A psychological thriller about a woman working in the performance industry who descends into psychosis regarding another version of self, a psychosis that is related to her loss of innocence which is furthered by the maternal figure in her life, a thriller that illustrates the exploitation of female performers.
Or rather, thrillers.
The films Perfect Blue and Black Swan have many similarities, including the plot above, but this similarity is not entirely coincidental. Darren Aronofsky, the director of Black Swan, bought the copyright for a live action adaptation of Perfect Blue, but he claims that he bought it in order to duplicate one of the scenes from Perfect Blue to be used in another one of the movies he directed. Perfect Blue was produced over ten years prior to the release of Black Swan, and though Aronofsky stated that he didn’t buy Perfect Blue’s copyright to use it for Black Swan, it is undeniable that Black Swan strongly resembles Perfect Blue, and this resemblance is shown in nearly every aspect of the film. The most significant similarities between Perfect Blue and Black Swan are the main characters both being performers who experience psychosis, the theme of a loss of innocence including a maternal figure that opposes said loss. The films are also both allegorical references to the treatment and expectations of women in the performance industry, along with how that industry uses, exploits, sexualizes, and over-exerts the women in it.
Perfect Blue is an animated film set in 90’s Japan, centered around a famous pop singer, Mima, who leaves behind her singing career to become an actress. For her first role, Mima is cast in a crime drama that changes her image of a pure, good-girl pop singer into a more mature state, and this change is initially challenged by her manager, Rumi, due to what seems to be concerns about Mima’s level of success and what Mima wants, which appears logical to the viewer due to Rumi’s maternal treatment towards Mima. Mima says that she is willing to become an actress, but the role is much more demanding than she was led to believe. Mima is persuaded to act as the victim in a rape scene, but her seemingly unbothered agreement to that role was not honest. In a later scene she rips apart her room in a frenzied state and screams into her pillow, yelling about how she never wanted to do the scene. The pressure she experiences as an actress is heightened by her fall into psychosis which begins shortly after her career change, where she starts to see the pop-idol version of herself saying how Mima destroyed their image, the pop-idol version of herself saying how she is the real Mima. But her hallucinations are layered, due to their physical counterpart. Towards the end of the film, it is revealed that Rumi’s opposition to Mima’s image change stretches far beyond worry for Mima’s success and comfort. Rumi is a failed pop singer, and she tried to live vicariously through Mima, but that became difficult when Mima became an actress. This vicarious living was not a simple wanting. Rumi had Dissociative Identity Disorder. She fully believed that she was pop-singer Mima, and as an attempt to preserve Mima’s innocent image, she dressed up as Mima and created a link between Mima’s hallucinations and reality by inciting fear in her through various methods. She also killed many of the people involved in Mima’s image change, such as the photographer who urged her to do a nude photoshoot and the screenwriter who wrote the rape scene. Rumi’s manipulation of Mima’s mind makes Mima unable to differentiate between real-life and her hallucinations, until Mima is fully immersed in a fight between the two, which comes to an end when Mima finally catches up to Rumi and admits her to a psych ward. Perfect Blue is a film composed of delusions, both obvious and symbolic. In her career, Mima appears to have control, but that control is essentially an illusion given to her by the television industry. By creating the appearance of choice, this industry is able to manipulate Mima without much difficulty. The entire reason why Mima became an actress was because her management company believed that would be the most lucrative path. Her whole career is dependent on her ability to contort herself into someone profitable, regardless of the impacts on her physical and mental stability.
Black Swan is centered around the life of Nina, who is a professional ballerina in the New York City Ballet. She is cast in Swan Lake, playing the unique role of both the white swan and the black swan. Though, Nina receiving this role is not the dream it would seem to be. Her existence in this film is paradoxical. To the audience, she is a graceful image of perfection, but the audience cannot see that her dancing is a performance orchestrated by environmental pressures that put an immense strain on her health and sanity. The audience cannot see that her dancing is the product of her forcibly sacrificed humanity. The audience cannot see that the fruits of her labor are quickly rotting, that they reached the impeccable image before them once and only once. Nina’s career and life are overly condensed, and both are polluted with damaging toxicity whose effects are witnessed throughout the course of this film. Prior to Nina being cast in this role, Thomas Leroy, the director for Swan Lake is introduced, and his predatory, corrupt, and manipulative nature is clear almost instantly. Leroy embodies the patriarchal exploitation of women in the performance industry. He uses his position of power to manipulate Nina, along with all of the other ballerinas by pitting them against each other so they will compete for the leading role and subsequently, his approval. Leroy leads Nina to believe that he has cast another dancer as the lead, and only after he sexually assaults her is it revealed she was cast as the lead, making her believe that her success was only because he assaulted her. This is not at all the fault of Nina, who is an extremely talented dancer capable of being considered and chosen for a leading role. It is entirely Leroy’s fault, who manipulates all of the female dancers into a state where they need his validation and can only win it and succeed in their careers as dancers by letting him violate their body.
