Perfect Blue (1997), 8/10
Millennium Actress (2001), 7.7/10
Tokyo Godfathers (2003), 6.8/10
Paprika (2006), 7.5/10
Manga artist Satoshi Kon (Japan, 1963) debuted as an anime filmmaker with
the psychological thriller Pafekuto Buru/ Perfect Blue (1997),
adapted from Yoshikazu Takeuchi's novel,
worthy of the films by Hitchcock, DePalma and Polansky in which they
explored a woman's psychosis.
Besides the 19th century topics of the doppelganger and the relationship between art and life (fiction and reality), the film deals with the modern topics of pop culture, fandom, mass media and the Internet.
Superficially, the film is about a deranged personality that loses the ability to distinguish what is real from what is not. At another level it is a story of a sweet innocent everyday girl who is "raped" by the world: growing up means losing her innocence, abandoning her childhood dreams for a lucrative career.
The plot is typical Hitchcock: someone is affected by a serious case of "dissociative identity disorder", and Kon makes it difficult for us to figure out who. There are at least three potential killers. There is Mima, who is obviously losing her mind after she splits between being a singer and being an actress, as she herself is not sure about what is real and what is not. Then there is Rumi, her protective agent, who used to be a pop star, and would like Mima to remain a pop star, and became obsessed with living Mima's life as a singer. And then there is the fan and stalker Me-Mania, who spies on her and records every detail of her private life, and who feels betrayed by her loss of (artistic) virginity, and blames both her and her entourage for it. All three are angry at the singer Mima and have a motive to kill the people responsible for "raping" her. All three have a motive to murder those who have destroyed singer Mima's innocence. The one who looks like a killer is Me-Mania, a silent and methodical voyeur. The one who doesn't look like a killer is Rumi, who is always rational and compassionate. And, yet, Rumi turns out to be the evil one: she manipulates Mima into believing that she is a crazy serial killer, when in fact Mima is; she dresses like singer Mima because she wants Mima to be the singer, and wants Mima to be the singer to feel that she herself is a successful singer, and the camouflage is also a punishment for Mima the actress, trying to drive Mima crazy.
Kon stages the fictional equivalent of a three-card monte. Since the protagonist of the story is Mima, we initially take it for granted that she must be the victim and someone else the mad person; but then we are led to believe that Mima is the one losing her mind, that she is the madwoman and the people around her are the victims; but then we progressively get more and more clues that it can't be her, that she is the victim of a diabolical machination. So we get back where we started, with the presumption of her innocence, except that now we appreciate the degree of psychological manipulation.
To further confuse the viewer, Kon continuously and abruptly switches between Mima's apartment and the set, between her ordinary life and her acting life.
And to further confuse the viewer, there is a film inside the film, and that film ends twice with two different endings, implying that one happens only in a dream: a dream of a film that happens inside a film about a film.
At the end of the film we learn that it is Rumi, not Mima, who has a split personality. It is Rumi, a failed singer turned agent who presumably invented the career of Mima the singer, who believes she is a young singer and murders the people whom she perceives as enemies of her artistic life. Mima instead is an actress who plays a role in a movie about a woman who, like Rumi, is suffering from a split personality and murders people whom she perceives as enemies. By accident, Mima's role in the movie parallels Rumi's role in real life.
We also realize that in several scenes the film has shown us Rumi's mind, not Mima's life: we saw Mima because Rumi thinks she is Mima. In a sense, the film is the story seen from the viewpoint of Rumi, the failed singer who dreams of still being an aspiring singer, not from the viewpoint of Mima, the successful singer and aspiring actress.
Rumi's psychological pressure on Mima is initially subtle but nonetheless effective in sowing doubt into Mima's mind: at first Mima is simply torn between her new career and the old one, her old identity as a singer and the new one as an actress, but then she experiences an increasingly more severe mental breakdown, where she has visions of a doppelganger, and eventually she suspects of being mad and even of being a killer. At this point she can't see that Rumi has embodied her doppelganger.
Because the film is told from Mima's perspective, we get confused as ordinary reality, nightmares, mirages and acting on the set follow each other seamlessly. One moment we are seeing Mima's ordinary life in her small messy room, and next moment we are seeing Yoko (Mima's character in the TV show) and next moment we are seeing a mental image and next moment we are seeing one of her dreams. They are indistinguishable because Kon doesn't provide clues to tell in which dimension we are.
The manic fan, Me-Mania, is a victim of his own fantasy. He is used by Rumi to terrorize Mima, and eventually gets killed by Rumi. It is clear that he tries to kill Mima, but then the scene of Mima killing him is actually a scene from the film in which Mima's character Yoko kills the security guard.
