The Real Me: Exploring the Dark Side of Fame and Identity with Perfect Blue

(content warning: discussions of sexual exploitation, assault)

“Who are you?” The question Perfect Blue (dir. Satoshi Kon, 1997) asks its audience with regards to its protagonist Mima Kirigoe (Junko Iwao) is seemingly answered moments after the film begins. In the bustling streets of Tokyo, a crowd has gathered to see Mima, star of the pop idol trio CHAM, performing her farewell concert. We watch the group from the eyes of a man in the back of the audience. As Mima skips around the stage in her fluffy pink costume, crooning love songs to throngs of grown men, he holds his hand out to the stage and smiles: from his perspective, it looks like she’s dancing in the palm of his hand. Another man hurls insults at the girls and instigates a riot when he begins to pelt the stage with garbage. Mima, already nervous about announcing her retirement, drops her sweetheart mask and begs the crowd to stop.
Mima is introduced through the male gaze, and it’s through this lens that director Satoshi Kon explores the themes of identity and voyeurism at the heart of Perfect Blue’s story. For Mima’s legions of fans, she’s a model of purity: youthful, innocent, and demure. For her managers, she’s part of a machine: a starlet who needs to pose naked for magazines to be successful. As for Mima herself, she doesn’t know who she is. Everyone has a different idea of what kind of person she should be, especially her fans, and all of them feel like that gives them ownership over her.
Following Mima’s departure from CHAM to pursue a career as an actress, she lands a part on the procedural crime show Double Bind playing a murderer suffering from multiple personalities. Soon, the role begins to reflect her own fractured identity as she struggles under the increasingly exploitative demands of her new job. Many of her former fans are displeased with the new Mima; they would rather have the virginal idol they know and love back. Long before fandom-centric platforms like Tumblr and Twitter existed, Perfect Blue’s brilliant portrayal of the sense of possessiveness fanbases foster seems prophetic when looked at with a modern perspective. Even though Mima’s manufactured idol persona is the only perception her fans have of her as a person, they still feel like they know her. One of them even begins to stalk her. An anonymous message that’s faxed to her with TRAITOR obsessively scrawled over every inch of the paper sums their feelings up: Mima has betrayed them by no longer being the perfect, forever-young girl they thought she was.
As Mima sheds her wholesome pop star image, we begin to see how predatory the celebrity culture she’s embroiled in is. When a graphic rape scene is written for Mima’s Double Bind character, her manager Rumi (Rica Matsumoto) is horrified and immediately tries to talk Mima out of filming it. In contrast, Mima’s agent Tadokoro (Shinpachi Tsuji) cheerfully reassures her that it’s just business — all actresses have to accept questionable roles from time to time. Other characters in Mima’s life are similarly apathetic, ignoring the reality of her situation. The Greek chorus of Mima’s fans that appear every now and then to weigh in on her reputation seem like director Satoshi Kon’s critique on fan culture, but they aren’t very different from Mima’s fellow idols in CHAM, who salaciously gossip about Mima’s sleazy photographer and their old friend for agreeing to pose for him. Through them, director Satoshi Kon captures both sides of an industry that exploits women while vilifying them, demanding they expose themselves and shaming them when they do.
One of Satoshi Kon’s trademarks is his penchant for surreal visuals that blur the line between dreams and reality. Even as his debut film, Perfect Blue is full of such imagery. As Mima begins to lose her grip on reality, she becomes unable to distinguish her former identity as a pop star and her personal identity. The ghost of Mima’s past quite literally begins to haunt her as she experiences sightings of a ghostly version of herself, dressed in her old idol costume. Everything the fake Mima says is a reflection of what the real one thinks of herself, her inadequacies given form, her deep shame over the things she’s had to do for her career laid bare: “I know that deep down in your heart, you want to be a pop idol again. But you’re no longer an idol. You’re a filthy woman. Nobody wants idols with tarnished reputations.”
The tension between Mima and her former self gradually reaches a boiling point. During her photo shoot, Mima is once again visited by her doppelganger in the studio’s bathroom as CHAM, now a duo, holds a special concert on the roof of the building. The apparition taunts Mima over her degrading experience and declares that she’s going to go perform with CHAM. Before Mima can stop her, she flings open the door. Inexplicably, we’re transported to the roof where Mima’s doppelganger has joined CHAM at the concert, cheered on by an audience consisting almost entirely of men.
After all the strangeness we’ve experienced in the film thus far, we’re conditioned to believe that this is just another one of Mima’s hallucinations… until we see the other members of CHAM. As the fake Mima sings along with them, the girls exchange uncomfortable looks. Their confusion is so palpable that it becomes uncertain how much of this scene is really happening and which version of Mima is onstage (if she’s even there at all): the fresh-faced girl in pretty pink lace, or the haggard young woman with tears in her eyes. Perfect Blue never gives us an answer or stops to linger on other questions as Mima’s point of view becomes even more disjointed.
It’s been twenty-three years since Perfect Blue was released in theaters, but its critique of fame and self-identity remains strikingly relevant. Thanks to the internet, it’s more possible than ever for an ordinary person to become a star, beloved by an audience of millions. Behind our computer screens we create personas that only allow people to see the best parts of ourselves. When this curated self is the only version of you that people know, can it truly be considered real? Perfect Blue asks if we can face ourselves in the mirror and confidently come to the same conclusion its heroine does in the film’s final moments: “I’m the real thing.”