Broken Mirrors: Perfect Blue 20 Years Later

Mima Kirigoe (voiced by Junko Iwao) is a pop idol. She’s the lead singer for the J-Pop band CHAM, and she’s about to perform her last show, before leaving the music industry to try her hand at acting. Working security just below the stage is a man who looks disturbingly out of place. He is a black hole amid the glow of the stage design’s birthday cake pastels, ballerina costuming and upbeat, bouncy pop music about lost love and the possibility of romance. He is ghostly pale, with raven’s hair draped over the right side of his face. His eyes are noticeably small (placing him in direct contrast with the large, expressive eyes that normally accompanied anime characters at the time). He doesn’t speak or emote much at all until he sees Mima. He is enraptured in her every movement, gesture, and pivot. He points his arm out toward her. Director Satoshi Kon fixates on this man’s point of view as he sees Mima with a mixture of lust, possessiveness and envy. The image blurs around the corners to force Mima into clearer definition, and from this man’s forced perspective Mima dances in the palm of his hand like a ballerina music box. She belongs to him in that moment. He will do everything in his power for that to be true forever. Mima has no knowledge of his existence. She continues to sing…

A woman learns early that her body isn’t her own. It’s a disorienting effect to walk down the streets and have the peace of mobility disrupted by the howl of the everyday man, who was also taught a lesson in his young age: that a woman’s body is his. It could be the unwanted touch, the snap of a bra from the class-clown at the onset of puberty or the later realization that your own choice of whether or not to have a child is up for debate. You can point to your doctor and say something’s seriously wrong, because menstrual pain is overwhelming and debilitating and not be taken seriously. You can even stake your claim that you are a woman, in flesh and blood and soul, and need hormone replacement therapy and be told to further prove your own validity to a professional who knows your body better than you. In day to day life, we can retreat from this reality in the space of bedrooms that we turn into our own, in the company of friends who share similar concerns or in the locked doors of an apartment you barricade yourself within when things get too heavy, but these spaces are shrinking with time. Our reliance on the internet, and the integration of social media into our own reality is cleaving the body as a safe space. The internet crosses all moats, strides across all barriers and knocks down all our doors. On the internet, anyone can have access to you at any time, and we have welcomed that reality with open arms, and women, by and large, have been the victims of this dissolution of distance between reality and the online world. We should own the right to exist freely in our own bodies, but we do not, and now, anyone, any time, anywhere in the world, can make that a reality. We are passengers in our own skin, the meat upon the market; the dolls boys play with. 

Mima is being watched. There is an initial image of the apartment complexes fading into the horizon of a pitch black sky, but in one window we can see light and a woman moving about. The camera pulls in until we realize it is Mima rummaging through her mail. She’s been given a letter which simply gives her the name of a web address. Because she doesn’t have a computer she has no concept of the internet or what a url even means. It’s practically a foreign language to her, but our stalker doesn’t know that and persists regardless. The opening shot in this scene of the camera pulling in could be from the stalker’s point of view in some consideration and the letter only makes the scene more horrifying, because Kon is forcing us to sit in this predator’s shoes and consider his mindset, but in addition to that we know Mima is defenseless. The letter is a dare, to excite the stalker and pull his victim closer into his webbed trap. Mima, being ignorant of what this letter actually means, brings it to her manager Rumi-Chan the following day and she knows exactly what a url is, but also doesn’t see malice in this language. Rumi-Chan helps Mima buy a computer and later sets it up in her bedroom. When she visits the website, which is like a LiveJournal about her every moment in day to day life, she doesn’t see the violence therein, but merely thinks someone really knows her well. She pulls the curtain closed, but that act doesn’t bring safety. The internet makes such precautionary measures meaningless. What Mima doesn’t realize is that by engaging with this website, and reading it, she has already been violated. She cannot be herself if there is another, separate entity, framing her in a different light, and claiming to be her. There is the Mima that is real, and the one that is perceived, and the internet blurs the soul of the two.

The camera rests on the closed curtain. Forcing us to look for far longer than is comfortable. Many movies about voyeurism, even popular ones like Rear Window and Blue Velvet, use the act of the voyeur as audience surrogate to incite thrills above the art of becoming uncomfortable in the act of looking where one is not supposed to look. To Blue Velvet’s credit David Lynch understands how to utilize time in an effort to enhance future discomfort. This is most prominent during the first interactions between Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Hopper’s characters which turns violent, uncomfortable and abstract very quickly, but this is not without the thrill of Kyle McLachlan looking around the apartment first. The fundamental difference between Rear Window, which is all thrills, Blue Velvet and Perfect Blue is that in the latter examples there is the danger of the voyeur being caught, which makes the audience less complicit in the act itself. There is morality there, but in Perfect Blue there is no chance of being seen. We’re too far away, but looking nonetheless, and Mima has no clue whatsoever that our eyes are upon her. This is the psychology of movies in a nutshell, and by placing the central question of voyeurism in a shell of female vulnerability the images become complicated, knotty and uncomfortable, because we are looking from a position of power, as a predator, and she is there to be seen. The brilliant thing about Satoshi Kon, however, is that in time he blurs the image until we have no control over what we’re seeing. We become lost at sea in the narrative of his characters and become unsure what is real and what is fantasy, and who we are looking at to begin with, and that is never more the case than with Perfect Blue.

