Wednesday, 17 October 2012

“Excuse me... who are you?” [Perfect Blue (1997)]

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Dir. Satoshi Kon
Japan
Film #16, of Tuesday 16th October, for Halloween 31 For 31

The day the late Satoshi Kon died at 46 of cancer proved to be a deeply saddening one in 2010. Not only was a talented creator lost when he could have made more great films, but in the anime industry of Japan he was still considered a young upstart. Many directors and designers from Japanese animation, televised or film, of stature are older or old men, and there are not a lot of fresh visionaries to replace them when they die. This even affects people who have no real knowledge (or interest) in anime in that Studio Ghibli, which even the mainstream knows about, is mostly structured around the films of Hayao Miyazaki and to a lesser extent Isao Takahata; the occasional director who is someone else (like their last release Arrietty (2010)) is a realisation from the studio that once Miyazaki and Takahata have passed on there will be no one to replace them unless someone is given a chance. Unfortunately, the Japanese anime industry has not let new talent get the experience as much as it needs, and as most anime caters to niche fan bases who regurgitate other anime and short skirted schoolgirls, nothing really creative is getting made to push the exiting talent excluding the odd director allowed to follow their own ideas or studios like Studio 40C who used their music video and commercial work to fund their more unconventional projects (and one wonders, since they’re working on the new ThunderCats (2011) series, what they will create by themselves when they have time in-between it). To be blunt, the industry is in utter trouble if new talent is not allowed to breathe within it. Losing Satoshi Kon is a blow both as a director I discovered while getting into anime, and completely admired for his craft, and for the fact that the term ‘auteurism’ - despite the fact that teamwork and collaboration is needed to create anime and every member of staff deserves credit for a great work - in all its meaning of a distinct worldview and full creativity applied to him.

Originally supposed to be a live action film until it was decided animation would be cheaper, this adaptation of a novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi, and Kon’s debut, had an incredible impact after its 1997 release, even to the point of Darren Aronofsky buying the American rights to the film and replicating a sequence for Requiem for a Dream (2000). (That a live action adaptation from 2002 also exists adds it to my To-Watch list).  Retiring from the life of a getting-past-adequately pop singer to become an actress, Mima Kirigoe is faced with a harsh reality when it slowly starts to disintegrate on itself. Death threats escalate to murders and Mima’s personality seems to split into another version of her who mocks her and acts on its own will. As she sheds her pop idol image, from pressure from her manager, through acting out an rape scene in a popular television series and a nude photography session, the stalker who views her actions as traitorous forms into a full blown disconnection from reality for Mima between her life, her character and masks, and the days themselves within a packed 81 minute narrative.

The closest to what Perfect Blue is structured like came in 2006 with David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE, longer, more abstract, but continuing with a similar theme of an actress, an ordinary woman putting on masks for a career, being sucked into a vortex within herself as a result of an outside threat. That film dealt with a cursed Polish film, while Mima has to deal with her immediate past as an ‘innocent’ pop idol idolised and lusted after by otaku, and a maturing young woman who wants to become a serious actress, even if she hates the idea of doing sordid sequences for a TV show, just to prove herself and have a good career from it. Alas, the evil influence desires the old, now fake Mima, and pushes her to the point that she questions her physical existence. The scenes of her ordinary life blur with that of the television show, the sudden poor quality in colour of the animation revealed to be footage played on video on a TV screen, or dialogue linking on into a new time period or day. Even the ‘it was all a dream’ motif, infamous in some of its uses, is used repeatedly but in a powerful way as the repetition creates a nulling effect on Mima as she slowly becomes the equivalent of a walking corpse barely able to cope with the fear and misery of it all. The script by Sadayuki Muraiis is such a brilliantly simply one, structured in such a short running time, showing that this type of story is possible to do well; why it succeeds over many other films is that the others overcomplicate themselves or botch the structure of their plots. Finally viewing the original Japanese dub for the first time, what is quite a bloody pulp thriller is very carefully written, breaking its own form in the smallest of details down and subverting them. Even rape, an uncomfortable image onscreen in a film, is undermined as, when part of a recorded scene for the television show Mima is part of, she and the male actor who is playing the perpetrator interact as actors between the takes and the director says ‘Cut!’ to re-do the sequence from the beginning.

