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  • Writer's pictureMiles Stephenson

Perfect Blue (1997), Satoshi Kon [4.5/5]

Updated: Sep 19, 2022

Born during the Disney Renaissance, I grew up on mostly American animation yet every now and then an episode of late 90s Pokémon would air. The hand-painted cel animation enchanted me but I was often puzzled by the hyper dramatic register.

Not only were the characters visually different with their spiky hair and free form facial features that could balloon into the air upon emphasis, but they were also expressively different. They often shouted, fainted, or recoiled in surprise over small occurrences. Their melodramatic flair seemed divorced from any register of realism. Later, this over-the-top "megadrama" detracted from my experience of Akira (1988), a movie I found visually striking but dramatically alienating.

When I watched Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue (1997), a wave of nostalgia came over me for that lost era of hand-sketched 90s animation like Pokémon. The shots of Mima's apartment with her tetra fish tank, her glass bottle of milk, her bedroom fax machine and toys — each frame detailed in deep focus. The sound of a city clock chiming in Tokyo and the whoosh of a railway car gave me nostalgia for a 90s Japan that I had never been to, one where technology wasn't digitized into the cloud but dazzled about in blocky, analog pieces. Sure, some of the megadrama elements felt over-the-top, but I learned to lean into it as a new register of emotional performance.

Perfect Blue is a Hitchcockian psychological thriller first and a J-pop star anime second. The themes of a perverted consumer society, the duality of the persona and the person, internet voyeurism with Freudian psychosexual elements, and the paper thin barrier between fiction and reality imbue the film with terrifyingly sophisticated probings of modernity. This isn't a Studio Ghibli fairytale, it's an anime Black Swan or Mulholland Drive, yet it achieves those themes to greater affect.

The story follows pop idol Mima Kirigoe as she switches from a singer to a B actress on crime drama TV and begins to question not just her career path but her entire sense of reality. Simultaneously, she experiences run-ins with an otaku stalker, a sort of digital Japanese subculture of social outcasts, this particular creep being obsessed with her stardom to the point of violence.

Early scenes explore a terrifying voyeurism as Mimi feels she is being watched in her apartment before finding an online blog dedicated to divulging moments of her personal life. Yet like Nolan's Memento (2000), the viewer can never fully trust the protagonist's perception of reality as Mimi begins to experience psychosis. We have to always question whether the on-screen events are figments of a dream or vision or real happenstance.

As the visions become more violent, the warm colors and beautiful fluid motion animation betray a nightmarish look at pop culture, the horror of being a sexualized woman in the public eye. There are certain moments in this film more disturbing than the most visceral live-action horror thrillers (aside from maybe Noé's Irreversible), and for that alone, this film stands as an achievement of animation with a shocking twist and and a lasting critique of consumer culture. 4.5/5.

Miles Stephenson

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