Perfect Blue ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Perfect Blue is a serial killer film, and the killer is patriarchal violence.

Many films mine the tension between one's idealized self and the self one lives in reality to create drama and art*, few so adeptly recognize that for women, both of these sides are controlled by men. Perfect Blue is the story of pop icon Mima who decides to move from singing to acting and takes a minor role in a disgusting procedural show about grisly murders. But decides is (intentionally on my part) not the correct verb in this instance; the film does not portray it as a decision. In fact, Mima is often shown consenting to something that eventually undermines her own sense of self or causes deep physical and emotional trauma such that the consent never feels earned, it feels, to borrow a phrase, entirely manufactured. Mima consents because she doesn't know how not to. Thus, she becomes more and more sexualized and more and more objectified, perhaps most explicitly in the photographer scene where Mima undresses but the positions that she is placed in and the expressions on her face most closely resemble that of a corpse. To sexualize her is to kill her.

This is the start to a good film, but what makes Satoshi Kon's debut great in my opinion is that the idealized self that Mima invents and her fans struggle with is also centered on men and what they want. Here, Mima is a virginal pop star for all eternity, stuck in a suspended adolescence in which she remains "pure," pliable, and stereotypically attractive. Men will continue to want to have sex with her, but they can comfort their own fragile egos by imagining that she hasn't had sex with anyone through her presentation to the world. These two Mimas, which are both manufactured through patriarchal violence that is physical, emotional, and psychological pull Mima apart to where reality itself begins to fracture, something that Kon captures for his audience as well in using various editing techniques, especially match cuts, to blend reality, the fiction of the show that she is on, and dreams. The film cuts to a murder scene, with make up and a make up mirror in the foreground. Has someone been murdered on set? The audience realizes no as the TV detective walks into the screen and leans over the body with a dolly back and a brief shimmer of static revealing that the audience is looking through a monitor. Mima's unease of being a refracted self is reflected into the audience as an unease with narrative and place. The film appropriately refracts our own viewing experience leading us to feel appropriately fractured and upset as well.

This doubling is captured even in the first few moments of the film. Mima is the most revered member of a pop trio CHAM!, but her face looks so completely similar to those of her fellow singers that it's clear that hair styling and accessories are how the audience is expected to differentiate them. The men are lent an individuality to their faces even as they become a sort of disgusting amorphous blob that stares longingly at the women. Women fill an expected mold for the viewing pleasure of men who manage to retain their individuality (if not their humanity).

I do not know if Satoshi Kon or someone else who worked on this film has studied W.E.B. DuBois, but that the television show which Mima appears on is called "Double Bind" seems unlikely to be a coincidence as DuBois' concept of the double bind captures what it is like to be a woman in a patriarchal society just as much as it captures what it is like to be black in a white supremacist society.

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn't bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face. - WEB DuBois

This division is made literal in Perfect Blue.

Finally, and most importantly perhaps, a third version of Mima is introduced in the film's final moments when her manager (and ex pop star) Rumi dons one of Mima's outfits from her CHAM! days as well as a wig and becomes the embodiment of the virginal Mima now hell bent on killing her as she is a false Mima to be replaced by the true Mima, the pop icon. Rumi represents a third type of woman, one who does successfully exist outside the male gaze but not through her own agency but by having been discarded. Rumi's status as an ex pop star and current manager is crucial to the film. She has been pushed so far to the edge of society that she has completely internalized the misogyny that surrounds her. It has destroyed any self that once existed and has been replaced with a murderous vessel of misogynist expectations. She sees the natural course of life, aging, gaining weight, as personal failures, and she dedicates herself to being a manager in part because she can vicariously live as a "perfect" woman forever by hiring and perfecting pop icons and then replacing them when they eventually get too old, like her. Even including her sets this film apart from the majority of Japanese animation which flattens the lives of women to three distinct periods: child, sexual object, and elder. Most Japanese animated films ignore any transition between any two stages because to show them would be to admit to a liminal stage between child and sexual object or to the fact that patriarchal society removes the possibility of sex from older women.

There were a few things I didn't like about the movie. Some of the animation is kind of shoddy. This film could definitely look better at points, and while I haven't seen Paprika in a dozen years (and perhaps now would like it), combining the animating skill and technology of that film with the thematic oomph of this one would likely push it into five star territory. The film also falls into the dangerous Disney trope of associating "ugliness" with immorality. The worst characters in this film all have twisted faces. On the one hand, in an animated world, you are given such an endless possibility that I understand the impetus to have someone's outer shell be a reflection of their twisted soul, but on the other, this sends a really disturbing signal to audiences.

I tend to agree with aleph's reading of the film's final line. For a movie as accurate in its depictions of violence toward women, I find Mima's assertion, "I'm the real thing!" to be hopeful in a way I was genuinely not expecting at the end of this movie. To quote another famous black scholar, Dr. Wade Nobles, "Power is the ability to define reality and to have other people respond to your definition as if it were their own." Mima has embraced that and resonates with an energy that she hasn't previously. Perhaps it feels earned because she saves Rumi's life even after Rumi tries to kill her. This act of compassion breaks her out of being contained in a patriarchal box.

* A poor example if memory serves is Risky Business, a movie about a very privileged man not wanting to follow exactly in his father's plans for him and rebelling. He has a clear version of his idealized self that is internally created that butts against an entirely exterior version of him that he does not want to become.

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