In a Tortoiseshell: In this excerpt from his Junior Paper on the Japanese film Perfect Blue, Jacob Williams analyzes the motif of glass surfaces and their relation to Mima’s flattening: the process by which the original character’s “existence in its show is crushed into a singular image, one whose use of limited animation emphasizes the fact that it does not pretend to be alive in the same way that a fully animated character does.” Jacob performs insightful close analysis and more importantly, demonstrates how this kind of analysis can be used to support the paper’s broader argument.
Excerpt / Jacob Williams
The penetrating gazes of Mima’s fans and the viewer (and indeed, the two are quickly conjoined) frequently take the form of glass surfaces within her apartment. Her gradual realization of her entrapment by these gazes occurs when she looks at the viewer through these glass surfaces, forming a lens of sorts. In these moments, the reflexive gaze between the viewer and Mima goes beyond dismantling voyeurism to confronting the efforts of her fans and the viewers to “flatten” her. By viewing Mima both in her public and her private lives, she is flattened and her entire life becomes a performance, one that conflates her and the television character she’s playing. This mixing of public and private as well as real and fictional destroys Mima’s understanding of reality and herself.
One of the earliest instances of this reflexive gaze occurs after Mima returns to her apartment after her final concert as a pop-idol. She opens some fan-mail, one of which ominously says that the writer is “always looking into Mima’s room,” and then she receives an anonymous phone call and a fax that declare her a “traitor” (uragirimono). Mima then turns and looks out of the window and straight at the viewer, whose gaze zooms away as though fleeing from her (0:10:30, Figure 2). She then closes her curtains, and all subsequent shots filmed from outside her window are aimed at or peeking through her closed curtains.
The glass surface of Mima’s window act as a lens through which Mima’s voyeuristic fans can observe her even in her private life. However, Mima’s confrontational gaze at the unseen voyeur, whose location is betrayed by the camera’s backward movement, as well as her closing of the curtains, suggests an attempt to regain some sense of privacy after this momentary breach. In addition, because this gaze is also directed straight at the viewer, who then “flees” by moving backward, the viewer’s presence in her room is aligned with that of a stalker or voyeur. The viewer’s very presence is drawn attention to and established as just as invasive as the very stalker who sent Mima the threatening fax message. However, this confrontational gaze and attempt to “close the shutter” on the lens-like windows fails because Mima does not acknowledge that the first attacks on her privacy—the fan-mail, the phone call, and the fax message—come from inside of her room and constitute a network of potential “gazes” that she is unable to shield herself from. In addition to these objects of communication, other screen-like glass surfaces within her apartment—her television, her computer, and even her fish tank—become similarly lens-like and force her to realize just how little control she has over herself, her voyeurs, and the information being conveyed about her (another attempt to remove privacy from her.)
This conflation of the viewer’s gaze with that of the voyeur is important when considering how Mima becomes “flattened” by the filming of a rape scene on Double Bind. Though the rape scene itself is constructed in such a way that its artificiality is clear to both Mima and the viewer, Mima is still visibly emotionally shaken by the incident. Despite this, Mima returns to her apartment humming cheerily to herself and bends down to feed her pet fish. When they are unresponsive, she gazes at them at eye level and sees that they are dead, and in doing so gazes directly at the viewer through her fish tank (0:36:00, Figure 3.) She then breaks down into tears and sobs that she felt pressured into performing the rape scene despite her discomfort.
The way this shot is framed—with the viewer on one side of the glass, Mima on the other, and her dead fish in between—has the effect of creating two gazes, one with Mima looking at the fish, the other with Mima and the viewer looking at each other. In the first gaze, an object that seems entirely within Mima’s control (owning a pet fish) is taken away from her, forcing her to face her own involuntary submission to these gazes and their production. The death of her fish mirrors the sense of privacy and control that also died within her after the filming of the rape scene. This is further evidenced by the fact that Mima, as a being who is walled in by glass surfaces and kept visible at all times, essentially is a fish in a fishbowl herself. Thus, the gaze between Mima and her fish is essentially Mima looking at herself, feeling as though a part of her has died, and understanding the gravity of her own situation as a scopophilic object with no control of her own life and body.
Author Commentary / Jacob Williams
For my first Junior Paper as an East Asian Studies concentrator, I close-read Perfect Blue, an animated psychological-horror film released in 1997. One of the challenges about writing about this mind-numbingly confusing film was simply finding a place to start. A lot of my first impressions of the film—vague notions of gender, technology, glass, etc.—had already been covered in greater depth and nuance by existing scholarship, and this scholarship covered these topics in more depth than anything I was capable of writing would. However, one curious thing that I noticed is that none of these scholars mentioned animation in any depth, which was quite strange considering that Perfect Blue is an animated film.
