A review requested by Taylor Black, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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In his horribly brief career that ended with his death in 2010, at the age of 46, animation director Kon Satoshi made four films and one television series, and nearly every one of those projects was a full-on masterpiece (the odd man out is 2003's Tokyo Godfathers, a very lovely, comfortably above-average feature). Even so, you really don't need any more than his 1997 debut feature, Perfect Blue, to declare Kon one of the greatest animation artists of the modern age. It is the film that best encapsulates everything he did: all of his subsequent projects are in one way or another expansions on individual elements of Perfect Blue, often very excellent expansions that build considerably upon its foundation. Millennium Actress continues the interrogation into how movies represent and distort reality, Paranoia Agent turns the caustic attack on Japanese pop culture and toxic fandom into an apocalypse epic, Paprika builds out the musings on how new technologies warp our sense of personal identity into a giddy dreamscape. All of them are marvels. But with Perfect Blue, you have everything, in 81 unbelievably dense minutes, and while it is visibly Kon's cheapest film, his fascination with how "realistic" animation can still benefit from the medium's fludity and expressive qualities, and how space and time can blur into smudgy streams of consciousness under the animator's pencil, emerges fully-formed in what is maybe his most stylistically ambitious and audacious film ever, if only because it is so close to being sui generis. I have absolutely no idea if anybody had done anything remotely like this in 1997, especially in such a sustained way; but I'm pretty comfortable declaring Perfect Blue to be one of the most extraordinary, unprecedented experiments in mainstream animated cinema that has ever been made.

The material is simple enough. Kirigoe Mima (Iwao Junko) is the lead singer of the modestly popular J-pop girl group CHAM!, but she's concerned that the pop idol scene is a dead end, and she has bigger ambitions anyway: she wants to become an actress. When she announces her immediate retirement at the conclusion of a show, her fans react with amazement and despair, leading to the first in a series of vaguely threatening messages that she had better return to singing, this minute. Nonetheless, she perseveres, and her agent Rumi (Matsumoto Rika) is able to secure her a supporting role on the grisly crime drama Double Bind (about which we learn not too much, though the pilot episode is obviously ripping off The Silence of the Lambs). Going from wearing frilly dresses and singing vapidities about love to playing the victim of a gang rape is already quite enough to throw Mima way too far out of her comfort zone, but that's almost the least of it: once Rumi sets her up with a newfangled computer so she can use this weird new toy called "the internet" (ah, 1997!), Mima immediately stumbles upon a most alarming fansite, "Mima's Room". Here, somebody is writing diary entries in Mima's voice, creating a rather thorough, unreasonably detailed portrait of Mima's life. And along the way, Mima beomes aware that she's acquired an especially dedicated stalker, a snaggle-toothed fellow calling himself "Me-Mania" (Okura Masaaki), who is not having this career change, not one little bit.

In hardly any time at all, Mima is well on her way to a complete break from reality, growing increasingly incapable of keeping Double Bind, "Mima's Room", and her own everyday existence separate from each other. She even starts to wonder if she's guilty of the murders that start cropping around her at about this time. And here's where Perfect Blue shines: it depicts the confusion in Mima's head with some of the most remarkable, deliberately unstable filmmaking that I have ever seen. You could, presumably, do this in live-action (as, for example, Darren Aronofsky did in his almost-an-actual-remake of Perfect Blue, Black Swan), and in fact that's how the project began its life; animation was pursued as a budget-saving gesture, and Kon came under a bit of criticism for telling a story of this nature in a medium that didn't apparently justify itself. How somebody could think Perfect Blue didn't justify itself is beyond me. Aye, you could do this in live-action, but why for God's sake would you want to? Animation is the ideal way to express Mima's increasingly disordered sense of reality, in part because animation is itself not real, no matter how close it gets. And of course, the closer it gets, the more that the unreality begins to gnaw and nag at us.

But it's so much more than that. Perfect Blue isn't just about reality and the imaginary in conflict, it's about how they start to merge, and I cannot imagine that being done with more grace and force than Kon and his animators depict that. Backgrounds can be unstable - entire human faces can be unstable, and in fact they are (one of the film's finest moments finds one character's face flowing into another character's face; something smoother and less obvious than a digital morph, it's more like the face simply rearranges itself while we're watching, but kind of without our noticing. It is a most wonderfully discomfiting effect). The fact that we accept animation as freed from physics in a way that we do not with live action allows this quick shifting between moments to feel more natural, somehow, more right, even if it is thoroughly distressing. A live-action Perfect Blue doing exactly the same things - tricking us into supposing a scene from the Double Bind set is real, leaving us confused about where we are physically and not being sure if that's because Mima is insane or because she simply stepped into the wrong room - would be a horror film. But because this all feels so smoothly done, there are none of the "jumps" that would happen in live-action; it moves us through a nightmare, but it glides. So instead of horror, this has the irresistible feeling of being drawn in by a Siren: watching reality unravel and Mima lose her sense of self feels like something inevitable and proper, it is the correct thing that our ability to parse the movie is breaking down with her ability to parse her own life. And that is far more overwhelming to watch than just any old horror movie about losing your mind.

This is all present most of the way through Perfect Blue, which makes a habit out of scene transitions that deliberately throw us for a loop even before the plot really kicks in. But it comes to a head in the film's outlandish climax, which combines everything. Mima doesn't know where she is, and we don't know what that means; we see an extreme contrast between a gliding, shimmering, weightless movement that feels perfectly ordinary and fine in animation, but is set against a clumpy, sweaty "real" run that feels off-putting precisely because it's not what animation does; the film uses cuts to surprise us with different possible realities, and it takes quite a long way to resolve which one we're actually committing to. It's one of the film's great triumphs that it clearly lays out a twist ending that fits all the data and makes sense, in the way that overbaked melodramas make sense, and yet it's impossible not to wonder if there's actually something else going on for several minutes after we know the "truth."

The result of all this is, firstly, one of the all-time great psychological thrillers, in part because the film is from head to toe interested in fucking around with perception and representation, and unpacking the psychology of the protagonist is basically the only plot. It's also a fantastic, heavily pessimistic prediction about how the nascent internet was going to enable our worst selves, and create a confusion between online and real world identities. So really, identity is the whole thing: how tenuous and contingent it is to have an identity at all, and the great agony that comes from being forced to peek into that deep, dark truth. It is a nasty, brutish, and short film, so it's no wonder that it's been stuck in cult film status for all of its existence, but it's also one of the most amazing, out-of-nowhere triumphs of the 1990s, and maybe the single most important animated feature of its generation.