I won’t mince words here: this film is intense. Satoshi Kon’s first animated feature, a sort-of adaptation of the novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis, was and remains a vivid psychological thriller right on the edge of horror. Its beautiful art style shouldn’t fool you into thinking this is the kind of modern anime bloodfest or chat-heavy drama that floods streaming services these days. This is an intricately plotted, deliberately unsettling and brilliantly crafted story of identity, gender politics, and the casual cruelty of life in the entertainment industry.
Mima, a member of a moderately successful idol group, decides to put singing and cutesy costumes behind her and move on to serious acting. The obligatory appearance in a detective drama sets her story in motion as she negotiates a new life overwhelmingly shaped by the male gaze. With support either conditional (manager Rumi, who attempts to control her choices) or invisible (her offscreen and unheard mother), Mima must rebuild her identity even as pressures and abuses begin to erode her sense of self.
If there is imagery in here that seems familiar, you won’t be surprised to learn that Darin Aronofsky bought the rights to the film solely to use the bathtub scene in his film Requiem for a Dream. And although he won’t admit it, there are so many parallels between Perfect Blue and the film he released the year of director Kon’s death, Black Swan, that it’s impossible to assume he didn’t draw once again from this anime classic, particularly in the use of an unreliable narrator and the damaging effects of extreme pressure on female performers.
Kon’s deliberately equivocal narrative makes every twist and turn unclear, and even in retrospect, differentiating between reality and psychosis are impossible tasks. Rather than being frustrating, however, it creates a remarkable, fluid sense of unreality. The creepy stalker here isn’t the only significant source of stress and fear in Mima’s life, and those layers of complexity make this a knotty, spellbinding trip. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more satisfyingly structured thriller with so much to unpack afterward, even if some of the things you’ll unpack are deeply unsettling.
That said, it’s tropey. Really tropey. I’d jotted down about a dozen before I went and found there was already a page on TV Tropes about this film that captures reams of them. Although overuse of tropes can make a story predictable and cliché, it’s the choices and combinations that help Perfect Blue rise above the piles of thin, formulaic, plotless style showcases.
The new print is absolutely gorgeous, and if you have a chance to see this in the theater when it replays on September 10 via Fathom Events, grab that opportunity. Although there is one interpretive difference in the English dub that will be playing that night (the very last line in the Japanese version was spoken by a different voice actor – put your guesses in the comments and I’ll award Virtual Cookies to the one who guesses correctly), you’ll still have a dark, twisty, disturbing and rewarding experience.
Content warning: murder, simulated sexual violence, nudity
All images courtesy of Madhouse