Fans of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan would find watching Satoshi Kon's 1998 animated film, Perfect Blue, something like a case of retro déja vu. The similarities between the films are not a coincidence – Aronofsky was not only aware of Perfect Blue, he had even purchased the rights to it when making Requiem for a Dream, in order to exactly re-create the bathtub scene for his film. While Black Swan is not a remake of Perfect Blue, it draws heavily from the same themes – duality, madness, and the desire to reach a stage of impossible perfection.
Perfect Blue is the story of Mima, a pop idol who wishes to leave her idol profession and branch into acting. This seems to please no one – her ex-pop idol manager is extremely protective of her, and disapproves of the roles she is offered and how she is treated by the directors of the television show Mima is cast in. The one most upset is Mima's number one fan, who stalks her every move and runs a website dedicated to Mima. In order to succeed and distance herself from her idol past, Mima agrees to appear in a violent rape scene, and then to pose for nude pictures – which brings her both success and misery.
As she questions whether she is following the right path, she begins to hallucinate a double of herself – the Idol Mima, still fresh-faced and innocent, who taunts her for her mistakes and insecurities. Mima begins to sink into delusions and madness – she begins to read the blog on her website (which are not even written by her) in order to remember what she did that day. The scenes from her television show begin to merge with her real life. The Idol Mima pops up everywhere she goes. When the photographer from her nude photo shoot is stabbed to death, Mima can't remember whether or not she is the murderer.
Mima struggles with the duality of her image and her self, unable to reconcile her past as a pop idol, and her future as an adult woman in charge of her acting career. But unlike Nina in Black Swan, who destroys herself in order to achieve perfection, Mima finds that she is the victim of her manager, Rumi, who has been living vicariously through Mima. The climactic ending sequence is a grotesque and physical battle of the Mima's – and while it is revealed that Rumi was heavily manipulating Mima's life, it does not explain away how Mima continues to see Rumi as a ghostly specter of herself. In the end, it is implied that they are both disillusioned – but Mima has been able to reconcile her personality split, while Rumi could not.
In the search for her identity, reality for Mima becomes mutable and fluid, a jungle of mirrors and images, a cobbled-together world of illusion, constructed experiences, false narratives, and deception.
Satoshi Kon continues to play with the theme of distorted reality and narrative in his 2001 film, Millennium Actress. The film follows the life story of Chiyoko Fujiwara, an actress whose career spanned for decades in Japanese cinema, as she is interviewed by her biggest fan, Genya Tachibana. A scene towards the opening of the story is an early hint of the merging of reality and film that is to come – the audience watches as a young Chiyoko climbs into a spaceship which begins to liftoff. The camera then cuts out to reveal the scene is actually a video that Genya is watching, and as the spaceship rumbles into space, the room around Genya begins to shake. For a brief moment the film world and the real world are one – until it is revealed that it isn't the spaceship shaking the room, but an actual earthquake.
The merging of reality and narrative continues as Chiyoko tells her story to Genya and his cameraman, and the flashbacks become not only her interior reflections, but an interactive experience. Genya and the cameraman become part of the flashbacks, watching and commenting on Chiyoko's actions and experiences. Yet there are even more layers to this constructed reality, as her recounting of her life becomes the recounting of her film roles, with no distinction between the two. The narrative becomes an epic of not only her story, but the story of Japanese cinema, of Japanese history, and Japanese history as told through cinema. She journeys through time and space in order to achieve her goal – to reunite with a painter, in order to return a key he lent to her with a promise to meet again.
It proves impossible for her to meet her painter again. Yet the story of Chiyoko's chase is more thrilling and fulfilling than any outcome where she and her beloved painter could be reunited. The narrative of her life story is what gives it meaning, even as it seems to be foolish to chase an impossible goal. On some level, Millenium Actress and Perfect Blue are both about the same thing – the impossible pursuit of perfection, and the toll it takes on an individual. Perfect Blue presents a pessimistic outcome – the complete fragmentation of Mima and Rumi's identities. Millenium Actress is more optimistic, presenting the impossible pursuit as more personally enriching than the goal itself. Both films present challenging and complex narratives, and are excellent examples of animated films that are not just for children.