Note that Mima is continuously reminded of her singer self by a website that has no mercy for her privacy. On one hand there is the entertainment industry that simply wants to maximize profits and does not hesitate to destroy her virginity. On the other hand there is a fan base that worships her artistic virginity on the web. She is both a product (of the industry) and an ideal (for the fans). Both manipulates her to some extent and she correctly cannot decide which one she really is.
Then there's the theme of brutality. All murders are brutal, but here the real brutality happens during the rape, when not only is she attacked by the audience but then the audience watches in delight as one man rapes her on stage. The director stops the film so that we can hear the actors discuss the scene and that alerts us that the rape is not a real rape, but nonetheless the audience is depicted as a bunch of perverts. That's us, who are watching the film.
Mima is actually an ordinary girl, who shops at the supermarket and lives alone in a small apartment. She receives an anonymous love letter that surprises her. She is not happy with the decision to abandon her singing career. Her mom calls to check on her and she too is surprised that Mima abandons the singing career. Then someone else calls but Mima only hears someone breathing. Then she receives a fax that accuses her of betraying her fans. The camera shows us her apartment from across the street, implying that someone is spying on her.
Filming begins. Eri is a famous television star and the protagonist of a new television series titled "Double Bind". Eri plays a psychologist Touko who collaborates with a male inspector who investigates a series of murders. Mima has only one line in the episode but she is very nervous. A letter is delivered that is address to her but it explodes in the hands of Tadokoro before he can deliver it to her. Tadokoro is only mildly injured and Rumi belittles it as "a prank". The studio decides not to have a police investigation of the letter bomb because nobody got hurt seriously. Mima's agent Rumi, also her best friend, is not happy with Mima's new career. Rumi used to be a pop idol herself. Rumi helps Mima set up a computer and Internet connection at home. Mima can now browse the web and checks a website that is about her, titled "Mima's Room". She is shocked to find out that someone knows everything about her. That website is basically a very detailed diary of her life.
The shooting of the television serial continues. It is about a serial killer. Mima only gets a few lines in each episode. The producer demands more from the scriptwriter and the scriptwriter delivers a script in which Mima is a stripper and gets rape in front of the audience. Mima accepts to do it, despite Rumi's warning that it could ruin her reputation with her old fan base. Scantily dressed, she dances in front of an ecstatic audience of perverts who then try to grab her. One man prevails and rapes her on stage while the audience cheers.
At home she reads about her "betrayal" on the website. In fact, she sees herself on the screen, her previous singer self, shaming her for ruining her reputation (which is what Rumi thinks of the situation). This is when Mima begins to see her old self, the pop singer, her alter-ego, claiming that she (the alter) is the real Mima while she (the real) is an impostor. We see that Me-Mania is the one writing on Mima's Room, but only Rumi can possibly know so much about Mima. The screenwriter is stabbed to death in the elevator. Mima's new career turn consists in posing naked for a famous photographer. Her old fans cannot believe her transformation as they look at the pictures in tabloids. Mima sees again her old self, the pop singer, mocking her while she, the actress Mima, defends her decision to become an actress: she is clearly torn between her old and new self.
The tall fan, Me-Mania, receives an email from Mima claiming that the sexy Mima is an impostor. We see the singer Mima in her white dress (in fact many Mimas) in Me-Mania's room begging him to get rid of the impostor Mima for her, and Me-Mania promises. On the set Mima's character is confessing to Eri's character Touko the doctor that she is losing her mind. She gets distracted when she sees Me-Mania in the audience and makes a mistake. The director shouts "Cut!" and Mima apologizes for her mistake. Me-Mania has disappeared (or was never there). It starts raining and they have to stop shooting. Tadokoro takes her to see her old partners in Cham who are doing a radio show to celebrate their first hit single (therefore they are more successful now without Mima) and Mima sees her old self in the white dress sitting between them. The singer Mima hops away and Mima runs after her through the hallways and stairwells of the building. The illusion tells her "I'm the real Mima". The chase continues in the street despite heavy rain. Mima almost gets run over by a truck driven by Me-Mania, but... that's when she wakes up in her messy room. Rumi comes to visit her. She tells Rumi that her personality is split and it turns out that's precisely the line she has to recite on the set to Eri's character Touko, but she makes the mistake of saying "Rumi" and the director shouts "Cut!" Mima is terrified to see Me-Mania staring at her but he soon disappears. Another take... and we are in the messy room and she's listening to the news. Rumi visits her again and Mima doesn't remember that Rumi visited her the day before (or, at least, that's what Rumi says that she did). We don't know what is dream, what is mirage and what is real anymore. Mima breaks an object and her hands bleed. On the set Eri's character Touko tells her male partner that Mima's character Yoko is afraid of a security guard (Me-Mania) and thinks that he is the serial murderer of top models. She tells inspector Yamashiro to find her quickly. A pizza-delivery boy, presumably wearing a mask, kills the photographer, responsible for her transformation from virgineal singer to sexy actress and model. As he stabs the photographer, the image turns into Mima stabbing someone to death while seeing images of the photographer taking pictures of naked Mima, and then... we hear the director shout "Take 3!" And she wakes up in her messy room. She stares at her hands that have no wounds: it was all a bad dream. Except that the phone rings: Takadoro informs her that the photographer has been murdered and she is shocked (if she killed him, she doesn't remember anything, but most likely it wasn't her to killed him - the murder took place while she was coincidentally dreaming of the photographer). She puts down the phone and... she finds bloody clothes in her room (only two people could have put them there: either she herself or her best friend Rumi).
