It sometimes seems that loneliness has never been quite so visible. The experience of social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic continues to trigger discussion around an ‘epidemic of loneliness‘. As a result, it can be easy to ignore the steady erasure of a certain kind of solitude. With many engaging in childcare, filling-in as surrogate teachers, strapped to laptops—in any case, the fencing-off of physical space has dovetailed with an exposure to all manner of invasive pressures. Such, it might be said, is the domain of the truly lonely: in which separation is never clean, wherein the suspended dimension of ‘the public’, nonetheless, looms while taking on an exaggerated, often monstrous, presence.
These tensions have only been exacerbated by the always-online info-blitz of early 21st century culture. To further this inquiry, it is worth turning to the anime films of Satoshi Kon—whose works have enjoyed something of a return for their insights into the current, online-addled, moment. Writing in the New York Times, J. Hoberman celebrates the animator’s ‘interest in the possibilities of cyberspace and the nature of mass media,’ sharing ‘as much in common with the work of David Cronenberg or Olivier Assayas as with that of Hayao Miyazaki.’
In particular, Kon’s debut anime feature, Perfect Blue (Pâfekuto burû ) (1997) provides an eerily prescient example of modern loneliness, set against the pressures and enticements of life on screen. Estranged from her former image as a glossy J-Pop idol, protagonist Mima Kirigoe’s (voiced by Junko Iwao) pursuit of a new career as an actor leaves her exposed to the predatory whims of the viewing public—exemplified by the menacing presence of a cyber-stalker. Immersed in—and yet starved for—an audience, Mima’s identity begins to unravel, upsetting the boundary between private and public agency, the desire to hide and the compulsion to be seen.
While Kon would die tragically young, (at age 46, after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer), his filmography has since acquired an impressive level of acclaim: bridging anime and the art-house. With high-profile champions such as Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky, the Japanese director’s work has become a by-word for those wishing to engage with the jangled surrealism of hyper-mediated life; writing for Little White Lies, Daniel Schindel states that Kon ‘recognised the disturbing possibilities of the internet at a time when most were preoccupied with its utopian, egalitarian future.’
Such is the stagecraft of Kon’s bewitching and bewildering animated worlds. With screens abounding— movies, mirrors, windows—every reflective surface seems to withhold some irresistible dream-visions of the self as it should be. Even moments of apparent isolation are confronted by the inducements of the camera. This is most vividly rendered in Kon’s final commercial release, Paprika (2006), in which the dizzying parade of the dream world is made viewable, and ultimately vulnerable, to the eyes of others. For Kon, our interior lives are inherently cinematic; dreams are shot in ‘panfocus’ (as Detective Konakawa wryly suggests). The camera swallows everything.
And yet, throughout Kon’s corpus there remains a yearning towards the outside spaces and limits of the camera’s roaming eye. In Paprika, the villainous Doctor Inui (voiced by Tôru Emori), opposes the hubristic ambitions of the DC-Mini (the futuristic tech allowing for dreams to be scrutinised), only to exploit the device for his own empowerment by the film’s end. Elsewhere, Kon is apparently more ambiguous. In Millennium Actress (2001), we watch as celebrity-recluse Chiyoko Fujiwara (voiced by Miyoko Shôji) is tracked down by a documentary team, including an avid fan. What follows is an eccentric production: part biography and part historical burlesque. Under the glow of the spotlight, we learn that Chiyoku’s acting endeavours have been a means of ‘chasing a shadow’: the sublimation of private melancholy, rooted in a fleeting, but romantically charged, encounter as a young woman.
At the heart of this is a mercurial attitude towards mass-mediated visibility; exposed, and yet lonely. Such tensions are likely to be familiar even to the most passive social media user, in which the exhibitionist’s desire to be seen and the hermit’s knee-jerk distrust of the superficiality of crowds strike a clumsy alliance.
While much of Kon’s all-too-brief filmography settles on a more affirmative note—resolving the conflict between icon and audience—Perfect Blue arguably remains the director’s most pessimistic work. Described by Vice as ‘one of the creepiest anime films ever made’, the film is stripped of much of the surreal exuberance characterising his later works. Instead, Mima’s fraught attempt to escape her former image raises uncomfortable questions about the loneliness of lives always-already-seen.
Opening during Mima’s final performance as a member of J-Pop three-piece CHAM!, the film quickly establishes an atmosphere thick with unease. Throughout this opening sequence, Mima’s choreographed gestures—the performers clad in pink Lolita-ish uniform—are intercut with moments of jarring normalcy; her journey home, a trip to the shop. While the reaction to the sleek performance is treated to a mixed reaction (‘pop idols just don’t make money…right?’), the domestic scenes feel consciously, and deliberately, watched.
