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Mar 10

Movie March – Perfect Blue

Singing the Blues

Welcome back to Movie March, where we’ll be looking at and reviewing animated films from both the east and the west all month long. For our second entry of 2018, we’ll be focusing on something from way back in 1997, as we take a look at Perfect Blue.

One of Satoshi Kon’s earlier works, before he had become one of anime’s best known directors, this was the film that opened doors for him, winning several awards and becoming a cult classic. But does it still hold up today, especially against the rest of Kon’s library?

The first thing to note is this is very clearly a product of its time. And I don’t just mean the animation or character designs either. The narrative itself involves the internet and computers as these new weird things very few people use, and celebrity stalkers of which we proceeded to hear all the usual horror stories about over the two decades since.

That sensation of jumping through time is one of the core themes of the film, actually. We focus on Mima, a former pop idol and now aspiring actress as she leaves her previous group of CHAM! and tries to take the next steps in her career performing on drama series Double Bind. However, it seems as though her doubts about walking away from her childhood dream catch up to her as time goes on and the distance from her past self increases…

This leads to her seeing visions of her past self, while she also comes under attack online and in reality, including letter bombs and the murder of those attached to her new career path. And while this carries on, there’s the ever ominous presence of one old security guard who can’t seem to leave her alone, and the drama she stars in mirroring reality, with fiction and genuine life merging into one mess of awaking into a world where you don’t even know if it’s real.

If that sounds a little familiar, you’ve probably seen one of Kon’s other works, such as Paprika, where he also focuses on breaking down the walls between reality and fiction for his characters. There’s even a twist at the end reminiscent of a certain blockbuster movie that would come out a few years later… though that one ends up making a lot more sense than it does here.

The problem is both Paprika and film redacted make you carry a lot more about their protagonists than this one ever does. Mima comes across as a girl at a crossroads in life and unsure of where to go, regularly lacking any agency… except she regularly seems to go through with big decisions. She chooses to become an actress, she chooses to do a rape scene, she chooses to do a nude photo shoot, and then she’ll sit around and mope at far lesser ordeals. She’s the victim of the film, but never really goes beyond that at any time.

As for the rest of the cast, they’re there, but little more than supporting players to the narrative as it continues to devolve and have reality and fiction bleed into each other. Rumi just wants what’s best for Mima and for her to return to the happy pop idol days, her manager is trying to ensure her new career goes successfully, the other two members of Cham are… there, and the one creepy security guard is an obsessed and unnerving presence, but little more.

Actually, that’s a pet peeve of mine with the film. The lack of real world consequence involving security or police is staggering. The film feels deadset on either having shots crowded with people or none at all, meaning people get murdered brutally but you’ll never see a single action being taken by the police or anybody try to protect the famous actors on set.

Combine that with the merging of worlds, and it kind of has the opposite effect of making it impossible to invest in anything. When reality doesn’t behave like reality, and you don’t know if a shot is even real or not… why care? Where Paprika has constant purpose and direction throughout (even if it takes multiple watches to make sense of), this doesn’t. It’s just a girl tormented by a past vision that jumps from being able to affect the real world and not, gliding effortlessly around which makes even less sense after the ending.

Which is a shame, as there’s a lot to like about this film from a directorial standpoint. The constant use of cuts in time, both backwards and forwards, are perfectly timed to have scenes gel and flow into each other but also still be distinct. You’ll never be lost chronologically, even when you lose sense of what is real. I also loved the TV drama either foreshadowing or revisiting scenes from the “real” narrative, helping build into that feeling of utter bewilderment. Even the rape scene they filmed, thanks to some smart stopping and starting, didn’t come off as particularly horrific, and just an actor trying to take a big step in her career.

The general animation on the other hand… leaves a bit to be desired. There’s some noteworthy scenes, like the apartment stabbing with the television reflecting both personalities in the background, but otherwise it’s pretty standard 90s fare. Except for maybe the opening, where some characters vibrate while talking, almost like their cell layer was being shifted a tiny bit each frame. No idea what that was all about.

Character designs aren’t much to write home about either, though in fairness they look more like real people than anime bright colours and hairstyles. The creeper security guard in particular has a face only a mother could love. As for the audio, it does the job and little else, and maybe it was just the copy I had, but sound balancing felt awful, flicking from too quiet to too loud in several scenes.

To bring this around to some kind of conclusion then, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed by Perfect Blue. What could’ve been an interesting character drama about being at a crossroads in life falls apart as the narrative continues… much like the story the narrative tells. Interesting stories such as Cham doing better without Miku and her being manipulated into doing some more adult content are left by the wayside so we can get more time of a faintly glowing vision from the past being wildly inconsistent from scene to scene. Heck, it would’ve been nice to maybe have a few minutes at the end focused on her recovery, instead of the abrupt resolution and leap to (more) modern times.

But if we’re leaping to more modern times, then why not just leap to Paprika, which has some similar themes, but executed far better by a Satoshi Kon with a decade’s more experience. Because when you’re looking back, this could never hope to step out of its successors’s shadow.

Surprised I wasn’t all that into Perfect Blue? Me too, kinda. Feel free to tell me on Twitter how out of touch with true art I am. Otherwise, stay tuned for our next Movie March article next week, where we’re gonna cover a western I’ve been meaning to watch for a while…