Blue as in Sexy, Blue as in Sad: on Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue
Paris Hilton, trying to explain her singular appeal, once offered up two perfect and crystalline sentences of theory: “My boyfriends say that I’m not sexual. I’m sexy, but not sexual.” That there is no contradiction in this says a great deal about what it means for women to be “sexy,” and the fact that Hilton could identify this fracture proves that even if she plays a dumb blonde on T.V., she is no fool: while any star who has a sex tape cannot be said to seem virginal or innocent, her baby-voice and childish vibe lend her the air of a dumb, thirty-eight-year-old Lolita, so laid back and sweet as to seem doped. Never mind that she has grown her inherited fortune roughly five times faster than the President, or that the voice is faked. Sexiness is, at its heart, a hot illusion — one where lying, to paraphrase Natalie Portman’s mysterious, dual-named character in Closer, is the most fun that a girl can have without taking her hot-pink tracksuit off.
Some prefer it if this lie is one that neutralises, rather than enhances, the perception that a woman might present a sexual threat. In Perfect Blue (1997), an anime directed by the late Satoshi Kon, a pop star, Mima, has decided to retire from her girl group and become a T.V. actress. Because being a pop idol allowed her to appear sexy without being sexual, and because her new T.V. role requires her to strip and act a rape scene, her male fans are not particularly happy with the change: one, who is first seen at a concert for the girl group, holding up his hand in order to pretend he’s grasping Mima like a trapped bird, starts to stalk her. Faxes that say TRAITOR, TRAITOR in a brutal hand are sent to Mima’s home; a letter-bomb is sent to her on-set. Most unnervingly, and most presciently for a film that is now two decades old, a website that purports to be written by Mima, Mima’s Room, appears online, the entries at first filled with minute details from the starlet’s life, and later with ghost-written accusations of harassment. “This morning, when I got off the train left foot first,” she reads, “was when all the bad stuff started. l always make it a point that my right foot goes first into the train, and into the bath.” Rather than being appropriately terrified to learn that anyone might have been watching her at bath-time, she reacts as if the site’s attention to her personal affairs were flattering. “Someone sure knows me!” she exclaims, as if the stalker had correctly guessed her favourite colour, or remembered how she took her coffee.
Curiouser and curiouser, the narrative begins to rupture. The catalyst is the rape scene, orchestrated in a strip club and pitched somewhere between titillating and traumatic, after which the actress and her character both start to lose their minds, and blur; a second Mima, still dressed as a pop star, begins to appear to the real Mima like an apparition, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a very girlish, very doll-like incel. “You're no longer a pop idol,” the imagined Mima hisses, sounding like nothing so much as a 4Chan post about Britney Spears, “you're a filthy woman now. Nobody likes idols with tarnished reputations!” The idea that pretty, poppy famous women crucified for being “filthy” are not popular is, like the doubled Mima, simultaneously two things at once: true, and a lie. It would be better to say that they are liked in a different way, one that is crueller, camper, or more violent than the love that they receive when they are pristine, clean as air. Mima’s fans, all male, read Mima’s Room religiously, finding it easier to believe that she would write things like: “I don't want to do that drama anymore! The producer is a total pervert, and my role is really screwed up!” or “Everyone is forcing me to do it! It's all the screenwriter's fault!” than to believe that Mima might have wanted to act in a rape scene, or to be photographed naked for a soft-core magazine.
“Maybe [the dreamed Mima] is more like me than myself,” Mima says. “My other self that I buried deep within my heart. What if that other personality suddenly started acting on its own...?” Many of Kon’s pet themes in filmmaking cross over with the mutant pet themes of another surrealist director, David Lynch, though critics writing about Perfect Blue most often cite Mulholland Drive (2001) as the Lynch film most like its mirror image, when its closest kin is Inland Empire (2006): the last in his L.A. trilogy, it is also about an actress, and its narrative is also fractured and uncertain, dreamlike in the manner of a dream on Ambien, but it shares its confusion of on-set and off-set scenes and vignettes with Kon’s film, and two of its eeriest scenes involve a woman coming face-to-face with her own doppelganger. “There is a very clean divide in Mulholland Drive between a woman’s dreams and waking life, but the walls between the two are completely dissolved in the more fragmentary Inland Empire,” the critic Ed Gonzalez wrote at Slant, “[which] doesn’t so much fall into the abyss as it resides in it, telegraphing dizzying sounds and visions.”