With this specific goal in mind—of investigating the film’s animation—I watched the movie again, taking note of scenes or images that elicited a strong reaction from me. I ended up gathering a collection of scenes that clustered around the impressions I had gotten from the film earlier, but now these impressions were grounded in specific visual evidence rather than attempting to make sense of the film’s convoluted plot. Though not all of the scenes made it to my final draft, many powerful moments from the film, such as the protagonist’s horrified gaze through her fish tank or the film’s phantasmagoric final chase sequence, became anchors for both my analysis and for different sections of my paper.
My end result was that I was able to differentiate my paper from previous approaches by narrowing in on the film’s fundamentals—its animation—and then grounding both my close-readings and my critical theory in them as well. I hope that this inspires you to watch the film, and more importantly, makes writing about film seem a bit easier!
Editor Commentary / Ellie Shapiro
Using movies or TV shows as evidence is inherently difficult. Unsure of how to approach these nontraditional yet ubiquitous source materials, students often fall prey to plot summary. Jacob’s paper does quite the opposite, engaging in thoughtful, nuanced analysis of the 1997 Japanese film Perfect Blue.
Jacob’s piece is truly the epitome of this year’s theme, “up close and pedagogical.” His analysis of the film’s use of a stylized, limited animation or media mix is not only rooted in the details but comes together to form a multidimensional argument. Jacob demonstrates the proper way to dig into the details of production, animation, and framing angles of a film, pointing out the most important aspects of a scene for use in his argument. I generally look for two aspects in successful analysis: purposeful presentation of evidence and thorough explanation of that evidence. In both areas, Jacob’s close reading is a model example.
When approaching close visual analysis, our first instinct may be to describe every detail of the scene from the lighting to the shot angles to the facial expressions to the costumes. However, piling up any and all observations that might be relevant to your argument leaves unnecessary and distracting work for the reader who then has to parse through them. What I enjoyed the most about reading Jacob’s piece was that he purposefully presents only the details that are relevant to his claims. He does an excellent job of drawing the reader’s attention to specific parts of the scene: the detail of opening fan-mail or seeing the dead fish and the director’s choice of Mima’s gaze and the relation with the viewer’s gaze. He chooses what to highlight from the scene so the reader is not overwhelmed with evidence. In a concise paragraph before his thorough analysis, Jacob tells readers exactly what they need to know.
Furthermore, Jacob’s subsequent analysis of his evidence helps break down each and every part of the scene that he presents so that no detail is left unexplained. Referencing back to specific artistic choices from the scene — the role of the glass surface in creating a lens or the effect of the camera angle through which Mima is viewed — Jacob thoroughly exhausts the evidence, clearly laying out all of the implications of his observations.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, Jacob perfectly balances his close reading with a broader discussion of its importance for his argument. It can be easy to lose track of the larger claim when we get so involved in detailed analysis. However, because Jacob’s discussion of even the finest details is, first and foremost, purposeful and targeted, his close reading is able to easily maintain its relevance. Jacob’s close reading not only heightens our insight into a particular scene but the movie as a whole.
Professor Commentary / Paize Keulemans, Department of East Asian Studies
Many students think it is easy to write about popular culture. What can be easier than writing about your favorite film or anime or manga? You’ve seen (or read) the work ten thousand times. So, you know what it is about and what it really means, right? Nothing could be further from the truth. Precisely because we are so close, so familiar with the text, we often have a hard time taking a critical look. Which is why Jacob’s paper on the anime classic, Perfect Blue, is such a refreshing read. Jacob clearly knows and loves the film, but that does not prevent him from reading it critically, dissecting it to the bone, taking apart its aesthetics and ideology, all to offer us new insights.
Of course, Jacob is helped by the choice of “text” to begin with. Satoshi Kon’s work is famous for the way it takes its own medium—anime—to task, in this particular case by telling a story about a media idol whose image is gradually divorced from her until it comes back to haunt her. This is indeed the perfect film to think through ways of making the familiar seem a little bit less familiar.
What makes Jacob’s paper a pleasure to read, however, is how he refuses to simply follow Kon’s narrative. Instead, he carefully analyzes its aesthetics, thinks through the medium of anime itself, and, for good measure, places the work in its original social context. The result is a remarkably clever reading that is as self-conscious as the original film, offering a variety of really smart readings on some of the fundamental elements of not only the film, but the anime genre as a whole, including the theme of seeing and being seen, animating a character until it comes “alive,” or the way fandom can turn adoration into horror.