Back on the set, the crew shoots the scene of a murder: she is standing in front of the man she just killed. She faints and... she wakes up again in her messy room. But then she is in a room with the psychologist, telling the psychologist that she is Mima the actress. The men who are watching the conversation remark that she believes she is an actress called Mima, as if they now that she is not. Now it is not clear if this is the film that they are shooting or the reality in which the real Mima is being examined by a psychologist. Eri's character Touko walks out of the room and diagnoses "dissociative identity disorder": the real person is Yoko who thinks she was raped in a strip club and assumed the persona of an actress called Mima and killed a lot of people, and then assumed the persona of her sister Rika, a top model. The director shouts "Cut!" The filming of "Double Bind" ends. The crew claps and cheers. Mima is however confused as she walks away surrounded by people who clap their hands. Rumi and Tadokoro congratulate Mima. When she meets Eri, she calls her "doctor" like in the movie that they just ended shooting. While she is alone in a hallway, the tall fan Me-Mania grabs her and tries to rape her accusing her of being an impostor, not the real Mima. He tells her that the real Mima emails him every day and confesses that he has killed the screenwriter and the photographer and now is going to kill her too. She hits him in the head with a hammer, and he falls unconscious (but unlikely to be dead). She freezes and... it's again the ending of the filming: the crew claps and cheers again. Is she just remembering what just happened? Rumi is looking for her in the hallway and finds her wounded and scared... but there is no dead body of Me-Mania. Rumi drivers her back home... to Mima's room. Mima finds herself in a new room, a nice tidy room completely different from the messy room that we have seen so far. Rumi is not there. She tries to call Tadokoro: he doesn't pick up and we see that he is dead in a room with the equally dead Me-Mania. She opens the blinds and looks outside the window and mutters "This is not my room". Her doppelganger, Mima the singer, appears behind her and tells her "Of course not: this is Mima's room", implying again that Mima is actress is an impostor. Mima the singer is wearing a new red costume and her face turns into... Rumi! Rumi confesses that she knows Me-Mania and implies that she used him to kill. Then Rumi pulls out a paper cutter and tries to kill her. Mima runs out on the balcony, falls down, but is not injured, and starts running in the street, screaming for help, always chased by her Rumi in the red dress that morphs into her old singing self. And then in the fight... Rumi gets wounded. Rumi stumbles into the middle of the street while a truck is coming. She, morphed again into Mima the singer, is about to be run over when Mima jumps and pushes her away.
In the last scene Rumi is a quiet patient in a mental hospital. Mima comes to check on her. Nurses wonder whether she's the famous actress Mima: she has become a star, and seems to be in full command of herself, to have accepted her actress self. Mima cannot hear the nurses wonder whether she is the famous Mima them but, after she gets into the car, she looks into the mirror and says "No, i'm real". Who is she talking to?
Sennen Joyu/ Millennium Actress (2001), scripted by Sadayuki Murai.
is a postmodernist puzzle in which the story follows a Moebius strip, repeating itself and chasing itself endlessly while spanning many historical eras and different stages in the life of the protagonist.
Flashbacks about the protagonist's past are mixed with scenes from some of her famous films, and it all seems to be fabricated by the journalist who interviews her. In fact, the journalist appears as a character in several of these stories. It feels like it's him daydreaming about her while she is telling the story of her life.
Each film repeats her love story in a different era.
The journalist keeps becoming part of the films and of the flashback and in fact he is the one who has found the key which is the mover of the whole film.
Fiction keeps intruding in reality.
Whenever we feel that we are seeing real life, Kon shows us that it is the set of a film.
