Perfect Blue (1997) Blu-ray Review: Anime Psychothriller Lives Again

Satoshi Kon's animated psychological thriller is a mind-bending story of violence and personality crisis in the Japanese pop world.
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Perfect Blue was the feature film directorial debut of Satoshi Kon, one of the bright lights of anime whose career was tragically cut short in 2010 by cancer. Dying at the age of 46, he left an indelible mark on anime feature films. He was one of the few directors whom none could call "the next Miyazaki" because his films were distinct and unique: adult, abstract but in the service of narrative, critical but not cynical. Perfect Blue is a dark psychothriller, an animated giallo that made Satoshi Kon an instant top-shelf animated horror director... a genre that he only worked in again once, on his superb TV series Paranoia Agent.

Perfect Blue features some very specific Japanese pop culture artifacts. It is about a pop idol, Mima, who wants to transition from singing to acting. To do so, she has to quit her group, where they wear cute doll-like outfits and dance in time to pre-recorded music, and do something "serious". That means taking on a role in a video drama, a part which eventually culminates in a graphically violent rape scene. Then she takes some naked pictures, proving how grown up she is, all under the tutelage of her management company.

The career trajectory is a familiar one. Mima doesn't go all the way into Miley Cyrus territory in destroying her cutesy little girl image, but it's close. And her break with the past doesn't come easily, for herself or for her fans. A website, Mima's Room, contains a fan-written journal of Mima's life. At first, it's amusing to her to see someone following what she does so closely... until the journal starts revealing where she goes shopping. What brands she buys. Blaming her bad luck one day for getting off the train left foot first... And when she begins to work to change her image, the journal lashes out like some bizarre second psyche, telling the world she doesn't really mean it. Some other Mina is pushing for these changes...

Then the people instrumental in making her change end up getting murdered. Perfect Blue doesn't live strictly in one genre, but the structural form it most closely follows is the giallo - an Italian genre of proto slasher movies largely made in the late 60s and 70s by Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. Besides being murder mysteries, where the murders usually involve either choking or stabbing, the giallo tend to value style over substance: it doesn't matter that the murder mystery makes a lot of sense, as long as it is elegantly told, and the murder scenes have an artistic panache. All the details of Perfect Blue's murders and mayhem may not hold up under direct logical scrutiny (and there are several scenes where it is pretty clear the audience is being lied to) but they make thematic and visual sense, and that's the most important thing.

But it would be hard to find any films by the Italian masters that had as inventive and rigorous an editing scheme as Kon's in Perfect Blue. Scenes are often bridged not by time but by action - Mima will turn her end in one scene just to complete the gesture in a totally different time and place, and then another motion will brings us back to the original scene. Amazingly, it's doesn't generate any confusion in what is happening until later in the film when the confusion in continuity is entirely intentional - as Mima's life unravels around her, so does her sense of personal cohesion. Her reality devolves, and so does the coherence of the narrative surrounding her.

I've seen the film a number of times, and every viewing has brought out more nuances in the plot. There are several plot threads woven into the film - Mima's acting career, the sudden success of her pop group starting almost as soon as she leaves it, the ongoing commentary of the idol fans who slavishly follow her every moment while superciliously commenting about her like they were above her. It's a multifarious and complex presentation of a cultural phenomenon, while also being a bloody, gory murder mystery and an exercise in non-linear storytelling.

Being an anime film from the late 90s, Perfect Blue doesn't have the crisp, ultra-bright coloring and design that a more modern anime film can boast. This was made before the animation was routinely digitally colored. The character designs are proportioned a little differently than in a lot of anime - less childlike, more adult looking. It’s a restrained animated film - much of it could have been done in live action without changes.

Perfect Blue is not a perfect film: sometimes it takes a little too much effort to decide if what is going on on-screen is really happening, or only going on inside Mima's mind. If one were literal minded, there are probably plot holes that one could drive a truck through. However, the story of Perfect Blue is one of a personality on the brink between sanity and madness, and I would argue telling the story so it made perfect sense would be telling it wrong. As it stands, it’s an enthralling, genuinely creepy animated thriller, and I'm glad it's finally available again in the U.S. after many years out of print.

Perfect Blue is just the first of Kon's feature films to routinely bend the rules of storytelling and linearity to makes it point. The follow-up, Millennium Actress, goes even further into shifting storylines, but to tell a poignant and heartfelt story of a Japanese woman growing up throughout the 20th century, and about the evolution of Japanese cinema. Tokyo Godfathers, his most straightforward story, riffs on the Three Men and a Baby Theme to explore modern Japanese society from the perspective of the three homeless who find a lost baby. Paranoia Agent, a 13 episode anime TV series, is a disturbing, horrific view of modern life and the corrosive effects of complete connectivity, electronic and otherwise. His last feature was Paprika (2006), a story about dream incepting half a decade before Inception. Satoshi Kon's visions were fully formed, profound, and deeply human. Perfect Blue is impressive first step on a path that was cut short tragically too soon.

Perfect Blue has been released in a Blu-ray and DVD package by GKids - though it is very much NOT a movie for kids, with the copious, very bloody violence, nudity and a rough rape scene - though that is in the context of an acting role, not an actual rape. Language options include Japanese with Removable English Subtitles, and English. Extras on the disc include a recording session of one of Cham's pop-songs, an English version of the same song, and vintage video interviews with the director and Japanese voice actress, as well as audio interviews with a few of the English actors. An extra of more recent vintage is a series of lectures given by Satoshi Kon on the film. This was made about 10 years after the movie, and Kon reflects on his intents and what he might have done differently if he'd made the movie later in his career.

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