Inland Empire’s film-within-a-film is called On High in Blue Tomorrows, and features a character named Sue Blue. To see references to blue in Lynch is hardly unusual, it being the shade of blue roses, blue velvet and the clear skies of the suburbs, as well as reportedly his favourite colour, but in Inland Empire as in Perfect Blue, there is a method to the movie’s blueness: a stand-in for blankness, or for the unreal, or for a slipstream between light and dark. A blue and cloudless sky, as seen in the last scene of Perfect Blue, is hopeful during daylight, and a shroud-like cover for nefariousness at night. In both films, too, it is a sex scene or a rape scene that undoes the girl. In Inland Empire, sleeping with her co-star despite being married is the catalyst for Nikki, just as Mima’s simulated gang-rape scene heralds the start of her confusion over the boundaries of life and cinema, the real and the unreal; sex and rape, to differing degrees and in extremely different ways, are transformative, and film directors never tire of using one or both as reasons for a woman to become one or more new and different selves. "Inland Empire...has to do with adultery,” Stephanie Delorme wrote in Cahiers Du Cinema, “and stirs up its fruits feverishly: seduction, easy sex, treason, guilt, depreciation (as far as prostitution), jealousy, vengeance, bastard child, recomposed family, so many obsessions unfurled in disconnected scenes which, connected together by marital chains, form the empire.”
Guilt then, and not sex, is the mind-killer, and the undoing of both actresses. In Perfect Blue, Mima’s mental break has less to do with her newfound exposure than her earlier repression, and the T.V. rape scene’s sordidness is down to a dead-split of directorial sleaziness, and the sex-negative aggression of her fans. (Just like Mima, Paris Hilton has admitted that her body being public knowledge traumatised her, feeling more like rape than like a stepping-stone for stardom. “It felt like I'd lost part of my soul and been talked about in such cruel and mean ways,” she explained in The American Meme (2018), a depressing documentary about being famous online. “I literally wanted to die at some points. I was like, ‘I just don't want to live,’ because I thought everything was taken away from me.” In the sex tape, which is in night-vision as if it were a horror film, she looks half dead-bored and half literally dead, making it neither particularly sexual nor especially sexy.) “It’s not as if I’m actually getting raped,” Mima says to her agent when she is first shown the screenplay, provoking dread in any viewer who is even slightly familiar with the cinematic technique of foreshadowing, and making the faked scene a kind of Chekov’s rape when, in the last act, she is seemingly attacked for real on the same set.
In the same week I watched Perfect Blue, I read the novel Piercing by Ryu Murakami: published first in Japanese, three years before Kon released his film, it is the story of two psychopaths who turn out to be perfect for each other, and another Tokyo-set psychosexual thriller about psychic pain, split selves. Keen to sublimate the sudden urge he feels to kill his newborn baby with an ice-pick, Kawashima Masayuki hires a sex-worker and plans to kill her; what he does not know is that the prostitute, whose name is Chiaki, is an abuse-survivor, pill-addicted and dissociative and as insane as he is. It is a classic tale of would-be-murderer meets would-be-victim until somewhere around page 150, at which point Chiaki sees red, slips him two violet pills, and in her blue mood devises an unusual use for an especially heavy-duty kitchen tool. Madness and sexuality, as in both Inland Empire and Perfect Blue, are linked, and though Masayuki’s troubled childhood leaves him compelled to hurt others, Chiaki’s abuse by bad men mostly leaves her carving chunks out of herself. Periodically, sex results in her entering a fugue state where she feels no pleasure, dissociative and prone to reaching for a knife, a pair of scissors, to bloodily and irreparably expel the poison.
“She’d have the creepy sensation,” Murakami writes, “that What’s-her-name was up on the ceiling, watching. Of course, Chiaki thought as she rolled her panties down, I know perfectly well who What’s-her-name is. What’s-her-name is me, watching myself have sex. At first I used to ask her not to look at me like that, but all she would do is snicker, so I stopped. Besides, I was afraid that if I talked to her too much I might divide into two separate people.” Mima, face-to-face with her own What’s-her-name in her apartment, cannot help but argue with her, and the argument does little but encourage her ghost-self to take the spotlight. “From now on,” it crows, “I'll be in the light, and you'll be in the shadows.” From here, things get darker: Mima begins to have dreams of murder, and then wakes to find the victims really dead. She finds a shopping bag, marked with the slogan of a store that she has never visited, shoved deep into her closet, soaked in blood. She says things, means them, and then realises that she is reading from a script — just like an actress, yes, but also like a woman learning to negotiate a fucked-up, very gendered status quo.
