I’ve been wanting to do more classic anime content for this site for a while. One of my favourite things about being an anime fan is discovery. There’s always something I’ve been meaning to get to, something I haven’t seen or something I’ve never heard of right around the corner. So at least once a month I’ll be bringing you a classic movie review. I’m doing this partly so that I have an excuse to watch some older anime (not that you need an excuse), but also because roaming the internet I see a lot of people who have missed these gems, so if I can help at least one person discover some forgotten gold I’m happy. My one rule with these reviews will be that the anime is 20 years or older, and as it just so happens that last night I went to a 20th-anniversary screening of Perfect Blue, let’s start this series off on a high note.
The last line of that paragraph might give away my feelings on the movie as a whole, but you know going into this is probably going to be solid. Making it’s debut at Fant-Asia Film Festival in 1997 and produced by Madhouse (Ninja Scroll, Summer Wars, Demon City Shinjuku), this movie is helmed by legendary director Satoshi Kon, the visionary behind one of my favourite anime movies (and obvious Inception inspiration) Paprika, as well as other acclaimed works such as Paranoia Agent and Tokyo Godfathers. He was sadly taken from us in 2010 after losing his battle with pancreatic cancer, but his legacy stands strong in the catalogue he left behind, and his directorial debut Perfect Blue is a shining example of his abilities.
The narrative follows Mima Kirigoe, a 21-year-old J-pop idol who “decides” (how much of that decision is her’s comes into question later on) to leave behind the music scene to become an actress. The film is a story of obsession, exploitation, perception and identity. The lines between fantasy and reality are blurred as after switching career the horrific scenes she acts out in crime drama Double Bind seem to start bleeding from the screen into the real world, and all the while our lead is haunted by the ghosts of her past persona. Perfect Blue is a Hitchcockian tale of her descent into madness.
From the outset, it’s clear that if her life is a car, Mima is but a passenger as it hurtles down the motorway. Except here we have not just one driver, many hands snatch at the wheel, the vehicle careening from side-to-side, each second inching closer and closer to the hard shoulder. What makes this film so brilliant, is that Kon puts you right in the backseat of this vehicle. I couldn’t believe this movie was only an hour and a half because by the end I felt like I’d been on a journey. Watching the gradual deterioration of Mima’s mindstate is at times uncomfortable, even disorientating, but that is by no means a negative. The twists and turns keep you on your toes up until the penultimate scene. There are so many false flags and mind-bending misdirections, you’ll think the story is resolved, only to be thrown back in at the deep end. There was one particular point that I had a proper “oh sh*t, that’s what was going on” moment, then mere seconds later I’m flat on my face, rug pulled out from under me, and at no point did I see the final twist coming. This frenetic pacing all lends to helping you really feel what Mima is put through.
This is a loose tapestry woven of dark themes and subjects. There’s stalking, murder, and our protagonist is abused both physically and mentally. The film is an 18 for a reason and is not for the faint of heart. Some critics spoke negatively of the film upon its release, slating it for its gratuitous sex and violence, a sometimes all-too-common issue with 90s anime. But to call Perfect Blue gratuitous is a disservice to how well these topics are handled. Unlike many anime of the time, that used sex and violence for pure shock value, and could even glorify the acts, Kon paints a far more grotesque and repellent image. Furthermore rather than an aside, the exploitation of Mima both emotionally and physically, is a key component in her decline, as well as a comment on Japanese consumer culture in the 90s, and as such could not be glossed over or shied away from. It should be said that it is not all doom and gloom, there are brief points of levity and humour, and the performances by CHAM!, the movie’s fictional idol group are a genuine delight, but generally, these moments are fleeting.
On a technical level, the film looks magnificent, for the most part. Watching it on the big screen you can see some of the rough edges, but it’s still a sight to behold considering its age and I felt like it got stronger towards the latter part of its runtime. Madhouse did a fantastic job creating a realistic representation of Japan within which the more surreal elements of the movie don’t feel out of place. The animation is fluid, there are moments, particularly towards the back end, when reality starts to warp before your eyes and every frame just moves perfectly into the next. Sound design is where the production really shines through. The contrast of the comfortable safe pop music of Mima’s former band CHAM! against the film’s unsettling score helps to heighten uneasy feelings, and the acting in the original Japanese dub is stellar. This is one I will definitely be adding to my Blu-ray collection.
I could keep on about this all day, I haven’t even gone into everything this movie offers, like how well it shows the dangers of the internet, but I’ve already taken up enough of your time. Time that could be better spent watching this movie. Before I sign off I will say despite this glowing review, the movie is ever so slightly marred by the very last scene, in fact, the last 10 seconds, which I felt to be a little too on the nose. Your goal by the end of the movie is to understand what is real and what isn’t, and this could have easily been, and I’d argue is achieved without the movie’s final utterance. But that doesn’t take away from how incredible the build to the climax is, this is a must-see for anyone, even those who aren’t into anime, as long as they’re not too squeamish.
Perfect Blue can easily go toe-to-toe with any psychological thriller Hollywood has to offer. Stylish, clever, at times funny (but most of the time creepy!), as the title would suggest it’s a near-perfect ninety minutes of entertainment that I can’t wait to rewatch.