CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of sexual assault, harassment, misogyny. SPOILERS for Perfect Blue (film).
Perfect Blue launched Satoshi Kon’s career with anime and showed Japan that he could tell a trippy thriller with deliberate deception and confusion. The film chronicles former pop idol Mima’s journey into the acting world as she sacrifices more of her formerly “pure” image to build a new one. As mysterious deaths strike the television crew, Mima argues with her reflection about whether she’s doing the right thing and starts losing her mind.
In the 1990s, when this film debuted, Perfect Blue accurately predicted a hostile atmosphere in the entertainment industry for women. Many real-life celebrities have to sacrifice their identities and images for publicity, as their managers and producers dictate. We can identify similarities between the #MeToo movement, both the Japanese and American pop industries, and Mima’s mind-breaking plight.
Four people want to own Mima’s public identity: her stalker Me-Mania, her manager Rumi, the Double Bind screenwriter who writes the traumatizing rape scene; and her other manager Tadokoro. They each have ulterior motives, and as each acts on their motives, tragedy ensues.
Me-Mania wants to own Mima the idol and have her return his obsessive feelings. We know him as a fan who volunteers at the concerts, communicates regularly via email, and has a violent streak. That’s about it; even so, his identity remains an ominous presence onscreen.
Me-Mania would rather have his delusional, artificial image of Mima than the living, breathing person that he pins to the floor and prepares to stab. He likes the girl who dances on the palm of his hand, not the woman on the streets buying groceries.
We see this when Rumi contacts him, posing as Mima the idol, and asks him to kill the “impostor” actress. He tries to buy all the magazines covering her character’s rape scene in Double Bind, implies that he killed the men tossing beer cans at her farewell concert, and tries to murder Mima when she protests that she’s the real one and not the impostor. This ends up undoing him; he notes that Mima fleeing for her life and kicking him in self-defense is her defying “the script,” and as such he isn’t prepared for her grabbing the first heavy object she can find and whacking him.
The screenwriter in contrast wants to control Mima’s changing image. On hearing that her managers want Mima to have a bigger part, he decides to cast her as the mysterious villain in the show, using the rape scene as the beginning of her character Yuko’s descent into darkness and trauma. While this leads to Mima’s stunning performance and cements her acting career, it also leads to Mima’s breakdown.
In addition, the screenwriter unwittingly sets the murders into motion; it’s implied that either Me-Mania or Rumi kill the screenwriter, luring him into an elevator by playing CHAM music. Then the movie’s plot truly begins, and the narration becomes mired in hallucinations and deja vu.
In contrast to the screenwriter, Tadokoro wants to ease Mima’s career transition without listening to her. Tadokoro means well, but he often treats Mima like a child and ignores her worries. This also reflects the idol industry he represents, which infantilizes both children and adults who perform.
We see this apathy when a letter bomb meant for Mima injures him; Mima tells him they should go to the police, but Tadokoro dismisses her concerns for his well-being and for future threats. He treats it as a normal threat that former idols receive. Like the screenwriter, he ignores the reality of the situation in favor of his image.
Mima starts the movie with a highly controlled, exploitatable identity that clashes with her real life. She has to play the part of a loving, chaste idol to a group of strangers she barely knows. Mima hates this image, as she tells her mother later, calling it “suffocating,” and we can’t blame her in retrospect. When Mima performs, she can’t be the same woman riding her bike to the grocery store to get pet food for her fish or picking up a quart of milk.
Acting seems like the ideal choice because you can change roles at the drop of a hat. And on the surface, it gives more freedom; she can choose her roles once she gets enough credibility and become the woman she wants to be. She wants to be more than a flitting fairy in a pouffy pink skirt.
The Real-Life Idol Industry
First, as a disclaimer and celebrity fan myself, not all fans or managers act in the ways that I describe. Fan culture can create so much joy and community, as previous contributors have noted. I’m focusing this discussion on the extreme but still troubling cases.
That said, in Japan, many instances of upper management controlling idol images occur. This control aims to please fans and enable entitling behavior, all to raise profits in entertainment. Idols have to appear as chaste and pure figures who can’t be seen drinking, dating, using drugs, or even gaining weight. The reasoning is so that fans can imagine they own this ideal of a perfect woman. Other idols face harassment from their managers and cannot speak up for fear of corporate sabotaging their careers.
As TheRPGMonger details in his video about Japanese idol culture, a significant portion of early idols were underage, underpaid, and easily exploitable; they could easily enter the cabaret or prostitution realms in the early seventies. Even as the industry improved, managers and executives still sought to control idols’ images. The lack of freedom appears stark and horrifying. Mima calls this image suffocating, and she has a point.
