Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue & The Pop Idol Industry

Like a lot of kids in America, my first taste of anime was the Sunday morning airing of DBZ, but what truly got me started down this otaku road was stuff completely different: Serial Experiment Lain, Cowboy Bebop, and Perfect Blue to mention a few. Spoilers after the cut, of course.

Perfect Blue hit American shores in late 1997 when I was around 12 years old. Up until then, my idea of cartoons basically boiled down to Rocko’s Modern Life and The Simpsons. Don’t get me wrong–I still love these shows, but Perfect Blue was like nothing my young mind had ever seen (since I was only 12, you could argue that it was something I should never have seen). From then on, animation held this unrealized (in America anyways) potential that few ever tapped into. I became an anime fan because it was the only possible way to watch animation that wasn’t automatically rated G or PG.

Perfect Blue, however, was more than just sex and gruesome violence. I didn’t love anime because I wanted to see this sort of stuff animated. What has always impressed me about Perfect Blue instead–and this applies to other works by Satoshi Kon–was the willingness to blur the line between fantasy and reality. When Mima was being chased by her “other self,” we knew it was really her manager, Rumi, but was that necessarily the case for either Mima or Rumi?

To Mima, the nightmare was still ongoing; her guilt and regret over choosing an acting career continued to haunt her even after Rumi confessed to being the culprit behind everything (the website “Mima’s Room,” egging on the crazy fan and of course the triple homicides). So while Rumi was chasing Mima across rooftops and through dark alleys, Mima mostly saw her “other self” instead. It was more than just a battle against a crazed former friend–she was fighting for herself, struggling to establish a singular identity.

The fight for one Mima.

The actress Mima finally won by pulling off Rumi’s wig, cementing the idea that the real Mima has changed for good. She may have wanted to be a singer growing up and she may still have regrets, especially considering how difficult it is to be a young aspiring actress, but the real Mima nevertheless made her choice to be an actress. Her pop idol persona was long dead and what haunted her was nothing but an illusion.

From Rumi’s perspective, she had completely lost her original persona, i.e. Mima’s manager. One of the movie’s weaknesses was its length; as a result, we hardly knew why Rumi was so obsessed with Mima’s identity as a pop idol. Nevertheless, Rumi had completely lost herself to the idea of Mima the pop idol, the young and chaste singer idolized by her legions of (sometimes crazed and creepy) male fans.

Only flashes of Rumi remained and thus we only saw flashes of Rumi in the final chase scene.

For some, the climax might have seemed odd. Why did we continue to see Mima the pop idol? How was she jumping and gliding as she chased Mima the actress? What I have been trying to explain thus far is that what we  saw wasn’t the audience’s perspective, but instead the perspectives of the two characters on screen. Perhaps this isn’t some great revelation to you, the reader, but I think this illustrates why anime (or animation in general) was the perfect medium to pull off Perfect Blue, especially for 1997. Assuming a small budget, could a live action movie have pulled off such a blend of fantasy and reality that would convincingly portray the mental states of both characters? I doubt it.

Perfect Blue also had a lot of other things going for it. Obviously, neither the pop idol (or aidoru) or movie industry is very innocent and clean, but unless most of us read or watch Asian news regularly, we don’t often get to hear just how seedy the whole thing can be.

First, the extent to which pop idols must maintain their virgin image is ridiculous. In Perfect Blue, we see Rumi’s consternation at Mima’s new actress identity. She is no longer clean and innocent, taking nude gravure pictures and taking sketchy acting roles to jump start her career. Mima’s former fans also voice their displeasure at the change.

For pop idols, this is really nothing bizarre. Having a boyfriend is often forbidden, but sometimes being friends with boys is all too much.

The girl at the end of this short clip cried backstage because most people ignored her at the press event. Why? Photos of her walking with a boy had surfaced. See the comments on Youtube for more details regarding her situation. Of course, these fans always have an excuse:

Fans raised their voices in indignation at the prospect of some schoolboy laying hands on their pure and virginal idol, citing it as being a deterioration of the group’s public morals, and thus damaging to the image of their precious group of pretty young virgins…

But do we really believe that public morality is truly at issue here? We don’t even know whether or not the girl above had a boyfriend or was merely walking with a male friend. Even if she did have a boyfriend to begin with, how do we even know that they’re doing anything indecent? This is the same industry that replaces someone as soon as she  starts to look too old.