As we continue to follow Mima back to her apartment, an uncomfortable degree of complicity settles over the proceedings. As in all of Kon’s works, Perfect Blue revels in moments of Brechtian unease: revealing apparently naturalistic shots to be the product of a voyeuristic POV. Evoking, in Kon’s words, ‘a diluted sense of reality‘, the soft shimmer of Mima’s home appears no less a media object—a screen image to be scrutinised by some invisible audience.
This is amplified further when Mima receives an unsettling phone call from an unknown figure breathing heavily into the receiver. Immediately, an anonymous fax is received: spelling out the word ‘Traitor’ repeatedly. As the sound of the machine vanishes into Masahiro Ikumi’s ominous score, the camera pans dramatically away from Mima’s apartment, revealing a single lit window set against the lonely Tokyo skyline. With all the panache of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), the scene dangles between feelings of claustrophobia and agoraphobia—the fear of entrapment, and the lingering dread of the outside.
Paraphrasing Jean Paul Sartre: if the look of others induces us into being, then it also stands as an urgent reminder of our stark objecthood. (As Sartre has it, an ‘irruption of the self’, through which the unreflective consciousness is dislocated into the world of others). Filtered through Kon’s self-reflexive style, Perfect Blue transplants this idea into the neo-noir setting of 20th century Tokyo—highlighting the loneliness of its protagonist, adrift within the mass proliferation of looks that characterise the entertainment industry. (IMDB)
Credit is due here to the highly oblique mode of Sadayuki Murai’s script, the exposition of the plot unravelling through snatches of gossip and rumour revealed in cut-aways to Mima’s invariably male audience. Unnamed characters casually dissect her image, picking apart her decision to part from the world of J-Pop. It is no mistake that we encounter Mima’s image on the front of a magazine before we meet the character in person.
All the while, there is a spooky sense of meaning being shaped beyond Mima’s control. It is against this background that we first encounter Rumi (voiced by Rica Matsumoto), Mima’s agent—herself, a former J-Pop idol. Defending Mima’s interests before an insensitive manager and unfeeling industry, Rumi is visibly discomforted: playing a key role in expediting Mima’s success, while remaining desperate to preserve her youthful pop image. Stuck in the middle, Mima finds little sympathy for her anxieties around the ‘suffocating’ pressures of CHAM!—a world of targeted gestures and mandatory cheer. ‘Smile,’ her manager instructs, ‘you won’t become a star like that!’
From singer to actor, a casual unpleasantness hangs over Mima’s professional metamorphosis. Worlds away from the sunny production of CHAM!, Mima’s first break comes with a small role in a trashy TV crime drama, appropriately named Double Bind. The initial paucity of the role is evident, with Mima’s followers scrutinising her performance (‘How many scenes was she in last week? Four?’). At the same time, the television cast and crew appear patronising towards her former J-Pop credentials, leaving Mima alone to practice her single line — ‘Who are you?’— one of many moments in which scripted ‘reality’ anticipates, and eerily absorbs Mima’s ensuing identity crisis.
While her mistreatment is palpable, Perfect Blue doesn’t shy away from Mima’s compulsion to remain seen. To the extreme displeasure of Rumi, we watch as Mima cheerfully agrees to the seedier demands of television: filming an explicit rape scene in a nightclub setting. As some have noted, this trajectory mirrors the lengths, often female, actors have taken to shake off ‘squeaky clean careers’ and ‘sweetheart personas‘. Where a different text may have framed this decision in emancipatory terms—an iconoclasm of her former CHAM! persona—these moments strike a more uncomfortable tone, with the camera poring over her body, intercut with the unsavoury injunctions of the male photographer.
Everywhere Mima turns, she is met by an audience—and a look, both alienating and captivating. Writing on this subject, academic Craig Norris argues that Mima’s change in career entails the collision of two different types of audience. Her ‘change from an idol singer to an actress […] marks a shift from an active, live audience to a passive, abstract mass audience’; ‘comprised of industry measurement data such as CD unit sales and television “people-meters”‘, Mima’s transformation brings with it a level of blindness to the largely abstracted and intangible mechanisms of popular visibility. Due to the sensational impact of her staged assault, the ratings for Double Bind dramatically jump, with Mima’s role rewritten as an increasingly integral part of the narrative. Her cynical J-Pop audience bristles in response, with one fan exclaiming ‘as always the public at large are all idiots.’
Indeed, there is something deeply peculiar about the popular celebration of Perfect Blue—a text that rigorously sends up the most unsettling, and possessive elements of fan culture. With the emotional tenor increasingly one of loneliness and paranoia, the popularity of Mima Kirigoe cosplays online is enough to give one pause. At the centre of this, Norris points out Kon’s appropriation of the ‘otaku’ archetype: a prevailing cultural figure of socially awkward, obsessive—and crucially lonely—fandom. Entangled within its own media image, ‘this representation of the dangerous and deviant fan typically evokes moral panic in the wider community and popular press […] Examples include the shooting of John Lennon by a mentally ill fan, and the murder of the television actress Rebecca Schaffer.’
