The most powerful hallucinogen, the one that causes the most profound derangement of the senses and sensibilities, isn't LSD or belladonna, as music writer Rob Patterson once noted. It's fame. Once all eyes are on you, or even just a few of them, the world begins to seem like a much smaller and more dangerous place ... and that's even apart from whether or not someone really is out to get you. Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue, a masterpiece from a man who made little other than masterpieces in his too-short career, starts as a cautionary tale about fame's intoxications — then leaps into a psychedelic, surreal hyperspace that far outstrips the ambitions of its relatively mundane source material.
The root word for "fan" is "fanatic"
You wanna have big fame, let me explain
What happens to these stars and their big brains
-- Cypress Hill, "(Rock) Superstar"
Idol singer Mima Kirigoe is about to undergo a transformation. For some time now, she's been part of the pop trio CHAM, but she's decided to part ways with the group and make the leap into acting. Her fans are not just heartbroken; some of them are downright hostile, as we see in a farewell concert that nearly devolves into a skull-splitting riot. It's intercut with moments behind the scenes with her manager and agent, where it becomes clearer Mima isn't the only one who had this idea, and that Mima is doing this at least as much because she doesn't want to let them down.
Idols are expected to project an idealized, sanitized image throughout their career. Mima's next career phase is intended to subvert all of that. She's set to appear in a TV show, Double Bind, about detectives chasing a serial killer, and even if her debut consists of a single nondescript line ("Excuse me, who are you?"), she's determined to bring all the professionalism to it she can bear. And there's plans for a near-pornographic photobook that ought to end with a thud any discussion of what her public image is now.
It's enough to bring the crazier contingent of Mima's fans out of the woodwork. One of them, a misfit loner obsessed with the original Mima, has a fan homepage devoted to her that seems to document her daily live in unnerving detail from a first-person perspective. What's more, it uses the voice of the original, innocent, idol-ish Mima, the one who longs to get back up on stage with her fellow CHAMs. That such a document exists at all is disturbing, all the more so because it gives a voice to the part of Mima that does regret all this — the unreconstructed Idol Mima that still seems to live inside her, that stares back out at her from mirrors and the half-reflections in windows.
Things go from uneasy to deadly. A letter bomb intended for Mima explodes in the hands of a cohort. The screenwriter for the show she's working on is murdered in a parking garage. Is this Mima's stalker at work, or is Mima herself succumbing to a psychotic break, especially when we're shown the photographer for her photo book icepicked to death in his apartment, apparently by Mima herself? At the very least, Mima's life has devolved into a swirling vortex where scenes imagined, scenes played out, and scenes for real all interpenetrate and leave her with no foothold on reality, and no way out except down.
Pay no attention to that diva behind the curtain!
Movies tend to be better at creating emotional states than advancing intellectual arguments. This isn't a deficit, just a statement of fitness to purpose, and so it's no wonder some of the best-directed movies, and some of the most skillful directors, are pure manipulators of emotion. (Hitchcock: "I play the audience like a piano.") Perfect Blue operates in this way: it doesn't just show someone being scared or confused, but invites us to share their state of mind.
At first, Kon's techniques seem more about just unmasking the charade. The opening scenes — the farewell concert, the Greek-chorus banter between a cadre of Mima's fans, the creepy behavior of Mima's stalker, and the behind-the-scenes tension with Mima, her agent, and her manager — are all sliced crosswise and edited together. This is partly to let them contrast or comment on each other; e.g., the way the tense meeting between Mima and her staff shows what's behind that smiling mask (and maybe also the unease we do see) when she takes to the stage. But it's also to show the absurdity and unreality of the whole situation — the way the feel-good sentimentality that CHAM is supposed to inspire in its audience amounts instead to cynicism and ugly obsessive behavior in its audience, or how the cheesy "sentai rangers" performance that opens the performance is "nothing like the stuff on TV", according to disgruntled fans. It's all fake.
Well, almost all of it. Mima herself — the go-getter who sincerely wants to level up in her career — is offered to us as having the purity and sincerity of the image she embodies. Even when her stage performance is cross-cut with scenes from her mundane life (riding the train, shopping for groceries), it makes her stage persona all the more into a construction, but it also shows the "real" Mima to be sincere and approachable. The word diva comes from an Italian root word for a female goddess; Mima's ambitions are not godhood, just a set of possibilities that her life as a pop diva didn't allow her. But under all that is the ambivalence — the self-questioning, the nagging sense that the "real" Mima is being left behind.
Then the movie takes progressively more daring steps to not only have us witness this, but feel it as she feels it. A scene will begin in the middle of something, and then its larger context is revealed as a surprise — as in a scene where Mima, walking down a street, is accosted by a pushy talent agent. It's a scene she's shooting, but it's plausibly enough something that could happen to her that for a moment we wonder. Then the scenes that use this technique become increasingly jarring and violent. The more the film does this, the more we feel dislocated from what the "real" Mima is: is this her, or something she's playing? Worse, what if this "Mima" person that we thought we knew was nothing but a performance itself? And then we ask ourselves: imagine how she feels having to confront all this.
