In this magazine they had a whole dedicated section for the new animé releases, and I remember Perfect Blue being advertised with the usual breathless ad copy but also a disclaimer at the end saying “please note this movie is not for children”. Back then “animation=harmless fun for my innocent little angels” was still a pretty hard-wired instinct in your typical Western parent and Xtra-vision were obviously trying to head off any complaints from people who’d inadvertantly subjected their kids to the kind of childhood trauma that usually results in a Batman villain. Point is, Perfect Blue was kind of the poster child for why animé was an entirely different beast than Western animation, not simply for its content but also for its sophistication, gritty adult storytelling and reputation as the “scariest animé ever made”.
Now, as any comics fan will tell you, anything from the nineties that claimed to be “gritty and mature” at the time should be sealed in an airlock until all the scans have been completed because there is a damn good chance that it’s held up about as well as the general public’s trust in the polling industry. Plus, “shocking” films tend to look increasingly tame as time goes by. So let’s take a look at Perfect Blue and see if it still deserves either of those descriptions.
So our main character is Mima Kirigoe, a young Japanese singer and lead vocalist in the girl group CHAM! (that’s how they spell the name, I’m not just randomly yelling the word “cham”). CHAM! are doing…fine. They’re bringing in decent enough crowds but they’ve never had a top 100 hit. So, bigger than Spinal Tap in America, but nowhere close to Spinal Tap in Japan. Their fans are gathered at a small outdoor venue to watch them perform, as there are rumours that Mima is leaving the band.
Animation-wise, Perfect Blue is a bit of a mixed bag. Most of the animation involving Mima and the other main characters is good to excellent, with some sequences that are flat out masterful. But there are definitely places where you can see corners being cut.
For example, some of these early scenes where Mima’s fans are talking to each other; the animation is so limited and jerky that I’m not convinced Satoshi wasn’t just puppeting the cels by hand.
Anyway, as the concert starts we see flashbacks to Mima sitting silently in a meeting between her manager, a former pop-idol named Rumi, and her manager Tadokoro. Tadokoro tells them that Mima’s been offered an ongoing part in a drama series but only if she can commit to it full time, which means leaving CHAM!. Rumi argues that Mima is happier as a singer, but Tadokoro says that the offer is too good to pass up and Mima silently acquiesces.
Back in the present, Mima haltingly announces onstange that she’s leaving CHAM! This causes a mini-riot when a bunch of uncouth louts start flinging cans at the stage until they’re attacked by some kind of Japanese fish man.
This is Mamoru Uchida. He’s obsessed with Mima and he’s got a face only a mother could love, and even then only a mother with pretty eclectic taste in faces.
After leaving CHAM! she returns to her apartment and starts reading through her fan mail. Mima’s apartment is the most important location in the movie and a wonderful piece of design.
It feels cosy and intimate and safe, which adds to the sense of unease and violation when Mima’s world starts crashing in on her. Every little detail contributes to the story, whether its the stuffed animals showing that she’s still a very young woman, or the fish that she talks to and lovingly cares for. But just as important is its size. This place is tiny, and cramped. And that shows something very important. Mima is famous, but she is not rich. Not close. And being in the public eye but not having the wealth to protect yourself from the less desirable attention that inevitably comes with fame (particularly for young, attractive women)…that’s not a fun place to be.
She reads her fanmail and one of the letters tells her that the sender has “set up a link to Mima’s Room” but Mima doesn’t know what that means. She also gets a threatening phone call of someone breathing down the line and a fax calling her a traitor.
The next day, Mima and Rumi, her manager, are on the set of Double Bind, the TV show that Mima has a small recurring role in. Mima asks Rumi what “Mima’s Room” is and Rumi tells her that it is a “web site” on the “inter-net” and Mima innocently replies “Oh yes, that’s really popular these days”.
Mima goes and does her scene which consists of a single line and is clearly feeling lost and out of place on the TV set. Double Bind is kind of like “Japanese Silence of the Lambs: The Series” where a female and male detective track a serial killer who’s killing women because he wants to be one. In the show, Mima plays the sister of one of the victims.
The set is visited by Takao Shibuya, the screenwriter, and Tejima, the producer. Tadokoro and Rumi corner them both and Tadokoro pleads with them to expand Mima’s part, while Rumi looks on in silence, clearly thrilled.
The writer isn’t really happy with the idea, as he has a low opinion of pop idols but agrees to think about it. The four watch Mima do her scene and Tadokoro is given a letter which explodes when he opens it, badly injuring him.
Later, back in Mima’s apartment, Rumi helps her set up a Macintosh Performa so that she can surf the world wide web like a real leet hacker. Mima asks Rumi if she doesn’t think maybe they should have called the police over the letter bomb but Rumi says that Tadokoro doesn’t want to make a fuss because in Japan I think that actually carries higher legal penalties than terrorism.