Selling virginity as an image.
Selling virginity as an image.

Being an idol isn’t necessarily all glitz and glamor. Even seiyuu have stalkers so it isn’t a stretch of the imagination to assume pop idols face the same problem. For every young girl that makes it big, there are plenty of copycats that never quite make it. Making it big requires a lot of luck, but getting a leg up on the competition isn’t impossible; it’s just not always pleasant:

The other persistent rumor is that model agencies — especially for [gravure] idols — prostitute their employees off on the side. A lot of the lower-ranking and newer idols must pay for their own dancing and singing lessons and are allegedly introduced to possible “buyers” by management company employees to secure an extra source of income.


Sacked gravure idol 小向美奈子 / Minako Komukai, pictured, offers shocking revelations about the routine sale of idols for sex, saying in an interview that it is a routine side business for countless idols.

And not even boy idols are safe:

Kitagawa claimed he works only with boy bands because they are “easier to handle”, which would be fine if he didn’t mean it literally. Rumours had always been rife of him engaging with unsavoury activities with the boys under his care, and in 1988 Kita Koji, one of the original members of the Four Seasons, published an exposé that accued Kitagawa of sexual harassment and rape. Opening the flood gates, similar accusations from other ex-members came to light, with fresh exposés being published right up to this decade.

We might make the ridiculous assertion that these wannabe stars chose their own fate so, in essence, “they reap what they sow,” but the job isn’t as rewarding as one may think. From the same article:

….being a Johnny’s protégé is hardly a ticket to artistic maturity or even financial security. Most of Johnny’s recording artists are paid a base salary for their efforts, receive no royalties and have no rights to any of their music, their image or even the group’s name. After a few years in the spotlight, many Johnny’s bands are dropped without fanfare, and their members swiftly descend into obscurity and, most probably, depression.

Being forced into prostituion is hardly limited to just Japan. Korea has dealt with its own share of similar issues. Recently, a young Korean actress committed suicide. Suicide isn’t necessarily uncommon in either Japan or Korea, two industrialized nations with the highest suicide rates in the world, but the note she left behind definitely was shocking:

Jang Ja Yeon

Police have started investigating the authenticity of a note actress Jang Ja-yeon allegedly left before committing suicide on March 8. The note said she was unable to withstand the pressure of entertaining and having sex with program directors and corporate and media executives.

Perfect Blue merely scratches the surface of the entertainment business’s dark side. At approximately 80 minutes in length, you may say it hardly does any justice. Nevertheless, Perfect Blue is a one-of-a-kind unlike a lot of anime that covers the same subject. I vaguely recall a recent series. It was about a struggling idol group trying to hit it big with a hard working manager who yells “GANBATTE!” and everything is all cute and fuzzy (if you know what I’m talking about, please give me the name). Reality isn’t quite so sweet. Perfect Blue might be flawed, but it did a couple things: first, it opened a young kid’s eyes to anime’s potential back in 1997, and second, a recent rewatch got me to research more about the pop idol industry and learn just how horrible it is.


2 thoughts on “Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue & The Pop Idol Industry

  1. I absolutely love Perfect Blue, and to this day I hold onto it as a reminder of why I sift through so many shitty high school anime for the few solitary gems that realise some of the medium’s potential.

    I absolutely agree about Perfect Blue being near impossible to realise in live action for the same budget. It is a great strength of the medium, and I only hope we see another director with Kon’s adeptitude at mingling the real and fantastical.

    This ties into your “Am I an Anime fan” entry, as well. It really is nice to read entries from someone else who is a fan of Anime for its potential as an artistic medium rather than enjoying it for the ways it panders to their particular fetishes (giant robots, maids, etc.). I know you have no desire to finish Penguindrum, but for what it’s worth, I see an element of Kon is Ikuhara’s work. For all its flaws I believe Penguindrum is testing the limits of the medium, and I am immensely grateful to him for this.

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