I used to hate Hunger Games because I considered it to be yet another example of America getting credit, fame, etc from another culture’s work; Battle Royale in this case. Eventually, I got the Hunger Games Trilogy from a Humble Bundle and read it, realizing that while the plots were the same in the abstract (kids are sent to an Island to kill each other in a dystopian future) they were different in the messages they were communicating to two different cultures. In the case of Battle Royale it was a response to a growing distrust of the younger generation that led to a novel in which the youngsters are sent to compete both to sow seeds of mistrust, but also as a punishment. In Hunger Games it’s less about being able to mistrust your best friends and more about mistrusting people from other states (or districts in the parlance of the book). That youth are used is more a function of entertainment value (kids at or near their physical peak) and the first book is almost more of a satire of reality TV with a lot more of the typical YA dystopian tropes coming in the second and third entries in the series.
When I saw Perfect Blue last night I couldn’t help making the an analogous link between Perfect Blue (released in 1997) and Black Swan (released in 2010). Among the general American public almost everyone has heard of the latter and not of the former. Again, superficially they both contain the same plot – the pressures of performance drive the protagonist to such levels of stress that they begin to hallucinate, with the directors in each movie using the movie as an unreliable narrator. As a sidebar, I think as a medium, movies are exceptional at messing with our heads when it comes to unreliable narrators. We are used to the camera as a passive, if omnipotent observer. Our unreliable narrators tend to either be voiceovers or characters telling fibs within the narrative. Additionally, there’s something about the visual that tends to make humans believe it’s more real than a book where everything is constructed in the reader’s head.
Yet, once again, the details (especially cultural) are what allow me to see these as exploring similar themes without accusing Darren Aronofsky of ripping off a Japanese movie for an American audience. Black Swan takes place within the context of the ballet and the insane physical demands placed on the ballerinas – the scene where she deal with her toenails is excruciating for me to watch. It’s also about the dichotomy of women in American (and perhaps most Western?) society of trying (and mostly failing) to sail in the thin waters between prude and slut. It’s also about power dynamics (the scene with her sexual harassment all the more gross in light of recent revelations of Weinstein, et al). Meanwhile, while Perfect Blue does touch on many of the same themes, they are within the context of the Japanese Pop Idol Singer. What’s that? Imagine the Disney pop acts and their purity clauses, but on full-grown women. And an audience that’s more obsessed that Beyonce or Taylor Swift’s fans that expects and demands purity and love and more from their targets of adoration. Idol is a good word to use here – as in an object of worship. For the Disney acts, sure they’re teens and teens want to explore their bodies and sexuality, but I think the relative lack of scandal stems from the fact that it’s an easier demand to make of a minor than an adult.
As I mentioned above, Perfect Blue came out in 1997 when I was just starting to fall into the rabbit hole that was anime at that time in America. It was easier to get than ever – I was able to get it at the local video store – but it wasn’t like today where there are gigantic walls of manga at Barnes and Noble and the local library. You had to go to a specialty store. It was just starting to get out from under the impressions of Speed Racer, Robotech, and the idea that it was mostly just cartoon porn. (Which I later learned as called hentai) If my timeline is correct, Pokemon had not yet arrived to indoctrinate a whole new generation and make parents think it was safe for kids, if a little weird. I’ve mentioned it before on my blog and other places, but what spoke to me about anime was that it was animation for older kids and adults. After the 50s and 60s we lost that in America. Sure, we had The Simpsons, but that was it. And over in Japan they were making these deep cartoons that had long-running story arcs! Shoot, even sitcoms in America didn’t have that! My gateway drug was Ranma ½. But I tried to gobble up as much as I could. Luckily for me, I didn’t get to Perfect Blue back then. Not only does it have a rape scene that would have gotten anime banned from my house (about 7 years later, my younger brother was watching some Slayers tapes I’d borrowed from my friend and my mom freaked out about cartoons with profanity — what would she have thought of cartoons with sexual assaut?), but I was nowhere near ready to watch the movie the way I do now – thinking of themes and tropes and looking for the meta-art in addition to the visual art.
