“We are living in a fake world; we are watching fake evening news. We are fighting a fake war. Our government is fake. But we find reality in this fake world. So our stories are the same; we are walking through fake scenes, but ourselves, as we walk through these scenes, are real.” –Haruki Murakami
“As I was doing this character, I never really knew what her reality is.” –Ruby Marlowe, the English voice actress who plays Mima in Perfect Blue
The other day a friend posed an idea that initially conjured little reaction on my part, but since hasn’t left my head. We’re millennials with media careers, so conversations about and around social media are frequent topics for debate. This particular chat reached a familiar conclusion—social media was a net negative, and yet we couldn’t imagine a life off the grid. It didn’t even seem like a choice. Part of our identities, however small or large, are tied to a digital presence regardless of whether we are active or passive participants.
Both of us had been more active social media users years earlier, but had shifted away from it since. I remarked how I couldn’t imagine returning to that breakneck speed, to “living a life online.”
“It’s almost like you have to choose one or the other now: the real world or your online one,” she replied. “Don’t you think?”
I nodded politely while privately dismissing the idea as pretentious. I mean, none of us live in The Matrix—Morpheus has never presented me the choice between red pill and blue pill anyways. Was she visited by Morpheus and I wasn’t? Am I secretly living in The Matrix?
A few days passed and I wondered if maybe I was thinking about all this too literally. Modern existence forces everyone to inhabit different versions of ourselves, often simultaneously. Of course, as the work of sociologists like Erving Goffman demonstrates, human beings have always managed their presentations in different social realms. But digital life has accelerated and intensified these pressures—without noticing, you can lose track of your sense of self while managing the responsibilities of being a dutiful worker, romantic partner, digital citizen, and so on.
But these thoughts prompted by my friend’s query didn’t inspire me to interrogate my own life—instead, I just wanted to watch Perfect Blue again.
Any serious anime fan is familiar with the film, which celebrated the 20th anniversary of its theatrical release this September. Though Perfect Blue director Satoshi Kon isn’t the household name that, say, Hayao Miyazaki is in the West, his work is every bit as visionary. Kon’s career only spanned four feature films and a TV series before pancreatic cancer claimed his life in 2010 at the age of 46, but pretty much everything he created was a masterpiece, and his catalog has had a tremendous impact on cinema, influencing Hollywood filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky. That Perfect Blue was Kon’s first film is astonishing, as it’s on par with the boldest and innovative directorial debuts ever.
The movie follows Mima Kirigoe, a cutesy, naïve singer in the moderately successful pop idol group Cham, as she chases greater stardom as a TV actress. Fame is a deadly hypnotic element for Mima, like a moth entranced by the barrage of brilliant lights that so often frame our stars. Initially cast in a one-off part on the fictional TV series Double Bind, Mima accepts the expanded role of a rape victim offered by the screenwriters. Her maternal manager Rumi, a former pop idol too, warns against it, fearing the damage to Mima’s reputation, while fans accuse the singer of selling out—one anonymous fax Mima receives reading “TRAITOR” in big bold kanji.
But Mima has decided to become an actress, and real actresses film those kind of scenes. Like “Jodie What’s-Her-Name,” her greedy male agent suggests. In fact, everyone carelessly pushing Mima down this path is a man: agent, screenwriter, producers, the other actors. Later a celebrity photographer, another male, convinces Mima to strip naked for a photoshoot. Part of what unsettles you is seeing the workings of this entertainment machine, watching the gears dutifully spinning, indifferent to the fate of the young woman before them. You can’t help but shudder realizing that when this movie was released, a man like Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his powers.
Filming the brutal rape scene, where she’s victim to a dozen or so hungry men, and plummeting through this underworld of celebrity, unmoors Mima. Her sense of reality and sanity slip away. The line between her Double Bind character and original self all but dissolves. A question presented in Mima’s actual life is answered by characters from the TV show, and vice versa. Mima utters phrases like, “I don’t know what I think anymore,” her delivery totally serious. And when those predatory men are mysteriously murdered, Mima isn’t sure if she’s responsible or not.
Throughout the film, different presences begin haunting Mima’s periphery. Me-Mania, a superfan/Stan birthed from otaku culture, stalks her, documenting Mima’s every move on a fan site called “Mima’s Room.” In a move anticipating Gamergate and The Last Jedi backlash, he writes online that she is being manipulated, that the real Mima, the pop idol Mima, wouldn’t act this way—his new, fake Mima should be destroyed.