Satoshi Kon’s trademark was that the border between reality and its opposite (dreams, hallucinations, the artificial) was paper thin, melding into each other seamlessly as part of his characters’ existences. Even Tokyo Godfathers (2003), his most conventional film, has the buildings of Tokyo start dancing in their spots in the ending credits. As was the case with his work, the animation is exceptional, far from the stereotype of female characters with big eyes who look like young girls, a figure within a scene show in extreme close-up briefly showing the drastic contrast to Perfect Blue’s more realistic character designs, and full of detail in nearly every image. Kon’s trademark of the intangibility of reality is assisted by the fact that, as high quality animation, he was able to use the complete plasticity of the form, completely made from scratch, in the smallest or biggest manipulations and touches to create the world onscreen. The desperation the character Mima feels is exemplified by how, through the placing together of sequences or manipulating the content of them, it is felt through the environments around her and is influenced by her emotions. The music by Masahiro Ikumi is just as important too. Beyond the pop songs within the film’s story, his score is just as vital to creating the intensity to the scenes depicted, switching between an electronic score similar to the legendary one of Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and choral chanting that adds an unnerved air to the material too.

While a completely animated film, it follows through one of the basic tenements of genre cinema like this in that the worlds portrayed are reflected through the characters’ mental states. This theme has been very reoccurring in my choices for this project - Footprints On The Moon (1975), The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), Kill List (2011) (even if I felt the film was a failure), The Hands of Orlac (1924) and so on – all in very different ways and types of films but fully involving the visual and textual states of their filmic forms for the moods and atmospheres generated. Even Detention (2011), more of a comedy than horror, followed the same suit to reflect the characters’ heads filled with pop and retro culture. When Roger Corman himself, legendary producer and director of The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), described Perfect Blue as what Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock would have created if they collaborated together, it was very high praise, but his choices are also perfect for this idea even if my viewing of their films is limited. Disney, whose studio, regardless of your thoughts of them, creates new worlds or reflect ours through fantastical imagery, and Hitchcock a director who abstracted the ordinary in terrifying ways, his inherent Englishness fed between the provocations of striking tension in the audience influenced by German Expressionism (ie. The Hands of Orlac) and varying styles within the films I have seen, from Vertigo (1958) and its Technicolor melodrama to Frenzy (1972) and the grubbiness of British exploitation films that would be made through that decade. The films I have chosen, like Mima’s own realities, inextricably melded together as perfect bedfellows; even the dialogue editor for the English dub was Les Claypool III, not to be confused with the lead singer and bass player for Primus, who did the music score for The Guyver – Dark Hero (1994) too, another film I have reviewed for this season. This concept of a subconscious depth in cinema is the cinema I attach myself to the most, probably reflected as someone who for personal difficulties with a mental disability is withdrawn in new situations and is constantly in thought and daydreams when not interacting with people I am comfortable with. For me the philosophical concept of the world only existing within one’s mind and senses is a tangible concept even if there are plenty of justifiable arguments against it, and in such a world, these films which depict it as morphing, for the good and bad, depending on the protagonist(s)’s world view is a more realistic way to depict reality than actual reality many times. This type of cinema – from the Expressionistic to the Gnostic – is also a huge part of its legacy, not just in genre cinema but some of the most acclaimed (Ingmar Bergman, Jean Cocteau, even Jean-Luc Godard in his manipulations with cinematic form) and the most popular cinema (The Wizard of Oz (1939)) too.

Perfect Blue is part of a vast network of film history, and considering Satoshi Kon’s influences included cinema such as the 1972 adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5, this was clear from the start of his (sadly) short career in hindsight. While there is nothing wrong with anime referencing other anime, as with films referencing other films in the last few decades, unless a wide array of mediums are evoked or the meanings and origins of the fellow works are used as well as their iconography, a stagnation occurs. Even Quentin Tarantino, dangerously becoming obsolete in my eyes after Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) and Death Proof (2007), showed himself and detractors in Inglourious Basterds (2009) that the film geek who spent his youth working in a video store still could provoke fascinating ideas about history and propaganda, beyond cinema itself, through a reinterpretation of a Enzo G. Castellari film. Tarantino’s also-rans did not follow this, and with there being more of them than him, created more mindless copies of his work than anything with depth. Satoshi Kon was only one man in a vast industry and his passing has left a huge black hole in it. The films he left however will be remembered, and while Perfect Blue plays out like the crime thriller programme Mima acts in, or even closer to the Italian giallo genre in hindsight with its obsession with questioned realities and graphic violence, the elegance of the whole anime is unrivalled compared to live action thrillers as well, its crafted nature adding a sense of art to its layering mystery and psychosis that is unforgettable. 

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