Directed By: Satoshi Kon
Written By: Sadayuki Murai, Yoshikazu Takeuchi
Starring: Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto
Running Time: 80 minutes
Rated R for animated sequences of violence and nudity, and for brief language
You have to give Satoshi Kon credit for trying something new. Anime is generally about one of two things: giant robots, or (less frequently) Japanese mythology. For his directorial debut, he took the medium, and did something almost unheard of beforehand: a psychological thriller.
The story behind Perfect Blue is a long one: Based on the novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi, it was originally slated to be made as a live-action picture, for direct-to-video distribution. Earthquakes, however, destroyed the production studio, and as a result its budget was cut to the direct-to-video anime level. Up-and-coming animator Satoshi Kon jumped at the chance to make the project his directorial debut, and the result propelled him to stardom (at least to the extent that an animator can be a star, anyway).
As a result, Perfect Blue is the sort of film that most would expect to be made as a live-action picture. There are undoubtedly a great many critics who are/would be somewhat put off by this, demanding to know why the film was made as an animated picture (for a more mainstream example of this, check out some of the objections directed at Lilo and Stitch). I would tend to take the opposite side of the argument, however—i.e.: why, exactly,shouldn’t a film like this be made as an animated picture? I think the critical objection comes from what is essentially a misunderstanding about the nature of animation—many, it seems, want to treat it as a genre, when it would best be described as a medium. It hardly seems appropriate to me to tell an artist who works with oil paints that he should be working with temperas—why the sniffy attitude toward the artists who works with cel drawings instead of live people? There are many live-action films that may have been better as animated films, but no one ever argues with them. This sort of live-action snobbery is easily deflated, I think, when you consider that drawing and animation actually predate photography and motion pictures.
In any case, the film is what it is, and should be considered on its own merits, regardless of how we would have preferred it to be made. The story goes something like this: Junko Iwao provides the voice of Mima, a pop star who leaves her popular girl-group to start a career as an actress—a career which leads her to abandon her “innocent” image for a more “adult” one (in other words, she yields to the more-or-less ubiquitous pressure to pose nude and do sex scenes). Her agents (and/or parental figures), Rumi (Rica Matsumoto) and Tadokoro (Shinpachi Tsuji), are somewhat ambivalent to the move, but one of her thousands of fans (Masaaki Ôkura) is downright hostile to it. Mima begins getting threatening messages, and those close to her begin dying one by one. She is continually haunted by an apparition of her former pop-idol self, and the line between reality and madness begins to blur.
Kon wisely keeps the pacing brisk here, and Perfect Blue clocks in at less than an hour and a half. Once Mima’s insanity begins to take hold, the film really takes off, and becomes a nightmarish experiment in stream-of-consciousness (thus arguably justifying the animation, for any naysayers still out there). There aren’t as many twists as most fans of psychological thrillers will expect (the plot is surprisingly straightforward), but in many ways, it feels a bit refreshing to watch a thriller and not feel like the director’s misled you, simply for misdirection’s own sake. The ending, however, is amply surprising, and works particularly well as an animated sequence.
At the center of Perfect Blue is a societal fact that was (arguably) first coming to light ten years ago, and is all the more relevant now. Very few of the things torturing Mima would be possible without information technology and the media. Her tormentor maintains a website that pretends to be her blog (“blog” – did that word exist in 1997?), watches her through cameras, and sends her threatening faxes. The media – without which Mima wouldn’t be a star at all – becomes her undoing. As the world around us continues to sacrifice privacy and sanity for the sake of celebrity, Perfect Blue is, arguably, a film that needs to be seen.