Continuing my list of favorite anime features with two from the best modern directors of anime, Satoshi Kon and Hiroyuki Okiura.
9. Perfect Blue. Produced by Studio Madhouse. Director: Satoshi Kon. 85 minutes. February 28, 1998.
Perfect Blue Perfect Blue is the animated feature that brought director Satoshi Kon to the public’s notice. All of his theatrical features and one TV series were popular and critical successes. Perfect Blue. Millennium Actress. Tokyo Godfathers. The TV series Paranoia Agent. Paprika. And then he died of cancer. 1963-2010.
When the psychological thriller Perfect Blue was released in America, it was more often compared to the live-action films of Alfred Hitchcock than to other animated features. I like practically all of Hitchcock’s movies, which is probably why I like Perfect Blue so much.
The movie’s protagonist is teenage pop-idol star Mima Kirigoe, the lead singer of the CHAM trio. Pop-idol stars were a familiar theme in anime by 1998, with such leading fictional examples as Lin Min Mei (Lynn Minnmay) in Macross (Robotech), and Creamy Mami during the 1980s. The real pop-idols tended to be mega-stars during their adolescence, for two or three years, then quickly disappeared.
CHAM is at the top, but Mima is aware that it is just about to flame out. Rei and Yukiko, her two pop-idol partners, are easy with evolving into whatever happens to former pop-idols (presumably they become college students or housewives), but Mima wants to stay in show business. She nervously takes the first steps to become a professional actress. She announces her decision. Her friends and most of her public support her, especially Himiro Tadakoro, her (and Cham’s) business manager; but a diehard fringe of her fans denounce her for “betraying” her image as a sweet, innocent teenager. One of her more obsessed fans is implied to be prepared to go beyond this. Mima is increasingly uncertain of her decision, but, aware that she can’t stay a teenager forever, she goes ahead.
Mima’s first TV role is a minor part in a TV crime drama series, Double Bind. As she drifts away from CHAM, it seems to her that the other two singers are becoming even more popular as a duet without her, and she begins to obsess more on her critics than on her supporters. She lays bare her doubts to the only person who seems to be a true friend, Rumi Hidaka, her middle-aged personal manager who is an ex-pop idol herself. Rumi supports her in her decision.
Mima, urged on by Tadakoro, asks for a larger role in Double Bind. The producers and writer create a part for her of a stripper who is raped. Mima goes through with it, but she finds it so distasteful that she is deeply disturbed; and Rumi, shocked, urges her to return to CHAM. About then, she also gets an anonymous fax calling her a traitor, and she becomes aware that the obsessed fan, called “Me-Mania”, is stalking her. Even worse, she learns of “Mima’s Room”, a web blog that appears to be from her but that she knows nothing about, that reveals intimate details about her life and inner thoughts. Some of this may be tricks by Me-Mania, but how could he know so much about her? She fears that she has developed a split personality, and that as “herself” she is unaware of what her other personality is doing.
When the creators of Double Bind begin to be gorily murdered, with souvenirs from the killings turning up in her room, Mima descends into fear for her own safety mixed with increasing belief that she may be a mad murderess. She is not, but learning who the real killer is, and escaping alive is the tense climax of Perfect Blue. The feature is an excellent psychological thriller with believable motivations, red herrings, tension and fear. The film being in animation enables Kon to show some of Mima’s more lurid and fantastic fears as reality. Perfect Blue is a bravura performance. One of the details that impressed me was the excellent dialogue translation, presenting a convincing picture of the show-business industry that could be American while all the characters are displaying Japanese body-language.
10. Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. Jin-Roh. Produced by Production I.G. Directed by Hiroyuki Okiura. 102 minutes. June 3, 2000.
I am a particular fan of alternate-history s-f. I read the novels of Harry Turtledove, Robert Conroy, Eric Flint, and others who specialize in that sub-genre. I’m a sucker for stories set in worlds where Aaron Burr succeeded in creating his own empire out of the Louisiana Purchase; where the U.S. Constitution never developed and the U.S. fell apart under the weak Articles of Confederation; where the New England states that objected to the War of 1812 did secede from the U.S. in late 1814 (the Hartford Convention); where demagogic Senator Huey Long of Louisiana was not assassinated and became President after FDR (see Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 “warning” novel It Can’t Happen Here. What strong candidates in the 1930s did the Democrats have besides FDR and Long? After Long was killed, they had no choice in 1940 but to nominate Roosevelt for a risky, unprecedented third term); where Imperial Germany did go to war with the U.S. in 1901 (in real history, Kaiser Bill’s generals told him – diplomatically – not to be an idiot; the U.S. military would slaughter any invading German army.)
So Japanese alternate history fascinates me. What if the Tokugawa shoguns never outlawed gunpowder? What if Japan began its expansion throughout Asia in the late 1500s and 1600s instead of waiting until the late 1800s and early 1900s when Europe and America were in her way? And here is Jin-Roh; the Man-Wolf.
