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We exist in a physical world bound by time and mathematical perfection without exception. You can’t change the speed of the sun rising and setting. You can’t change gravity like Wile E. Coyote not falling off a cliff until he realizes it. So what happens when you want to tell a story that is not just unbound to the laws of physics, but arguably has nothing to do with real life at all?
How do you materialize the ultimate immaterial thing?
The human mind.
Satoshi Kon could tell you. But instead, he’s gonna show you, and there’s no better example than his 1997 debut Perfect Blue. In his short life, having passed at age 46 of pancreatic cancer, Kon’s work embodies something that few other filmmakers were able to understand, and even less were able to perfect: the mind is a world that is not bound by physics–or even reason.
Identity can also be one of the hardest things to capture in any form of media. Searching for one’s persona through character development in film can lead to a wide range of misleading storylines, sending viewers into spirals as they try to figure out just what exactly is going on. Watching something like Perfect Blue can show how the functions of stability get wrecked as you try and find your way through your hobbies, the workforce, and interpersonal connections with family, coworkers, and friends putting you, the viewer, in the shoes of the character.
I doubt I’m the only one who thought about what a mess it is to try to find yourself while watching the film. On top of the reality-questioning narrative, the movie adds another layer by making the protagonist, Mima, famous in the eyes of a small fan base that puts all of their own personality traits against what she puts out into the public with the persona she builds through interviews, media circuits, and online interaction. After a while, it becomes too much.
Mima pushes herself further into a new career, hoping to become an actor to expand upon an already growing identity that she built for herself. Making the perfect version of who she want to be while the old fans see her shifting into something new, and thinking they’re losing what they thought was the real character in the process. Crowds are unafraid to say stuff like, “You were into being a musician for so long, why do you want to be an actor?” In hopes that it would change the character’s mind–but it doesn’t. Artists like Mima say it’s always been their dream to act, and they lose themselves in working so hard with every few scenes they star in. One line here, four scenes there. It gets so confusing when they get to the end of it all that losing yourself to the role becomes normal to them. Method acting stretched to the point that they become the character portrayed across the big screen. What do you do when you lose yourself in all of that as a viewer pushing yourself on the character you’re watching? I feel that this was precisely what Satoshi Kon wanted to explore within Perfect Blue. He delves deep into what identity is, how it affects yourself, and how it affects others around you.
Kon is a surrealist storyteller at heart though. Before detailing his mastery of the form, it’s worth acknowledging that surrealist cinema certainly had its place pre-Kon as both entire diegesis and also interpolated tools. For example, Eraserhead (1977) was a surrealist film through and through, earning cult status for its iconic surrealist imagery. On the other hand, The Graduate (1967) employs customary storytelling, but enhances the themes and feelings of the film with the occasional disorienting cross-dissolves and match cuts.
But Kon’s execution of nightmarish, dream-capturing surrealism has a leg-up on the genre: he returns to the origins of the artistic movement itself originated by the likes of Guillaume Apollinaire and Salvador Dalí in the early 20th century: two-dimensional (2D) art. 2D animation is the only form of filmmaking that has no obligation to shape, consistency, physical form, mathematical perfection, practicality, the speed of motion in frame rate, or the limitations of the human body. 2D animation beats out live-action, computer graphics (CG), or stop-motion for the non-physical world.
You draw it. Now it exists. That’s all it takes.
Kon, along with many other Japanese animators, knew this best when he stretched it to the extreme. Kon plays with a specific form of the genre called veristic surrealism: in other words, an art style that intends to portray the subconscious and dream world by taking seemingly realistic, universal objects and effectively fusing both the abstract and the material as an irreplicable language for this liminal plane of existence. Still images of this form are considered perfected by the aforementioned Dalí, famed for 1931’s The Persistence of Memory.
Perfect Blue plays with the viewer’s mind in a way that will provoke your thoughts more than your words, which is difficult to accomplish in a world where most everyone has an opinion to share. As Mima increasingly feels more paranoia and stupefaction as the events of the film grow more intense–we feel it, too. We’re in her mind because we feel her point of view closer than we could in live-action or CG. Computer graphics are designed to make sense mathematically. For example, a model of a character has to be coded to function a certain way from every angle, while in 2D animation, you can change the scenery and details of the characters in any frame or angle you’d like. 2D can uniquely cheat speed and image, which lends itself to this story.