Pretty soon we don't have to ask. Eventually the ambivalence about Mima's personality and life is reflected explicitly in what's happening around her. At one point Mima plays a stripper in a club that's attacked and gang-raped by a rowdy crowd. The assemblage of the scene shows us the whole thing — the pauses between takes, the way people slip in and out of character — but that doesn't take the edge off ("oh, they're only making a movie"). If anything, it only hones it further, because by this point in the film we're bracing for the possibility that anything could happen. Doubly so when we find out the character she's playing in the TV series is homicidally schizoid. By the time Mima appears to be committing a murder of her own, we're not experiencing it from the outside looking in, but from the inside looking out; we're as wrung-out and paranoid as she is.
A thread in the labyrinth
It's difficult for a movie to be manipulative without breaking its covenant with the viewer, because a movie where anything can happen is a movie where nothing makes any real difference. Play with reality and you can burn more than just your fingers; you can burn your bridge to your audience.
There are a couple of ways Perfect Blue avoids this trap. One is something that Kon and screenwriter Sadayuki Murai work hard to sustain all the way through, which is a sense of empathy for Mima despite everything happening to her. The emotional thread that leads through the story always has one end tied around her wrist, no matter how thinly it's stretched. The other is by way of the payoff at the climax, where we find — warning! spoilers! — that Mima's slide into insanity has in fact been a gaslighting campaign orchestrated by her jealous agent, herself formerly an idol, longing to recapture impossible past glory, and willing to manipulate an obsessive stalker to help make it happen. Mima's doubts and fears may have been hers, but her madness was someone else's, and for her to triumph over that reaffirms whatever nagging atom of faith we had in her all throughout.
Another thing about this story progression is that it sets up a case for, and then demolishes, a commonly bandied social myth. It is the superficially insightful idea that the things most of us keep tucked away down below, the angry impulses and the urge to violence, is the "real" us, that everything on top of that is a fake, and that if you push someone to their breaking point and they react violently you're seeing what they're "really made of." It's a gruesome oversimplication of human psychology, since the way we respond to extreme stress is not the sum total of our being, and the idea itself is mainly of service to those who have a vested interest in provoking others.
Horror films tend to traffic, not always consciously so, in questionable or reactionary social theories (kids, don't have sex, or a guy in a hockey mask with hack you to death with a machete!). Perfect Blue stands out by presenting an idea akin to this, then ultimately rejecting it. It's not that Mima's self-doubt and atavistic impulses were the "real" Mima, but rather such natural weakness, one experienced by most every living being, was pounced on and exploited by someone who had spent her career nursing her resentments — and that Mima prevailed not by turning her back on all this but by going through it and out the other side.
Not by the book
Few have known the film was itself not wholly Kon's own work, but rather an adaptation of a novel, Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis, by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. The original novel, published in 1991, only recently translated into English by Seven Seas, owes more than a few debts to another iconic horror production that was still fresh in the collective cultural consciousness, Silence Of The Lambs. Takeuchi's story provides many of the same basic story beats as the film: Mima leaves pop stardom to strike out on her own as an actress, only to become the object of obsession by way of a crazed fan. The Lambs tribute comes in by way of the stalker being obsessed with slicing off Mima's skin and transplanting it onto his own body, and the book climaxes with Mima sending the stalker plummeting into the blades of a huge stage fan.
But outside of the violence and some sidelong comments about the toxicity of fame, the book's little more than a stalk-and-slash thriller. It doesn't have any of the movie's relentless, personalized paranoia, or the constant headgames played on both its main character and the audience. Kon and Murai used the basic premise of the book and expanded on it in their own directions, in much the same way Chan-wook Park took Oldboy, an ultimately unexceptional thriller manga, and turned it into a psycho-existential rollercoaster.
It's hard to believe a movie this confident and assured was Satoshi Kon's debut feature, but it was. It's even harder to believe it accomplishes all of the above in the space of something like eighty minutes, but there's nary a wasted frame or beat to be seen. Because the movie is so compact, rewatching it allows you to focus all the more directly on the elegant internal symmetry of themes, the foreshadowing of events, and the nods big and small to everything from Hitchcock to Dario Argento (e.g., the icepick that nails the victim's hand to the phone receiver). It's also possible to see the places where other filmmakers have nodded to Perfect Blue in turn, as when Darren Aronofsky mirrored Mima's underwater-scream-in-the-tub shot in his Requiem For A Dream. (He later went on to make Black Swan, another movie that has more than a few echoes of this one.)
It also becomes clearer how Kon's intent was more to keep the viewers engaged, not baffled. As per his own words in an interview recorded for the home video release of the movie:
We originally planned to make it easier for the audience to understand what was going on, and then we decided to keep them guessing a little, to draw their own conclusions using their own imaginations. In the end, I think we were right in keeping the audience guessing and leaving them to use their imaginations rather than spelling everything out for them. We wanted to be even more elusive, but the final result wasn't nearly as vague as we had originally intended.
But Kon also believed a lot of what was being attempted by the film wasn't intended to be experimental:
From our point of view, we really didn't go out of our way to confuse the viewer. We didn't do anything special or out of the ordinary. We just did what we would normally do without putting too much thought into it. It was very standard.
On hearing that, I thought: Either he's being humble, or he's implying that things like nonlinear storytelling have become such a standard-issue element in filmmaking that he thought he was just playing catch-up. Two decades after the movie's release, the latter seems even more likely now than it did then. But that doesn't make Perfect Blue any less of a jolt, whether for the first time or the fifth. A movie this good, there's always another layer to unwrap.