While Satoshi Kon was best known as a director for his surreal, often abstract imagery, I find his debut film Perfect Blue more interesting as an editing exercise. There are plenty of striking images here, to be sure. What’s far more striking to me, though, is the way the film uses the cut to depict the typically Kon-ian theme of the blurred boundary between reality and fiction. He uses edits to fool the audience into thinking there’s a clear divide between the two, with main character Mima often snapping out of her disturbing fantasies with the abruptness of a smash cut. Here on one side of the cut is illusion, here on the other side is the real world. This is what the film leads us to understand.
Later on, this begins to break down, and it becomes less and less clear which side is which. In one extended sequence, Mima spends several days blacking out while shooting scenes for her TV show, each time waking up in her bed with no memory of the previous day. The nature of her role on the show becomes intermingled with her real-life paranoia over a stalker known only as Mr. Me-Mania. The edits in this sequence introduce and replace possibly imagined elements with such a matter-of-fact rhythm that it’s difficult to piece together if any of it is real or false. Kon would show off his penchant for visual stylization in later films like Paprika, but it’s here in his earliest feature that he shows off an equally profound talent for manipulating film grammar.
What I find just as compelling is the film’s take on the Japanese film industry, and how it thrives on depicting sexual violence against women. In order to make it as an actress, Mima is expected to film a horrific rape scene. She convinces herself that she’s happy to do it, that it’ll just be pretend, but it’s shooting this scene that directly precedes the first splinter in her psyche. It’s a deeply upsetting scene, both for the content of the show-within-a-film and the casual callousness of the mostly faceless cast and crew. The actor playing Mima’s rapist does whisper an apology in her ear, but there’s no indication that they’ve endeavored to make her feel comfortable or safe. Her humanity is of no concern. It’s no wonder she starts to feel depersonalized. No one in her life seems to care about her as a person more than they care about her as a commercial (and fetishized) object. Her sense of self is gradually drained away, until she’s left reading a fake online diary purportedly written by her to discover what she did the day before. I know a lot of trans people who have a trans reading of Perfect Blue, and I imagine it has something to do with Mima’s confused sense of identity in the film’s later sections. She’s not herself, she’s only pretending to be. It makes the film’s final shot, where she looks in a mirror and declares, “I’m real,” surprisingly triumphant.
I liked Perfect Blue quite a bit. It’s not my favorite Kon work (that would still be his TV series Paranoia Agent) but it’s got just enough of the touches I love from him. He’d only ramp up those touches later in his career, so it’s interesting to see a version of Kon that seems somewhat restrained, mostly for the better.