Easily the most disturbing example in Perfect Blue can be found in the ghoulish stalker, Me-Mania—Mima’s ‘number one fan.’ Early in the film, we are introduced to the character as he pretends to cradle the dancing Mima in the palm of his hand. Conforming to our expectations of the otaku, Me-Mania responds with anger to her abdication from CHAM!—providing an obsessively personalised counterpoint to Mima’s largely abstracted fanbase, criticising her decisions from a distance.
With frightening results that still feel urgently contemporary, Me-Mania’s frustrations are channelled into an online diary, titled ‘Mima’s Room.’ Written in a first-person voice, as if by Mima herself, the webpage presents Me-Mania’s (voiced by R. Martin Klein) minutely detailed catalogue of her daily routine—including absurdly mundane information, such as which foot she uses when stepping off the train. ‘Someone sure knows me,’ she jokes, after Rumi sets up a computer in her apartment (a comic scene involving Mima’s irrational terror with the new technology). Punctuated by the supremely eerie sound design, the film lays bare the sinister potential of this platform (aggressively personal, and yet free-floating, without a body); ‘I am always looking at Mima’s room’ posts one commenter…
Increasingly appalled by Mima’s divergent behaviour, Me-Mania’s efforts to preserve his favourite star quickly turn violent. Orchestrated (as we later find out) by Mima’s delusional agent, Rumi, low level threats escalate to a series of murderous encounters with those involved in the production of Double Bind. Bridging the culture industry and the outer-reaches of fandom, both Me-Mania and Rumi desire Mima to conform to a static ideal of looked-at-ness—the latter’s CHAM! persona displacing the ‘real’ Mima as merely an ‘imposter’. In a gruesome narrative flourish, it is the eyes of the victims that are mutilated during the attacks. When seeing is the ultimate currency, where better to strike?
At the same time, Perfect Blue keeps drawing our attention to the ways in which the potential toxicity of networked audiences intermingle with an alarming receptivity from their captive performers. Most disturbingly, Mima is haunted by the presence of her CHAM! avatar—a malevolent precursor to the titular dream-girl of Paprika. The embodiment of what Mima’s audience ‘really want’, the spectre dances compellingly across the screen: more insistently real than Mima herself.
Tormented by her double, Mima’s failing grasp on reality leaves her increasingly isolated. Accelerated by the drip-feed of information from ‘Mima’s Room’, Mima’s unravelling psyche is evoked through sequences of bracing irreality. Highlighting both her revulsion and dependence, the invasive diary entries of ‘Mima’s Room’ serve as both an evacuation of ‘reality’, while also offering vicarious insights into her, increasingly rarefied, identity. In the words of Richard Seymour’sThe Twittering Machine, it seems to orbit the same lonely techno-sphere as Kon’s film) the logic of ‘exaltation’ and ‘humiliation’ are apt to blur on screen. ‘I guess…I went to Harajuku today,’ Mima blankly intones, finding images of herself shopping online.
By the end of the film, we ultimately find that it is Mima’s agent, Rumi, who has been ‘possessed’ by the same media image she had a hand in manufacturing. Dressed in full CHAM! costume, the film’s final conflict ends with Rumi detained, and a sympathetic Mima visiting the hospital. (Unnervingly, she is mistaken for a Mima Kirigoe look-a-like.)
And yet, it is perhaps fitting that Perfect Blue’s tangled conception of approbation and alienation, loneliness and veneration should be ideally expressed through the conduit of a CHAM! song. In one piercingly unsettling scene, Mima’s hallucinatory alter-ego reappears on stage—echoing the performance of the film’s opening. Where the J-Pop lyrics in Perfect Blue are often comically vapid, this ‘dream’ performance obliquely reveals the disturbing implications of the film’s desolate world:
I want to stay the way I am forever,
Walking past making a breeze,
Burning the scenery into my memories.
I am fine, even if I’m alone – I have finally found a luxurious loneliness.
As the performance continues, we are provided with a close-up of Me-Mania, glassy-eyed, in the audience; indeed, we are watching with Mima’s cyber-stalker—marginal spectators, in this instance, closer to Me-Mania, than Mima herself. With the ghostly Mima projecting an image of eternal, carefree youth, the scene’s invocation of a ‘luxurious loneliness’ continues to linger. After all, if viewers sympathise with Mima and the atomising effects of her life on screen, then Perfect Blue also confronts us with the devastating strategies through which the same affects fold into their mass-mediated celebration. With the music still running, Mima thanks the audience. Smiling, and with a skip forward, she disappears into the cheering crowd.
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Perfect Blue is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime.