"Oh yeah, you're no longer a pop idol. You're a filthy woman now."—Virtual Mima to Real Mima
Facts of the Case
In a happier time and place, it might be cause for celebration. CHAM, a popular Japanese pop act, is giving their final performance as a trio, as Mima Kirigoe prepares to embark on a career as an actress. But Mima's dream part in a sordid television crime series forces her to tarnish her squeaky-clean image. The stress on her psyche is made worse by a voyeuristic website, called "Mima's Room," that seems to have gotten into her head. And what about that creepy stalker, Mr. Me-Mania, who seems to turn up everywhere? When people start turning up brutally murdered, it is up to Mima and her best friend and manager Rumi to find the culprit in time.
Unless of course, the rapidly disintegrating Mima is the killer…
Like teenagers everywhere, Japanese teens love pop music. We might laugh at the patently artificial choreography and personalities of our manufactured pop acts, like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, but nothing beats the Japanese idol singer. Idol singers are plucked from obscurity by their producers, trained to become pristine and prepackaged stars, and then discarded after their novelty wears out. Oddly, many idol singers are not exceptional artists or performers, but are selected from the herd precisely because their voices are not perfect or their looks are cute without being genuinely beautiful. The Japanese music industry operates under the belief that a slightly imperfect star is that much easier for a fan to empathize with. Of course, this also contributes to the disposability of idols: they become indistinguishable from one another, and they are rarely talented enough to survive without their Svengalis pulling their strings.
Director Satoshi Kon and screenwriter Sadayuki Murai delve into the psyche of an unstable pop star trying to make the transition to mature actress in Perfect Blue. The result might at first seem more suited to live action filmmaking (the project was first conceived as a live-action film). In fact, Murai's script borrows liberally from Hitchcock, by way of Brian De Palma and Dario Argento, with a few offhand references to Jodie Foster's career as well (in another case of a child star who made the transition to serious actress). Animation ultimately suits the story better, allowing a wealth of expressionistic touches, such as lighting and visual effects (particularly the use of mirrors), that would have been difficult to accomplish effectively on the usual budget for a live-action thriller.
Whether in spite of the animation or because of it, Perfect Blue keeps the psychology of its characters firmly rooted in reality. As with some other contemporary psychodramas like Fincher's Fight Club and Aronofsky's Pi, our tendency to look at the camera as a means of objectification is betrayed in Perfect Blue. In fact, the film attempts to comment on the media's power to objectify by placing at its heart a character who must live within the boundaries of that very objectification: a pop idol. Mima struggles between two personae, literally: her "virtual" self, lifted straight from the mysterious website which seems to view the world as a perky pop singer might, and her "real" self, who feels she must endure personal humiliation (playing a rape victim in her film, posing for nude photographs) in order to be seen as "serious." Add to that her television character, a woman falling apart from psychosis, and the safe ground of self-identity begins to blur. As the two personalities split, we watch reality collapse around Mima: she loses the ability to distinguish between her selves.
And worse, since we are inside Mima's head, we cannot be sure whether she is responsible for the murders going on around her.
Perfect Blue adeptly throws curves for its brisk eighty minutes, keeping the audience constantly off balance. Nothing is what it seems, and Satoshi Kon manages to build suspense consistently. The result is one of the most effective thrillers in quite a while, far above most routine American potboilers, which drain themselves of atmosphere or rely on clichés rather than psychological depth. Although Perfect Blue does maintain some rough, exploitative content—a heap of graphic violence and sexual content (including a couple of taboo pubic hair shots, pretty risqué for Japan)—it holds together by virtue of its tight story and inventive visual trickery.
Manga Video presents Perfect Blue in a surprisingly good English dub (in 5.1 and 2.0 mixes), as well as its original Japanese (in a nice 5.1 mix for a change). The weakest point of the English dub is the translated songs: the singers for CHAM, and particularly for Mima, are too wispy and subdued for perky idol singers. The transfer for most anime films tends to exaggerate the problems with limited-budget animation—occasional color softening, limited cel count—and Perfect Blue is no exception here. But apart from a few small glitches in the print, the colors are sharp and clear.
Manga Video comes through on the extra content as well, packaging it up in a clever "Mima's Room" themed menu. We can watch a recording session with the real singers performing CHAM's hit single, as well as the equivalent English track played over a still frame—oddly this second track is cut off at the end. A short (three minute) gallery of stills from the film is included with explanatory captions. Best of all is a series of short interviews: three with the principal English voice actors, who get to provide some good insights into the psychology of their characters, as well as live interviews with Junko Iwao (the Japanese Mima) and director Satoshi Kon. Both Japanese interviews are subtitled, and the two subjects appear very deferential and humble, which is characteristic of typical Japanese celebrity interviews. Nonetheless, both give subtle indications of a dark sense of humor: Iwao tries to pass herself off in the interview as just like Mima (knowing how mentally unbalanced Mima is, she is likely teasing the interviewer) and Kon slyly comments on how the confusing reality slippage in the film is intentional. Given how rarely many recent anime DVDs provide a glimpse of the original Japanese cast and crew (and I am pointing my finger directly at Disney's release of Princess Mononoke), Manga Video's attention is much appreciated. Now if only they could have gotten a commentary track together on this one…
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The version reviewed here is a Unrated cut of the film, which is what Manga Video advertises on their website. However, Amazon lists the DVD as Rated R and presented in full frame (rather than the 1.85:1 ratio on the Unrated version). No Unrated DVD is listed on Amazon. Both versions are available on VHS, but I cannot vouch for Amazon's information on the DVD. As noted above, the Unrated cut has extreme violence and sexual content. Nothing on the level of a "naughty tentacle" hentai anime, but certainly on a par with the average American thriller these days.
Perfect Blue is a strong and suspenseful thriller that will maintain its replay value, even after you know "whodunit." Its collapsing layers of reality give it an intriguing puzzle quality. You may think that an animated film cannot match live action for a good, scary mystery. But thriller fans of all stripes are encouraged to check this one out.
This court recommends intensive psychotherapy for all the characters involved in Mima Kirigoe's emotional collapse. The killer, when found, will be punished to the full extent of the law. Manga Video is released on its own recognizance.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Manga Video
• CHAM recording session
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