Tokyo Goddofazazu/ Tokyo Godfathers (2003) is a more traditional melodrama and comedy.
He also designed and directed the TV series Moso Dairinin/ Paranoia Agent (2004).
Papurika/ Paprika (2006), adapted from Yasutaka Tsutsui's sci-fi novel, is a colossal chaotic postmodernist thriller with philosophical overtones. It blurs the border between dream and reality not only by mixing it in the plot but also by scorning it through deliberate quantum jumps from one world to the other and sometimes within one degree of imagination to another one, with characters who enter and leave films, television broadcasts and even posters. The putable protagonist would be the detective who has to solve the case, but he is only interested in psychoanalyzing himself and will succeed at that. The real protagonists are two heroines who are the same woman, and who save the world from the chaos of an alternative irrational world of dreams. They save reality from collapsing into the unreal. The weakest part is the ending, worthy of the most moronic Hollywood romances and melodramas.
An older woman, dressed professionally, finds a fat man blocking the elevator that she has to take to reach her office. The fat man tells her frantically that the DC-mini has been stolen. It turns out he is the (unlikely) inventor of the device and they both work in for distinguished psychiatric institution. The woman, Atsuko Chiba, immediately calls her boss, an older scientist, Shima, and informs him that the thief can now steal dreams from their patients. Chiba, the fat boy, named Tokita, and their old chief Shima report the fact to the chairman of the company, who deeply regrets the invention. He has his own informer and has learned that the thief is a girl named Paprika ho uses the still experimental device to perform unathorized therapy. Suddenly the old scientist gives a delirious speech and jumps from the window, almost killing himself: dreams of his patients have been injected into his mind and are causing him to go berserk. Meanwhile, a parade of kitchen appliances, stuffed animals and geisha dolls, all of them turned into jovial cartoons, is advancing through a forest towards the city. China and Tokita find find his patients' dreams on Shima's computer. They recognize someone from the office into the scientist's dream: their colleague Himuro. Himuro becomes a prime suspect in the case. Tokia, Chiba and a young colleague break into Himuro's place and find hundreds of geisha dolls and a door that opens into a deserted amusement park. She walks outside and... she almost jumps from a balcony. It was a nightmare, implanted into her subconscious by the same evil mond. Meanwhile, the chief Shima has joined the parade of objects marching through the forest. He sits on top of a big carnival-like truck, surrounded by all sorts of surreal figures. Paprika enters his dream as a little girl and manages to (literally) explode it.
The detective calls the old chief Shima to thank him for having let Chiba use the device on him: Chiba and Paprika are the same person, although they look and behave very different. Chiba is cold, brainy, and professional; Paprika is lively, casual, and carefree. Meanwhile, Chiba is walking home and she sees her avatar Paprika reflected in a glass wall and talks to her, confessing that she (Chiba) hasn't had a dream of her own in a while.
The detective enters the website recommended by Paprika: he finds himself in a bar, attended by two bartenders. Paprika explains that this is her meeting place, where she counsels her customers. The detective explains that he and Shima have been friends since college.
Two more doctors of the institution go crazy. The chairman bans any use of the device. Tokita takes Chiba to a theme park that he showed to Himuro: the one that she experienced in her nightmare. Paprika warns her just in time to save her life: Himuro falls from the sky. He tried to commit suicide. Shima invites the detective to help them investigate the case. The detective meets Chiba and seems immediately fascinated by her frigid attitude. Instead she is hostile to him. On the way home, the detective's mind is hijacked. Chiba decides to disobey the chairman and use the DC-mini to enter Himuro's dream. Chiba loses her patience with Tokita, who doesn't seem to appreciate the gravity of the situation and the fact that there must be someone behind Himuro's actions. The detective's dream plunges again into the circus dream: he is back in the cage, surrounded by zombie like creatures. He sinks into an elevator where a girl takes him to Tarzan's floor, to film noir's floor, and eventually back to the scene of the murder that has been haunting him for years. Paprika is watching this as a movie in a theater and she is clapping amused. The detective finds himself with a smoking gun in his hand, and the person on the floor is himself: he has just killed himself. Paprika is even more amused, eating popcorn in the movie theater, the only person in the audience. Feeling bad after the altercation with Chiba, Tokita uses the forbidden device to enter Himuro's dreams and is catapulted into the mad parade as a robot. The detective surfaces in the movie theater with Paprika, watching the movie of his own dream. The mad parade invades the theater: all dreams are merging. Paprika recognizes Tokita, now a toy in the parade euphorically following the crowd of objects, and she tries in vain to stop him. Paprika from the dream calls Shima and tells him that all dreams are merging. In the laboratory (real life) Shima and Achiba have found Tokita and Himuro, who are in a suspended state similar to coma. To save Tokita, Chiba dives as Paprika into Tokita's dream and keeps communicating with Shima.
