We open at a small outdoor concert venue somewhere in Tokyo, which is all abuzz as an anxious audience awaits the appearance of CHAM!; an all-girl bubblegum J-pop trio that never quite broke through. Seems there’s a momentous rumor going around their small but rabid fanbase that this will be lead singer Mima Kirigoe’s last performance with the group. And turns out these rumors were true as Mima is ready to close the book on her music career and take her best shot at being a full-time actress.
And while the plan was to make an official announcement at the end of the concert, the performance is lewdly interrupted by a band of drunken hooligans, who are confronted first by a member of the venue’s security team, who seems to have a thing for Mima, before a near riot breaks out. Here, Mima (Iwao) pleads for the audience to stop, saying this is not how she wanted her last show to go and begs everyone to calm down and listen to her last song. This does the trick, the assholes leave, the riot is quelled, and everyone tunes back into the show, including the security guard, who earns a quick nod from Mima for his valiant efforts.
But not everyone is happy with Mima’s change in careers, including half of her management team. For while Tadokoro (Tsuji) feels Mima’s musical persona is at a dead end and believes she has a real talent for acting (-- which, for the record, would also mean more money for him), his partner, Rumi (Matsumoto), a former burnt-out J-pop singer herself, feels Mima is about to throw it all away just as she was about to hit big. But in the end, this is Mima’s decision to make and she seems committed to the next stage of her life (-- for herself or for those counting on her is the real question), beginning with a very small part in a popular but grisly TV police procedural, Double Bind (-- think Silence of the Lambs by way of C.S.I.). And while it’s only one line, Tadokoro starts working behind the scenes with the producer and head screenwriter to expand the part for his client.
But this sort of backfires a bit as Mima’s role is quickly expanded thanks to a massive rewrite that now sees her character as this week’s homicidal maniac, whose psychosis is initially triggered by a brutal rape, which all must be captured on film despite Rumi’s impassioned warnings these changes are coming too fast and too harshly and will only further ruin Mima’s reputation with no hope of ever coming back.
Meanwhile, as her new career takes a salacious turn, and CHAM!, now a duo, reaches unprecedented heights of success without her, an already stressed and fragmenting Mima starts receiving obscene phone calls at her apartment, along with several faxes and letters that declare she is a traitor to CHAM!. This is compounded when a piece of fan-mail not quite harmlessly blows up in Tadokoro’s face, whose remnant contents warn things will only escalate unless she goes back to the way things were. And creepiest of all, Mima has also been herded to a website called Mima’s Room, which is fanatically dedicated to all things Mima, including a interactive message board and diary section that recounts her day to day routine in startlingly -- nay, alarmingly accurate detail; what happened at the day’s shoot, what stores she shopped at, what brand of fish food she bought, what subway she rides etc. Also of note, it also echoes her own private reservations about her career choices.
This, of course, means the mentally fraying Mima has picked herself up a stalker, and a dangerous and delusional one at that. But who is it? Is it that security guard, who seems to be popping up everywhere? (Believe me, he’s hard to miss.) Or is it someone closer to Mima’s inner-circle? Or something far more sinister? Alas, before she can find out, things will only get much worse for Mima as her situation quickly escalates from bad, to really bad, to fatally worse...
On the morning of July 18, 1989, actress Rebecca Schaeffer went to answer the doorbell of her Fairfax district apartment building in West Hollywood. Schaeffer, age 21, was born in Eugene, Oregon, in 1967, where she initially took up modeling her junior year in high school, appearing in department store catalogs, local commercials, and even landed a spot as an extra in a made for TV movie that was shooting nearby. At 17, she moved to New York City to pursue a career as a professional model but this quickly stalled-out due to her just over five and a half foot frame not being tall enough for high fashion work. Thus, she switched gears and started focusing on an acting career.
