Perfect Blue Anime Review
US Release By
Psychological Showbusiness Suspense
What's In It
- Realistic Violence
- Hitchcock-style Suspense
- Down-to-earth J-pop
- Seedy Showbusiness
- Violence: 4 (heavy)
- Nudity: 4 (heavy)
- Sex: 3 (significant)
- Language: 2 (moderate)
Mimarin Kirigoe is just another small-time pop idol singer until she decides to leave her group, CHAM, and pursue an acting career. Starting from the bottom with a role in the TV murder mystery Double Bind, Mima begins to struggle with the division between her old stage persona and her new one. As Mima battles within herself, her reality begins to break down, and real bodies start piling up around her.
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Perfect Blue is something like a Hollywood thriller set in modern Japan, re-cast as subtle emotional suspense, and filmed through an anime lens. The camerawork and style owe heavily to live action, and there is a pervasive sense of down-to-earth realism in everything from the detailed backgrounds to the characters and their jobs, yet Satoshi Kon's masterful directing wraps all this in an understated anime flair that adds an additional level of richness to what is already a solid psychodrama. Add in an outstanding, varied score that ranges from J-pop to eerie wailing and a dramatically skilled Japanese cast (the English writing hampers the dub significantly) that put force behind the emotional force both subdued and raw, and you get a tense, engrossing, and entirely satisfying film.
A fundamentally well-built, emotionally powerful movie and all-around enjoyable psychological thriller, recommended to anyone who appreciates either more subtle anime or low-key live action suspense movies.
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Perfect Blue, though not quite so perfect as its hype declares, is an all-around impressive movie rather like a Hollywood thriller set in contemporary Japan and filmed through an anime lens. Satoshi Kon's masterful directing uses an anime tweak on live-action visual techniques to give a unique flair and richness to what would already have been a quality film in less-capable hands.
One of the most surprising and intriguing things about Perfect Blue is its pervasive sense of realism. The story never loses a grip on its own reality, the characters are multilayered and believable, and the attention to detail is amazing.
Even most live-action movies, let alone anime, fail to capture the sort of rich environments that Perfect Blue is filled with. Mima's apartment is the most impressive example: It has a cramped, lived-in look that captures the feel of Japanese city living and feels like somewhere a real person lives, from the collection of oddball keepsakes scattered around to her true-to-life computer (why can't Hollywood manage to put a real computer in a movie?).1 Not everything is quite that detailed, but everything from city environments to TV studios look equally realistic.
The sense of tangibility is just as strong in the backstage view of show business that provides the framework for the story. Both the pop idol scene that Mima leaves and the TV acting world she struggles to break into seem believable, more so than in most movies dealing with similar subject matter. Again, the attention to minor details is what gives it that extra edge: CHAM, for example, look and sound like the sort of group I'd expect to see on a CD rack, from their songs to their stage choreography.
All this isn't just window dressing; the less-than-glamorous (but not exaggeratedly so) behind-the-scenes view of acting gives the plot a lot of its strength and tension, and the concrete backdrop makes Mima's deteriorating reality all the more palpable. It also gives the violence, which we've gotten so used to in movies, a little more bite.
The story of Perfect Blue takes its time getting rolling, focusing on inner turmoil and emotional tension in lieu of standard thriller devices--be patient, and don't come expecting car chases or desperate sprints through the subway. Instead, the thrills and chills come from Mima's fractured reality and subtly building on parallels between her life and the TV fantasy she enacts. Thanks mostly to its multi-layered characters, Perfect Blue is an emotionally potent movie, playing on common fears like performance anxiety and more extreme situations like Internet paranoia, the trauma of sexual violence, and the emotional effects of being an actor and the borderline exploitation one can get caught up in. These themes are where Perfect Blue is at its strongest, and they are certainly where the most gripping part of the story lies.
It's hard to say much more and still preserve the mystery of the plot, but the storytelling is masterful, creatively layering reality and fantasy (something director Kon has since shown repeatedly he excels at). The closest I have to a complaint is the abrupt (albeit clearly explained) breakdown of Mima's reality; the sudden juxtaposition of "real" and "fantasy" is very effective, but I think extending the gradual deterioration the movie portrays so well would have ultimately been more unsettling. A few parts are a little loose or questionably logical under scrutiny, but in all, the plot is well-constructed, gripping, and in the end quite satisfying.
The technical aspects of the production are as impressive as the rest. The art is top-notch: the backgrounds are painted so realistically that in some cases they could pass for live-action matte paintings, and the minimalist character art is finely drawn and detailed. The only flaw is a bit of inconsistency in the way the characters look in a few shots (mostly Mima, which I don't think was intentional). The visual directing style is unusual among anime for its subtlety and the use of a few live-action-style camera tricks, such as quick, shaky cuts and spinning around a head shot. (Studios like Gonzo have since, however, made similar techniques more common.)
