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January 2, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Underappreciated Gems | January 2, 2009 |

My first experience with Perfect Blue was watching a fellow moviegoer storm out of the room 20 minutes from the end, unable to take one more hairpin turn of the plot. I couldn’t blame him; up until that point I’d never seen a movie so willing to do as it saw fit, whether the audience could keep up or not.

Perfect Blue is an intense, brutal and violent mental beating, courtesy of a director with zero interest in separating dreams from reality, past from present, or in giving the audience any point of reference. In Satoshi Kon’s visual playgrounds, there are none of the usual story cues, no transitions or assurances, just one fluid and ever-changing ‘reality’ with no way to ease in. Watching any of his films is like being flung into the deep end of a pool again and again, without explanation or apology, and this movie in particular provides the purest thrill ride.

Kon posesses all the visual acumen and storytelling ability of Pixar and Miyazaki without the chance of being shuffled off into the kiddie bin, and the same ability to anchor the unbelievable to the real as Christopher Nolan. He’s also a distinctly Japanese director, who uses his movies not just for telling well-crafted stories, but always with an attentive eye on his home culture in the modern age. I don’t usually begrudge people’s distaste for animation as a storytelling form, but to ignore Satoshi Kon is to ignore a truly unique and visionary director. No one else makes movies that look like this.

The review of Perfect Blue I remember most clearly called it “a B-grade singer’s attempts to become a B-grade actress.” It was meant as an insult to the story, but in a way that judgment seems to be one of its defining and most powerful characteristics. Perfect Blue is a story about the risks and dangers of that kind of fragile, tenuous half-fame. The struggle for even minor success when any mistake, misstep or shift in public interest could mean the end of a career, and what it means, then, to make a living completely off the perceptions of others.

At the start of the film, Mima is the top star of a pop idol trio that doesn’t even make the charts, and is using her tiny amount of fame to try and push into becoming an actress as the next necessary step in her career. She’s a working-class entertainer, which makes the fragility of her entire existence, including her mental state, all the more relatable. Mima is a sympathetic character, cheerful, harmless and hard-working, but it’s made clear that her success rides entirely on fair-weather fanboys and the occasional lunatic stalker, along with the advice of those in the business with little actual concern for her as a person. It isn’t a matter of if she will exploit herself, but when, and how to find the highest reward for doing so.

Unfortunately, and in one of the more disturbing moments of the movie, Mima’s rising career as an actress moves right into filming a rape scene in a crime thriller, an experience that she is not prepared for. In the aftermath, she is haunted by a ghostly “perfect” version of her former idol self, taunting her for destroying her pure and perfect image and claiming that she is the real Mima. An anonymous website appears, tracking Mima’s every movement and speaking to her fans seemingly from the voice of this threatening phantom, begging them to save her from herself. Kon makes excellent use of mirrors, television screens, and cameras to make every moment claustrophobic and never let up on the constant, rising pressure surrounding Mima. Every action she takes is judged, every decision watched and questioned, until she finally begins to truly crack under the pressure.

And then the people involved with her new career start dying.

If I had to pick a flaw in the film, it’s that at least one character is an easy target as a villain two minutes in and is surprisingly two-dimensional for Kon’s usual level of nuance. Also, for squeamish types, there’s an absolutely brutal murder scene that caught me somewhat off guard, and much like Pan’s Labyrinth, the camera didn’t cut away from any of it. The movie’s musical cues are also creepy and very effective, providing a wonderfully ominous atmosphere against a stark contrast of upbeat and catchy J-pop.

I’ll admit I’m a total subtitle bastard. U.S. dubbing as a whole has managed to improve in the last five years or so, but even so, counting on the quality of anything but the primary characters is tricky. As this is the first and only one of Kon’s movies to feature a dub track, I assume someone else noticed too. If at all possible, watch the subtitled version, but in any case, don’t miss this thrilling and fascinating animated gem from an exceptionally gifted director.

Twig Collins stays crunchy, even in milk.

Underappreciated Gems

Go Crazy? Don't Mind If I Do!

Perfect Blue / Guest Critic Twig Collins

Underappreciated Gems | January 2, 2009 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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