A short stint on a soap opera led to a bit part in Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1986), but her scene ultimately wound up on the cutting room floor. Then, Schaeffer’s big break came a year later when she landed the role of Samantha Russell’s sister, Patti, on the sitcom, My Sister Sam (1987-1988), portraying a precocious teenager who moves in with her older sister, played by Pam Dawber, after their parents were killed. And while initially a hit, the show rapidly sunk in the ratings and was yanked off CBS’ schedule halfway through the second season. But this disappointment did little to stall Schaeffer’s acting career as she subsequently landed roles in two more telefilms and two feature films: Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989), and The End of Innocence (1990). And, Schaeffer had a meeting that very afternoon to read for a part in The Godfather III (1990) when she answered the doorbell that fateful morning and found ... you know what? Lets refer to him as Screw that Guy, who was anxiously waiting in her entryway.
The youngest of seven children, [Screw that Guy], age 19, had been an Air Force brat, moving around constantly until his family finally settled in Tucson, Arizona, around 1983. Diagnosed as a manic depressive at the age of 15, [Screw that Guy] then spent time in an institution due to his emotional instability. His home life already in shambles due to repeated sexual abuse and repeated suicide threats, [Screw that Guy] had been in and out of foster care for years, had quit high school, and survived on menial janitorial jobs when he wasn’t being arrested for domestic violence or disorderly conduct. Plaintiffs, neighbors and witnesses would constantly claim [Screw that Guy] exhibited aggressive and threatening behavior toward them that had a tendency to get out of hand. And around this same time, the troubled youth started partaking in some unhealthy obsessions. And on top of that list was an infatuation with Rebecca Schaeffer.
After writing the actress several letters, when he got a generic response from Schaeffer’s agency, [Screw that Guy] thought it was a direct response from her, and thus, an imaginary relationship took root. And took root so deep [Screw that Guy] traveled to Hollywood in 1987 hoping to meet Schaeffer on the set of My Sister Sam but couldn’t get past security. This did not compute for [Screw that Guy], and he returned a month later, angry, and armed with a knife, but once more he couldn’t get past the studio gate. With that, [Screw that Guy] returned to Tucson and his obsession for Schaeffer cooled off a bit as his attention shifted to other celebrities, including pop-stars Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. But things soon heated up again when [Screw that Guy] caught a screening of Paul Bartel's Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, which included a nude sex scene with Schaeffer and an older actor.
Feeling betrayed over this, thinking his perfect imaginary girlfriend was now just another cheap “Hollywood whore,” an enraged [Screw that Guy], taking a page from fellow creep and celebrity stalker, [You now what? Screw this Guy, too], hired a Tucson detective agency, who tracked down Schaeffer’s home address for him through the California DMV for $250. For you see, around this same time, [Screw that Guy] had also developed another obsession: an obsession with celebrity stalkers who had attacked their targets like [Screw this Guy, too], who nearly killed actress Theresa Saldana, and [Screw This Guy Too, Also], who had shot and killed John Lennon. Thus and so, armed with a Ruger pistol secreted inside a paper bag, obtained by one of his older brothers for him, along with a copy of Catcher in the Rye, [Screw that Guy] returned to Hollywood for a third time.
Arriving at the address, [Screw that Guy] asked around to see if Schaeffer actually lived there. Determining it to be legit, [Screw that Guy] rang the doorbell. When Schaeffer answered the door, [Screw that Guy] presented the autographed postcard he had been sent. According to later testimony, Schaeffer was patient and courteous but firm with [Screw that Guy], thanking him for being a fan but asking him to never come to her home again. [Screw that Guy] agreed, and left without incident, found a local diner, and got something to eat. But after an hour of stewing, [Screw that Guy] returned to Schaeffer’s apartment. This time, Schaeffer was neither patient nor pleasant according to [Screw that Guy], who removed his gun from the bag and shot Schaeffer point blank in the chest with a .357 magnum. And as she fell, started screaming, and bled out, a panicked [Screw that Guy] fled the scene.
[Screw that Guy] would later claim he returned to the apartment a second time to give his victim a present, but odds are better he’d failed at his first attempt, regrouped, and came back to finish his mission to be the man who murdered Rebecca Schaeffer. Alerted neighbors phoned for paramedics, who transported Schaeffer to Cedars-Sinai, where the victim was pronounced dead thirty minutes after arrival. [Screw that Guy], meanwhile, had intended to kill himself, too, but instead fled. He was arrested the following day as he wandered in and out of traffic on I-10 outside of Tucson and was quickly tied to the shooting. At trial, he would plead not guilty by reason of insanity, but was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Now. I’m not really sure if the highly publicized Schaeffer homicide made any waves in Japan or had any influence on Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s novel, Pāfekuto Burū: Kanzen Hentai (-- Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis), but considering when it was published (1991) and the eerie plot similarities with the true life case one can at least, and rather easily, draw parallels between fact and fiction.