In the late 1940s, after Imperial Japan lost World War II, the Japanese government and the whole social structure upon which it was based were completely discredited. The new Japanese government set up under the American theory of “democracy” was seen by many as weak and as a figurehead for non-Japanese ideas that would never work. The military government of the 1930s and early 1940s had ruthlessly suppressed a growing Communist movement; with that strong government gone, the Communists grew alarmingly. Many also feared that as soon as the American occupiers went home, the Japanese Communists, aided by the victorious Red Chinese, would seize power.
One of the big questions of the period was what to do about the Japanese police force? Japan had a national police force. Many during the late 1940s feared that the Japanese police was not strong enough to combat Communist revolutionaries, like the Communist HUK rebels in the Philippines that battled the newly independent government. The question became, whether to strengthen the existing police force so that it could stand up to revolutionary terrorists, or – since nobody liked the idea of a strong Japanese Army any more – to create a new, paramilitary police force especially to combat the revolutionary terrorists?
In real history, the decision was to strengthen the existing police force. And as the 1950s and 1960s advanced, the new Japanese government proved to be strong enough and democratic enough to please most people. Material prosperity for everyone grew enough that the Communists lost rather than gained popular support.
But what if the new government wasn’t strong, and what if the new paramilitary police force had been established?
Notable anime director Mamoru Oshii deserves more credit than may be apparent for Jin-Roh. He developed the basic story in the 1980s, and directed two live-action features based upon it; Red Spectacles (1987) and Stray Dog: Kerberos Panzer Cops (1991). Oshii originally wanted to direct Jin-Roh as a third live-action film as well, but he got sidetracked making Ghost in the Shell. He finally turned it over to Studio I.G to produce in animation, with Okiura to direct it.
At an unnamed date presumably in the late 1950s, the Tokyo Police are facing an angry mob of protestors. The Communist revolutionary underground mixes with the rioters to inflame them into violence. A leader gives a nervous teenaged girl dressed in red, code-named Red Riding Hood, a package, telling her, “Here’s the present for Granny. Don’t drop it!” The girl eases into the rioters and gives the package to a man who shoves to the head of the rioters and throws it at the police lines, where it explodes. The police react by firing into the crowd. Meanwhile, the girl slips away and enters the sewers. As she joins others of the underground, they are surrounded by a heavily armored paramilitary squad, the Kerberos Panzer Police, with automatic weapons and masking helmets with glowing infrared goggles. The girl escapes the massacre of her gang, fleeing further into the sewers, but she is pursued by one of the troopers. He traps her, but hesitates to kill her, allowing her to get close enough to trigger a suicide device. He is saved at the last second by another trooper.
Later, Corporal Kazuki Fuse, the hesitant trooper, is court-martialed over his failure to kill the terrorists instantly. Fuse is exonerated, but assigned to extra antiterrorist training; a de facto demotion. His fellow troopers do not trust him. His hesitation is used by Japanese government opponents of the separate Kerberos Corps, who want to dissolve it into the regular police.
Fuse, emotionally confused, visits the ashes of the young girl, where he is shocked to apparently meet her alive. The live girl, Kei, explains that she is the suicide’s lookalike elder sister, who is not involved with the terrorists. She does not blame Fuse since she knew that her sister was living dangerously.
As Fuse and Kei slowly develop a hesitant romance, they are spied upon by both the Wolf Brigade (extremists within the Kerberos Corps), and the Capital Police’s Public Security Division. The Public Security Division hopes to use Fuse’s and Kei’s romance – a Kerberos trooper in love with someone who looks like a terrorist – to discredit the Special Unit and get it disbanded. The Wolf Brigade hopes to use the two’s relationship to solve a bigger problem: if the Kerberos Corps appears to be too ineffective against the terrorists, it will be disbanded in favor of the regular police; yet if it is too effective, it will be considered by the public to have been so successful that it is no longer needed. The Kerberos Corps is running out of terrorists, and needs to find another justification for its existence.
Jin-Roh is a tense military/political thriller, set in a 1950s Japan that looks slightly wrong (the uniforms and weapons have a subtle Germanic/Nazi look). The characters look more lifelike than usual in an animated feature, thanks to the heavy use of rotoscoping. Obvious rotoscoping is usually a failure, but it is very effective here. There are repeated references to Little Red Riding Hood, using the darker original German folk tale, Rotkäppchen, implying that one or both of the wolves (the Wolf Brigade and its rivals) are sure to eat one or both of the two innocents. The repeated flights through Tokyo’s subterranean sewers, with visions of wolves emerging from side tunnels, are analogous to being eaten by wolves. Jin-Roh was a selection of international film festivals for about six months before it was released theatrically in Japan, and I had no trouble helping to program (as curator) its English-dubbed premiere as the lead feature at the Cal State University at Long Beach’s 2nd Japanese Animation Festival, May 25-27, 2001, with writer Mamoru Oshii, Studio I.G president Mitsushisa Ishikawa, producer of the English dub Toshifumi Yoshida, and voice actor Michael Dobson who voiced Fuse in the English dub, as speakers. (Okiura was scheduled but unfortunately had to cancel at the last minute.) Jin-Roh was deservedly prestigious in 1999-2001, and it stands up excellently today.