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Perfect Blue: Question Everything

When I was in college, I took an accelerated screenwriting course that packed an entire semester into eight weeks of classes. It was hard and overwhelming at times, but ultimately it changed how I viewed movies. But, that only happened partially due to the coursework. 

We had just gotten done watching scenes from the pivotal anime movie, Ghost in the Shell. Our professor had shown us clips from it, and then showed us scenes from the Matrix. He was showing us what the Wachowski brothers had borrowed from Japanese Anime and repurposed for their own film. I had never seen GitS before that class. I had only heard about it in passing.

During one of our hour lunch breaks, I was talking with another classmate by the name of Cole. Cole was what I would refer to as an early adopter of the Otaku craze that had swept the states in the early 2000s, after shows like Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and Mobile Suit Gundam Wing had shown western audiences how amazing Anime could be. He wore different shirts every day adorning the images of Trigun, Fullmetal Alchemist, and tons of other shows I had not heard of before our conversations at the small tables that littered the outside of the Pima Community College campus.

“What we really should have watched in class today was Perfect Blue,” Cole said.

“Perfect Blue?”

“Yeah. It’s this trippy movie about a girl who is trying to change her career from a Japanese Pop Idol to an actress. It’s really good.”

“Uh, that doesn’t sound at all like an exciting movie. Plus, the reason we watched Ghost in a Shell was because they ripped off entire scenes from it. Did you see that marketplace chase scene? It was shot for shot stolen.”

“Yeah, I get that. But Perfect Blue is just… I don’t know. You can’t explain it. You just have to watch it.”

I told him I’d give it a shot. I had to wait until next week, but right before the class started, Cole walked up to me with a huge grin on his face, and he slapped the DVD case on the table I had been sitting at and slid it to me slowly and dramatically.

“Watch it and give it back to me next week,” he said, and then turned and went back to his seat near the front of the class.

I decided to watch it that night. The girlfriend I was living with at the time had no interest in watching some Japanese cartoon about girls in school uniforms, so I had to go it alone. At the end of those 81 minutes, I felt shell-shocked.

What the fuck did I just watch? I remember asking myself.

The next day I didn’t have class until the afternoon, so I waited until I had the apartment to myself and watched it again. Cole was right, the movie was fascinating. You could tell that forethought had gone into every single scene and every single piece of dialogue. It looked nothing like the action cartoons you would watch on TV during the early afternoon and evenings that Cartoon Network was running. When I returned the movie to Cole the next week, I thanked him profusely for allowing me to glimpse further into the odd world of Japanese “Japanimation”, as we called it back then, and the insane content that they hid away from us for years.

What is the strangest of all from this interaction is that Perfect Blue’s main theme is about identity, and the impact that labels and other people’s expectations make on our identities and the identities of others. We look at an existential crisis that one woman faces, and by doing this, we can look at the value of things like our names, our occupations, and our own expectations of the value that these things possess. Even my own opinion of what it may entail before viewing it shows that perception weighs heavily on what we view in others.

Mima Kirigoe is a frustrated J-Pop Idol who is no longer happy with her occupation. She loves performing in front of people, but she no longer wishes to be in the ensemble CHAM, an Idol group that has been her life for years prior to where the film picks up. She begins to transition from this to a career in television and movies. Soon after, she finds herself having to make difficult professional choices regarding the content that she is willing to shoot, I.E. a rape scene for the television show as well as a nude photo book, and when the people involved in these projects begin to drop dead around her, Mima is left wondering if she is somehow responsible. Throughout all of this, a website by the name of Mima’s Room has popped up on the internet. It’s a diary/blog discussing everything that Mima does throughout her day, down to the minutiae of what brand of milk she prefers, but the only problem is, Mima isn’t writing it, and she doesn’t know how the person who is writing it knows so much about her.

Perfect Blue was developed from a Japanese Light Novel titled Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis. Light Novels are a form of young adult novels that we have here in the states, though there are differences. They came about due to the Japanese pulp industry, much like how Sci-Fi and Horror were grown from our pulp magazines. Light novels typically have Manga-inspired illustrations, and they also are regularly adapted to Manga and Anime due to the crossover appeal. This is how the story of Perfect Blue originally started. Written by Yoshikazu Takeuchi, Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis details the rise of Mima whilst she is stalked by a love-obsessed fan. It was a hit with LN readers, and after being shopped around for a live-action adaptation, the green light was ultimately given for an Original Video Adaptation, or an OVA, which were all the rage in Japan in the 1980s and early 90s. OVAs were a way for manga to be adapted into animated cartoons without having to worry about the budget of a full series. With the rise of home video in Japan due to them being at the forefront of the technological boom after World War II, a huge market for home media had opened up. Salary men and women, along with hardworking students, needed their escape to handle the stress and tribulations that came from their occupations, and home media, whether it be video games or anime, was ideal content. Because of this market, we had lots of literature in Japan being adapted for the screen, small or big. The 1980s and 90s in Japan was a great place to be an artist because companies were willing to take big chances on media because the market was healthy.