It was no surprise to learn that Darren Arronofsky, a devotee of Satoshi Kon, had bought the remake rights for Perfect Blue, presumably abandoning the idea after making his own less-than-perfect, deadeningly-monochrome take on the story with the ultra-camp Black Swan (2010): turning Mima into Nina, and making a prima ballerina out of a struggling T.V. actress, Arronofsky’s take is somehow too dumb by virtue of trying to make the smarter choice. The fact that Kon and David Lynch have both, in Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress (2001), and Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, used actresses as vehicles to express the shattered interior lives of certain women, and by proxy the necessarily dissociative interior lives of women who are public figures, is illustrative not of the metaphor being too obvious, but of it being perfect. A quote I love just as much and return to almost as often as the Paris Hilton line about her sexiness is one from Delphine Seyrig, the French feminist filmmaker, who once said: “The common denominator that I share with all women is that I’m an actress. Actresses do what all women are expected to do. We just throw ourselves into it more.” When Me-Mania, the stalker, is implied to be the one maintaining Mima’s Room, he is seen in dialogue with Mima’s double; her submissiveness and sweetness could not seem more like an act, and so accordingly more like a male ideal. “I won't change one bit,” she promises, her voice a coo. “I'll always be with you.”
“Female characters,” Satoshi Kon has said, “are easier to write. With a male character I can only see the bad aspects. Because I am a man I know very well what a male character is thinking… On the other hand, if you write a female protagonist, because it's the opposite sex and I don't know them the way I know a male, I can project my obsession onto the characters and expand the aspects I want to describe.” Like Lynch’s, his depictions of the dynamic between desiring men and desirable women feel recursive, drawn from within and without, and like the solutions for Lynch’s most puzzling and most dreamlike films, the final act of Perfect Blue does not entirely explain the sixty or so minutes that precede it. The false Mima turns out not to be entirely a figment, but instead a character adopted by the real girl’s agent, Rumi (as in, presumably, “R U Me?”) — a former pop idol herself, now too old and unpretty to appear crucially fuckable and unfucked, she first broke on seeing Mima quit her teenybopper job to film the rape scene, and has since been orchestrating a campaign of sick revenge. In character, Rumi convinced Me-Mania to attempt to rape and murder Mima, and in character, too, she killed a producer, a photographer and a screenwriter, all responsible for Mima’s new and newly-sexual image. In the mirror, she is two women: one Mima’s double, coltish and near-teenaged, and one middle-aged and thick.
Mima, taken home by Rumi after Me-Mania’s planned attack, first begins to unravel the deception after noticing that the room she has lately woken up in is both hers and not hers, a near-replica designed to hold her captive in the recent past. A poster for her girl-group, CHAM!, is on the wall, despite having been pulled down in the first act; outside, there is an entirely new view. It is disorienting, ingenious, and a subtle enough substitution of the unreal for the real that for a moment, it is plausible that Mima has imagined it. Disorienting and ingenious in a different way is Rumi’s presentation as two women, one imagined and one in the mirror, when without the mirror’s cruelty to remind us it is not unusual to think of ourselves differently: as younger, more desired, less defiled by touch. Shattering a pane of glass while chasing Mima through the streets of Tokyo, Rumi impales herself, and screams like Laura Palmer at the very end of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). It is the momentary breaking of a spell. Seeing clearly, she adjusts her wig and walks into the road in front of an oncoming truck, meaning to die, as if death were a fate significantly less alarming than the experience of no longer being young and beautiful.
She may be right, since Mima’s pop idol persona, a vessel for male desire as clean and transparent as an empty glass, is as easily broken as it is transferred to a new girl. Those who have not paid very, very close attention will not know the difference. Saved at the last minute by her former client, Rumi ends the film hospitalised and gibbering, and still admiring her not-self in the mirror; both undone by the same mocked-up rape scene, both women are equally, immeasurably fucked, and although Mima ends the film by saying “I’m real,” whether or not the statement is an accurate one is debatable. Better to be a perishable, sexy-but-not-sexual lie than somebody who ages, and better to see somebody else when looking in the mirror than oneself. Another, simpler way to put this might be: it is better to seem perfect than to feel blue. Lying is the most fun that a girl can have without taking her stage persona off.