Perfect Blue
Perfect Blue; poster courtesy of E Street Cinema

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Perfect Blue is a time capsule from the past—and the future. Released in 1997, the animated Japanese thriller about a young actor dealing with a violent stalker, as well as her own psychological deterioration, mirrors other great late ’90s films reflecting the inherent duality of life in the early internet era. As humans began to reckon with what it meant to be online—to have a handle, an online persona, a shadow self—films such as The Matrix, Fight Club, and The Sixth Sense, among others, reflected the anxieties of a bifurcated identity. Perfect Blue is different because it makes its fears literal. It’s a film about how the internet would disrupt our lives, made just a few years into its existence.

A cracked hall of digital mirrors, Perfect Blue is designed around a sturdy Hollywood trope: a young actor abused by her industry. Mima (voiced by Junko Iwao) is a teen pop star transitioning into an acting career. She has taken a small role on a procedural drama about a homicide squad, but the murders seem to be spilling over into reality. Crew members keep dying, and it likely has something to do with the strange man who is always at her public events. 

First-time filmmaker Satoshi Kon creates a dazzling pastiche, drawing from various tropes including Giallo (a gory Italian subgenre of horror that became popular in the late ’60s), the erotic thriller, and the behind-the-scenes showbiz story to craft a tale that feels both familiar and years ahead of its time. A key moment finds Mima buying her first computer—a Macintosh, which essentially serves as a Proustian madeleine for Gen Xers—and discovering a website called “Mima’s Room” that imagines her innermost thoughts. Soon, she starts seeing her doppelgänger, who claims to be “the real Mima,” wherever she goes. Is it an obsessive fan or a projection of her broken psyche? Much like other great doppelgänger films, Perfect Blue allows us to live in the question.

With its themes of perception and voyeurism, Perfect Blue is a wicked and thoughtful story that blurs the line between high art and good trash. It pinpoints so many downsides of the digital age that came to fruition: parasocial relationships, elevated levels of stalking, and, more broadly, the deepened existential divide it creates between the true self and the one we present to the world. But the film itself revels in this dichotomy, titillating the viewer with sex and bloodshed, its fantasy elements heightened by the colorful animation, and its perspective deliberately skewed through Satoshi’s clever narrative’s misdirection. At moments, it’s purposefully unclear if the horrifying events we’re watching are from Mima’s show or her real life, a precise representation of the young character’s confusion and the liminal space created by the online world.

Based on a decidedly less trippy novel, it’s a remarkable work of adaptation by Satoshi, who would make another postmodern masterpiece about an actor and her struggles in show business, Millennium Actress, in 2001. Like other filmmakers of the video-store generation, Satoshi is a product of his influences—Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma are paramount—but filtering them through a traditional style of Japanese animation brings in another theme: the effect of Western pop culture on Japanese society. In every stylish callback to his idols, Satoshi both enacts and critiques the anxiety of American influence.

Perfect Blue is one of those rare films that, in pulling together so many disparate threads, serves as a shorthand for its era. If you wanted to understand the late ’90s, and its explosion of sex, violence, virtual spaces, and celebrity, you could do worse than watching Perfect Blue. The punch line is that it also explains everything that has come since. 

Perfect Blue screens at midnight on Friday and Saturday at Landmark E Street Cinema. $13.