In Takeuchi’s novel we also follow Mima Kirigoe; still a low-tier teen pop singer with a very loyal fanbase. But things start to heat up when Mima’s hated rival, Eri Ochiai, develops a new and more risque image, gaining herself more popularity, and then makes it her life’s goal to ruin Mima’s career. To fight back, Mima’s manager hatches a plan for a total adult makeover for his girl, too, to up her game and compete on an even playing field, including a nude photo spread for his reluctant starlet. Meanwhile, a certain rabid fan has also been causing Mima some stress; constantly calling her home and offering to protect her from Ochiai. He’s even tried to gain access to her at the studio but has been so far unsuccessful. And when Mima’s image starts to mature, it drives this stalker over the edge. And in his efforts to “save” Mima and preserve her innocence, he hatches a plot to kidnap his beloved idol. And if he cannot save her, he vows to save her from herself by any means necessary. Then, well, things get a bit squicky from there.
Sometime in 1994 this novel was optioned for a live action feature adaptation. But plans changed when a massive 6.9 earthquake struck near Kobe, Japan, killing over 4,000 people and caused millions in structural damage, which scrambled the Kobe based studio’s finances and production schedule for the foreseeable future. Thus, the proposed film’s budget was drastically reduced and was at first relegated to a direct to video feature until more budget cuts caused a complete shift in mediums; and so, Perfect Blue (1997) seemed destined to be a quick and cheap OVA (Original Video Animation) series. And it was at this point that Satoshi Kon got involved and was placed in charge of the production.
“The you in you isn’t the you you think is in you." - Satoshi Kon
A former manga artist, Kon began his animation career working as a character designer, layout artist and key animator for many legends in the anime field, including Hiroyuki Kitakubo -- Roujin Z (1991), Katsuhiro Otomo -- Robot Carnival (1987), AKIRA (1988), and Mamoru Oshii -- Mobile Police Patlabor (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1995). Gaining experience as he went, Kon next served as a supervisor on Oshii’s Patlabor 2: The Movie (1993) before writing and serving as the art director for the Magnetic Rose segment of Otomo’s fascinating anthology, Memories (1995), which gave him all the experience he needed to tackle Perfect Blue. And it didn’t hurt that his old friend Otomo was brought on as a “special supervisor” for the film, whose name had enough box-office clout domestically and overseas to once again salvage Perfect Blue out of the OVA bins and back into cinemas as a feature.
However, it became quite clear in the earliest stages of the production that Kon wasn’t a fan of Takeuchi’s novel nor thrilled with the author’s own adapted screenplay and requested to make several changes. And after a bit of negotiations, Kon agreed to keep the film centered around the singer, her stalker, and skew it as a horror film but had carte blanche to change everything else. Thus, a brand new screenplay was written by Sadayuki Murai -- Cowboy Beepop (1998-1999) Steamboy (2004), with a ton of input from Kon, who was obsessed with a notion over the tensile strength of the line separating reality and fantasy, lucidity and delusion, and what happens when that delineation is blurred or removed altogether; themes, along with mentally broken characters, non-linear continuity, pathological use of reflective surfaces, and unreliable perspectives in both time and space, that would dominate Kon’s all-too brief career. To Kon, I think, confusion was life.
And these notion often reflected in his films and Perfect Blue was no exception. And as one watches his inaugural effort, which is an oddly sensual mashup of erotic production designs, mental mayhem, and morbid murder set-pieces, it really brings to mind the equally idiosyncratic and expressionistic gialli of Italian filmmakers like Luciano Ercoli -- Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970), Death Walks at Midnight (1972), and especially Giulio Questi -- Death Laid an Egg (1968).
