process of figuring what those things even are — to manifest. There is no incentive for introspection, for a stay to all activity for the moment, for a pause to reflect upon life at present, and what one is really living for. There is only the pressure. The pressure to perform, to move, to keep going, to do more and more. Action for the sake of action to keep the whole thing growing, to get to the next piece of content, and the next after that. In a world dominated everywhere else by tangible, graspable incentivizations such as fame, money and power, there is no time for innocence, naivety, or uncertainty concerning young Mima’s career course. Forged by an incessant public desire for idols, managed by self-interested parasites and charlatans, mostly unconcerned with what she is feeling or what she wants, Mima is not in control of her life. She is an object, to be used, abused, and inevitably abandoned. A cog in the machine. As a pop idol, as an actress, as a model — she is meant to be seen and not heard, lusted over and not sincerely loved.
Mima’s parents are elsewhere, she has no family in the big city. Early on in the film, Mima speaks to her mother over the phone (who we never see in person and do not see her speak to again), uncomfortably explaining to her that she has ‘always’ really wanted to be an actress. At the same time, from the opening scene of Mima’s final performance with CHAM!, her pop trio group, she hesitates to declare her decision to depart from the group to the awaiting crowd — to the point of her uncertainty possibly being the result of an inner revelation to deter her from making the choice to depart at all. One of her colleagues steps in and speaks it into existence for her. This slight indecision foreshadows everything to come; someone else making the final choice for her reflects a throughline in all of her relationships.
“From now on, I’ll be in the light and you’ll be in the shadows…” ~ ghost-Mima
“Maybe she is more like me than I am myself.” ~ real-Mima
Mima has no real friends. Mima has no boyfriend and no prospects, presumably because her managers actively disallow such a thing in order to preserve her image of innocence… She is alone in all of her decisions, though she is not empowered to be making many of them anyway. She lacks confidence in herself overall, mostly because she has never had the time to develop it. She has an idea of what she wants, but seems equally concerned with what she thinks she should want. Thusly, she is easily manipulated by her environment. This appears to be all by design, par for the industry and its ‘assets.’
Mima’s agent, Tadokoro, provides a foil to her manager Rumi, who does seem to care about her subjective experience. He is more ready to exploit Mima as an object, more aware of the changing conditions of the marketplace concerning young female idols versus actresses, and carries a sense of where the most return of money and renown will be. Rumi, who doesn’t really listen to Mima’s thoughts or opinions, and who we come to understand relates to Mima in utterly unhealthy ways, still cares about her in a more motherly fashion. Truly, Rumi is the only person Mima can rely upon in a pinch … (hence, why Mima’s life becomes so utterly fucked up…)
Similarly, the trio of ‘sophisticated’ yet fickle pop idol enthusiast fans seen at the beginning of the film and again later, provide a foil to the singularly obsessed, potentially murderous fan in Me-Mania. One is a more extreme manifestation of the toxic, misogynistic culture of pop idol fanaticism, but both kinds of fan are caught in the thrall of parasocial desire, and of their compulsion to consume trumping any vision of her humanity. No matter who their star of the week becomes, they rarely see them as people, actual human beings with their own interior lives of thoughts, dreams, joys, sorrows. The nature of their criticisms and the fact of their low attention spans concerning the daily changing objects of their fanaticism reflect their own inhumanity. In this environment, idols are commodities to be traded and trashed like any other product. Rampant consumption, free from all limitation and amidst so many choices, breeds dissatisfaction and dehumanization. The Internet makes it all easier and amplifies the worst tendencies. Me-Mania most devastatingly extremifies this objectification toward his chosen target in Mima by plastering her smiling face all around his room, writing a detailed diary-blog from her perspective borne of his stalker followership, not just buying the magazine with her nudes but buying every single copy of it so that he can have her all to himself, etc., etc.
The culture is sick. In and around Mima, whether she fully feels it on a conscious level or not, she is being yearned, influenced, and manipulated by the complex forces of this marketplace. She is told she’s an idol, asked to perform as such, and she obliges. Maybe it’s all she knows; maybe she even enjoys it and sees the fandom as a kind of love. But whether she is idolized for her face, her voice, her body — or most of all what it can do for the operators behind her career by avariciously displaying all three — she is expended like an asset upon a balance sheet. As idol or actress, as a player in this world, drawn all the way back to that pressurizing, causative, prime-moving force for infinite growth, she is not a person, a conscious individual to be respected, inquired upon, loved. She is a means to a whole lot of things she wants nothing to do with, and never an end.
One begins to see that this place of infinite pressure is no place for a person to stay sane within.
And of course, none of this need be felt consciously, or be intellectually understood, by the subject of its effects. The work upon Mima is done unconsciously, over time by actions unto them by their managers, directors, and fans — their controllers — and inactions unto themselves concerning their true hopes and dreams. The exploitation builds and builds, steadily fraying inhibitions, shaping repressions and feeding dormant rages, leading toward some kind of snap.