The film utilizes a distinctive color palette, giving it a film-noir-like visual quality despite the often intense colors. Much of the film takes place at night or indoors, and the use of artificial lighting is a subtle but powerful tone-setting device used throughout. Harsh Klieg lights, for example, are used to create an invisible boundary between Mima and those watching her perform, isolating her in an artificial reality; elsewhere she focuses on stage lights to dissociate herself from traumatic experiences. Windows and mirrors perform similar symbolic and functional roles in several pivotal scenes.
Technical detail aside, much of the movie is carried by its capable ink-and-paint actors. The character design is, for lack of a better word, ideal. The look is anime, yet still believably Japanese, with realistically proportioned faces and bodies and real-world hair colors and styles. Even so, they remain distinctive and easy to identify, a real feat with no easy keys like hair color to fall back on. The character animation is understated and realistic, and while it isn't perfect, it's very close when it counts--the pop dance numbers and scenes with violent emotional acting are a sight to behold.
Those who haven't seen it and want to maintain the suspense of the plot might wish to skip this paragraph, but I wanted to note that, while most of the character designs lean toward realistic, there are two notable exceptions: Me-Maniac, obviously creepy-looking from the start, and Rumi, who, like him, has eyes that are too widely spaced. If you've seen it you know what distinguishes these two characters from the rest, but I would have preferred it if Rumi hadn't looked so "off," since it made me unconsciously wary of her, even if that was the desired effect. On a more positive note, I have to give credit to the climactic chase sequence--the way that Mima's pursuer is simultaneously shown to us as she appears in Mima's (and her own) altered reality and how she looks in the real world is both a nice visual effect and satisfying for its connection of reality with the illusions in the characters' minds.
If Perfect Blue has any real weak point, it is the English dub. The casting and acting aren't the problem; Mima is believable and a close match with the original actress, and while the rest of the cast is a little stiff at times, the drama is handled effectively. There are other annoyances, like a few nasal voices and the inevitable trouble pronouncing some of the Japanese names, but the cast of the dub does its job. The same cannot be said of the writing; although not bad outright, it's not as good as the movie deserves (requires, even). The script is relatively weak, the dialogue awkward at several points, and there is at least one glaring mistake.2
The Japanese version, on the other hand, is first-rate, and since the setting is contemporary Japan, it also adds an air of authenticity. Junko Iwao's performance as Mima is truly amazing, a particularly good thing since she has most of the significant dialogue. Both nuanced and powerful in a difficult and dramatically demanding role, I particularly liked the subtle hardening of her voice as the movie progresses. Of less interest if you don't speak Japanese, the writing is quite good; Manga's subtitles provide an accurate translation. The flow problems in the dub translation are still there, but are much less noticeable when reading subtitles.
Rounding out the production is Masahiro Ikumi's outstanding musical score. The variety is surprising, ranging from cheerful pop, to single, slow piano notes, to dissonant mechanical sounds, to the main theme, a thoroughly creepy mix of humming and wailing (reminiscent of the Ghost in the Shell intro). The pop songs, as mentioned above, easily qualify as decent idol J-pop in both composition and performance (even in English--the dubbed versions are surprisingly faithful to the originals). Ironically, however, the instrumental background music is the real treat: though sparse and rarely obvious, the mix of industrial beats and subtle atmospherics are employed just enough to enhance unsettling moods or make you feel uncomfortable. The main theme in particular wraps all the emotions of the movie up into a single eerie tune; the full-length version (which you never really hear straight through during the production) ranks among my all-time favorite pieces of music--haunting, surreal, complex, and beautiful in its own way.
Perfect Blue is, fundamentally, a solid cinematic experience. The plot isn't absolutely air-tight, and it's not the perfect thriller, but it is well-directed, well-written, has subtle yet rich visuals, and a pervasive sense of realism. I found it tense, engrossing, and quite satisfying, which is about all you can ask for in a good psychodrama. Though it likely won't appeal to you if you don't like either more subtle anime or live action psychological suspense, Perfect Blue is a thoroughly enjoyable film worthy of its reputation as the anime incarnation of the Hitchcock thriller.