Some time after getting married, I discovered TV Tropes one day. It completely changed the way I experience media. I started along a path of discovery that while “all the stories had been told”, it was in the ways that each culture and time period retold a story or mashed up a story that made it special. I learned about deconstruction and reconstruction and why it’s hard to watch old movies (they were awesome then they came out, but their tropes have been overused). Learning about these tropes and how to watch (and read) critically, combined with my consumption of hundreds (if not near a thousand) books and scores of movies, allowed me to both predict narratives and be extremely please when I was wrong; or tickled when I realize a movie is deconstructing a trope. Watching Youtube channels like Every Frame a Painting and Nerdwriter1 have taught me the “language” of cinema. (The same what that I couldn’t appreciate a Dali painting until a docent walked us through what the symbolism in the paintings meant)
Beyond this point there are going to be SPOILERS – this is a 20 year old movie. If you want to see it – go see it now. Otherwise, fair warning.
All this combined to make this a rich viewing of Perfect Blue that I couldn’t have had at an earlier period in my life. Let’s start at the simplest place. Like all the best mysteries and mystery-based thrillers, they reveal the antagonist near the beginning. Then they throw up a bunch of red herrings to throw the viewer off the scent. I think this is very important because once the movie starts getting all unreliable narrator on the viewer, it becomes hard to know what is real and I think a mystery that the viewer (or reader) can’t figure out with all the facts in front of them is a cheat and deserves any ridicule that comes its way. Of course, the director and writer do a great job of setting up the red herring to make it more plausible. The movie begins with a concert at which Mima (our protagonist), and her group CHAM, is being harassed by some loudmouths. She is defended by a very creepily drawn security guard who we see looking at her as if she is a goddess. He is willing to get badly beaten by the loudmouths because of his love for her. He also appears throughout the rest of the movie, appearing to be semi-stalking her. While some of the sightings are meant to occur during her psychotic breaks, I think we’re meant to believe he was there on at least some of the occasions. So when we hear her tell a quote to one of her talent agents and then it appears on a website about her (complete with a proto-blog), we’re left unsure of whether her talent agent is the mole or if it’s the creep. Especially since we see him around that time and he might have overheard. What makes it extra creepy is that the website is called Mima’s room and it appears to have photos that are taken in her room. However, tropes have taught us to expect that someone is shooting through her window or has bugged her room – not the extremely disturbing revelation we get in the final act.
The initiating act in this movie is Mima’s desire to move from being a pop idol to being a movie star. There are a few factors driving this. First of all, it’s stated in the movie that Pop Idols are fading as a mass appeal pop culture item that can be exploited for money. I don’t know enough about pop idols to know how true that was at the time, I do know that K-Pop artists seem to operate under the same terms (with Hyun-A and Psy being notable exceptions). Second, Mima wants to be taken more seriously as a cultural icon. Third, and unstated, both pop idols and actresses have a limited shelf life thanks to the unfortunate way we treat women in Hollywood (and the Japanese equivalent). Leading men can be any age, but leading ladies need to be young or at least look young. While pop idols’ stars may be fading, within the context of CHAM she has very dedicated fans (again the whole IDOL thing) and some see it as a betrayal that she would leave the group. (For PR the group refers to it as a graduation – something I’ve seen in the larger K-Pop girl groups when one of the women ages out or tries a solo career).
Mima ends up an actress in Double Bind and this is where the director (Satoshi Kon) starts really showing the brilliance of what he does with the movie. Mima’s character is in a police drama and her character is experiencing hallucinations. The scenarios line up with what Mima is experiencing in her life as the pressures of dealing with transitioning from idol to actress ramp up. So much so that often when Satoshi Kon cuts to the actress playing the detective speaking to Mima, the sentence she speaks can directly apply to Mima’s outside life. This is reminiscent of my favorite scene in The Fifth Element as Lilu and Zorg have independent conversations that flow as one conversation as they discuss the whereabouts of some stones key to the plot. There are some other TV shows that use cuts like these that I really enjoy, but they don’t come to mind at the moment. At any rate, it contributes to the feelings of surrealism that surround the narrative in Perfect Blue. Eventually this reaches a climax in the film where the director calls takes (“Take 1” “Take 2” etc) and we see Mima seem to have a Groundhog’s Day experience, but which is revealed to be a mix of the repetitiousness of her life combined with her coming undone from the experience of dealing with the demands of being an actress and the terror at a blog that seems to speak for her and know her every move. That was one of the moments that really sold me on the brilliance of the film. That and the seemingly Fight Club moment.
