Losing yourself in your work happens to the best of us. Mima Kirigoe in Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue knows this all too well. As the protagonist of the 1997 film, she makes a lateral move in the entertainment world: she’s leaving her pop music group Cham so that she can act full-time. Meanwhile, a disturbed fan is not at all pleased with Mima‘s new venture. The further Mima strays from her previous image, the more her stalker feels the need to “save” her and do away with those responsible for her change. In time, her life proceeds to spiral out of control in a way she never imagined possible.
The precarious transformation of Mima Kirigoe originated in Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s 1991 novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis. In its early conception, the first on-screen adaptation of Perfect Blue was expected be a live-action, direct-to-video release. That is until the 1995 Kobe earthquake caused severe damage to the production studio. In response, the budget was significantly reduced, and the producers chose to make an animated feature instead. A little-known artist by the name of Satoshi Kon was then tapped to oversee the project.
THE ROAD TO PERFECTION
The creation of Perfect Blue was not an easy feat for fresh director Kon and the production company Madhouse. With the budget now being less than $700,000 USD, Kon was unable to deliver a full-motion animated picture. He had to limit his film to a mere 30,000 drawings. To better understand what Kon was trying to accomplish in spite of his restrained resources, keep in mind that Studio Ghibli’s 1997 film Princess Mononoke cost $23.5 million USD, and it used around 144,000 hand-drawn cels.
Finding the perfect actress to portray Mima Kirigoe was another daunting task. Although Kon said he didn’t know anything about those auditioning for the role, he was still advised to listen to one particular demo tape. This belonged to a notable voice-over actress named Junko Iwao. After listening to the demo again and again, Kon realized that she was the right person to play Mima.
Eventually, the producers were so impressed with what Kon was doing that they opted for a theatrical release rather than going straight to video. This decision made Kon nervous, but it ultimately worked in his favor.
“WHO ARE YOU?”
In part to globalization as well as advances in accessibility, anime has been available in regions outside of Japan since the late eighties. However, not too many esteemed western critics were clamoring for Japanese animation unless it was something like Akira or a Studio Ghibli film. Most of everything else was dismissed, or it stayed a best-kept secret in certain circles. It may not have been his intention, but Satoshi Kon’s directorial debut was going to shake things up in the world of anime.
Kon’s Perfect Blue was invited to various film festivals. This included a premiere at the 1997 Fantasia Festival in Montréal where it tied with Drunken Master II as winner of the “Best Asian Film” award. In the following year at the Fantasporto Film Festival in Portugal, Perfect Blue won the Fantasia Section Award for “Best Film – Animation.”
This good word-of-mouth quickly spread to other festivals and throughout the global film community. By 2000, people from all over had seen Kon’s movie on the big screen or at home. The general consensus in the west was positive, and attitudes toward anime continued to change for the better.
Satoshi Kon’s first foray into directing is a multifaceted exercise in how one distinguishes between fantasy and reality. Nearly everything in the film is an illusion of some kind—Mima‘s public image, her television drama, the stalker’s delusions. Mima‘s confusion over what’s real and what’s not is communicable to viewers, too.
Being a member of a Japanese pop group, Mima and her ilk must don very specific and manufactured personas if they’re to appeal to their target demographic. In Japan, real-life idols are typically boy or girl next door types whose biggest assets are their personalities and physical attractiveness. Every aspect of their lives is orchestrated and placed under scrutiny. In order to appear “pure” and attainable, many of them cannot even date. In turn, it’s not unheard of for fans to give up their entire lives to support their favorite idols. The majority of them are deemed harmless, but the same cannot be said for Mima‘s stalker (herein named Me-Mania) in Perfect Blue. He is so opposed to Mima‘s new occupation that he thinks she is an “impostor” who must be dealt with accordingly. Me-Mania maintains a website called “Mima’s Room,” which is formatted like a diary. Every entry shares details about Mima‘s life that no one else other than her would know. It’s almost as if Mima wrote these things herself.