Perfect Blue would fit right in with that genre of whackadoodle thrillers and in some ways pulled off the psychological twists and turns better because Kon had the freedom of his medium, which allowed you to get away with more and push things further when blurring that reality line and make things truly unreal without breaking your FX budget. (And it really makes you wish Mario Bava or Dario Argento had taken a crack at an animated feature.) And like with all movies from this genre, they hold to their own aesthetic and internal logic no matter how frustrating that could be at times as you, yourself, as a viewer, get lost in all the visual noise and are just as confused as the protagonist as the murder and mayhem play out.
And so, it gets harder and harder to treat Mima as a reliable narrator as the film progresses, especially after she films the newly scripted rape scene, which takes place in a stripclub where she, as a stripper, is overwhelmed by a rabid bunch of drunks who sexually assault her. It’s a truly strange and disheartening scene even though it isn’t “real” as Mima must keep amping up her terrified reaction, and really get into the moment, only to have the director continually stop the scene, reset for a close-up, or a different angle, and then require her to reach that same, screaming, fever pitch again and again and again as the other actor committing the rape keeps apologizing after each cut before resuming.
And while this scene drags on, and Mima starts confusing the jeering crowd with her adoring music fans (-- METAPHOR!), we cut to the control booth where Tadokoro watches in horror, truly ashamed of what he’s wrought, while Rumi cannot even watch and storms off the set in tears, washing her hands of the whole thing.
And when combined with everything else that’s been happening to her, this latest traumatic experience finally pushes Mima over the edge when she returns to her apartment, suffers through a massive psychotic break, admits she really didn't want to do the scene, and starts being tormented by a “delusional manifestation” of Mima’s pop-singer persona, whom Mima thinks is real and chases into the street, where the apparition effortlessly stays ahead of her and hops around on top of cars, people and street-lights in a truly haunting scene. And this manifestation will continue to torment Mima, saying she’s filthy, deserves what she’s getting, and beyond redemption from here on out.
So now, being shadowed by both the Stalker and this phantasm, Mima’s mental faculties are barely hanging on as she keeps disassociating and compartmentalizing. And at one point, after a particularly harrowing waking nightmare where’s she’s hit by a van driven by the Stalker, lured into the street by the phantom, Mima begins to think she might actually be dead and her current circumstance is her divine punishment. In other words, the girl thinks she’s in hell.
This, of course, makes it even harder still to tell the difference between what’s going on inside Mima’s head and what’s actually going on around her as the shoot continues and the slowly unraveling plot of Double Bind begins to leech into and mimic her own real-life drama, sewing even more confusion for the viewer. (A dream within a dream wrapped up in an enigma.) Meantime, the ever silent Stalker also begins to lose control of his own faculties, egged on by whoever is behind Mima’s Room, who exchanges e-mails with the self-proclaimed Mima-Maniac, begging him to help return Mima to the previous status quo by any means necessary. And so, as Mima increasingly becomes unable to distinguish reality from her fictional role this schism begins to have deadly consequences. But not for Mima, at least not at first.
For someone has brutally killed both the Double Bind screenwriter and a sleazy magazine photographer who took a series of lurid photos of Mima. (She was also given a press clipping from an anonymous source concerning a fatal hit and run with the lead thug who had disrupted her final concert.) The motive is clear: whoever tries to hurt or exploits Mima winds up stabbed “umpteen” times and has their eyes gouged out with an ice pick. (Both murders are executed rather chillingly, but there is also a sense these creeps had it coming.) But whodunit? The Stalker is an obvious suspect. (We get a few glimpses of his abode and it’s about what you’d expect: covered over in everything CHAM!-vintage Mima -- except for an exorbitant pile of nudie mags featuring Mima that he either bought or stole; but not for himself to ogle; he just didn’t want anyone else to see his Mima that way.) And we also have to consider whoever is behind Mima’s Room.