Midway through the film, after Mima scores her first regular acting role in a detective TV serial titled ‘Double Bind,’ a hopeful occurrence, two major moments follow it up within the narrative that lead to this moment. One, she is replaced within CHAM! by another young woman that vaguely looks like her, and their latest song places higher on the charts than they ever did with her. She is invited to take part in the celebration party, and it dawns upon her, albeit slowly subtly, that she has been easily replaced in the role her entire identity was formerly dependent upon. Two, she earns a more prominent role within ‘Double Bind’ but only by her character’s resulting transformation from being raped. Her managers dispute the shocking change in the script, Rumi strongly so and Tadokoro only lukewarmly, even though it will mean more of Mima within the production. It is Mima who, despite indecision, ultimately agrees to do the scene, against Rumi’s demands they get the story changed because it will ‘ruin her reputation.’ Mima overrules her, speaking from the standpoint that she is an actress now and ‘must do what needs to be done’ for that title to be warranted. On the ride home after this pivotal decision she has made for herself out of necessity (but only after it was forced before her by the creators of the show as the carrot to further her career), we notice the first visible break in her sense of self. In the reflection of her morose gaze out of the window and into the city’s night, her idol-self appears quite vividly and declares to her “I absolutely refuse to do it!”
This moment marks the snap between herself and her other, her ‘ghost’, or shadow. (This was the moment when the film utterly arrested my attention and never relinquished it again.) Implicit in her reflection’s words — do not do this, or there will be grave consequences. This is not who you — who we — are. The shoot of the rape scene itself is striking for its unsettling meld between fiction and reality for Mima. Mima’s terror in the ‘acting’ of it appears real because she is experiencing a metaphysical rape from the real conditions of her environment, as a former idol now in show business, as a starving actress clearly being taken advantage of, as someone constantly managed, exploited, and never once in control of the things happening around her.
Tadokoro: [reviewing the script for Mima’s next episode] Mima’s character, Yoko Takakura, completely changes personalities when she’s raped by the customers at a local strip show.
Rumi: A RAPE scene? You have got to be out of your mind!
Tadokoro: It’s pivotal, Rumi. She’s the key figure in the second half.
Rumi: PIVOTAL? Mima is a pop idol!
All that follows — the constant visions and threats from her idol-self, the mysterious killings of her exploiters, the sheer unreality of her existence bleeding her days together in an only semi-conscious flow of experience — can be seen as the young woman’s maddening mind aspiring, violently, finally, to take control of her life. The dualism of her spirit as idol and actress, past self and present self chasing one another, each spurred to action by all of the chaos of her recent life is the will to create some kind of agency within its unfolding. The implications of all the originating dehumanization upon Mima up to then are savagely communicated to the audience with brazen displays of murderous rage, seen off and on-screen before us. The implied message: ‘You do this to a person and eventually someone is going to die’ ~ either she is, or those around her that can be seen as responsible for her material, psychological condition, within reach of the impending outburst of animus…
Once an oppressed party reaches the point of no return, when they feel they have nothing to lose because they have already lost everything, you arrive at a release in the form revolt, rebellion, revolution. For Mima, and for Rumi, her manager and obsessive vicarious-liver-of-her-life, this revolution against their world comes in the form of blood.
From my interpretation of events, Rumi is the killer of the writer, the agent, and Me-Mania, while Mima herself commits the savage murder of the photographer. And though each of these women are driven to kill by the fraying inhibitions within their hearts, their actions are far from mindless — they stab out of the eyes and privates of their victims with vengeant intention. There is righteous hatred in the acts, for they felt most violated by their eyes and manhood. They are on the same page psychically, in going after revenge against Mima’s oppressors, because they have experienced Mima’s traumas together. For both Mima and Rumi, the unreality begins to crescendo and the killings start after they act/watch the fictional rape.
Rumi is a failed idol herself, and has been a control freak upon Mima’s career as a vicarious recapitulation of her own dream. We come to see that idol-Mima is simply a reflection of a dream from outside of her, and inside of Rumi. Rumi has placed that vision — of being a pop idol — within her from a young age, and thus has been both directly (through her career management function) and indirectly (through this incepted ideal) controlling Mima’s entire life. There is irony in the fact that Mima’s psychological snap — and then Rumi’s as well — is all an outgrowth of the seeds that Rumi herself planted long ago, surfacing from her own past desires and failures in the machine’s endless flow. Mima’s career is not a failure, but she is being raped for the sake of its chance at success… And so, the dissociation, the missing time, the murders – all commence.
