Best Horror of the 90s: Perfect Blue

perfectblueSome movies are puzzles, or they would like to be. Mulholland Drive, Memento, and Vanilla Sky are movies that center around an inscrutable mystery, sometimes so murky that we can’t tell if we’re supposed to figure things out, or if the entire film is just pure subjectivity. The trend can be traced back to The Usual Suspects (1995), whose ending seemed to invalidate all that came before. The movie became a story told within the framework of the film, and the film’s objective narrative didn’t really happen.

But hold on. There isn’t anything inherently contradictory between the events that happened in the film and in the final revelation about the narrator. Everything could have happened the way it was shown, and it would have been consistent with the narrator’s story. That’s important to the film’s effect. We want to suspend our disbelief (or at least I do — recent experiences with you people (i.e. the public) have shown that a lot of you do not wish to suspend disbelief, and in fact, as an audience, you all suck like a T.J. whore on donkey night) and allow the story we’re watching to have a reality of its own. So the trick with a so-called ‘puzzle’ movie, wherein what happens is questionable, is to create a surprise for the audience without making the emotional investment a complete waste of time.

With Perfect Blue, we have an equally puzzling narrative, and the manner in which it is told makes it impossible to discern whether certain events take place, or whether they are the hallucinations (dreams?) of the film’s harangued protagonist, Mima Kirigoe. Perfect Blue also illustrates another important precept of the inchoate narrative: it can fly, as long as it isn’t boring.

I. Who Am I?

In Perfect Blue, Mima Kirigoe wants to break out of her image as a goody-two-shoes pop idol. And she does so in grand form — by playing an actress in a TV murder mystery, where she performs a graphic rape scene and poses nude for a sleazy photographer. She’s putting a stake in the heart of her pop idol persona.

Said persona does not want to die easily, though. A fan’s website contains a disturbingly accurate journal attributed to Mima, and the messages therein grow more frantic, blaming Mima’s agency and the screenwriter for the show she’s in. The persona is so mad at these affronts to her pop idol dignity that she starts to murder.

So, fairly standard stuff here. From the above, only slightly inaccurate description, one could say it’s The Hand (terrible), The Brood (great), or even Monkey Shines (again, terrible), set in the J-Pop world. However, the movie has thematic depth beyond its standard ‘psychic revenge’ plot: Mima does not wish harm on the people slain, but they are responsible for the identity crisis at the center of the film.

Mima isn’t the murderer, but she isn’t herself either. Throughout, she tries to run away from an image of herself, but she doesn’t know where to run, or why. The film gives us hints that nothing in Mima’s life is self-directed. She has allowed herself to become swept away in a career machine that fails to fill her personal void.

This dramatic internal conflict is played out very subtly — it looms over the action, but it never becomes the central text. Early on, when her manager Rumi asks Mima what direction she wants to go in, we hear no response. The day after her last concert with Cham, her pop group, she talks to her mother on the phone and slips back into her regional accent, which she covers until the last line of the movie. Mima is in flux between a personality that strangles her and one that makes her do things she does not want to do. And both are a remove from who Mima really is.

There’s an indication that as a pop star Mima wasn’t any closer to being who she was than who she is as an actress. After Mima leaves the group, the first time we see the other two Cham girls, they’ve just released their first single to chart — something that never happened when Mima was there. She held her partners back, despite Rumi’s insistence that she needed to concentrate on being a pop idol.

Identity horror (‘Am I really capable of such horrible things?’) is at the heart of the psychic revenge plot, and it is also present in Perfect Blue. But like most elements of the story, it is suggested more than examined. Perfect Blue cheats where other movies have to play timid and coy: During one of the murders, we see Mima committing the act — she’s the one with the ice pick. The scene morphs into a scene from the TV drama, but the images are clearly Mima plunging the ice pick into the photographer. When we pull away from Mima, and learn that we are actually on the set, shooting a scene for the show, the victim becomes somebody else.

Subjectivity is the center of the film. As it spirals, we cannot be sure we are seeing what is really happening, or if it’s just produced by Mima’s mind. The thing is, neither can Mima. We are right in there with her, experiencing the confusion and disconnect from the real world, where she can no longer tell if she’s living or acting.

II. Violence

There are two villains in the film: a deranged fan (who, in one of the most unsettling shots, holds his hand in front of his face while Mima dances, so it looks like she’s in his hand) called MiMania (ho ho ho), and Rumi, Mima’s manager/agent. A former pop idol, Rumi is too old and overweight to dance and sing. Working together, she and MiMania murder the people they believe are responsible for Mima’s fall from grace.

With their incredible violence, the two characters propel the scenes that buttress the more psychological, disturbing ones with Mima. As the film progresses, the violent scenes become more and more graphic, climaxing in the final, horrifying one where Rumi chases Mima. Throughout, Rumi is shown as the creepy Mima-sprite, a spectre of the pop idol persona she once was. It is Mima, but wearing a blood-red copy of the costume she wears in the first concert. The violence against Mima is surprising because it is graphic and brutal. This is where the medium of animation really assists the film in developing its effect: it does not have to cut away from violence, nor does it involve a sort of off-putting fakery. The entire film is artifice (these are pictures, not people), so the violence is as natural as anything around it. Thus, we see the knife plunge into Mima’s shoulder, and, later, we watch as Rumi stabs the pointed end of an umbrella into her back. In live action, this would look ridiculous. Keep in mind the stupidity of the corncob-stabbing scene in Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers (and now I expect blank stares, because none of you were foolish enough to see it). In this movie, the umbrella stab is cringe-inducing, and horrifying. It is matched only by an earlier shot in the photographer’s murder scene, where we get a nice close-up view of the ice pick plunging into his crotch.

The horror of the psychological and physical violence is anchored by a central truth: Mima is a nice young lady who does not know what she wants, and the things she tries don’t suit her at all. In the few scenes where she doesn’t react to plot development or sink deeper into her psychological quagmire, Mima is friendly, capable, and cheerful. Ultimately, then, Perfect Blue is about failure: Rumi’s failure to live through Mima; MiMania’s social failure that has warped him and forced him to be lonely; and Mima’s failure both as a pop idol and in her inability to reconcile the sacrifices needed in becoming an actress with her need to be herself, whoever that is.

About Kent Conrad

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