In addition to Leroy, Nina’s mother acts as another environmental pressure in this movie that contributes to her loss of sanity. Nina’s mother is an overbearing and hovering presence in Nina’s life, constricting her freedom and treating her grown daughter like she is still a child, tying her shoes, cutting her nails, monitoring the guests who enter their apartment, and not allowing Nina to change her bedroom from it’s childhood state. Her mother is so terrified of Nina growing up and leaving that her overflowing fear starts to hold Nina back, forcing her to act as a child in the body and life of an adult. This preserved childlike innocence is lost over the course of the film as she begins to experience schizophrenia, which is symbolised in Nina’s struggle in capturing the role of the black swan perfectly, a contrast to the purity of the white swan’s role which she mastered easily. Under these strains, Nina begins to hallucinate, her visions growing in their intensity from her seeing separate versions of herself, to seeing pictures move, to losing track of time and imagining interactions and events that never occurred. These illusions span between her being cast as the lead to the opening performance, to where the climax of the film occurs and she hallucinates stabbing and killing another dancer, only to find out at the end of the film that the dancer is unharmed and the one she stabbed was herself, blood spilling out onto her white costume as she passes out after the finale of her performance ends and the curtains close. I was perfect, Nina softly exclaimed as life left her, a smile on her face as she spoke the past-tense statement, her expression one of finality, a reaction to the realization that any future reference to her perfection would be a reference to her past, to her short and ending life.
Both Perfect Blue and Black Swan demonstrate a similar warning, a similar point, capturing their viewers in a dramatized testimony of the damaging environment that women in the performance industry face, and the detrimental outcome that can result. These films exhibit how the performance industry only allows its female participants a short-lived glory, manipulating them into subscribing to the belief that it is better to fall from grace than to never reach it at all. Success must come with a taxing cost, but it is worth it to pay. She can only embody greatness if she empties herself out of everything that makes her human. Her flaws take up too much space, her personage needs to be scooped out so that greatness can fill her up just as quickly as it departs, heading for its next victim and leaving her empty and used, with nothing left inside but the ghost of passion. Leaving her disposable, leaving her disposed.
But it is worth it, men like Leroy will say, promising those women that they will be great, but not telling them how little time they will have in that state, skipping over the payment and the aftermath. Those men will only ever benefit from the talent of others, their privilege saving them from the fate that they administer to others.
A fate that Mima somewhat recovered from, but not Nina, who faced an implied death, bleeding out on stage. But regardless of the outcome, both suffered greatly prior to the result of their anguish, that suffering existing at the root of their shared, eventual psychosis. Their lost grip on reality was the almost expected product of being trapped between hands in a game of tug-of-war. On one side, the authorities of their career pulling towards a forced surrender of supposed purity, on the other side, a matron figure pulling back into an unfitting prepubescent age, both sides contributing to their misery, both sides pulling so hard that neither receives the rope. It simply snaps in two. And within this game, they are living a life that requires them to reside on both sides, experiencing their horrific by-products nearly every day. In their careers, they are subjected to working under corrupt superiors, sexual harassment and assault, and overexertion. Under the hand of their unstable maternal figure, they are subjected to existing as another’s pawn in a play of vicarious living, which leads to their lack of independence and autonomy, along with being the recipient of guidance and conditional maternal love from a dangerously irrational and deranged individual. With no way to escape from these fatal pressures, Mima and Nina both began to break down, a mental response to the extreme physical and emotional stressors they were living with.
These similarities present in Perfect Blue and Black Swan stretch far beyond the messages and themes present. Though Perfect Blue is an animated film, many of the scenes in Black Swan are near duplicates to scenes in Perfect Blue. Examples of these shots include a shared scene where the main character of the film has their arms horizontally stretched out in front of a bright, blinding light. In Black Swan, the light is coming from spotlights over the stage, while in Perfect Blue, the light is coming from an approaching 18-wheeler truck.
Both films have similar shots regarding the psychosis experienced by the main characters, the most prominent one being a scene where a reflection of themself turned to look at them in a way that didn’t match their living state, and these moving reflections acted and/or spoke in ways that were against the well-being of the main character.
Additionally, Perfect Blue and Black Swan share a scene where a large collection of stagnant images of the main character that are hung up on a single wall begin to move. With both cases, the pictures were hung up by and belong to an antagonist in the film. In Perfect Blue, the pictures belong to Mima’s stalker, and in Black Swan, the pictures are drawings created by Nina’s mother.
At their core, both of these films are allegorical, almost post-cautionary tales of the cruel and unchangeable fate that women who work in the performance industry often face. When multiple pieces of media share similar subject matter, one is often better than the others. In this case, Perfect Blue is the better film, and within the similarities of these two representations of this message lie differences. While both Mima and Nina experience psychosis, there is no physical counterpart to Nina’s hallucinations. Mima is not just hallucinating the pop-singer version of herself. Her manager is also dressing up as singer Mima to kill people in Mima’s life, and Mima has a stalker who she often sees throughout the movie. And it is not only the physical elements of Mima’s hallucinations that makes the psychosis in Perfect Blue more intense than that in Black Swan. The intensity of Perfect Blue is caused by the pure mystery of Mima’s psychosis, including the gory murders that go unexplained, the dissapearing time, the unknown causes of certain incidents, and how it is often impossible to differentiate between the plot of the television show Mima is starring in and what is actually occurring in Mima’s life, making the movie far more perplexing and mentally manipulative for the viewer as they begin to share Mima’s struggle of separating reality from illusion.
But Perfect Blue being the better film goes beyond the differences between movies. It is in the execution of this theme; by how the story gets told. Black Swan is legal plagiarism due to its similarities to Perfect Blue and its poorer quality. Despite this, Black Swan is still an excellent movie, but it struggles to compare to Perfect Blue, an unparalleled and unique stroke of genius in the form of a film.
Black Swan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, performances by Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2010.
Perfect Blue. Directed by Satoshi Kon, performances by Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, and Shinpachi Tsuji, Mad House, 1997.
Vu, ByMaria. “The Eerie Similarities Between ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Perfect Blue’.” Metaflix, 10 May 2021, www.metaflix.com/the-eerie-similarities-between-black-swan-and-perfect-blue/.