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How Perfect Blue predicted a dark age of internet celebrity

The anime thriller is Satoshi Kon’s masterpiece, depicting the fame freefall, sinister fandoms and a young woman’s dissent into insanity on and offline

Perfect Blue debuted 20 years ago this summer, but the poignant message of the dark anime remains current today. The debut of legendary director Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress, Paprika, Paranoia Agent), and based on Yoshikazu Takeuchi's novel, the film follows a pop idol transitioning into an acting career, who begins to lose her mind as she is stalked by an obsessive fan.

Screening at Fantasia festival in July 1997 before a theatrical release the following year, Perfect Blue was not originally intended for cinema, but its producers decided it was too good for the small screen. Screens, interestingly enough, feature in the film prominently, alongside mirrors, windows and camera shutters. The heroine, Mima Kirigoe, journeys through a series of frames within frames, fictions within fiction, as her reality dissolves into madness. Are Mima’s experiences ‘real’, or are they fake? Is it just acting, or a bad dream? The beauty – and the horror – of this film is that we’re never truly sure. The thrilling, horrifying depiction of neurosis and personal decay in a rapidly modernising bubble was mastered by Kon, influencing the likes of Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan.

Two decades on, Perfect Blue is prescient in its treatment of celebrity culture. There are some quaint, vaporwave-esque scenes like when Mima’s manager Rumi helps her set up her first desktop computer, a Macintosh Performa, and teaches her how to type in a URL. But the questions the film raises about identity in the online era remain unexpectedly current. It’s not long before Mima is clicking through the darker corners of her own fandom, discovering a site called ‘Mima’s Room’ (remember when sites were called rooms?) with a diary written as if by Mima herself. It describes her daily life with eerie exactitude, right down the brand of milk she buys at the supermarket.

Going by ‘Me-Mania’, the diary’s author stalks Mima and speaks for her, stealing a voice which is most often silenced. In her daily life Mima is passive: her managers and fans decide on her career, her actions, her identity. This leads to a personal crisis: the fans say the ‘real Mima’ is a pop idol, but her managers think she’s better as an actress. And Mima herself? She’s just trying to please everyone.

“Viewers are too used to being treated kindly, so I’ve broken this pattern deliberately” – Satoshi Kon

Soon Mima is hallucinating her own doppelgänger, a glowing apparition dressed in the tutu and white stockings she wore as a pop idol. The figure taunts her in mirrors and windows, a menacing parody of the shojo archetype, or anime’s magical girl.

The narrative fractures to mirror Mima’s mind, and Perfect Blue tells and retells itself in a style not unlike David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which would appear four years later. The film splits into parallel narratives, falling out of time and into nightmares (Kon himself commented that “viewers are too used to being treated kindly, so I’ve broken this pattern deliberately”) and Mima’s sense of reality slips away; soon she’s relying on the online diary to remind her of what she did that day.

The level of surveillance Mima is placed under, apparently normal in the idol industry, threatens her fragile sense of self. She even lives in a kind of panopticon: we see Mima framed in her apartment’s large window, Rear Window style, wholly without privacy. Her bedroom is dominated by screens and screen-shaped objects: there’s a TV, a computer screen, and a fish tank which directly echoes Mima’s living situation. The film itself is shot in a 4:3 ratio, that of pre-digital TV: Kon revealed in an interview that they “shot Mima’s room as if it was being viewed on a TV screen. This is because we wanted to give a diluted sense of reality, as if all of the events were taking place within a TV screen of some kind.”

There’s something viral about Mima’s fame: everyone around her sees her as their own, and their judgment is corrupted. Technology offers a way of seeing, but also leads to obsession. A bomb arrives in the mail. The phone rings; it’s the sinister sound of heavy breathing. Fax machines spit out pages scrawled with ‘TRAITOR!’ over and over (possibly the film’s most dated touch – who receives threats by fax machine these days?) while fans, directors and forensic photographers dart around with cameras.

