The Fame Monster: Satoshi Kon’s “Perfect Blue”

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Published on September 27th, 2010 | by Carlos J. Segura

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A startling and powerful film. If Alfred Hitchcock partnered with Walt Disney they’d make a picture like this.” – Roger Corman

Now that’s a perfect and hard to top pitch if ever there was one. Another interesting pitch comes courtesy of voiceover actress, Wendee Lee (the English-language voice of Rumi in the film), who has suggested the film “to be very much like the Selena story.” It might also be fair to suggest, especially with all the Jodie Foster references in the film—more on that later— that the film reminds one of her infamous stalking by John Hinckley, Jr; the main character’s emotional and psychological breakdown brings to mind such names as Spears or Lohan…now’s the time to get your chuckles out.  Though Corman’s Hitchcock nod is not an inaccurate point of reference a more fitting comparison would be some of the career highlights of DePalma, Argento, and even Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.” And what about the Walt Disney part? While initially a curio hook the tag is only relevant and useful because Disney’s stature in animation is recognized from Tierra del Fuego to Bora Bora; no such name exists in anime with the relative prominence of Mr. Disney, though, this is arguable for some I’m sure. This introduction may have also shot itself a bit in the foot—or gotten people already running to get a copy of the movie depending on which side of the fence you sit since there’s no such thing as sitting on it with Lynch—when it decided to bring in the name of Mr. Lynch if you’re one of those who’s felt less brain teased and more headachy from watching his movies. Assuming you’re one of those who started running away from rather than to “Perfect Blue,” based on perhaps not unfair assumptions you have on anime and for fear of being painfully confused you need not worry. In addition to all the promises that you make by bringing up names like Foster, Spears, DiPalma and Hitchcock in one lump, you’ll find that while the movie may at times seem very confusing it is also, in a way, deceptively simple. Oh and the part about it being anime? An excerpt from a piece on Kon that includes a quote by the man himself on anime, its creators and their use of anime’s clichés: “he dismissed their obsession with beautiful little girls and giant robots as ‘a little sad’” (Hendrix).

The Fame Monster

If one had to pick a part of this movie that would appeal to all viewers in the West, or any part of the world where fame is a national obsession, it would be the overarching theme of losing yourself when you submit to fame, in particular the fame that comes with being a part of Pop Culture. In the film Mima is a part of a very pink and wholesome J-Pop girl group named Cham, that could easily be any number of girl groups like The Spice Girls or The Pussycat Dolls, though, Mima and the group’s fame seem to have more in common with Hoku or Stacie Orrico. The type of scrutiny that comes with the territory of their profession is established right away via commentary by various fans that go in and out of the movie throughout. Although one can only feel so much sympathy for people who willingly submit themselves to a profession where fame is an explicit part of the deal there also comes a point where things do spiral dangerously out of control; the fame culture ends up confusing and consuming some very susceptible people in “Perfect Blue.”

In Mima’s case it’s clear she is naïve and a bit of a puppet which one suspects to be true of quite a few girls, or people, that go into the entertainment business. However, as a female these are particularly fatal qualities to possess for without a strong resolve the level of scrutiny may become too much to bear since females are subjected to a more intensive, more sexualized objectification process compared to their male counterparts. The consequences of this are anybody’s guess. In Mima’s case it begins with “her” decision (her agency’s) to become an actress which leads over to the point of no return: Mima participates in a simulated rape scene for the television show she is starring in which seems an awful lot like the rape scene in “The Accused” which starred, of all people, Jodie Foster; Jodie’s name even comes up as a way to persuade Mima that what she’s doing has artistic merit.

For the purposes of comparing and contrasting we’ll use the following interview with Monica Bellucci on her rape scene in “Irreversible” where she had this to say about what it was like to shoot something like that: “The only thing I can say about the rape scene in ‘Irreversible’ is about the dress I had in the movie. We had like ten of them because we knew that during the rape scene anything could happen. I said, ‘I want one for me’ when we finish. I never could touch this dress again just because it’s true when you go into an acting process it’s just acting but at the same time you touch things that you have inside. There’s this expression that we have many princes inside us and each time you approach a character there is one of those princes that wake up. I think that maybe there are things inside you. I am a woman and I never been raped in my life but I think I’m sure it’s the worst that can happen so I’m sure that touched something inside me. I touched something that maybe I don’t know what it is; it was so deep and that’s why I couldn’t touch this dress anymore” (Morales).