But then again, when the photographer was killed, we actually see Mima dressed as a pizza boy viciously stabbing him to death. (We’re talking eyes, throat and genitals.) But can we trust what we see? Magic 8-Ball says: Are you kidding?! And that’s why we’re not sure what to make of it when Mima actually finds the bloodied pizza boy’s clothes secreted in her closet after suffering through several more overlapping waking nightmares; which culminates with Mima actually confessing to these heinous crimes to a police psychiatrist, who declares she has a split personality disorder and one of Mima's other personas has been committing the murders -- only that turns out to be another delusion within a delusion and is part of the TV show that officially wraps once her character’s confession is in the can. Maybe. Excuse me, but, GAH! WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON!!! *ahem*
Okay, then. Obviously, watching Perfect Blue is an exhausting experience, but it is a good kind of exhaustion and its rewards are many even as the walls of reality ebb and flow. And while it's murder mystery plot wrapped-up in a candy-coated pop-art delusional psychosis is hard to sift through the clues are right there staring back at you as to who the killer really was all along. Honest. (The Stalker had to gain access to the studio somehow, right?) And as we reach the climax, it doesn’t cheat in the reveal as we barrel straight into Hitchcock territory -- or more appropriately, Brian De Palma in his Hitchcock phase territory. Or maybe even William Castle. It’s that deranged. So skip the next eight paragraphs if you don’t want the ending spoiled.
You see, Kon also liked to take potshots at the otaku subculture. And while otaku is a term of endearment here in the States in reference to rabid anime fans, in Japan it also has a negative connotation for those who take fandom too far; like, say, when adult men become disturbingly obsessive with teenage pop singers turned actress and use them as wank bait. Notice how all the crowds at the CHAM! concerts are populated by middle-aged men. Don’t girls follow this kind of music? Not in this universe apparently. Not a single one. And I do love how Kon keeps throwing a monkey-wrench into this kind of lurid objectification.
However, I also find it slightly disturbing how Mima is so easily manipulated by the men in her life as she seems to do what she does to please them and those who count on her success first and herself second, leading to those dire consequences. This is a horrific form of conditioning, which also might help explain the identity of the killer, who most probably went through the same conditioning.
For as the production wraps, Rumi waits for an exhausted Mima to change so they can go to the wrap party. Meanwhile, the Stalker is waiting in ambush near the dressing rooms; there at the bidding of the phantasm by way of Mima’s Room, who feels new Mima is beyond redemption and needs to be removed to make way for the old Mima to come back. But before he kills her, he attempts to rape Mima in the exact same spot where she was raped on camera. Luckily, she manages to get her hands on a grip’s hammer and fatally bashes his skull in. Allegedly. And I say allegedly because reality is once more short-circuiting for Mima. So did this really happen, or is she misremembering part of the show, where her character killed one of her assailants in the exact same spot? And when Rumi finds her aimlessly roaming about the studio and the girl tries to show what happened to her, the Stalker’s body is gone without a trace.
And so and so, Rumi shrugs off her client’s bloodied and torn clothes, decides to skip the wrap party, and takes Mima home. Back at her apartment, a fugue'd out Mima suddenly snaps to with a start. Something isn’t quite right. Rumi is there in another room, and Mima tries to call Tadokoro to let him know they won’t make the party. As the phone rings, we cut back to the studio as the camera slowly follows the sound until it reveals the bodies of both Tadokoro and the Stalker, killed rather messily just like the other victims. Cut back to the apartment where Mima finally realizes she isn’t really home but in a reasonable facsimile of what her apartment looked like before she quit CHAM!. Thus, this is the Mima’s Room of the website. And when Mima confronts Rumi about this, her manager appears wearing a replica of Mima's CHAM! costume!
Apparently, her manager has suffered her own psychotic break and now believes she is the one true Mima. Thus and so, it was Rumi behind the website, and who killed everyone, not the Stalker and not Mima. He was just an obvious red herring, an easy dupe and might’ve been manipulated into being a patsy. And so and thus, what we saw was Rumi’s delusion of her being Mima killing the photographer, not Mima’s as the two -- well, all three of them, actually, suffered from a Folie à deux: a shared psychosis where symptoms of a delusional belief or hallucination are transmitted from one individual to another.
And once all of that is sorted, Rumi declares the world only has room for one Mima and takes a swipe with that ice pick. A wounded Mima is able to escape the apartment but Rumi doesn’t give up. Here, Kon’s technique hits warp speed as it’s the idealized phantom Mima that pursues the real and wounded Mima through the darkened streets. But whenever this petite phantom passes by any reflective surface, we see the image of a stout Rumi in what would otherwise be a ridiculous outfit under other, less dire circumstances.