But it’s more than character design. It isn’t just Mima that falls apart, as what’s displayed in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, a film heavily inspired by this one. It isn’t just the world that falls apart, like Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), another film inspired by Kon (this time by his 2005 Paprika).
This film proposes a new interpretation: Mima is the world of the film. The surrealist style enables Mima to evade reality just like any other part of her environment. There is no separation.
The film is nauseating and wants you to feel uncomfortable. Kon effectively established a somewhat conventional method of storytelling for the film’s opening, which was abruptly severed by switching us from following Mima’s life as any movie-goer does–to more than just following, but stalking her.
Kon uses extensive match cuts that increase as the world spirals downward. Her career as an actor begins to morph into her life, as conveyed through identical match cuts that are really just not possible in live action and CG film to the same extent here. The framing, coloring, and timing–while exact–does not rely on perfection, but instead precise imperfection.
Have you ever zoned out while driving on the highway, not remembering how you got from one place to another? Or maybe you’ve felt like you were experiencing déjà vu, only to never be sure? Or perhaps, you have felt you live a double life: work vs. personal, social vs. alone, past self vs. current self, or hidden identity vs. open identity?
It’s something we can all relate to, despite Perfect Blue being an exaggerated thriller on growing up into the person you want to be without having others push a persona or an identity onto you. It breathes from underneath the understanding that we all wear masks as we build relationships with others. As our thoughts start to come out more often when we become more comfortable with ourselves and others, that’s when things start to get a little tricky. The whole déjà vu and zoned-out feeling take hold while you build up the courage to be yourself, and that’s where Kon hits with his character study of Mima.
And this struggle isn’t limited to fiction.
Mitski, an artful indie-pop signer-songwriter whose career has recently blossomed, is a fine example of what is being discussed here about Perfect Blue. Mitski vocalizes being uncomfortable with fans imprinting on her and her music sets. This exemplifies, in motion, the idea of identity and persona that follows closely behind Mima and her own transformation from pop star to actor. Her lyrics paint imagery that can be almost cinematic in nature while still holding down the privacy that she craves when she is away from the spotlight. This, unfortunately, is something Mima had to fight for with her transition that arose from changing her artistic direction. On some accounts, Mitski has had moments where some personal information seems to leak out, but it always seems to get reeled back in and left intact as private information. It’s strange to see the comparisons between Mitski’s own life and that of Mima from Perfect Blue being two examples of the reality of facing what the world sees you as in the persona you create as a musician or actor and trying to keep control of it yet somehow still losing it to rabid fans, friends, and acquaintances that want more from you than what you give them at face value.
Knowing that, despite Perfect Blue being a work of fiction, there are those out there who know the feelings that come with trying to be your true self over what others want you to be.
Kon also utilizes graphic (and frankly traumatic) imagery to intentionally or unintentionally trigger the neurons in our amygdala to a personal trauma–which checks us out of reality twofold, not just by being absorbed into the film, but by simultaneously bringing us into our paralyzing past. He imitates the disorientation of life we all experience to a degree and then escalates it to its logical conclusion.
The tools Kon uses return to the roots of surrealism. It’s not a spectacle for the sake of imagery. It captures something that yearns to be captured: the depth of our subconscious. Surrealism means “super-reality.” And Perfect Blue is nothing if not a super-reality.
Without all the creepy thriller stuff attached to Perfect Blue, it is a perfect character study of those seeking themselves amongst the mess that comes with trying to find yourself, and even an interesting look at the kind of hell method actors go through to embody and embrace the characters they take on. It’s also interesting to see how someone get lost in the act of becoming their role as they begin to fully embrace the identity and person they’ve always wanted to embody without having others push who they think they should be.
Perfect Blue is a thrilling telling on a universal struggle. Stories of tortured artists have been told and retold in hundreds of pieces–but Kon not only makes the viewer the main character alongside the protagonist, but also touches something omnipresent within us all that goes beyond the details of the story. Prepare to feel Mima’s reality slip out of her gloved fingers and into yours.
Perfect Blue screens next weekend at The Frida Cinema.
Sunday, Mar 27 – 1:45pm, 3:45pm
Monday, Mar 28 – 5:45pm, 7:45pm
Tuesday, Mar 29 – 5:45pm, 7:45pm