“My father used to say that artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover the truth up.”
– Evey Hammond
I once heard one of my university lectures argue that a painting was infinitely better than a photograph, because the latter captures reality, whilst the former creates reality. In the hands of a master, a portrait can evoke, emphasis and whisper unspoken truths to an audience; painting is a medium where the artist can indulge and lavish in subjectivity; photography is always somewhat limited by the physical.
Satoshi Kon wholeheartedly embodies this principle and runs with it, Perfect Blue (1997) is a film to be experienced and not understood, because its priority isn’t to convey facts but rather to create a filter of insanity, loneliness and fear. Perfect Blue follows the protagonist Mima Kirigoe, a beautiful pop idol working as the lead singer in CHAM!, who after recognising the instability of the industry, attempts to become an actress, forcing her to actively ditch her ‘spotless virgin image’. Her decision angers a psychopathic fan known only by his online alias; ‘Me-Mania’, a man who has dedicated his life to punishing Mima for betraying his perceptions of her. Kon doesn’t attempt to craft a realistic villain, instead Me-Mania is hideously ugly, terrifying distorted. Just like Picasso’s postmodern works, Kon’s focus isn’t so much on an accurate depiction of life, but rather in creating a narrative through manipulating emotions.
Kon’s works often features the concept of duality; and this is most evidently seen in the intertwining of the real and the ‘unreal’ worlds. The ‘real’ world contains all the physical matter around us, it is governed by logic, infrastructure and scientific facts. The ‘unreal’ world is one of chaos, ruled by emotion and built to metaphorically subvert the ‘real world’ through its contrast and intervention.
And the two worlds are set on a path of collision.
The one skill which separates Kon from his contemporaries is his complete mastery of editing. Kon is a film director who lets his edits dictate the tone of the film, instead of letting the plot guide the atmosphere of the film. As Mima starts losing track of reality, the editing mirrors this with the scenes bleeding into each other; where the linear progression of time is disrupted, reversed and dissected. The opening of Perfect Blue is so effective since it skilfully blends Mima’s idol dance routine into the ordinary task of purchasing goods; conveying that the two worlds she inhabits are inherently linked through her memory and consciousness. Kon’s art is one which thrives by discarding the generic restrictions imposed upon the directors and audience within the anime community.
Perfect Blue is terrifying because it refuses to follow the conventions of a linear narrative, the traditional labels of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ don’t exist when the very fabric of reality is uncertain. As Mima slowly becomes more consumed with the fear of leaving behind her her pop idol past and the creeping dangers of her stalker, her grip on reality completely vanishes as the last act of the film becomes a dizzying blend of life, alternate realities and fears. As Mima loses control of her public persona, she finds it increasingly difficult to differentiate between the two worlds and slowly begins to fall into a repetitive, monotonous pattern where time is subject to the passions of the heart and the terrors of the mind.
The truly terrifying aspect of this loss of reality is the inability to concretely understand what is happening around her as Mima’s mental fears and insecurities start to physically manifest. She get stabbed by a mirage of her pop idol past and later she kills Me-Mania only to find out that his body has disappeared; the audience is forced to ponder whether or not such actions actually occurred in reality. This overlapping of the two realities is also reflected in Me-Mania’s life as the pictures of Mima around his bedroom start physically interacting with him, whispering their support of his sexually preversed desire to kill Mima. What this creates is a sense of constant apprehension, where threats can materialise out of anywhere since they are not bounded to the same limitations found in the physical world. Mima’s only worse enemy is her mind, since it seems intent on conjuring up her own destruction.
Perfect Blue provides us a frightening insight into the chaotic world of Mima, a girl who has allowed the culivation of an external pop persona of sex appeal and charisma; wildly different to her calmer and more humble self she displays in the company of these she loves and trusts. Yet her public avatar has now become such an entity that it now thrives independently, riding the momentum of her fame.
Perfect Blue tackles the issue of technology and how easy it is to create, maintain and ultimately lose control of one’s public avatar. Mima stumbles onto an internet diary dedicated to recording her life and feelings through the lens of her idol persona, a website created by Me-Mania. Whilst initially finding it humourous, Mima’s naive appreciation soon turns to fear as she realises that she is being stalked and also that this website is now publishing statements which do not reflect her own feelings.
Throughout the entire film, Kon suspends the audience in a state of constant fear by alluding to the imminent sense of danger without revealing it. In the beginning, Mima’s home phone rings and she hears the slow breathing of Me-Mania, but naively hangs up, thinking it was an accidental call. Slowly this escalates to him poisoning the fishes, sending her a small explosive, killing those around her and finally even confronting her in person.
The audience is fully aware of the danger that now threatens her life but is completely unable to affect or warn her about it. The result is a nail biting ninety minutes, there were many moments where I genuinely considered pausing the film because my heart was stuck in my throat; I was terrified at what would happen to Mima.
Another one of the central themes of Perfect Blue is the objectification of a women’s body for profit, something which Kon strongly voices against. Kon portrays this relationship between Mima and the media companies who greedily consume and distribute her image as rape; the exploitation of the human body for financial benefits. The cameras (which are always held by male photographers) are phallic instruments, which pierce and unveil, ignorant to the consequences of their lust. This voyeurism peaks when Mima accepts a role where she pretends to be raped within a nightclub; we see her body through the lens of a camera and not her point of view; she is an object to be acted upon.
The power dynamic of sex is also reflected in Me-Mania’s final confrontation with Mima, where he confesses that he attempts to destroy this new ‘reincarnation’ of Mima through raping her and eventually killing her. Symbolically he attempts to commit this crime on the same film set previously mentioned, where Mima was ‘raped’ whilst acting; further blurring the lines between the two worlds. For a character who only has a few lines of dialogue throughout this film; Me-Mania’s shadow taints every interaction, every scene and location, he is truly terrifying, in an illogical manner which cannot be reasoned with.
Whilst, one certainly feels sorry that Mima gets type casted into these ‘traditionally’ female roles where are built upon her sexuality and youthful looks. Though one has to ask whether or not this depiction is ‘fair’ as Mima herself willingly enters into this relationship and she also ‘exploits’ the media to garner social capital and publicity: Regardless, Kon’s criticisms about female objectification is still a fresh breath of air in an industry universally famous for the disproportionate sizes and the overt sexualisation of their female characters.
Me-Mania holding the public perception of Mima.
Whilst Me-Mania is unquestionably an evil, twisted rapist with little redeeming qualities, it is unsettling to be reminded that his vendetta against Mima arose out of his complete consumption and obsession with her idol persona. Financially, he was arguably everything that the media companies wanted; a fan who brought into the cultivation of this idol as a form of escapism.
At the core of Perfect Blue is the tension between a carefully crafted image and the noticeably less shiny exterior of reality and the dangers of intertwining the two. Fundamentally, all the troubles and negative consequences arise out of an inability to distinguish between these two realms; Mima cannot separate herself from her past as an idol and Me-Mania cannot see Mima as anything but a perfect little doll. Released in 1997, Kon’s work feels more relevant than ever as the internet and social media has become increasingly infused into the audience’s lives.
Perfect Blue features the traditional interpretation of fame; a person elevated to a profiting brand by the powerful media companies; reflective of stardom in the 1990s. Yet today, the internet has connected people in a way which has revolutionised our society; today, everyone has an avatar, everyone has an audience and everyone is a performer. And the concerns of Perfect Blue are more disturbing than ever.