Perfect Blue presents a hallucinatory puzzle box that’s at once a disparaging, Hitchcockian exploration of celebrity culture, a look at fragmented identity and the nature of self, and a thesis on the encroachment of digital technology in the nineties techno-boom. Satoshi Kon’s celebrated animated thriller, based loosely on Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s novel, Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis, has continued to gather weight since its release in 1997 and in the wake of his death in 2010. Most prescient, perhaps, was its look at toxic fan culture.
Revisiting nineties properties, particularly those preoccupied with the digital, frames the internet with a strange kind of otherness. There’s a sense of possibility, and of fear, both of which went largely undefined. Some of these speculations have come to pass, be they virtual reality or wearables, but one of the realities of modern internet usage that the decades past failed to predict, was the internet becoming an avenue for abuse and harassment (in Perfect Blue, for example, lead character Mima Kirigoe is sent a threatening fax message). The internet is amorphous and last week’s controversy might not roll over to the next, but some incidents are paradigm shifts, leaving online communities forever altered. For example, comic book fandom and, by extension, the entire concept of fan culture, has been perturbed, with many cultural commentators saying it’s flawed at best and broken at worst.
Across all pockets of the web, you’d be hard pressed not to have heard at least a passing mention of Devin Faraci’s ‘Fandom is Broken’ piece on Birth.Movies.Death in 2016. In it, Faraci used Annie Wilkes, of Stephen King’s 1987 novel Misery, to highlight the dark and troublesome relationship that can occur between fan and creator in a pre-internet setting. It also asked what if Annie had had access to the internet – a frightening thought. Faraci had, in fact, dubbed Annie the “Patron Saint of Fandom” as far back as 2012, and she has largely become the unofficial face of fandom’s entitlement and near-constant controversy. In the four years since, with the rise of GamerGate and the vitriolic response to the all-female Ghostbusters, the fetid heart of fandom has continued to putrefy.
Fandom may not be “broken”, but it’s certainly in need of some reparation. Like Annie Wilkes, Perfect Blue offers an apt metaphor for the relationship between fan and creator.
The film opens in a series of quick cuts before the opening of a gig by idol band CHAM!, juxtaposing the girls getting ready behind the scenes and the waiting fans, most of whom are there only to see lead singer Mima. Some discuss the band’s latest release, while another group, who’ve frequented the band’s recent gigs, are all roughhousing, beer-chugging and always one comment from violence. One fan, a stalker identified only as ‘Me-Mania’ (a play on the pronunciation of Mima’s name), whose lank hair, bulging eyes and mouth of twisted, gargantuan teeth set him out as monstrous long before his actions unfurl, crouches by the stage, hand open claw-like so, from his perspective, Mima dances like a jewellery box ballerina on his palm.
Mima thanks the crowd between the penultimate song and the last to announce her intention to leave the pop trio for the bright lights of the acting circuit. But the yobs hurl beer cans at the stage, riling the rest of the crowd in her defence. Me-Mania steps in, inciting further violence, as the crowd hinges on rioting. Mima herself calms the rising tempers, and announces her retirement from the idol scene. The reaction from her fans is divided, some are shocked but accepting and settle for watching the development of her new career path, others opt for an altogether more aggressive slant. The aforementioned fax message she receives that evening, reads “traitor” over and over again. A hand-written fan letter also mentions a link to ‘Mima’s Room’ which her manager, former pop star Rumi Hidaka, tells her is actually a website. She helps Mima set up a computer and, visiting the site for the first time, Mima discovers it contains journal entries which purport to be written by her.
At first they seem innocuous enough, with a kind of insider knowledge that might have been picked up from interviews, but the more she reads, the more intensely observed and obtrusive they become. Unknown to her, Me-Mania is not only stalking her, but pretending to be her, acting on Rumi’s warped order. The entries grow more and more desperate and detached from Mima’s present self the further along her new career path she progresses. The lines between this digital imposter and her physical self are blurred, leaving her identity nebulous and her life a waking dream. Mima sees the Idol in reflections and in vivid hallucinations; she doubts her own existence, and is unable to differentiate which is her true identity.
Susan Napier used feminist film theory to dissect Perfect Blue in her essay, ‘“Excuse Me, Who Are You?”: Performance, the Gaze, and the Female in the Works of Kon Satoshi’, from the 2006 collection Cinema Anime: Critical Engagements with Japanese Animation, exploring identity, perception and performance. Applying the same theory some ten years later yields an even stronger case. Feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian has written and spoken extensively about the two ways in which online harassment typically manifest, being conspiracy theories and impersonation. Me-Mania’s impersonation of Mima first mirrors her actions – shopping, stepping off a train left foot first or feeding her beloved fish – but then diverges, morphing into an altogether different persona, an avatar of Mima the Idol in his image. It’s an idea that’s not that far removed from Vivian James, the idealised avatar of 4chan’s /v/ board.
Me-Mania’s impersonation might not be a direct result of Rumi’s exploitation, but is certainly fuelled by it. Her own impersonation of Mima steps outside of the digital arena, and is a mental and physical manifestation. Her split personality syndrome, while not explicitly defined, was tipped over the edge by Mima’s split from CHAM!. So enamoured was she with Mima the Idol, that her then dormant personality became the construct. The other ‘real’ Mima is an enemy which must be eliminated. The film uses this idea to explore identity and the idea of self, but read as a manifesto on fan culture, and a precursor to the internet sewers we encounter almost on a daily basis, it was well ahead of its time. Three fans discussing Mima’s burgeoning acting career after filming a rape scene and later a nude photo shoot, say that her fans are not going to like that. This ownership fans feel they have over creator looms large over the narrative.
In 1997, when the internet was still very much a loosely defined entity, online harassment and the notion of fan culture devolving into a savage mass of disgruntled, entitled and hostile voices could have been something from dystopian fiction, not the immediate future. Me-Mania is a Frankenstein’s monster, a perfunctory hodgepodge of the worst parts of fan culture, and the bile at the bottom of the internet, given form. And yet, there’s something to be pitied in his childishness, fragile emotional state and the ease with which Rumi used and exploited his obsession. It’s a cautionary tale, perhaps, for the entirety of fan culture, the good, the bad and the very, very ugly.