The idea that acting, though it is just acting at the end of the day it is, at the same time, a delicate process for some; a process where you must be strong enough to put away the influence that you’ve brought out from your own psyche away and remember where you stand. Otherwise when you’re alone and you’re confronted with this “prince,” in Mima’s case it happens to be her Pop Princess persona that ends up taking on a life of its own, it can cause overwhelming angst. The same can extend over to playing a public part, taking on a public persona, even if it’s seemingly not negative at first. However, as is the case, perhaps, with many popular personalities like the ones mentioned earlier—though one should point out that in the cases of these girls there are various and particular factors outside of fame pressures that lead to their breakdowns but for the purposes of this piece we focus on the fame aspect; the pressure to maintain a persona, especially one that hinges on being either young or wholesome or pretty or very likeable, a persona that hinges on being a desirable and/or likeable female, can be unbearable. It may lead one to question who they want to be, are they who they want to be, and how to go about being everything to everyone while still being true to yourself? These questions of identity are ultimately what the film is all about and the prominence of real life cases, at least within the United States, alone should guarantee audience interest and identification.

From this perspective one realizes that the sections where Mima is confronted with her Pop Princess persona are inner monologues made external and flow with reality as Mima knows it. It’s no coincidence that the Pop Princess persona rears her head once Mima has completed the simulated rape scene, which Mima is so visibly uncomfortable with having done. Once the film is near its conclusion, however, you may wonder if Mima’s encounters with the Pop Princess persona were inner monologues at all since along comes Rumi dressed as Pop Princess Mima but to cut down on the confusion there are a couple of things that should be noted that will do away with any puzzlement. You’ll notice that when Rumi appears dressed as Pop Princess Mima she is dressed in a red outfit while the Pop Princess Mima that’s been in Mima’s mind all this time is dressed in the pink outfit. These markers are pointed out not to dilute the segues in and out of Mima’s reality, which they won’t, but are made clear in order to better appreciate these sections for what they are and what they are about: guilt-ridden, inner monologues where the lead is wrestling with questions of her transitioning public and private identities and deep feelings of shame in connection to these issues. For anyone that’s remotely fascinated with what might be going on in a public figure’s private, psychic life with regard to how they process everything that comes with playing their famous personas then this movie will definitely be of interest; however its way of dealing with this experience is rather extreme, viscerally, and this is the part where some people might choose to get off the boat.

Points of Entry

In its basic form the movie is a violent, nasty and shocking who-dun-it, psychodrama/thriller/horror film that flirts with being sleazy a couple of times. Examples: the murders include someone getting their eyes gouged out and left for dead in an elevator, a man getting his eye plucked with an icepick and then mercilessly stabbed with said icepick in the genitals in addition to being viciously stabbed multiple times just to cap things off. Paul Verhoeven would be proud; piled onto these two cruel acts are assorted stabbings and bloodletting. Amidst the confusion as to what’s real and what’s not real, what’s memory and what’s in-the-moment, and what is from who’s perspective the narrative is driven along by the very basic question of who exactly is responsible for these murders? Me-Mania or Mima or both? Maybe other?

All of this is the stuff of Argento’s giallos or works by DePalma such as “Sisters” or “Dressed to Kill.” The violence in “Perfect Blue” is highly stylized, even beautiful, much like the violence in the films of Argento or DePalma. Fitting comparisons for their content as well as their visuals styles are Argento’s “Opera” and “Tenebre.” “Opera” is also about a public figure, an opera singer, who is the victim of a deranged fan and like this film includes very, um, creative methods of offing its victims—a part where a victim’s chest is opened with scissors is a high or low point depending on who you are—and it too is a who-dun-it, albeit a more straightforward who-dun-it. Like “Perfect Blue” it includes moments where a perspective seems to be up-in-the-air between a dream and a memory or the present moment. “Tenebre” happens to also concern a deranged fan; this fan’s obsession with an author’s novels inspires them to commit murder and it, like “Perfect Blue,” features a psyche split in two with one half being, of course, psychotic. DePalma’s “Dressed to Kill” is also about a damaged and split psyche who, when touched by their “prince” (the “prince” is the super sexy Angie Dickinson), unleashes a murderous transvestite. Both “Perfect Blue” and “Dressed to Kill” share the distinction of someone getting offed in an elevator (surely coincidence but no less notable). “Sisters” includes an opening murder that Mima might have taken a glimpse at before offing the photographer that coerced her into posing nude and “Sisters” is also, incidentally, about a fractured psyche (Margot Kidder) and includes its share of subjective and disorienting camera and color work that blurs and blends time and space.

At the time of the theatrical release of “Perfect Blue,” one of the first publications, if not the only publication, to take note of the film’s release was Fangoria and for good reason. Framing the movie, along with the psychological drama that takes up the question of public and private identities in relation to pop culture, amidst the at first confusing perspectives that play with memories, daydreams and nightmares, are the trappings and mechanics of the thriller and even the horror film. In addition to the murders the film features two notable chases that are adrenaline pumpers: the first is when Me-Mania hunts Mima down in the television studio and attempts to murder her. The second is the final showdown between Rumi and Mima once Mima discovers Rumi was the driving force behind Me-Mania’s actions and it has Rumi relentlessly chasing Mima down the streets of Tokyo.

If this portion of the piece reads as a lurid and cheap attempt with famous points of reference to get folks to give the movie a look based solely on thrills and violence then…you’d be right. There may be a decent-sized, built-in audience that is missing out on this film just because when you think anime films you don’t instinctively think murder mystery or that it will be anything like the work of Argento and DePalma or anything similar to it. Well, this portion is meant to correct that assumption and, if anything, because it’s animated it manages to get away with a certain level of explicitness, mechanics—especially in the chase sequences—and violence while bypassing the question of “how did they do that?” They drew it. If you’re sitting down to watch the movie then you’ve agreed to have your disbelief suspended from the get-go, knowing that because it’s animated the imagination is allowed more freedom and that makes animation the perfect form for these lurid thrills.

No Time, Animated

“Kon thought that people lived in multiple realities, such as those of television, the internet and the realm of memory. ‘The human brain is mysterious; we can’t share the time axis in our memory with other people,’ he said. ‘I’m interested in trying to visualize those nonlinear ways of thinking’” (Osmond). The most audacious part of the film, perhaps even the centerpiece, is a 15-minute portion of the film that begins at around the 48-minute mark. At this point the film goes from psychodrama/thriller and enters the territory of experimental narrative. It is a tour de force in editing for the way it seamlessly moves between places and moments in time from Mima’s perspective. An excerpt from an essay on “Perfect Blue” describes this part of the film perfectly: “The dreams are… not treated as separate entities, but carry the narrative forward to the same degree as do the waking scenes…Consequently there are no cross-fades, dissolves or establishing shots to link scenes with different locations or time settings, or to convey that we are entering dream territory. For instance, there is a scene in which Mima the actress is delivering lines on the set for the drama, and is suddenly waking in her bed, only to be seen a moment later back on the set. Interestingly, although we as viewers are not given the usual cues as to when we are entering a dream, we are frequently cued in retrospect as to the dream status of a scene via shots of Mima awakening. The audience’s quest to determine what is dream and what is reality is in this way constantly undermined” (Rickards 6).

Although the shifts in time and place make it temping to dismiss this as obfuscating trickery, too confusing for its own good, the film’s motive for doing this is rooted in good, old-fashioned character development. In order to better communicate Mima’s perspective, her anxieties, isolation, obsession and confusion over her psychological state—taking into account the sudden appearances of Pop Princess Mima and all the guilt she lays on Mima—and the slippery slope that reality has ended up becoming for her due to her becoming detached from her linear experience of time the film must, must, must employ this mode of editing; the editing is inextricably intertwined with the theme and character development of the film so without this portion of the film there would be no film. Think of it as psychological 3D, to put it simply. It’s rare for a spectator to completely lose oneself in a film, to transcend it, especially as one becomes a more seasoned viewer. For 15 amazing and unnerving minutes you forget you are in a movie theater and you become Mima Kirigoe.

To put to rest the qualm of this film being animated we turn to this excerpt: “There is a case for saying that the animation endows the entire film with a dream-like quality that undermines the dream/reality dualism. For Kon’s “limited animation” style…has the effect of showing characters floating though space in a dream-like manner. Less attention is given to animating every single step when characters walk, and more attention is given to lyricism and atmosphere” (Rickards 5). If you were to take the entire film, shot for shot, and remake it into a live-action movie it could possibly work (there happens to be a live action version that was made in Japan). However, as stated earlier, when you agree to watch an animated film you’ve agreed to suspend your disbelief from the get-go, knowing that anything is possible because the only limits are the limits of your imagination, for the most part, rather than what you can do with your budget. So because something that’s animated is so obviously not a part of objective reality as we know it we automatically register it as “otherworldly.” Therefore Rickards’ assertion that the animation is part of what gives the film its overall seamless, dreamy quality, particularly in the film’s 15-minute centerpiece or even when Mima carries on a dialogue with Pop Princess Mima—something that in a live action could potentially come off as cheesy— is true and so, that said, since you can’t remove the animation component without losing something you may as well just sit down, get over it and just watch the movie.

Sources

Rickards, Meg. “Screening Interiority: Drawing on the Animated Dreams of Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue”. nass.murdoch.edu.au/. 2006. September, 2010. <http://nass.murdoch.edu.au/docs/m_rickards.pdf>

Hendrix, Grady. “Satoshi Kon’s Theory of Animation”. nysun.com. June 27, 2008. September, 2010. <http://www.nysun.com/arts/satoshi-kons-theory-of-animation/80784/>

Osmond, Andrew. “Satoshi Kon obituary”. guardian.co.uk. August 26, 2010. September, 2010. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/aug/26/satoshi-kon-obituary>

Morales, Wilson. “Tears of the Sun: An Interview with Monica Bellucci”. blackfilm.com. March, 2003. September, 2010. <http://www.blackfilm.com/20030307/features/monicabellucci.shtml>

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