Mima begins her new job the next day and one thing is clear: The old Mima is dead. Meet the new Mima. While Mima was in CHAM she was the perfect pastel ideal of femininity in the sugar coated lyricism of Japanese Pop Music, but now she’s moved into pulpy trash television. The show she is working on is a riff on The Silence of the Lambs, and judging by its barely there plotting built upon transgressions, blood and violence, it would have fit in right at home in the budding market of Japan’s V-Cinema contemporaries from the likes of Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Mima only has one line in her debut appearance, but immediately she’s surrounded by the grisly carnage of filmmaking, as the producers quickly decide to make her character a rape victim, with multiple personality disorder. This is where the producers say, “It’s fine. Jodie Foster did it, right?”, but Mima’s concerned about her image, and so are her agents. She decides to do it, because she wants to be a “real” actor, but this begs the question, “why is this the most valued cinematic image for a woman?”. I fully understand that the limits of genre force characters into boxes, most of them being heavily gendered, but that still doesn’t negate the fact that for a woman to survive in this fictional world of movies, and in the real one, they often have to go to psychological extensive extremes that men do not have to. In order to be taken seriously as an artist, if you are a woman, you must give your entire body. That is the commonly held idea of our societal value in movies.

While Mima is coming to grips with her decision to go through with the part, the man with the raven’s hair can be seen in the distance, tearing a hole in the scenery, much like he did at the concert. He doesn’t fit anywhere, but he’s there, watching Mima, completely unnoticed. As an image, this is a powerful metaphor for the daily life of being a woman. You can be free, to a point, but the lingering shadow of potential violence and trauma stemming from gendered persecution doesn’t dissipate. Men will always be here, and we will never know who may be the villain of our story. We pray we never find him, but we know we have to look. The internet, by extension, makes this even more difficult to parse. Everyone has access. Anyone can reach out and make life strange, worse, torturous if they choose to do so.

Mima begins to realize the website dedicated to her isn’t a joke after the person claiming to be her insists the Mima who is participating in bikini photo-shoots and tv shows that involve rape isn’t the real Mima. This unsettles her to the point where she realizes she is now in danger, and the person who has been blogging as her online is not a benign entity but something altogether more insidious.

Japan were one of the only countries to have a finger on the pulse of an incoming world that would be completely online. It was during the mid to late 90s when anime properties like Serial Lab Experiments: Lain (1998), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Perfect Blue (1997) began to paint a portrait of a world where there was no distance between the version of you that was flesh and the doppleganger of your own creation that existed online. At the same time the United States were making films that are now, in hindsight, not at all revelatory on the topic of internet anxieties. These were films about internet rebels: hackers, thieves and spies, but that wasn’t everyday people. In Japan, it was high school girls, entry-level musicians, and police officers who became entangled in the problems of the internet. Hollywood wouldn’t make a worthwhile film about the internet until The Matrix (1999), which was heavily influenced by anime. We have to look to Japan to understand our looming future. What these initial films signal is strikingly similar to our own current state of existence on the internet. In the context of Perfect Blue, it isn’t different from the real life stories of online harassment actresses like Kelly Marie Tran or Daisy Ridley experienced after the image of Star Wars shifted into something that immature manchildren rejected. The sad state of things, however, is that a lot of women who are online have gone through similar experiences of abuse without the benefit of being able to log off due to the intersecting roles of capitalist structures within an online world. For those, there is no respite from the dangers of the internet.

The central question women have to navigate on the internet is, “How do you have agency over your own body when there is no escape from outside forces?” Before the internet there was the seclusion of a personal home or bedroom, but these barriers do not exist when every house has a wifi account. Google maps has pictures of your street if someone wants to find it, and with social media there are pictures of everyone everywhere. Social media at its absolute best is the possibility for positive connection, but one would have to be naive to think that there wasn’t something vicious lying under the surface that could find its way into your life if necessary. Perfect Blue is brilliant, because it has a fundamental understanding of these problems. For Mima the inability to escape her stalker, either online or in day to day life, causes her to misinterpret her own body. She begins to lose herself in the role of the character she’s playing on the show, and she doesn’t recognize herself anymore after the decisions she’s made, in large part, because she’s been reading her stalker’s blog. This blog is essentially a gaslighting tool that has caused Mima to question her own validity and truth. The loss of any and all agency is the greatest crime her stalker has committed, and he has done this all in the guise of being a hurt fan. Sound familiar?

It all comes back to that opening shot of the ballerina dancing in the palm of his hand. That’s the key image to understanding how the stalker, now going by Me-Mania, interprets his relationship with Mima. Mima belongs to him. Things escalate, as they tend to in cases like this, and Me-Mania finally confronts Mima after a long day of acting has caused her to be completely lost in her own thoughts, and he attempts to rape her. Me-Mania is framed and shot like a hovering reaper before this moment, a harrowing villain drawn to look as ugly as humanly possible. He’s an intimidating presence, but the strangest thing happens when he speaks: he’s pathetic, whiny, petulant, complaining that he didn’t get what he wanted. Thus the core problem of toxic masculinity: ownership of women, the dolls boys play with. The producers took advantage of Mima, because she was a young actor, her fans revolted when she made the decision to become an actor, and her agents question every move she makes. Mima continually fights for her own agency, and the ability to merely be herself, but when working in an industry that essentially asks viewers to take a part of you this is almost impossible. Doubly so with the advent of the internet where everyone is now the star of their own following, whether it be on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. We are all now Mima.

Perfect Blue is an apocalyptic slasher, the ultimate crystallization of everything we came to fear about the internet before it became synonymous with living. In the 90s, anime had a rougher sheen, images had more texture and the genre arguably saw its zenith as an art-form\\ with the likes of Mamoru Oshii, Hideaki Anno, Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyzaki and Satoshi Kon pushing the genre forward in creative modes that have since been largely ignored in favour of clean, almost exclusively digital images computerized into a perfect package of sunny, un-challenging narratives. Perfect Blue sits in the middle of these two eras as a perfect, magnum opus of everything that would come to pass about a life entangled with the internet, while challenging viewers with everything that situation would bring. It isn’t a pretty picture, but it’s the real one.