Perfect Blue was handed to Satoshi Kon, who would later go on to make other seminal anime films such as Paprika and Toyko Godfathers. Perfect Blue would be his first project. When presented with the original concept and script, Kon read it once and then decided that he would make the film, but only if he could make drastic changes to the story and themes of the film. Surprisingly, because of the nature of OVAs at the time the movie was being developed, the production company in charge of the movie, Madhouse, decided to allow Kon to make the changes to the film he desired. OVAs were mainly viewed as cheap schlock, something that you would rent and watch over a weekend and quickly forget about. The market in the 90s was not the same as it was in the 80s. Oversaturation caused the lifespan of all OVAs to be shortened dramatically. The shelf life was weeks for strong titles and days for weaker titles. Many were forgotten the moment they were produced. Madhouse figured that it would be ideal to allow Kon to have the freedom to do what he wanted with the movie because no one would probably watch it, and therefore no one would care if he made sweeping changes to the narrative. There only had to be three rules that needed to be followed and everything else was fair game: 

  1. The Main Character had to be an Idol singer.
  2. The Main Character had to have a stalker.
  3. The primary genre still had to be a horror movie.

What Madhouse didn’t anticipate was that the OVA market would have the bottom completely fall out due to television while Perfect Blue was nearing the end of its development. So, in a genius move, rather than package Perfect Blue as a standalone OVA about a B-List idol who is going insane, they marketed it as an arthouse film. Instead of preparing Perfect Blue for the video store, they began to package it as a highbrow piece of cinema that would be screened at film festivals all over the world. 

The crazy thing about the strategy was that it worked. Audiences all over watched Perfect Blue and raved about it. It won multiple awards and was not only recognized for its advancements in animated films, but for psychological thrillers as a whole. 

I find the story behind the movie compelling because it speaks to so many traits of the film thematically. Perfect Blue is technically a story about a woman who is changing her path in life and dealing with the fallout of her decisions, but at its core, it raises questions such as what is identity, what happens when people can’t look past the performer and see the real person behind, and what role does perception play in everyday life?

Mima is talented and pretty, but she floats through life rudderless. Every decision she makes is not her own, they are those of the people who are controlling “Mima”. When it’s decided that she is to leave the idol group CHAM, the people who manage her career start to thrust her into things that she isn’t entirely sure she wants to do, but she feels she needs to do because of the pressure received. We get a glimpse of this when her manager, Rumi, sets up a PC for her to access the World Wide Web, or for you people under thirty, the internet. Mima feels intimidated by the new technology, while Rumi shows her the ins and outs and explains that there’s nothing to be afraid of. The computer and the website, “Mima’s Room” play a pivotal role in the film as well as the deterioration of Mima’s psyche. Rumi is the one who puts Mima in this position, not herself. That’s something to remember when watching.

The question of who Mima is asked right away. During her first shoot on the set of Double Blind, the detective show in which she is hired for a bit role, she goes over her one line. The line in question is: who are you (or excuse me, who are you, in the English dub)? She repeats it over and over, doing her best not to forget the one line, and we as an audience eventually end up asking who Mima is. Is she a pop idol, or is she an actress? Is she capable of killing someone? Is she dreaming everything up? Her role in Double Blind begins to grow, and as it does, Mima’s grip on reality loosens more and more. The placement of the scene of the dialogue in the TV show is important as well. Before she says this line, she is reading the website Mima’s Room. It tells of her trip to the grocery store which is so accurate that it scares Mima. She didn’t write the blog, so how did it get written in the first place? Is there another Mima out there, documenting her daily life? How did it obtain the recording of her practicing her line for the show? Did she write the blog and not remember? The camera then shows Mima in her room, listening to the recording, the wind blows the curtain across the glass of her window, and then we transition to her repeating the line for the camera for the television show. The transition is able to emphasize the question.

As she travels further away from her former self, her pop idol persona, she starts to feel more and more disconnected from life. Also, she begins to do things that are more risque in order to heighten her profile. This infuriates the person who is running the website Mima’s Room, and it also in turn enrages Me-Mania, who is an obsessed fan who has been in love with Mima since she performed in CHAM.

The amount of detail put into the entire film is staggering. You get something from each time you rewatch it as well. One thing that struck me when I ended up watching years after the first viewing was how Mima’s room gets more disheveled as time goes on. She can’t piece together her own events in life, and it takes everything inside of her to just get through the next event in her life. Large lapses of time pass and Mima is at the mercy of it. Because of this, the state of her room and environment slowly deteriorate around her. It’s an amazing portrayal of people who are dealing with mental health crises and how they push through the best they can, even if they can barely make it. That along with the dialogue are top-notch. Double Blind works as an embedded narrative, and it helps understand that Mima is having an identity crisis. Her character in Double Blind changes dramatically from the first day of shooting. It mirrors her real life in ways that reveal what is really going on within her. Much like Tales of the Black Freighter in Watchmen, this story is as important as the main narrative in the film. 