After Rumi goes, Mima spends the night tooling around the internet and find “Mima’s Room”, a fansite dedicated to her. At first she’s amused, but starts to get seriously freaked out as she begins to read “Mima’s Diary”, a blog supposedly written by her and which is disturbingly accurate and specific. This happens more often than you’d think, actually. Around a third of the reviews on this blog are written by a stalker pretending to be me who got access to my log in details. But hell, they work for free and it lets me take a week off now and then so why complain?
Mima starts becoming increasingly paranoid that someone is watching her on her journey home. She finds a newspaper clipping pinned to the wall of her elevator stating that one of the yobs who caused a riot at her last concert is in a critical condition after a hit and run. She looks around, and sees Uchida watching her from the end of the hallway.
At the agency, Mima learns that CHAM! have just made the Top 100 for the first time and they did it without her. Also, Tadokoro gives her some good news; her part in Double Bind is being greatly expanded. But Rumi is horrified when she learns that the script calls for Mima’s character to be violently gang-raped in a strip club. Rumi tells Mima that they’ll tell the production company that there’s no way in Hell she’s going to do that, but Mima doesn’t want to rock the boat and agrees to do the scene. Tadokoro congratulates her and tells her it’ll be great for her career. On the train ride home, Mima briefly sees her own reflection dressed in her CHAM! outfit, angrily saying that she’ll never do the scene.
The next day, Rumi and Tadokoro watch in mortified silence as Mima films the rape scene. Tadokoro is clearly very uncomfortable, but Rumi breaks down in tears and flees the set. As for Mima herself, she gives a chillingly convincing performance but afterwards she seems fine. Ashamed and abashed, Tadokoro takes her out for a meal and leaves her back in her apartment.
Entering her apartment, Mima goes to feed her fish and sees…
Seeing her fish dead, Mima breaks down in tears, trashing her apartment before collapsing on her bed sobbing “Of course I didn’t want to do it!” She hears a voice mocking her and looks up to see herself on the screen of the Mac. This is a hallucination, obviously, as the image is appearing on a Macintosh Performa and doesn’t look like complete ass.
This apparition, believe it or not, is a fairly major character so I’m just going to call her Real Mima as that’s what she calls herself, not to be confused with the real Mima, who we’ll just call Mima.
Mima throws a pillow at the screen and Real Mima vanishes.
Meanwhile, Uchida is reading Mima’s Room where “Mima” has posted that she desperately wants to get out of this drama series because the screenwriter is a total pervert and oh my wouldn’t it be just swell if somebody would take care of him so that Mima could go back to dancing in front of her adoring fans?
The next day, Tadokoro drives Mima to a photo shoot and she learns that Shibuya, the screenwriter, was brutally murdered the night before. She asks Tadokoro if he thinks there’s any connection between the murder and the letter bomb he received before and he tells her she watches too many TV shows because apparently that leads to making logical connections. She has another vision of Real Mima in a car across from her who mouths the words “Serves You Right” to her.
Mima has her photo shoot and the photographer starts taking liberties and before you know it there are full frontal nude photos of her in every magazine in Japan. Shocked and appalled by what “his” Mima has been doing, Momoru buys up as many of the magazines as he can stop other men looking at her (suuuuuuuure) and starts emailing Mima’s Room. He gets an email back telling him that the Mima who appeared in those photos is in an imposter. Momoru promises that he’ll get rid of the imposter Mima.
Real Mima appears by his side and thanks him, telling him that once the imposter is gone they can be together.
Mima is filming a scene for Double Bind with her co-star, a much more experienced actor named Eri Ochiai who plays Dr Toukou, the lead female detective/psychiatrist trying to solve the case. Mima sees Uchida watching from the crowd which causes her to mess up the take, ruining the day’s shooting as it immediately starts to rain.
Later, Tadokoro takes Mima to a radio station where CHAM! are doing a show to catch up with her old bandmates. She looks into the studio and is shocked to see:
She chases Real Mima through the station and out into the street where she runs in front of a van being driven by Uchida and suddenly wakes up in her apartment.
Okay, so it’s at this point that the movie enters what I like to call The 10 Solid Minutes of Bullshit and it’s really here that the movie loses me in a big way.
The 10 SMoB proceed thusly:
- Mima wakes up in her apartment.
- Rumi visits her and warns against looking at Mima’s Room.
- SUDDENLY she’s back filming Double Bind with no idea how she got there. She sees Uchida and then he vanishes.
- She wakes up in her apartment, AGAIN.
