It's not surprising to discover that Perfect Blue was originally supposed to be filmed using humans. After all, the debut of director Satoshi Kon, who has worked on other Japanese animated films, is the very antithesis of most anime. Meaning, there are no sci-fi action sequences, no lavish fantasy settings, no robot rapes -- none of the stuff that makes anime the favorite medium for grown-up adolescents loath to kick their comic-book habits. The film was originally set to feature actors, but the Kobe earthquake of 1994 sidelined production -- until the filmmakers decided to go the animation route, which is hardly surprising, since the Japanese have remained faithful to cartoons' adult-oriented roots and made a nifty pile of cash off the anime business. But it was an unfortunate decision, since Perfect Blue would have been a far better film had it been live-action.
The reason: A cartoon character's eyes are forever blank, revealing absolutely nothing. They're blank slates instead of reflecting pools. A cartoon character, quite simply, cannot show fear -- and fear is the prime ingredient in a thriller such as the unfortunately titled Perfect Blue (c'mon, it sounds like porn). We can invest nothing in these characters, because they offer nothing in return; they stare only at themselves. Watching a cartoon, no matter how bloody its action (and this one is occasionally gruesome) or how "adult" its themes, accords nothing but the most empty of thrills. And Perfect Blue is a barren thriller, cheap and obvious -- and titillating, if for all the wrong reasons.
Deep down, it's perhaps meant to be a scathing commentary on the ease with which the entertainment industry exploits, cheapens, and commodifies. A young girl ditches her music career in hopes of becoming an actress, only to end up being raped on film and posing for nude pictures; it's the age-old tale of how simple it is to wind up in the entertainment-biz trash heap, destroyed and discarded. Throw in a stalker and the (way too literal) ghost of innocence lost, and you're golden -- even if the thing does play at times like an outtake from Heavy Metal.
The only problem is, Perfect Blue works at the most obvious, base level: It celebrates the very thing it criticizes, throwing in enough cartoon skin to satisfy the very audience it seeks to condemn. That, and it contains the most puerile dialogue this side of a WB drama: "The pop-idol image is suffocating me," our heroine tells her mother, explaining why she's leaving the music business. Ah, so dramatic. (At this point, I am starting to believe that anime fetishists are the same guys who refer to comic books as "graphic novels.")
Boiled down, Perfect Blue plays like a variation on The Courtney Love Story, at least as it might appear on the USA Network. Mima's a 21-year-old "pop idol" in the teenybopper trio Cham, sporting pink baby-doll dresses while singing cotton-candy ditties that sound like Britney Spears knockoffs. But as the film opens, Mima has decided two and a half years as a pop star is enough, especially since her band has never even had a hit single; she wants instead to get into acting, having been offered a small recurring part on a TV drama. "I really hope that I can entertain you just the same as an actress," she tells the audience during her final concert appearance -- which seems to take place at some outdoor mall filled with about 73 fans, all older than 30.
The trouble is, Mima's farewell is marred by a blank-eyed, trouble-causing zombie who's likely the stalker sending her notes that read, "I always like looking into Mima's room" and, simply, "Traitor." He also runs a Web site devoted to Mima, containing a diary allegedly written by her that contains every mundane detail of her life and even her most private thoughts. The stalker's room is, of course, wallpapered with posters of his prey.
The TV show on which Mima lands her first acting job has, vaguely, the same plot as Silence of the Lambs: A serial killer peels off the skin of his female victims in order to become a woman (thus, you get twice the violence at half the price). Hers is nothing but a walk-on role, until the producers decide Mima needs a drastic image overhaul -- which entails filming her being raped by the customers of a strip club. (Despite being animated, and despite the fact that it takes place in front of a camera, Mima's "rape" is still a bit overwhelming; no amount of animated distance can blunt such moments.)
Suddenly, Mima is haunted by a glowing, floating apparition of her former pop-idol self, who keeps showing up to insist that Mima the actress is nothing but a tarnished, tawdry "slut" who sold out. Worse, she begins receiving threats in the mail -- including an exploding letter, which goes off in the hand of her manager; eventually, her friends and business associates start winding up dead. The kick here is that Mima's being punished for abandoning her pure pop world for the evil sleaze that is the acting biz -- as though the music business is a far more chaste and noble realm for washed-up pop idols. Hardly the sturdy stuff of which cautionary tales are made -- especially when it all still looks like Speed Racer, only with nipples.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.