A Ghost Mima also emerges. Dressed in in her ex-idol outfit, Ghost Mima is all of Real Mima’s anxieties and suspicions personified—telling her she made an irrevocable mistake, that no one loves her, and that Ghost Mima will replace this obvious fake. If this kind of sounds like Aronofsky’s Black Swan that’s because, well, it should. Kon’s influence on Aronofsky is unmistakable, and Black Swan watches more like dutiful homage when you know the source material.
The Microfame Industry
Watching either of those films, you ask why anyone would chase fame. Inviting such intensive scrutiny and devious figures into your life, re-shaping its textures at will, doesn’t seem very fun—more like a minor episode of psychosis. And yet celebrity has never been more coveted. More famous people exist right now than at any other point in human history. Thanks to the internet, everyone possesses the tools necessary to transform into a “persona,” creating a model of life to be envied through clever Photoshop, consistent social content, and successful brand management.
An entire online industry has materialized, websites like The Shade Room or Kiwi Farms, tasking themselves with relentlessly chronicling and/or dismantling the gossip and image of the faux-famous. “Mima’s Room” run by Me-Mania, sadly, was just a hint of what would come. In one of the more harrowing moments of the film, when Mima appears most lost, she logs onto “Mima’s Room,” unable to stop reading about herself. “I guess I went to Harajuku today,” she says, filling in the gaps of her own narrative with outsiders’ information. Anyone who scrolls through Instagram after a late night can relate.
Even normal folk will recognize parts of themselves in Mima’s story. If you participate in social media, which is increasingly unavoidable, you’re allowing technology and algorithms to influence the products you buy, the news you consume, and the partners you date. You don’t need to be rich and famous to have the problems of the rich and famous anymore, you just need to be online.
Satoshi Kon once said that Perfect Blue is about “losing reality.” He didn’t mean insanity exactly, but more that, “When you are watching the film, you feel like losing yourself in whichever world you are watching: real or virtual.” If you ever intended to watch one YouTube video or episode on Netflix, only to binge hours of content, you understand the sentiment. A movie like Perfect Blue disturbs you precisely because it reinforces how easily control can be wrested away from an individual without their realizing.
The Presentation of Self in Digital Life
Right about now is probably where you might pigeonhole this movie as fatalistic and depressing, but Kon’s too clever a filmmaker to fall into that trap. A kernel of hope resides within Perfect Blue. Mima learns that her trusted ally Rumi has plotted with Me-Mania to kill and replace the actress with her “true” incarnation. Watching Mima’s descent into darkness breaks something within Rumi too. She remodels her apartment to resemble Mima’s and wears a blood-red replica of Mima’s pop-idol uniform, insisting she is the “real Mima.”
Though Mima defeats Me-Mania, she isn’t as lucky with Rumi, who chases her through Tokyo rooftops and alleyways, until Rumi finally pins Mima against a wall with deathly aspirations. “I AM MIMA,” insists the actress, trying to snap Rumi out of it. When Rumi-as-Mima calls Mima an imposter because “Mima is a pop idol,” Mima explodes: “LIKE I CARE. I AM WHO I AM,” read the English subtitles, finally claiming ownership over her identity. The English dub alters the dialogue to “You’re the imposter! I’m not gonna take this anymore!” I find the original more meaningful.
When Mima literally snatches the wig off Rumi’s head, the latter can’t accept her real face being exposed, and proceeds to incapacitate herself. On my recent watch, this moment reminded me how it’s considered rude in China to upload pictures of friends without editing their face first, giving them wang hong lian—“internet-celebrity face.” The film ends with Mima visiting Rumi in a psychiatric clinic. A doctor informs us Rumi is trapped inside this “Mima persona,” though Mima expresses gratitude, as Rumi helped her reach a peaceful level of acceptance. In the final shot of the movie, Mima looks in her car’s rear view mirror, and says, “No, I’m the real thing.”
Some fans have interpreted this final scene to indicate that part of Mima is still possessed by the specter of Ghost Mima, but I’m not sure I agree. In the same interview mentioned above, Kon says, “After going back and forth between the real world and the virtual world, you eventually find your own identity through your own powers. Nobody can help you do this. You are ultimately the only person who can truly find a place where you belong. That, in essence, is the whole concept [of the film.]”
Mima’s journey is not of someone choosing between one reality or the other, and neither is ours in the digital age. Her goal, like ours, is to discover who she is and remain grounded in that identity, as she navigates between the many worlds we all must occupy. You can try to be someone else, and even succeed in doing so, but as Kon and Perfect Blue suggest, the only person that hurts in the end is you.