- Rumi visits her and Mima asks if the last time she visited was real.
- Mima spends her nights reading Mima’s Room.
- We cut to a scene from Double Bind where the two detectives discuss Mima’s character. Toukou says that Mima’s character has created the mental illusion of a serial killer. The male says that illusions can’t kill people but Toukou counters…
- We THEN see that this episode is being watched by the photographer who took the nude photos of Mima. A pizza guy whose face we can’t see knocks at his door and then murders him with a screwdriver it is really fucking graphic and disturbing thanks for asking. And then we see that the murderer is…
10. But THEN Mima wakes up in her room AGAIN so phew, that’s a relief right?
11. But oh no! Mima gets a call from Tadokoro telling her that the photographer really was murdered and when she goes to look in her closet she finds BLOODSTAINED CLOTHES!
12. Then she’s on the set of Double Bind with Rumi (sure, why not?) and she’s asked to do a scene where she’s just murdered a guy with a screwdriver (which was the same murder weapon that was used on the screenwriter and the photographer) but suddenly the actor playing the corpse gets up and its the eyeless photographer OH SHIT and Mima passes out.
13. She wakes up in her room. A-fucking-GAIN.
14. And then suddenly she’s being interviewed by Dr. Toukou who asks her who she is. She tells her she’s Mima Kiragoe and that she’s an actress and former pop idol. Eri then goes and talks to two other detectives and tells them that Mima is just a personality created by a girl named Yoko Takakura who suffers from Disassociative Identity Disorder and committed multiple crimes in the Mima persona after she was raped in a strip club.
15. Then that scene gets re-wound and we see it again, but THIS time Mima gives her name as Rika Takakura and Toukou says that she created this persona to become her sister after killing her (guys, I’m trying I swear to God, I’m trying).
16. And THEN we see that scene being filmed and everyone congratulating Mima on the successful completion of Double Bind.
This is that special kind of frustrating you get from playing a game with someone who’s blatantly cheating. You can’t win, and it’s no fun to even try when you know the game is rigged. When the movie is blatantly revealing itself as an unreliable narrator and telling me that nothing it says can be trusted…why should I pay attention to any of it? What is the point of my continued engagement? For any story, but especially a mystery, this repeated yanking of the carpet just destroys any sense that the mystery is something that can be fairly solved by paying attention. So why bother?
I dunno, maybe it’s just me. I used to watch a lot of Star Trek in the nineties and they pulled this kind of plot a lot, and it usually meant they had twenty minutes of plot for an hour long episode.
Anyway, Double Bind is in the can and everyone is getting ready to go to the wrap party. Tadokoro and Rumi congratulate Mima on a job well done. Mima goes to get changed and bumps into Eri, who she calls “Doctor Touko”. Eri laughs and tells her that the show’s over now and then quotes a line of dialogue to her.
She watches Eri go and sees a figure walking towards her up the corridor.
Outside, Tadokoro and Rumi wait for Mima and wonder what’s taking her so long. Tadokoro says that he’s heading on. Rumi asks him what’s next for Mima, and he says that he’s got her a role in a straight to video feature. He says its got a few sketchy scenes, but whatyagonna do?
In the studio, Mima has been cornered by Uchida who attacks her with a knife and possibly the worst-cast vocal performance in animé history. Seriously, both the Japanese AND American vocal performances are impossible to take seriously. Japanese Uchida sounds like the Squeaky Voiced Teen from the Simpsons and American Uchida sounds like…I don’t even know. He sounds like one of the asshole gym leaders in Pokémon. Menacing he is not.
He tries to rape her but she seemingly manages to kill him with a hammer she finds on set.
Rumi finds Mima staggering around the set half-naked and asks her what happened. Mima takes her back to the set but Uchida’s body is gone. Rumi tells her it was probably a dream (you know, one of those waking, tear your own clothes off dreams?) and says she’ll drive Mima home to “Mima’s Room”. Not “your room”, but whatever, I’m sure it’s nothing.
Back in her apartment, while Rumi fixes them something in the kitchen, Mima decides to call Tadokoro to let him know she’s okay. There’s no answer however, and we see why. In the studio, Tadokoro’s phone rings unanswered. Tadokoro is dead, his eyes gouged out, and his body stashed in a hiding place along with Uchida’s corpse.
Looking around the apartment, Mima notices that her fish are still alive. And the CHAM! poster that she took down is still on her wall. And that there’s apparently a train line running much closer to her window than before.