Getting back to the tropes and how they reveal the latent sexism/misogny that remains in storytelling (particularly movies and comics), when it comes time for Mima to prove she is a real actress and not just an idol pretending at acting, she consents to a rape scene. They make a reference to Jodie someone in the movie and I turned to my wife and asked, “Did Jodie foster have a rape scene?” Yes, I was told, over a pinball machine. And, it just disgusted me at the culture we have. So many actresses have commented that, to be taken seriously, they did a nude scene or a sex scene. Disney actresses or musicians will often do one to make sure people know they are now serious. But, how does that make sense? Why don’t we need to see a guy’s penis to know he’s a serious actor? Why doesn’t he have to be sexually assaulted or raped? It just sickens me.
The filmed rape scene does provide us with our second clue at who the true antagonist is. Mima’s agent – the same one that she confided in (and found that quote on the website) runs out of the room crying when the scene is being filmed. Again, society, tropes, etc allow us to dismiss this clue. It could be traumatic simply because she’s a woman and rape is an ever-present threat. It could be backstory we’re not privy to. It could be a realization that Mima is pretending to be OK with a situation she’s not truly ok with. (Similar to the photoshoot scene) As an aside, I do like that the director has the actor playing the rapist apologize to Mima. He’s not taking some perverse pleasure from a fictional rape. He knows it’s uncomfortable for the actress to act out something that is probably a real fear of hers.
Getting to the end, what was brilliant about the reveal is the way the director has the audience peel back the layers. First, she awakens in what appears to be her bedroom that her agent has taken her home to. Then it zooms out and the audience sees the CHAM poster. We saw Mima take this poster off the wall, but at this time in the movie we’re doubting everything as we’ve seen Mima have some psychotic breaks and the scenes with the detective were framed such that perhaps Mima is hallucinating being an actress. Then it moves to the fish and there’s a bit of a clue there after the previous fish scene. Again, we’re not sure if this is real. But when she looks out her window and realizes it isn’t her room. IT SUDDENLY CLICKED FOR ME and if my wife hadn’t been asleep I would have probably yelled out “OH SHIT!” From then on the rest of the climax had me on edge as it played out. Actually, as I wrote this and I realized the dissociative disorder and pretending to be someone else to cover up a rape that applies to Mima’s character in Double Bind and is meant to make the audience question what’s real, could be a description of the agent. Which means that in addition to the fact that she was crying because, having at this point started to become Mima, she saw it as herself getting raped, perhaps she was raped. (This movie has LEVELS)
Finally, I just wanted to make a bit of a comment on what hasn’t aged as well in the past 20 years. I had to keep reminding myself that when this movie first came out, the Internet was still very new to the public. Many of us were JUST STARTING to get out of AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserv’s walled gardens. So Mima’s cluelessness about the Internet isn’t as much about her being a ditz as it is that things were unfamiliar. And the website that purports to be her that is the thing that drives her over the edge as she deals with the stress of becoming an actress (and dealing with the rape scene and photoshoot) just wouldn’t be a thing nowadays. Mima would have a twitter account with a blue checkmark and an official youtube page and so on. A big chunk of the plot would have to be constructed differently nowadays. The movie could still be made, but it would be different in some key ways.
When I originally conceived of this essay, I was going to put this up top, but it just didn’t end up working with the flow – how did I come to Perfect Blue 20 years later? I’m not even into anime anymore. (I’m not actively against it, it’s just that with the easier access to anime it’s not just the awesome stuff that makes it to America anymore) I saw it because it was on a list somewhere – maybe AV Club, maybe Tor.com – of seminal anime that EVERYONE has to see. It had Akira and Ghost in the Shell (both of which I’ve seen and both of which seemed overblown to me — again probably outstandingly groundbreaking when released, but have been surpassed in tropes – or being remixed/retold in the case of GitS by The Matrix). I think that Perfect Blue deserves to be up there in the pantheon of movies. It’s a shame a lot of people won’t see it simply because it’s a cartoon or because it’s foreign, because it’s amazingly done. If you made it this far and the fact that there were spoilers hasn’t ruined it for you – go find the movie. If you can’t find it on blueray or DVD, keep looking in the seedy spots – It’s out there and it’s worth watching.
Postscript: Dan informed me that Aronofsky is apparently inspired by Satoshi Kon so perhaps it’s not the great analogy to Battle Royale and Hunger Games I thought it was. That said, I would still say that it does fit with my discussion on how a remixing or retelling can be its own work of art as it transmutes tropes across cultures.