Perfect Blue (1997)

Pop idol Mima has made the decision to leave popular trio CHAM in order to begin a career as an actress. The film follows Mima’s trials as she tries to find herself through her new profession, understand who she is and what she is doing, as well as navigating the often sordid world of fame. Her miseries seem to pile up as she attracts a stalker, who sets up a website detailing her every move, and her former band-mates become successful following her departure. Mima is also troubled by an identity crisis, as she struggles to distinguish between her life and the characters she portrays on screen, as well as between dreams and reality.

Satoshi Kon’s first feature film is a psychological thriller that breaks with convention to offer us a real look inside the mind of someone who is losing theirs. From the opening scenes, in which we see Mima performing and shopping intercut, we are presented with the idea of duality, emphasized by various shots of reflections in glass, mirrors and polished floors. The direction utilises cuts and fades to blur the lines between Mima’s acting and her reality, drawing you into her world and making later revelations in the film as confusing for the audience as they are for the character. The script was based on a novel, though many elements were changed. The story interweaves so many elements that it becomes overwhelming, again helping create an empathy with the character as you are experiencing the same whirlwind of complexity and confusion that Mima is feeling in her new career. The music, by Masahiro Ikumi, creates a sense of dread with the soundtrack occasionally imitating the sound of heavy breathing, or disjointed noises with a background buzz that might as easily be insects or television static.

The film does an incredible job of covering many themes, the central one being that of change. Mima is essentially attempting to become a new person, leaving behind her pure, virginal image as a young pop idol to become a strong confident woman. It is about the struggle of understanding yourself as much as the pressures that are applied on you to conform to a certain standard, or to people’s expectations of you. It also offers a dark commentary on the music and entertainment industry as you see how they treat people. The end of the film is ambiguous, and like many other scenes almost demands that you think about what has preceded it and try to make some sense out of this peculiar world, and the character of Mima. There is so much in this film that it deserves several repeat viewings.

Based on the novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi

Vital (2004)

Tadanobu Asano stars in this tense thriller about love, loss and dissection. After waking up from a car crash suffering severe amnesia Hiroshi Takagi (Asano) restarts his medical training, something which he had given up on. He takes to the subject with a great degree of dedication and skill. When the class begin on dissecting corpses, he is surprised to see that the body they are working on is that of his former girlfriend, killed in the same car crash that resulted in his memory loss. As Hiroshi dissects the body, he has recurring dreams in which he sees the woman, Ryoko, spending time with her in that otherworld beyond life.

Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), this film is more accessible than his earlier work. Despite its seemingly macabre and gruesome plot, it is a surprisingly charming film, largely concerned with themes of grief and human relationships, albeit told in an unconventional fashion. The direction uses a number of tricks to disorient the viewer, jumping from real-world and dream-sequences to create a sense of unreality to everything you are seeing, and including seemingly unrelated scenes of factory chimneys that cause you to ponder their significance. One of the most effective shots in the film, for me, was the image of elevator doors sliding up and down beside each other, a simple but chilling effect that puts you in mind of left-right brain dichotomy, and is subtly troubling. Tadanobu Asano does a good job at portraying the lead, who is not only suffering memory loss, a sense of isolation and alienation from the world following his girlfriend’s death, but is also a studious person who is keen to analyse his own psyche as he examines the corpse on the table before him. If there was problem for me with the film it was in some of the more experimental shots, such as a car crash filmed in negative or the aforementioned inserts of smoking chimneys, but these can be forgiven when experiencing a singular vision such as this. The film is far from generic, so some eccentricity is to be expected in the direction.

A fantastic analysis of the relationship between the conscious and subconscious worlds, and how people are able to deal with grief and loss. I would definitely recommend this film to fans of more bizarre stories. There are a few scenes of autopsy that might not be for the faint-hearted, but overall the film does not rely on shock horror allowing you to get involved in what is essentially a tragic love story.

Into a Dream (2005)

The film follows Suzuki, an actor who is struggling to find some purpose in his life, after he discovers he has contracted an STI. He is unsure who it is from, leading to a further deterioration in his relationship with his girlfriend. Suzuki sets off back to his hometown for a family reunion. Along the way, he is troubled by strange dreams, one in which he is part of a terrorist cell, another in which he is being interrogated, which start to become a part of his waking life. The lines between dreams and reality become blurred, as we hear repeated snatches of dialogue, the same actors recurring across all the dreams in different roles, and an increasingly confused Suzuki starting to lose his mind.

Written and directed by Sion Sono, this film features a lot of what makes the directors work interesting. There is a lot of comedy in the film, despite an apparently serious subject (that of sexually transmitted disease, alienation and depression). It is a straightforward story, that of an actor trying to find himself, told in an unconventional way. It is interesting to see the various dreams begin to intrude into his life, and ponder the significance of phrases that are repeated (such as the repeated reference to “venusians”). A great example of this peculiar storytelling is when Suzuki ends up in a basement with a maintenance man discussing a leaking pipe, a metaphor for Suzuki’s current ailment and need to be “fixed” or cured. The camerawork is all handheld, with many long takes adding to the dream-logic feel and making for an immersive experience. All the actors do a great job with multiple roles and the realistic, perhaps improvised, dialogue.

The central idea, an actor attempting to discover his true self, is not particularly original, but this film approaches it in a novel way, and lets us inside his head (including his dreams) to get a better sense of what he is experiencing. It is an examination of his interactions with others, with the contraction of an STI hammering this point home in a darkly comic way. We see his family, friends, lovers, both in real life, and his projections of them in his dreams. I would recommend this for fans of Sono, or films with a psychological element to them.