This is the face of someone realising their career is over. A career that was never in their control to start with. Not really. A career in an industry that commodifies young, vulnerable women and men, chews them up and spits them out, lost, in just a few short years. Despite this ridiculously short shelf life, it’s an industry the young are desperate to get into, an industry the country of Japan thrives upon, cheers for, and pours ludicrous amounts of money into. At the top, it’s an opulent business; singing and dancing and crying on a national stage. These men and women can go on to become lifetime entertainers, TV hosts, and celebrity personalities. But down amongst the thousands of would-be stars, of stars who haven’t quite made it, and probably never will, it’s another world. A life of small gigs on a tiny salary,
only to fade into obscurity. Idols are famous for being famous. Their lives have been commercialised, and they in turn have become a product, to be bought and sold with all the die-hard loyalty, and obsession, these products endear. Much like anything on the market, however, the worm turns surprisingly fast. To be a successful idol is to understand the fickle nature of human emotion. You may be thinking ‘this is no life to aspire to’, that this isn’t really a life at all. and you’re right.
This isn’t life – not as we know it. This… …is IDOL. Idols are an institution in Japan. But the culture surrounding them is difficult to understand from an outside perspective. Especially when you take into consideration the recent boom of the virtual idol – digital avatars that are every bit as popular as their flesh and blood counterparts. Seeing thousands of adults buy expensive tickets to shake glowsticks at a hologram might be a little confusing, but then again, maybe it isn’t. Idol is often mistake for celebrity to non-Japanese audiences, akin to a Hollywood star or a musical icon. But these comparisons wildly miss the mark. Whilst most idols perform in some way, these skills are entirely secondary. In fact, some of the best all-singing, all dancing idols are paradoxically untalented in those fields. To be an idol is to provide an unspoken service to legions of loyal fans. To be a fixed point in their lives, and something to hold onto when times get tough. To professionally fake a relationship with hundreds, even thousands of individuals. To be an idol is to understand that this is all much more than a simple transaction. With the rise of streaming services in the last few years, the West may finally have it’s counterpart to idol culture. To worship an idol, to follow someone on Twitch or to subscribe to a Youtuber, as many of you have to me, we’re engaging in a strange relationship that’s entirely new to our generation. A relationship whose boundaries and ramifications are foggy at best But whilst Western culture seems intent on reminding everyone involved that, for the most part, these relationships begin and end inside the monitor, Japan’s idol phenomenon does the opposite. Through the aggressive marketing and commodification of idols – of people – the industry sidesteps the ugly, fictional nature of these relationships, and instead assures its fans that these stars are part of your lives, or at least, they can be, for the right price. Through premium concerts, meet-and-greets, handshake events, stacks of merchandise and expensive gift-giving, die-hard fans are likely to pour vast amounts of money into an industry that promotes a premium delusion. That, by going to every show and buying every piece of merch available, you’ve essentially bought into a relationship with an idol. That you’ve somehow bought a little piece of them. The idol industry knows the power of this relationship, and does everything it can to protect that fantasy, famously prohibiting idols from dating so as not to spoil the illusion. As archaic as it may seem, an idol’s most valuable selling point may well be their purity. It’s easy for non-Japanese onlookers to view these relationships as unhealthy and strange, even predatory in nature, but make no mistake – it is a relationship. One between two willing participants that, in their healthy forms, are both understanding that this is ultimately a fantasy. Sadly, thanks in part to an industry that is more concerned with a bottom line than it is the safety of its stars or audience, and the nature of the vulnerable people that make up both idol and fan, miscommunications happen. Like any business so intricately, inextricably tied to the mess that is human emotion, to play idol is to walk a tightrope. A tightrope that many tumble from. Perfect Blue is the story of one such fall from grace. Perfect Blue is possibly Satoshi Kon’s most enduring work. An artist who left us with a small but stunning portfolio of knockout films. Indeed, everything that Kon directed truly verged on perfection. Fittingly, Perfect Blue is no exception. A film that can only be described as a trip, a tumble, perhaps, down a rabbit hole of paranoia, self-doubt, fear, and a whole host of other such