But it is this dedicated psychosis that proves to be Mima’s salvation as she manages to wrest the wig from Rumi as she’s being beaten to death and tosses it aside before her attacker can deal a fatal blow. And Rumi, desperately needing to maintain this delusion, winds up impaling herself on a shattered window to get this false facade back in place.
And in one final twist, Mima manages to save the wounded Rumi, who stumbles into the street and mistakes the headlights of an oncoming truck for stage lights, from being flattened as this drama officially comes to an end after one more nod to Hitchcock in the denouement, where Mima has the final word on who the real Mima is under a nearly perfect blue sky.
Like with a lot of animated features, it really doesn’t matter how likeable the characters are, how good the story is, or insightful the direction if the animation itself is lousy enough to take you out of the picture. In Perfect Blue, the efforts of Madhouse Studio not only looks amazing but actively enhances what Kon was trying show and tell. Established back in the 1970s when several animators broke off from another studio to establish their own company, Madhouse would go on to produce TV series, OVAs and feature films for four decades and counting, including collaborating with Studio Ghibli on Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Spirited Away (2001), and Howl's Moving Castle (2004), and would produce all of Kon’s follow up features: Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003), and Paprika (2006).
As with Australian genre pictures, Japanese animation has a certain energy to it; a feral vibe, a certain ferocity of fluidness, which makes it just leap off the screen -- but at the same time it can also be slow and deliberate, strikingly beautiful and serene as a lullaby. But even in these quiet moments, I love how there always seems to be something moving on screen when there doesn’t really need to be, resulting in a mesmerizing momentum that is then enhanced even further by the seamless editing and soundtrack. Despite being produced at the dawn of computer animation, Perfect Blue was still done by hand drawings and single cells, which makes all the attention to details, as each frame is jam-packed with visual stimulation, even more amazing.
And while not totally photo-realistic, the use of rotoscoping helps blur that line Kon is always fussing over. Take a look at the concert scenes in Perfect Blue, and notice the effort taken to show the singers' choreography being not quite in sync. And then just think about all the time and sweat put in to show off all those reflections in glass, water, metal, that were so important to Kon’s themes. For in those reflections, the truth is often revealed.
Tokyo Godfathers was the only other Kon anime I had ever seen before Perfect Blue got on my radar. (A horror anime that didn't involve tentacles? Hooray!) And while Paprika is currently at the top of my Amazon watchlist, Millennium Actress, like a lot of anime feature films, isn’t available to stream anywhere or is so long out of print it makes tracking down a copy unfeasible. Hell, I had to track down Perfect Blue through YouTube, which coughed up both a subbed and dubbed version, which only helped confirm my long standing status as a sub-snob. The voice acting in the Japanese version, led by Junko Iwao is amazing. The English dub? Not nearly as good or effective. (I don’t think anything was lost in translation but lost in both inflection and intonation.) Sadly, Kon was working on yet another feature with Madhouse, Dreaming Machine, but it was never completed due to the director’s untimely death in 2010 thanks to that bastard cancer. This, is too bad, because Kon had an incredibly unique style and had more stories that needed to be told.
And speaking of style: the great comic book artist Neal Adams once described artistic style as a mistake, saying if artists didn’t make mistakes all art would look like a Norman Rockwell painting, meaning it would be indistinguishable from a photograph. He wasn’t knocking Rockwell, whose own art is full of mistakes by this definition, but I get what he was trying to say. And if we apply that logic here, then, Kon’s Perfect Blue is one, big, beautiful mistake.
Perfect Blue (1997) Rex Entertainment :: Kotobuki Seihan Printing :: Asahi Broadcasting Corporation :: Fangs Co. :: Madhouse :: Manga Entertainment / EP: Ken Washiya, Yuichi Tsurumi, Koshiro Kanda / P: Hiroaki Inoue, Yoshihisa Ishihara, Haruyo Kanesaku, Masao Maruyama, Yutaka Maseba, Hitomi Nakagaki, Yutaka Togo, Takeshi Washitani / D: Satoshi Kon / W: Sadayuki Murai, Yoshikazu Takeuchi (novel) / C: Hisao Shirai / E: Harutoshi Ogata / M: Masahiro Ikumi / S: Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, Masaaki Ôkura, Kiyoyuki Yanada, Emi Shinohara