All this being said, these are still just my interpretations concerning the psychological causes and effects of the characters within Perfect Blue. In truth, it’s all very ambiguous and open to other interpretations, which I believe marks any great film. What is unequivocally masterful concerning the power of this film, as I mentioned before, is its vivid illustration of a descent into madness. Explicitly, it comes in its transcendent visual storytelling, as only the art form of anime can provide. So many sequences, without a word of exposition or explanation, without ever being revisited or repeated, present the psychological horror of quite literally losing your mind. It can be almost too vivid and hyperrealistic in this film — the surprising exclamations of Mima’s reflections, the appearances of giant creeper Me-Mania at the peripheries of shots, the readings of the passages of the blog ‘Mima’s Room’ mirroring her exact daily activities and inner thoughts, the pleasant horizons of Japanese metropolis suddenly swapped for jarring sequences of hyperviolence or its bloody aftermath, the imputation via body language of actual dissociation from Mima during her ‘breakthrough’ acting ordeal, the constant and relentless bleeding of reality with unreality in the later stages of the film… All of it makes for an extremely absorbing but psychologically challenging viewing experience.
The film is so effective at this portrayal of Mima’s inner reality that one cannot help but escape with a powerful, empathic connection to her sanity-shattering struggle. The traumas of her condition throughout her terrifying odyssey are made known to us from an in-depth, first-person perspective, face to face with each of her demons, whether they be real or imagined. It gets to the point where one begins to question their own reality, their own sanity, in the viewing.
Most astonishingly, there is a series of scenes from within Mima’s acting inside of the fiction of the ‘Double Bind’ universe that forces the viewer to question everything up to then, when it becomes nearly impossible — as the viewer — to draw the line between which story is the true reality underlying this film. It fucked me up. From these scenes, there carries the implication that the whole reality we have been watching up to that point — Mima as a former idol becoming an actress to star in a TV show — is in fact the fiction, and the detective show IS the reality, wherein Mima is a young girl, post-sexual assault, that has developed a psychosis which has imagined a whole world where she was a pop singer that became an actress. ‘Mima’, red or blue, idol or actress, is all a persona of another person entirely!
The lead detective’s monologue – presented with no cameras or directors, as the descriptive reality of story – upon Mima’s character’s imaginative psychological condition consisting of multiple personalities presents a striking break from the reality we have been installed within up to that point. The audience can’t help but begin to question their own meta-reality concerning the true nature of this film and what kind of story it has been telling up to this point… For the longest moment, there is no yell of ‘Cut!’, no return to the set of the TV show and the reality of the Mima we think we knew. The multiverse folds in on itself… Until there is the return, and we see it was all a feint. Or was it? A separate reality, one where Mima is a model, dreaming of becoming a pop idol, is presented to us soon after…
The multifaceted pressure of Mima’s potential lives and the various career personas she could theoretically take on along any one of these paths seems to create a multiverse of potentialities concerning this young woman. She’s an idol — an actress — a model — a victim of her own mind, being investigated by a pair of detectives for a string of serial murders… It’s confusing and maddening, and highly effective in conveying the current condition of what Mima is going through. She cannot tell fact from fiction, concerning her life, her role on this show, her real self, the ghost of her past haunting her every waking moment. It’s all melding together. She is going mad and we are going mad right alongside her.
I’m scared that my other self will do something that I don’t know about…
~ Mima’s character in ‘Double Bind’
Satoshi Kon and the filmmakers use the unique parameters and possibilities within animation to create this empathic, and quite terrifying, experience. It was Joe Hill that said, “horror is not about extreme sadism, but about extreme empathy.” Undoubtedly, film — and specifically anime — was the perfect medium for this tale and its strange phenoms of Mima’s unreality manifesting themselves before her and us.
At the end of the film, we are left with one final question. With Rumi committed to a mental institution, her mind and memories gone, Mima says of her — “Thanks to her I am who I am today.”
In the final shot, the red vs. blue motif is brought into mystifying focus once more. Mima gets into a bright red car but then speaks to the audience while looking through her rearview mirror, backdropped by a clear blue sky:
Mima Kirigoe: No, I’m the real thing.
Which Mima ‘won’ in the end? The Mad Idol (Red) or The Dissociating Actress (Blue)? We don’t really know. Rumi’s dishonorable end, the title of the film, this blue sky we see all indicate the latter, but can we be sure? Reality has been in flux for the whole film’s run. The interpretation that I choose is simply that she is now a different person from either; the Mima we see at the end is a hard-fought integration between the two personas, of shadow and of self. For though they were in conflict and one was willing to kill or send her into madness to manifest itself, they were each an indelible part of her. That madness, borne of her mentor’s tyranny, the industry machine’s oppressive exploitations, and the whole sick culture surrounding her chosen life path, is not gone from her, it may never be — she’s just in control and driving it for the first time in her life. ~