The parade has entered the metropolis. Paprika breaks through a glass wall in a deserted street and finds a dilapidated warehouse and enters a mysterious world as a flying Peter Pan. She finds a giant corpse of Himuro and realizes that Himuro is is just a victim, not the perpetrator: the real culprit is a collective dream, but whose delusion is it? She is about to get captured by a monster with many octopus-like tentacles that is finally revealed to be none other than the chairman himself: he is protecting the sanctity of dreaming from the dreadful device that his scientists have invented. Chiba/Paprika realizes that she is still inside a dream and Shima tries to wake her up while the chairman is having fun chasing her from dream to dream in increasingly wild scenarios, basically showing her the power of dreams and why they should not be desecrated. The yound scientist, Osanai, captures her: it turns out that he has been working for the chairman's obscure conspiracy all along. At the same time Osanai admits his love for Chiba, The detective is getting drunk at the bar of Paprika's website. When midnight strikes, he realizes that the new day is number 17 and is shaken by panic. He confesses to the bartenders that he made a film when he was a teenager in which he was chasing another guy. He was jealous of the other guy, a guy more popular than him. Then the guy died and the film was left unfinished. The detective walks out of the bar and finds big posters pasted on the walls of the street advertising a movie titled "Paprika". He walks inside a movie theater and sees Paprika being harassed by Osanai on screen. Osanai is pushing his hand inside her vagina and up her body until he splits her face and inside Paprika he finds the frigid body of Chiba. The chairman rises from Osanai's neck to demand that the girl be killed, but Osanai cannot obey because he is in love. The two man fight each other. The detective breaks through the screen of the movie theater and enters the room where this fight is taking place. He rescues the naked Chiba while the two-headed monster (part Osanai and part chairman) struggles within itself. At last, Osanai runs away, the detective chases him into a corridor, and that is the scene of the murder. The detective shoots Osanai in the corridor. Now we see that this was being projected on the screen of the movie theater because the words "The End" appear over the characters and the audience starts clapping. In the laboratory Chiba wakes up panting and slaps Shima. A wounded O walks in, and collapses to the floor... in the chairman's room... and sinks into his floor... we are back in a dream... but Osanai has been killed for real... by a bullet shot by the detective inside his dream, which had become everybody's dream.
Tokia and Himuro are still asleep in a coma. Shima tries to call the detective but a giant doll attacks the building, cracking the glasses with her scream. The mad parade is snaking its way through the streets of the city, infecting all the passers-by. The detective is watching incredulous. The two bartenders are behind him and they invite him to follow them in order to clean up the mess. The parade is also invading the laboratory and Chiba too realizes that dream and reality are merging.
Shima and Chiba are chased by the giant doll and Shima is almost killed, saved at the last second by... Chiba and Paprika together. Paprika leaves them with an enigmatic "explanation" for being present at the same time as Chiba and jumps into a television set to become part of the live reportage. Still chased by the giant doll, Chiba and Shima have no choice but to perform the same feat: jump into the tv set. They all find themselves in the middle of the parade. The giant doll follows them there and is about to finish Chiba when it gets destroyed by rockets fired by the Tokita robot. Chiba wants to save Tokita, whereas Paprika wants to stop the chairman. The two argue viciously, with Paprika accusing Chiba of being arrogant and delusional. Paprika enters a poster and rides away on the horse painted on it. Chiba tries in vain to restore the Tokita robot to himself. In a King Kong-style scene the giant robot grabs Chiba and swallows her. But that causes the robot to dream, and it dreams the initial scene when Chiba found Tokita stuck in the elevator. The giant robot collapses. The scene now is apocalyptic: destruction everywhere. Seconds later a new threat appears: the chairman has mutated into a giant demon, taller than the skyscrapers. He gives a delirious speech in which he announces a new era for the universe, enacted and ruled by him. Paprika jumps into the lifeless robot and reemerges as a naked child. The child swallows the demon and becomes a beautiful young woman.
The nightmare of nightmares is over. Tokita wakes up, and loving Chiba is next to him. Shima asks the detective about his neurosis. The detective has found out that he became a detective to turn his teenage film into reality, and his dead friend is not angry anymore that the film was never finished. The detective reenters Paprika's website one more time. Paprika has left a message for him: she congratulates him for catching the perpetrator, she predicts that Chiba will marry Tokita, and she recommends a movie. The detective walks to the movie theater where the movie is being shown.
Kon died in 2010 of cancer before completing Yume Miru.