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The Dreams of Satoshi Kon: Chapter II - Perfection

by Bamboo Dong,

This is the second in a 6-part weeklong tribute to the work of Satoshi Kon (1963-2010). His filmography will be covered in chronological order by a series of different authors.

It was 1997.  President Bill Clinton was sworn into office for his second term, IBM's Deep Blue beat a world-class chess champion for the first time, Princess Diana was killed in a car accident, and floppy disks were still an essential part of life.  And amidst all of this, a film snuck onto the scene that was so good and so polished, that it immediately raised its young director to near-instant legendary status.  With just one film—a film so timeless that it could have been made this year, and still been ahead of its time—anime fans around the world could already confidently say, “I have a new favorite director.”  That film, of course, was Perfect Blue.  And the director was none other than Satoshi Kon, 34 and fresh-faced, ready to cement himself in animation history as one of its most talented and visionary directors.

The fact that Perfect Blue even came to fruition is fortuitous, and maybe it's one of those things that was just “meant to be.”  Originally intended as a live action series, plans were scrapped when an earthquake damaged the production studio.  So instead, it was green-lit as an OVA.  It wasn't until midway through the project that it was given the go-ahead to be a feature film.  It was with a little bit of luck and good fortune, then, that Mr. Kon was able to direct his first feature-length movie, but he certainly made the best of it.  From that point on, he went on to direct and write some of the best anime movies ever created.  But it's testament to his talent and his insistence on perfection that Perfect Blue doesn't feel anything like a rookie project.  It stands strong on its own as a masterpiece thriller, and continues to grace Best Anime Film lists, even after all these years.

Perfect Blue opens at an amusement park, where the pop idol group, CHAM, is set to perform their last concert as a trio.  Their leader, Kirigoe Mima, has decided to quit her singing career in order to pursue acting.  Immediately, the artwork tells audiences that this is not your typical anime.  With the notable exception of the pop idols and actresses, everyone else  in the film is ugly.  Not ugly from a character design standpoint—ugly from a “this is reality, your everyday street denizens are riddled with imperfections” standpoint.  Realistically ugly.  The kind of ugly that tells you you're watching a film that just happens to be animated, that it could just as easily have been shot in real life. 

As if to acknowledge that he was purposely bucking the bright hair, big eyes, small mouth trend, Mr. Kon even splices in a scene where some manga fans are browsing the hentai section of a bookstore, and the place is littered with stereotypical images of pink-haired “anime characters.”  Because Perfect Blue isn't an anime.  It's an animated film, where “reality” is as real as it can be—black-haired characters, over-bitten hooligans, pudgy managers, and idol fans you instinctively coil away from.

That reality is shattered almost as suddenly as its presented.  Within 10 minutes, Mima's world is ripped from under her feet when one of her fans shouts the seemingly innocuous phrase, “I'm always looking into Mima's Room!”  After hooking up her Macintosh Performa, she discovers that Mima's Room is a blog supposedly written from her point of view.  It starts off as funny and charming—the writer knows that she always gets off the subway right-foot first—but it quickly cascades into horrifying when it reveals too much about her personal life: the brand of milk she prefers, her day-to-day activities, her inner thoughts about her new acting role.

Soon the blog becomes an obsession for Mima, as she reads the words that she's afraid to utter out loud.  How she's uncomfortable that she had to act out a rape scene.  How she misses being a pop idol.  How she's traded in her wholesome idol image for a grittier persona. 

Without giving away too much of the film, the already-terrifying stalking quickly gives way to something more serious and gruesome when various staff members of the TV show that Mima is working on are brutally murdered.  No longer able to distinguish between reality and fantasy on the TV set, and the alternate reality posed by the writer of Mima's Room, her life becomes a haze.  She starts seeing visions of herself, still dressed in her former CHAM glory.

Of course, while the character of Mima is perfectly written, it wouldn't have been possible without the voice talent of Junko Iwao.  Anime fans will instantly recognize her name as one of the more noted seiyuu from the late 90s and early 00s, lending her voice to series like Card Captor Sakura (Tomoyo), Key the Metal Idol (Key), and Macross 7 (Sally Saint Ford).  She shines in Perfect Blue, both as the bubbly public persona of Mima, and the haggard, frightened shell that she eventually becomes.  Without her acting chops, this film wouldn't have the impact it does, because Mima is the film.

Perfect Blue doesn't just toe the line between reality and dreams—it explores the line between reality and perceived reality.  One of the central driving points of the movie is the alternate Mima's notion of what a pop idol should be.  Basically, she should be who her fans want her to be—forever wholesome, adoring, and an object for platonic lust.  That Mr. Kon was able to take this wholly Japanese “pop idol” phenomenon and use it as the underpinnings of a sinister film speaks to his creativity.

It goes without saying that Mr. Kon isn't the only director who's thrown himself at the theme of reality versus dreams. Throngs of directors, both in animation and in live-action, have jumped at the chance to do dream sequences. But the tact with which Kon handled the subject is what set him so high above most of the other directors who've dabbled in the subconscious.  He never felt the need to go overboard.  There are no lurid colors, no floating cars, nothing to tell viewers, “Hey, right now you're dreaming.”  That subtlety is what helps make a film like Perfect Blue the perfect thriller—everything could be real, but who's to say, really?   

On his deathbed, Satoshi Kon wrote, “Even with my previous movies, I've been so irresponsible with the productions and the budgets.” Perhaps, then, his irresponsibility is the greatest gift he could have given us.  A gift that placed artistic vision and selfishness above the mundane realities of "budgets" and outside pressure.  And even in his first film, that “irresponsibility” is a loud presence, from the lush animation, to the near obsessive attention to detail, to the complete lack of extraneous shots.  Perfect Blue can be watched again and again, year after year, and every time, it's just like watching it for the first time.  It's beautiful on the eyes, havoc on the mind, and something that will surely remain a classic for as long as this medium will exist.

Perfect Blue is out of print on DVD, but can be found in abundance on the used market. The film has been released on Bluray in Japan.

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