Against this background we see a nascent social internet, auguring new levels of access and intrusion. The film takes place during an era of brave new online self-fashioning: on Mima’s train journey across Tokyo a billboard reads “An internet homepage: how you can make one too!

But what happens if someone else gets there first? It’s jarring how, when she first sees the Mima’s Room site, Mima is content to let her fans speak for her. Today turf wars over Instagram handles, hacked Twitter accounts and catfish stealing and using pictures are fairly common; social media accounts are a part of fame.

Kon would explores the theme of technology in later titles: Paprika gives us the “DC mini”, a computer which lets scientists sift through the contents of their patients’ dreams that falls into the wrong hands. Millennium Actress, meanwhile, casts technology in a positive light, depicting a colourful life immortalised under the camera’s lens.

But in Perfect Blue, technology forever threatens what it captures: before Mima is haunted by her own ghost, she is haunted by cameras. Her fans are needy and emotionally draining, sanctimonious “otaku” forever demanding more from their idol. In this regard Perfect Blue reflects its times: in the late 90s the hikikomori panic was on the rise (a generation of young people so addicted to the internet and entertainment that they would no longer leave their homes), aided by headlines about serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, nicknamed “the Otaku Murderer” by the press.

“A heroine loses her mind, but also learns that her brand of femininity is broken. It’s a message which still carries weight, not least in our online ‘microcelebrity’ culture”

Kon’s otaku character, Me-Mania, is an unnerving presence; his eyes are so far apart they’re almost on different sides of his head, as if his way of seeing is quite literally warped. The film is cautious of fan identity as a “neurotic sickness”, an untenable love which demands control. Within the first five minutes we see the film’s defining shot: Mima’s stalker standing in the audience, holding his palm under one eye as she performs on stage, so that Mima dances in the palm of his hand. There’s a sense of Mima being cannibalised by everyone around her, culminating in a horrifying, drawn-out gang rape scene which Mima agrees to act out for Double Bind, the TV show she appears in.

What first got me thinking about this film was a video titled “Why Perfect Blue is Terrifying” made by Super Eyepatch Wolf, a YouTuber creating (really great) videos analysing various anime. I spoke to him over Skype about the film.

“The film doesn’t really play into ‘slasher’ or graphic horror conventions”, he tells Dazed. “There’s just something gritty and horrible about it.” I ask Super Eyepatch Wolf if he sees it as critical of otaku culture, and he agrees. “It’s a very traditional male otaku, one who views women in a purified light. He sees her as pure and virginal and he wants her to stay in that box. In many ways that tendency is dying away now, but I still see parts of otaku culture where people are doubling down on it, pushing that traditional femininity.”

There’s something of the female Fight Club to Perfect Blue, odd as that might sound: a heroine loses her mind, but also learns that her brand of femininity is broken. It’s a message which still carries weight, not least in our online ‘microcelebrity’ culture. Super Eyepatch Wolf agrees: “I think in a lot of ways that film is more effective now than when it was made. Back when it was made it was talking about the Japanese pop idol industry, which was niche on a global scale. But now I see it as applicable to so much… everyone is able to put on that mask now, and there’s a real creepiness to that.”

One aspect of this is stalking, which has only become easier in the years since Perfect Blue was made. Search the term ‘stalker’ and you’ll find numerous celebrity cases (Rihanna, Sandra Bullock, Moby, Gigi Hadid, Kris Jenner, Kylie Jenner and Taylor Swift were in the news due to stalkers in the last two weeks alone). Search ‘cyber stalker’ and you’ll find even more.

Super Eyepatch Wolf has only been doing YouTube videos for a year and a half, but being part of this community has given Perfect Blue a new meaning for him. “I think when you’re gaining a following online, there’s this really beautiful period when people are just fascinated to see what you’ll do,” he says. “But the more you go into it, the more people are there to see you do what they think you do.” The film is a warning to anyone visible in public – and online – life: your audience risks being disappointed the moment they get attached.