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Serial Experiments Lain has a very similar theme of the pervasiveness of the Internet and a fracturing reality, but that series is far more artistic and takes the weirdness factor to levels that make Perfect Blue look quite mundane. Boogiepop Phantom is similar, except with a more concrete sense of reality. Satoshi Kon's other films, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika, not surprisingly also have a lot in common despite being entirely different. Millennium Actress has a very similar plot involving an actress with a loose sense of separation between herself and her characters, but the playful mood is nearly opposite. Tokyo Godfathers shares this film's concrete sense of modern Japan. The Wings of Honneamise also has a similarly understated realism, but a totally different story.
Notes and Trivia
Perfect Blue is based on a suspense novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi, and Katsuhiro Otomo (of Akira fame) had a hand in the production as a special advisor.
There was an R-rated version (now hard to find as it was only released on dubbed VHS) in addition to an Unrated Director's Cut. While I have only seen the latter, I'm guessing that very little was cut for the R version as there's nothing unusually objectionable to remove and the listed runtime is the same.
Finally, a random bit of trivia for the technologically oriented: Mima's new computer looks to be a Performa 5200 (about right for the period and popular in Japan). The use and appearance of sites on the Internet is also totally believable, as anyone who remembers those early days of Netscape knows. Most impressive, as far as I'm concerned, is the fact that the computer's functioning is true to reality. In all the Hollywood movies I've seen, I don't think I've even once seen a computer running a real OS that functions the way it should, but when Rumi starts up the computer and shows Mima how to launch Netscape, I can vouch for the complete authenticity of everything (well, except that version 3.0 of Netscape probably would have crashed at least four times during the course of the movie). Mac fanatics might also notice that in a scene from the TV drama near the end there's another Mac (probably a 7100) running in the background.
Footnote 1:If you're confused by Mima's less-than-glamorous living space, it's not unbelievable--minor pop singers are a dime a dozen, and an apartment in Tokyo costs a fortune. The confusion is compounded by a mistake Manga made on the DVD case plot description that some reviewers seem to have accepted as fact: they call CHAM a chart-topping group, when in fact they are a minor, struggling group. They didn't even break the top 100 (at 87) until well after Mima left.
Footnote 2:Manga made one glaring mistake in the dialogue in the dub (the subtitles, fortunately, are very accurate). It's a spoiler, so don't read this until you've seen the movie. The mistake is in the scene near the end where a scene from the TV show is shown altered to echo Mima's perception of reality, and then replayed the way it was actually shot for the TV drama. The second time through, Mima (as the character in the drama) identifies herself as "Mima Kirigoe," her real name--this is a mistake. She was supposed to (and does, in Japanese) identify herself as "Rika Takakura," the name of the sister character in Double Bind (the one whose personality Mima's character was supposed to have taken on).
US DVD Review
Manga's DVD (a very early one) has the right idea, but is also a bit disappointing. The video transfer is sharp and mostly very smooth, but also a little harsh-looking, and there are significant compression artifacts in areas of dark, flat color. The audio is nice; there's a Dolby 5.1 Japanese track (not particularly well separated, but that's not Manga's fault), an English stereo track, and an English 5.1 track; all of them are plenty clear. The slick, website-esque menus provide access to lots of special features: an image gallery, CHAM's main song sung all the way through in both Japanese and English (you even get to see the Japanese actresses singing it, though we only get stills from the movie with the English), and interviews with several of the English actors and the Japanese Mima, plus an interview with Satoshi Kon.
The most major flaw is the omission of any credits for the Japanese cast (particularly odd since they include an interview with one of them). Also, though this may have just been my disc, the menus have several glitches--skipping, freezing, or going to the wrong section, and the audio/subtitle selection wouldn't stick--I had to set it while the movie was playing. Finally, there's some minor computer content on the disc (a few medium-resolution images, a handful of sound clips, and some Windows screen savers), but it doesn't work very well, either. While there is a Mac version (it would be ironic if there weren't), it's about as old as Mima's computer and as such totally non-functional (it also uses some weird characters in the filenames).
Though never gratuitous, it contains some realistic violence, nudity, and a simulated rape scene (it takes place within a show being filmed). The emotional charge and adult themes make this entirely unsuitable for younger viewers, and although even the edited version is rated R, I doubt much was cut as the unrated version would probably be an R as well.
Violence: 4 - The violence is realistically gory and emotionally vicious, and while the rape is simulated even within the story, it is quite powerful.
Nudity: 4 - A fair amount of nudity, some detailed and frontal (possibly less in the "R" version).
Sex/Mature Themes: 3 - There is no sex, but the stage rape is unnervingly realistic and there are a variety of very mature themes.
Language: 2 - No particularly strong language in the subtitles, but some profanity in the dub.
Available in North America from Manga Video as an unedited Director's Cut on hybrid DVD. Was originally available on a director's cut subtitled or dubbed VHS, and the edited theatrical version on dubbed VHS only.