“The Darkness Comes … !” – Black Swan and Perfect Blue
Ever since Darren Aronofsky’s fantastic Black Swan came out in theaters, there have been rumblings about how much of it was inspired by Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue. And, indeed, both movies are quite superficially similar, as pointed out in the linked article. But both films strike different paths with similar material — I’d say they are using the same map and traveling the same area to end up in different spots when they reach their respective destinations. Black Swan and Perfect Blue take a mixture of inner darkness, sexual guilt and exploitation, and come to totally different ends with them.
(By the way, I am going to spoil the shit out of both movies in this post, so read with caution if you have not seen one or both. They are both great movies that are worth watching.)
Black Swan and Perfect Blue begin with their protagonists as relative innocents — the former has Nina Sayers, the ballerina in dogged pursuit of technical perfection, and the latter has Mima Kirigoe, who steps down from her position in the pop-idol group CHAM! to pursue a career as an actress (perhaps against her wishes). They both have cultivated a virginal, innocent image, although Nina’s is much more extreme because she is so inwardly focused on her career as a ballerina; Mima may be somewhat naive, but she is a worldly fountain of experience compared to Nina. Mima’s is partly herself, but mostly a marketing strategy by The Powers That Be.
And from there, both sink into darkness to pursue their paths. This is where both movies become subtly different, however. The big difference seems to be external vs. internal — that is, the way the darkness affects and attacks Mima comes mainly externally, and for Nina, it is mainly internal. (Of course, that’s not to say Mima doesn’t fight internal darkness threatening to swallow her up; most notably, this happens when she is confronted by the Other Mima of her mind, who steps in when Mima feels doubt or guilt about her career path. And there are external forces of darkness against Nina, too, when she is attacked for her relationship with the ballet director, or her ambiguous relationship with Lily.) This difference is important, because it concerns the entire point and focus of both movies; they each have elements of the other but emphasize one part over the other.
The point of emphasis in Perfect Blue is that along with being a tense psychological thriller, it can also be clearly read as a scathing critique of star-making industries, and in particular their exploitation of women. What really hits hard in this movie is the sexual guilt Mima feels as she transitions from being an idol to an actress. She has been living an image as an innocent woman, but really, it is a sham — not so much because of who Mima really is, but more so because of how Mima is presented. It’s the same as in America, where pop stars are branded as innocent young starlets marketed to teenagers, but also dress provocatively to attract a male audience. It’s a contradiction; however, it’s that contradiction that sells. (It’s telling there is not a young female fan of CHAM! to be seen in the entire movie.)
Mima buys into that innocence because she is at heart a good person. She’s not sickly sweet innocent; she’s just normal. But when she becomes an actress, she’s thrust into an unfamiliar position: To strip Mima of her persona of an innocent pop idol, she is written into a seedy, direct-to-video drama series about a serial murderer. At the request of Mima’s office manager, Mima is given a meatier part in the series; however, it’s as a rape victim. To further sexualize Mima, she also does a risque photo shoot with a photographer who is infamous for coercing his subjects to strip down. This sexualization angers Mima’s fans from her idol days, drives her manager, Rumi, to the brink and also makes her the subject of rumors among her former bandmates.
Mima feels a deep-seeded sexual guilt that is a strong cause of her delusions throughout the movie. The fact that Mima is taking on the image of a sexual woman is not the problem . . . like with Mima’s idol days, it is the branding of that image that is the issue. When Mima is perceived as needing to break away from her former image, the solution, of course, is to have her be “raped” on camera. It’s a psychological sexual assault, done purely for the purpose of exploiting a shocking sexual crime. Because it’s a former pop idol who is being assaulted, it brings more attention to the series, and thus, more money. There is no artistry involved, no real purpose for portraying Mima’s character being raped save for pure cynicism.
And the assault against Mima does not come purely from those who wish to exploit her sexuality, either. She receives threatening messages and has her life documented by the Mima’s Room website. It’s never totally clear whether it is just Rumi who is engaging in this harassment, or if other fans are doing it as well, but the rumble of discontent in the fan community is felt throughout the movie. But in their own ways, the extreme fans are exploiting the sexuality of Mima and idols in general. One disturbing sequence cuts between Mima’s nude photos and the iconic uber otaku Me-Mania recording CHAM! onstage at a concert, giving the suggestion of a voyeur watching a strip show. And once Me-Mania senses that Mima is “dirty” (by his own standards), he has no issue attacking her sexually.
Mima has no real reason to feel guilt, but the guilt is forced upon her by outside parties. She changes careers because it is suggested that being an actress is more lucrative. She participates in the rape scene because she is gently forced into it by her handler. She does the photo shoot because it gets her face out there more. And on and on. Mima is taken from one sexual extreme to the other. It never becomes something she can enjoy; it’s simply a tool to be used while she possesses the youth to take advantage of it.
Related to that, what really struck me on rewatch of Perfect Blue is how sympathetic Rumi is despite being fucking crazy. She’s a vision of what Mima could potentially be in the future. Presumably, Rumi was exploited as much as Mima, but she never achieved the level of fame of which so many stars dream. And then her time passed her by, and the public ceased to be interested in her since she was no longer that youthful figure they crave. Mima is Rumi’s chance to finally achieve that dream, and like everyone else in the movie, she grabs just a bit too hard. She was used up, thrown away and has a revenge of sorts against the types of men who probably used her back in the day.
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