delectable insecurities. Kon often traded in overt negativity, which is why when his works end on an uplifting or spiritual note, they ring true and feel earned. Kon isn’t interested in the saccharin. He’s obsessed with humanity, as dirty and as twisted as it may be. It takes a master to balance these feelings and not end up with a movie that feels like a complete bummer. Kon does so deftly as he explores duality. In each film, he mines a different dichotomy: dreams and reality, the past and present, the family you’re given, and the family you choose. In Perfect Blue it’s the self, and the alter-ego. Not in a trite, comic-book way, mind you, but in the stark difference of who we are, and the often vastly different person we present ourselves to be. With the explosion of the internet, we’ve all been afforded an opportunity to play with this dichotomy ourselves, And there’s likely few amongst us where these alternate personas don’t diverge significantly from who we truly are. But, in 1997, in the year of Perfect Blue’s release, and at a time when the web was still a novelty, rather than a lifestyle, Kon found this battle raging at the heart of the idol industry instead. Exploring the pastel-hues and endless frills of a young, Japanese idol, and the perfectly average life she lives once she removes that costume. Based off a novel called ‘Complete Metamorphosis’ by Yoshikazu Takeuchi, Perfect Blue follows the up-and-coming idol Mima, as she discovers a darker underbelly to the industry she was so desperate to become a part of, and explores the tenuous relationship between idol and fan. Originally planned to be a live-action adaptation, the destructive Kobe earthquake of ’95 tore apart the studio, and the choice was made to slash the films budget and instead release it as an animated feature. A young, fairly inexperienced Kon was saddled with the title, making his theatrical debut as a director on a project he didn’t really believe in. Diverging from the source material dramatically, Kon twisted the original work into something almost unrecognisable, and in doing so kick-started his career in a fantastic fashion. In a film full of abrupt, jarring edits, stunningly eerie transitions and a creepy soundtrack that effortlessly gets under your skin, Satoshi Kon delivers gut-punch after gut-punch, for the brief, eighty minute run-time, leaving even mundane scenes feeling pregnant with dread. The reel feels a little haunted by its end, and like Mima you’re straining to see things in the shadows that were perhaps never there. When the film finally descends fully into the madness it holds in store, it doesn’t pull any punches. As events transpire to cause Mima to second-guess everything she sees, Kon too sweeps the rug out from under the audience, and asks them to parse the erratic, barely fathomable parade of bluffs and double-bluffs. Much like Alice, Mima falls head over heels down a rabbit hole, and her world turns upside down, and we’re right there next to her, tumbling, trying to catch some narrative truth to hold on to. It’s a disconcerting feeling as a viewer, one that few filmmakers would ever be willing to put their audience through, and it’s terrifying, and spectacular, all at once. With Perfect Blue, Satoshi Kon delivered an anime film closer to horror than I’ve seen achieved anywhere else in the medium, with a film that explores the duality of not just the idol, but of humanity as a whole, we’re shown the repercussions of this front, and the violent ways people who feel manipulated can react when it finally drops. But, perhaps more damning than that, Satoshi Kon went toe-to-toe with one of the most powerful industries in Japan, and showed an ugly, exploitative side to it, behind all the bubblegum-pop and starry-eyed smiles. Much like the countless times Mima slips, and her cheery expression falls for a second, to reveal a scared, haunted woman, Kon helps loosen that industry wide façade just a little, and shows us something a little more ugly, a little more artificial, but a lot more human. Thank you for watching, and for sticking with an opening five minutes that was almost completely devoid of anime. but I felt it was necessary to give Perfect Blue the context it deserves. Idol Culture is often a subject that is
difficult to approach with tact and objectivity, I hope I did the phenomenon some sort of justice. A big thank you to Patrick, who once again created a killer track for this video, paying homage to the original score by Masahiro Ikumi If you’d like to support Beyond Ghibli, you can do so by pledging a buck on Patreon, and join the lively conversation over at the Discord, where you can find out just how unpopular I am in my own community. The guys over there really helped shape this video, and rein in some of my more impassioned opinions about the idol industry. If you dig the work I do here, you can subscribe or follow me on Twitter to keep abreast of future projects. If, instead, you think my true calling might be in Idoldom, hit the Like button, and I’ll purchase a tutu, and a tiara.