This image suffocation and fan entitlement is also true in the United States. Ariana Grande had a terrorist attack occur at one of her concerts, lost an ex-boyfriend to suicide, and yet people expect her to be a bubbly cheerful singer that meets all their expectations. Horrifically, some even blamed her for her ex-boyfriend’s suicide.
Britney Spears serves as an earlier example: the media gleefully covered her 2007 breakdown without seeing the warning signs in her early career. She explains that releasing her debut album at seventeen placed a lot of pressure on her and increased her anxiety, with no outlets or opportunities to take care of her mental health.
Fans that go on the attack seem to miss that these performers are also people, with flaws and desires counter to their public image. Me-Mania in the movie was an exaggeration, but he represents the extreme to which fans can go. They can then violate boundaries to get what they want.
A good portion of singers, like Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus, have suffered fans trying to grab them and invade their personal space. Selena Gomez also is dealing with health issues and had to take a break to care for herself. Across the ocean, Maho Yamaguchi of idol group NGT48 was recently allegedly assaulted by a pair of fans—and apologized for “causing trouble” after coming forward about it.
Note that these celebrities are relatively young women who started out their careers as children and had to grow up quickly to serve the industry needs. But there is still a presumption of ownership of their manufactured images, and a demand that they adhere to them.
Violent Fan Entitlement and Corporate Abuse
Many entertainers, mostly women, have found themselves in Mima’s shoes. Fans have assaulted, slut-shamed, and hurt the people they claim to love. In addition, upper management has also found ways to violate these women and use power to keep them silent, as we have seen in the #MeToo movement.
Selena Quintanilla, a popular singer in the 1980s, was murdered by one of her supposed fans. In fact, said fan was the head of Selena’s fan club and accused of embezzling $30,000 from membership dues. She, like Rumi, was highly trusted, and violated that close relationship. After Quintanilla’s family confronted her for the embezzlement, Yolanda Salvidar shot Selena.
Christine Grimmie, a 22-year old singer who appeared on The Voice, died in 2016 when a fan and a stalker smuggled guns into an autograph signing and shot her. He wanted to date her, but couldn’t accept the reality that chances were low because he didn’t know her beyond the singing. We also have the case of Rebecca Schaeffer, whose stalker shot her for taking a sexual role in an adult film when previously she’d played in a sitcom. Mima was lucky to escape with her life and that Me-Mania didn’t have access to a gun.
Then we have Harvey Weinstein, the epitome of a man who used his connections to abuse women. As Ronan Farrow chronicled in the New Yorker, Harvey Weinstein would rape and assault multiple women and use his connections to kill their careers if they dared speak up; these victims included Mira Sorvino, Rosanna Arquette, and Ashley Judd. These women were shocked to learn that producers would lock them out of roles if they didn’t comply, a fear that Mima faces when she debates on doing the rape scene.
The cost of performance that Mima faces in Perfect Blue is quite real and strong in film careers. Weinstein would also use psychology and female assistants to lure these women into a false sense of security, meaning he knew exactly what he was doing. The sense of control enthralled him. What’s worse, many people enabled him, including actor Matt Damon, who killed one such exposee before it could hit the press.
Weinstein used power and influence to own these women’s public identities. In the case of Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd, Weinstein blackballed them from Lord of the Rings. He painted them as trouble-making divas that were hard to work with, which stalled their careers. While Jackson didn’t make the film with Weinstein’s backing, the damage was done. It took years for these women to recover their careers.
Finding a Way Forward
We don’t know in the original Japanese version if Mima has truly earned her happy ending. She speaks with Rumi’s voice in the film’s last shot, but is driving her own car and has grown out her signature bob. The English dub omits Rumi’s voice for the last line “I’m the real thing!” which seems to confirm Mima’s recovery, but we have no guarantees.
Satoshi Kon has been messing with the viewer and Mima for the entire movie, refusing to draw the line between fiction and reality, between true and feigned happiness. The viewer has to decide if Mima has recovered from paying the price for her image change, if this last scene is real or another delusion.
Perhaps for the rest of her life she has to deal with the repercussions of filming the rape scene and witnessing the deaths that followed. Likewise, the real women who face similar struggles must live with them long after the general public loses interest.
Perfect Blue accurately predicted the compulsion for people to own celebrities’ identities, both as fans and as creators or producers. For businesses, the money is a high factor, and for fans it’s the sense of control. No one should own other people’s identities, either behind the scene or otherwise. And in an ideal world, performers and actors shouldn’t have to pay the price for wanting to change their identity or gain more autonomy.