Half a decade ago I reviewed a charming little animé named Tokyo Godfathers from legendary director Satoshi Kon and about as representative of his oeuvre as Interdimensional Cable 2 is of the career of Werner Herzog. True, Kon only directed four films in his tragically short life, but Tokyo Godfathers is definitely the outlier of those four. Perfect Blue, conversely, was Kon’s breakthrough first feature and is probably the film that he is best known for.
In the wake of Akira in 1988, the nineties saw a tsunami of animé arriving in the West. There had been Japanese animation on Western screens long before that of course, but those had been shows that either fit into the Western preconception of animation as being for children (Astro Boy, Speed Racer) or could be made to fit with judicious editing and a wacky robot sidekick (Voltron).
By contrast, in the nineties, animé was out and proud in all its violent, cool, mothers-lock-up-your-daughters-Mr. Octopus-is-single-and-ready-to-mingle weirdness and was starting to bump hard against the deeply ingrained preconceptions of animation in the West. There were a lot of concerned thinkpieces being published, a lot of ominous local news segments beginning with the words “They call it “AH-NEE-MAY”. My first exposure to Perfect Blue was in my local video rental place where they used to publish a weekly magazine advertising the upcoming releases.
“Then, I’d ride the trolley for tuppence.”
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”.
Only if you’ve never seen “Cardcaptor Sakura”.
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.
(DISCLAIMER: All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)
I sometimes get asked for advice on writing by desperate people who’ve got nothing left to lose and I usually give them some pap about being true to your art and letting the story flow naturally and blah blah blah. If I was honest, there’s really only one rule with writing; “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.” Trite? Yes. Cliché? Absolutely. But also true.
I feel I owe you all an apology. Last time I tore into From Up on Poppy Hill because of its story problems, it’s lack of payoff, its glacial pacing. And it has all of those things. But this is the truth of the matter: I watched that movie and had an emotional reaction to it. I didn’t like it. And then I used those problems I mentioned before as justification for why I didn’t like it, both to myself and to you. And this is not just me. Every critic does this. We have subjective, emotional, often illogical reactions to movies and then use film theory to present those reactions as objective, dispassionate and perfectly sound. This doesn’t mean that From Up On Poppy Hill is a good movie, it just means that when I depict the movie as being bad because it breaks Law X of good screenwriting I’m being disingenuous. On the most fundamental level, I didn’t like it because I didn’t like it.
This was brought home to me rather powerfully by today’s movie, Tokyo Godfathers. This movie breaks two rules that are supposed to be pretty ironclad. Firstly, the action of the plot is largely driven by coincidence. Secondly, the ending only misses out on being a literal deus ex machina because it doesn’t involve a machine. And yet, it works. It really works. It works like German ants.
This the third of only four moves directed by the legendary Satoshi Kon before his tragic death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 46. I haven’t seen any of the others (although after seeing this you can bet your left buttock I am going to check them out). Even more unusually, each film in Kon’s tiny filmography seems to be wildly different from the others; Perfect Blue is a psychological thriller, Paprika is concept-heavy sci-fi, Millennium Actress is a time-travel historical romance and Tokyo Godfathers is a straightforward caper movie. I went into this movie fore-warned that Kon was the “David Lynch of animé”, an idea that seems to promise weirdness so potent that even staring at it would drive you to gibbering madness. Tokyo Godfathers is most definitely not the movie that I expected. It’s actually one of the least alienating and most accessible animé movies I’ve ever seen, which is impressive as my DVD has no English dub and I watched this one in subtitled Japanese. The story is actually grounded enough that there’s really no reason the movie couldn’t have been made as a live action feature (although we would have been missing out on some fantastic animation if it had been).