Perfect Blue (1997)

At the intersection of femininity, sexuality and the entertainment industry, Perfect Blue launches a social critique at all three systems which enable misogynistic practice. It engages with these issues in a shockingly frank manner, making it essential to approach the film with a sharp, critical eye and an important understanding of how images, ideas and events are contextualized, contained and controlled in order to produce meaningful critiques.

The film follows the story of Mima (Junko Iwao), lead singer of the Pop band CHAM, which she decides to leave in order to pursue a more prestigious and serious career as an actress. However, giving up her cutesy, schoolgirl image opens her up to be reinvented and ultimately exploited by the industry. As she quickly finds herself unable to control her new life, she’s haunted by the still complicated, but relatively tame, image of her past life.

On a literal level, the film examines the issues of sexual exploitation of women, the fact that it’s near impossible for Mima to get her break without agreeing to give up her image to unsavory and highly sexualized depictions. While it’s rationalized as “artistic” and “serious,” Mima knows these are just lies, masks to publicly cover the shame and degradation that overrides her true feelings for these images.

This levels a critique against the industry system, one in which the only way for Mima to reconstruct herself and be taken seriously as a woman is to craft an explicitly sexual image of herself. This reflect a broader critique of societal views of femininity, one in which a woman can only be empowered through being sexualized.

It’s a critique that begins with her time in CHAM. While her outfit is cute and childish, it also opens her up to being sexualized by the audience, a point made explicit in a POV shot where one of the guards at an event reaches out as if to grasp her with his hands. Therefore, while not coded as strongly exploitative as later images of Mima, it still reflects a societal norm that for a women to publically perform is to open herself up to being objectified and sexualized.

This guard also shows up later in order to emphasize that the sexualization is not simply an issue on the level of explicit content. His almost prepubescent fascination with CHAM is a guise to an envy of anyone else sexualizing and obsessing over this woman. This “safe” sexualization allows for a much more subtle, intrusive and troubling from of image obsession.

Walking a fine line between depicting these misogynistic practices and avoiding being implicated in them, the medium of animation allows Perfect Blue to stylize the film and push the content in such a way to do justice to some grizzly and revolting subjects while gaining some much needed distance and dissonance from the overwhelming nature of the images.

The images are so explicit, that if shot with a real actress, it’s likely the film would have been surrounded with so much controversy and censorship pressures that it wouldn’t have gotten a theatrical release. If these images are so explicit, one might ask what the point of them is. On basic level, the visceral effect is important to both the emotional and psychological effect that the film is trying to achieve.

Also, the images are explicitly contextualized and presented in such a way to make their intent clear. Dissonant music, a particular framing of certain imagery as well as the narrative or psychological frame in which the scenes are contextualize code all these images as negative and exploitative.

Perfect Blue is a complicated, mature look at a charged subject. While it makes some explicit points, it does it through highly-charged and complicated imagery, presenting with frankness the objects of its critique. And like a truly rich and deep film, this is only one facet of the complicated and compelling elements that make Perfect Blue a powerful and effective film.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing

  • I’ve heard a lot about this, especially the story that Darren Aronofsky bought the remake rights to it so he could borrow a shot for Requiem for a Dream, which is interesting. I definitely plan to see this one, hopefully soon.

    • Yes, there are many elements of Perfect Blue in Mr. Aronofsky’s works.