Mima‘s management coaches her to be more provocative if she wants to be taken seriously as an actor. In addition to doing a racy photo shoot, she films a gratuitous scene of sexual assault for her television drama. As a result, the entries of “Mima’s Room” become more accusatory. They read with a sense of urgency, persuading readers that the new Mima is a fraud. The actual Mima reads these things and wonders if maybe the poster is right: did she make a mistake in giving up her idol life? As she struggles with her inner conflict, Mima dissociates on the regular. She has ongoing gaps in her days, and at some points, she literally chases a manifestation of her former self. Without a doubt, Perfect Blue houses one of the most visceral identity crises to ever be depicted on film.
“..Perfect Blue houses one of the most visceral identity crises to ever be depicted on film.”
SHADES OF BLUE
The 1997 adaptation differs from the source material in various ways (for instance, Mima is a solo singer who never strives to be an actor). Kon said he didn’t even read Takeuchi’s novel; he was given a simple summary which was “close to the original story.” Yet Kon did make sure one thing from the book carried over to his film—the title. He liked the name “Perfect Blue” as it sounded “significant and mysterious.” Since the movie’s release, people still wonder what the title means.
As opposed to being directly translated, “Perfect Blue” is written in English or phonetically in Japanese (Pāfekuto Burū) on media and merchandise. The enigmatic title isn’t a byproduct of mistranslation; it’s meant to be “Perfect Blue.” Not a single character says the phrase in the film either. This leads viewers to draw their own interpretations.
Naturally, someone might think color symbolism will help us to understand the origin of “Perfect Blue.” We often associate sadness with the color, but blue also denotes serenity and stability. Mima struggles to find both these things in her life. She seemingly has no control over her own destiny as most decisions about her career are made for her. Though as suggested in the very last scene of the film, Mima has perhaps finally found peace—her “Perfect Blue.” An alternate reading is the color’s meaning in Japanese culture. Blue expresses purity, and it may be worn by women to indicate such a trait. The stalker in both the novel and the film is threatened by Mima‘s apparent rebellion against being “pure.” Concurrently, Mima searches to retain her innocent facade whilst still evolving as a person and actor.
An old euphemism for movies of an erotic nature is “blue film.” Through the eyes of Me-Mania, Mima‘s nude photo shoot and her new vocation are proof that she’s engaging in “blue” behavior. The stalker’s main problem is that his beloved idol is no longer “pure”—but at the same time, he wants to be attracted to her. He still wants to possess her. Relating to the title of “Perfect Blue,” Mima is playing both sides of the values imposed upon her. To go even further, she’s looking for a balance between being chaste and “blue.”
Perfect Blue draws us in because it is essentially a chimera of a film. At face, it is a psycho-thriller that pays homage to giallo and slashers in the west. It features a mysterious killer and a twist on the “final girl” trope. Looking below the surface, the movie is an intense character study rife with themes itching to be explored. Susan Napier, in her essay “‘Excuse Me, Who Are You?’: Performance, the Gaze, and the Female in the Works of Kon Satoshi,” says this film raises “a number complex questions for analysis.” She discusses how the male gaze figures into the story and how it ties into contemporary Japanese pop culture.
Something brought up about Perfect Blue more recently by audiences because of how much it plays into our daily lives is the Internet. Kon’s film incorporates a narrative about the World Wide Web’s dark side that isn’t found in the novel. This inclusion predates a number of other modern films (Cam, The Den, Strangeland) that broach the same message—the Internet can be a conduit for sinister behavior. Admittedly this subplot is exaggerated for dramatic effect, but its intentions are not far-fetched through today’s lenses either.
Unfortunately, Satoshi Kon is no longer with us, having passed away in 2010 from pancreatic cancer. In the relatively short time he worked as a director, though, his vision never became skewed after introducing the world to Mima Kirigoe. He championed stories of complicated and fulfilled female characters, and he didn’t arrest himself to a single genre. Kon’s slant on individuality and de-personalization is palpable, and his directing prowess is inspirational.
To this day, Perfect Blue continues to rank highly on critics’ best-of lists for anime films. One of which was Time Magazine’s “Top 5 Anime Movies on DVD.” Fans will cite it as a pioneer in animation when arguing against the stigmas of the medium. Indeed it breaks conventions of anime and horror, and its subject matter and innate brooding disposition allow it a timeless quality. But foremost, the film is a shining example of perseverance. Not only in how the movie’s protagonist prevails in a system designed to use and discard her, but in how Kon excelled when others in his same situation would have been deterred. For those reasons among many others, Perfect Blue most deservedly remains perfect.