SPOILER ALERT: Yes, I know that this film is over 20 years old and whatnot but you really should watch it before I go over the ending and what makes it so special. Otherwise, you miss a great opportunity to truly enjoy what Kon is trying to say about identity. Go ahead, I can wait. 🙂 But if you have already seen the movie or don’t care about ruining an old Anime feature from the 90s, be my guest.

If you can’t afford to buy the movie, you can watch it here, at the Internet Archive.

It all comes to a head when Mima is attacked by Me-Mania but is able to escape. She awakes in the care of her manager Rumi, but something is terribly off. Her old room, the one that she lived in when she was in CHAM, has been painstakingly reproduced. It is then revealed that her manager, Rumi, has been behind Mima’s Room website and the attacks on those around her the entire time. 

Rumi has discussed her own career as a pop idol throughout the film. She uses it as a reference to what she thinks Mima should do. But, what you don’t realize until the end is that Rumi has been living vicariously through an identity of the old Mima, the one who sang in CHAM and was destined for J-Pop stardom, not the one who became an actress and “betrayed” herself by doing a rape scene and producing dirty pictures. Rumi has a form of DID, Dissociative Identity Disorder, which means that she has multiple personalities hiding inside her head. She has pushed her psychosis onto Mima, to the point where Mima is unable to accurately tell the difference between Rumi and the Old Mima. 

Rumi chases Mima through the city until she is injured and thrown into the middle of the road by a truck headed right for her. This mirrors a previous scene in the film, in which Mima runs from her hallucinations and finds herself in the way of an oncoming truck, unable to move, exactly like the one that is going to kill Rumi. Fear and uncertainty freeze Mima the first time, making her question after she wakes up if she is alive or not. But when Rumi is in danger, Mima is able to snap herself out of it, throw herself into her former manager, and save her from death. Mima is able to save herself, and show that she is different from Rumi. While Rumi is willing to drive herself mad for her own twisted visions to be a reality, Mima, on the other hand, is able to gather herself and stand true to her own identity. It doesn’t matter what Rumi sees her as, and it doesn’t matter if people see two different Mimas in the world. What is important is how Mima reacts to it and how she handles herself in the face of those questions. This is reinforced in the final scenes of the movie. Rumi is placed in a psychiatric hospital where she still has visions of being Mima. Her only visitor is the real Mima, who comes in to check on her wearing a disguise so that people don’t recognize the famous actress who is now on TV weekly. We are able to deduce this by the conversation the nurses out front have when they see her. They aren’t sure if it’s really the famous Mima Kirigoe, because they can’t figure out why someone that important would be there.

The final scene consists of the only fourth wall break in the entire film. Mima looks at the rearview mirror and informs the audience directly that she is the real Mima. She’s not the old Mima, she’s not a new Mima, she’s the real Mima.

She does this while looking into a mirror to show that Mima can face her past and still move forward. She isn’t haunted by the things that could have been. Meanwhile, poor Rumi will live the rest of her life forever regretting the choices she made that forced her into her Mima persona. When Rumi looks into the mirror at the hospital, she only sees herself as Old Mima, still in her idol outfit. She is trapped inside of her escape, which she tried to mold to the point of attempting to kill her associate and close friend.

Labels and perceptions are just that. People place them onto others because they help organize the chaos that is reality. They make things easier. But they can also hinder us. They stunt growth because when we find ourselves trapped in certain boxes, getting out of them later on when we have outgrown them can be daunting. I always use the example of a coworker. You can work with the same person for years, side by side, and then one moment they are fired, quit, or retire. That person no longer is your coworker. They are something else. In an instant, their identity is altered, and can never go back to what it was before. But where someone works isn’t really their identity. That’s one aspect of their life. We just use that label because it helps us to file that person away in a section of our brain. It’s important to remember that. 

In the years after first seeing this movie, I have told countless others that they should watch it, and anyone who isn’t into anime immediately dismisses it.

“Why would I watch some movie about a Japanese pop star? Especially a cartoon about one!?”

Because Perfect Blue isn’t just a cartoon about a pop star. It isn’t just an arthouse movie that started as an OVA. It isn’t just a psychological thriller. It’s all those things combined as well as the individual parts. That’s what makes up an identity. We aren’t one single solitary thing, we are those items combined into something more.

As a quick aside, most of the research of this essay wouldn’t be possible without the YouTube channel KaiserBeamz. He did an amazing video essay on the film that recounts the production history as well as a great analysis of the film. You can watch the video here.

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