And that’s when she realises that Rumi has painstakingly turned her apartment into a perfect replica of Mima’s room. And then Rumi comes back in…
So it turns out that Rumi has gone cray cray and now thinks that she is the Real Mima and chases Mima with a screwdriver, trying to kill her. And Mima actually sees her as Real Mima and not Rumi…
Yes, yes, we’ll discuss why that makes no sense in a minute, let me wrap up. Rumi chases Mima into the street and Mima finally fights back, managing to impale Rumi on some broken glass from a shattered window. Rumi staggers out into the street in front of an oncoming van and Mima pushes her out of the way, saving her life.
Some time later, Mima visits Rumi in a psychiatric hospital. One of the doctors tells her that occasionally Rumi’s personality surfaces but that for the most part she still thinks that she’s Mima Kiragoe. Mima says that she knows she’ll never see Rumi again, but she owes her everything. As she leaves the hospital, two nurses whisper to each other than they can’t believe that the REAL Mima Kiragoe is visiting the hospital and say that she must be a lookalike.
Mima gets into her fancy car, looks right at the audience and says “No. I’m real!”
Okay first things first.
Perfect Blue is very good at a great many things.
As a critique of Japanese culture’s commodification of female purity and toxic fandom it is still depressingly relevant.
As a warning on how our online personas can take on lives of their own outside of our control it is shockingly prescient.
As a piece of animation it is excellent.
As a mood piece and and an example of how to use an evocative score and colour to create an atmosphere of sustained, almost unbearable menace it is fantastic.
And as a mystery thriller it…kinda…sucks.
If you take the plot at face value, it relies on a pretty stunning coincidence. In this movie Mima Kiragoe undergoes a serious psychological breakdown complete with lost time and incredibly vivid, complex hallucinations where she manifests a new personality, Real Mima, who torments her for giving up her life as a pop idol.
Likewise, Rumi undergoes a serious psychological breakdown where she believes that she is Mima Kiragoe and must kill Mima to punish her for giving up her life as a pop idol.
And both these women have these incredibly ornate, complimentary hallucinatory episodes at the exact same time. That’s like me experiencing hallucinations of Jason Voorhees trying to kill me, while some person in my life coincidentally starts believing that they’re Jason Voorhees and start trying to kill me. To quote Lady Bracknell; one Jason Voorhees may be regarded as a misfortune; two looks like incredibly contrived writing.
Now, I’ve seen and read plenty of reviews of this movie that make the point that it’s a beautiful work of art that is meant to be meditated on, not some tawdry puzzle meant to be solved.
Which is a really nice sentiment. For QUITTERS.
See, I think there IS an explanation for the plot of Perfect Blue, it just requires correctly identifying its genre. This is not, as it’s usually classified, a psychological thriller.
Perfect Blue is a horror movie. Why do I say that? Because while a thriller can have horrific elements, they all have a real world explanation. Horror traffics in the unknown and the supernatural.
Follow me closely. What if Rumi is psychic?
I know, I know. A woman with supernatural powers? In ANIMÉ?! The very idea is ridiculous. But what if Rumi has psychic powers that allowed her to create an alternate personality that could exist independently of her? What if her obsession with her lost pop idol days and fixation on Mima created Real Mima, and Real Mima was not simply a hallucination? What if Real Mima was, well, real? What if she was then able to haunt Mima, and possess Rumi, making her an unwitting puppet in her attempts to kill those responsible for tarnishing Mima’s image? And I know what you’re going to say.
Mouse, that’s insane.
There is not a shred of evidence for anything supernatural in this film. There is not a hint of anything like that…
Yup. I think this is our smoking gun. I think this is where Kon laid out what is actually happening here. Now, about that ending.
In every synopsis of this movie I’ve come across, it states that Mima visits Rumi in the hospital after becoming a famous actress. But here’s the thing, she’s clearly become successful, but no one ever actually mentions her being an actress. What if, say, she’s actually famous for being a singer? What if she jacked acting in and went back to doing what she loved? Well, what difference would that make?
Here’s a weird little suggestion. When Mima collided with Rumi to knock her out of the way of the oncoming van, they swapped bodies. Real Mina possessed Mima’s body, and Mima ended up in Rumi’s. So the Mima personality that Rumi is manifesting in the psychiatric hospital is actually our Mima, the Mima that we’ve been following since the beginning.
And the Mima who leaves the hospital?
Well, here’s an interesting little factoid.
The English language dub is overall pretty faithful to the original but the dubbing did make one small, crucial error. In the English dub, where Mima looks at the camera and says “No, I’m real!” she’s voiced by Mima’s voice actor.
But in the Japanese dub? She’s voiced by Rumi’s voice actor.
So that’s it. I have solved Perfect Blue and there are no more questions to be answered.
NEXT UPDATE: 17 December 2020
NEXT TIME: We join Peter Parker as he tours the post-apocalyptic hell-scape of a post-snap Europe.