Perfect Blue and Black Swan: An Homage to Insanity

Alright kids. Let’s get a little pretentious.

I would love to publish some of this more formal work every once in awhile, when I get a chance, sometimes I find it fun to get a little deep and show off how much of a literal genius I am.

So. Without further ado, here we go.

Perfect Blue and Black Swan: An Homage to Insanity

In a dark city, a young artist driven to insanity as a result of the intense mental strain given to her by the performance art that she partakes in. The description above is a plot synopsis that might cause a film to jump to mind, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010).  But, this synopsis also describes the plot of the 1997 Japanese animated film Perfect Blue, directed by Satoshi Kon. Both films share many comparable features: main characters whose names are eerily similar (Nina and Mima), dark urban settings, and displaying the negative side of life in show-buisness. But, the similarities between the two go deeper than that, and as a result, it only makes sense to assert that Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) is clearly a remake of Satoshi Kon’s 1997 animated hit Perfect Blue, in the form of an homage. This is due to the similarities in plot and thematic content, as well as direction and stylistic choices that the films had in common.

Before digging into the topic, I first want to break down what a remake really is, because remakes may be a lot more varied than one might think. One of the most famous remakes of all time is John Sturges’ 1960 legendary western film The Magnificent Seven, which is actually a remake of Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954).  These two films differ in many aspects, one takes place in the American West, while the other takes place in feudal Japan. The dialog is different, the characters’ names are different, and some of the films that take place in the film are different, as a result of the vastly different cultures depicted in the two films, yet, The Magnificent Seven is still considered a remake. Another example of remakes is the most recent edition of The Magnificent Seven which just came out in 2016 and was directed by Antoine Fuqua. This film is a direct remake of the original The Magnificent Seven (1960) and could be considered a newer version of the movie, tailored for audiences of this generation. The new film contains a similar plot, but with different characters, namely, ones of varying races. The original The Magnificent Seven (1960) did not have the many people of color in the film, if any. While, the more recent film, meant to better reflect the values of equality that stand stronger in American culture today, had plenty of racial diversity, as well as an African American man in the lead role. Now, all three films share the same basic plot, but all three films are surprisingly different from each other, and all are considered to be related to each other as remakes. This brings up the question of what makes a film a remake? This is exactly the question that Constantine Vervevis tackles in his book Film Remakes. In his book, Vervevis lists three different definitions: “Recent accounts of cinematic remaking have variously defined film remakes as ‘films based on an earlier screenplay’, as ‘new versions of existing films’ and as ‘films that to one degree or another announce to us that they embrace one or more previous movies’,” (Vervevis, 12.) While The Magnificent Seven (1960) would qualify as the first type of remake that Vervevis lists, and  The Magnificent Seven (2016) would qualify as the second, Black Swan qualifies as the third. Because when the subject matter of Black Swan and Perfect Blue are boiled down, you get two stories that have different plots, but eerily contain too many similarities to not consider one to be a remake of the other.

This form of remake is cited by another researcher named Thomas Leitch, which he refers to as homage. Homage, as Leitch puts it is, “the readaptation which seeks to direct the audience’s attention to its literary source, the homage situates itself as a secondary text in order to pay tribute to a previous film version, for example, Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1975) and Body Double (1986) as homages to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)” (Vervevis, 13). Homages, while not directly containing all of the film’s subject matter in terms of plot or characters, will often contain various aspects of what makes other films special. Both films are chock full of similarities in plot, character intention and theme, which I will further go into later on in the essay. But there are also many similarities in terms of tone, both films are incredibly eerie and suspenseful. Black Swan also makes sense as an homage to the film as Aronofsky owns the rights to Perfect Blue, after purchasing them in order to recreate several shots from the film for his movie A Requiem For a Dream. Owning such rights gave Aronofsky the leeway to make a film that is so similar to Perfect Blue, without getting into any legal trouble. Vervevis asserts that Leitch’s discussion of homages opens up a realm of possibility for considerations of remakes that extend simply beyond source material, but can actually be defined within the critical reviews and scholarly analysis of the films. “Examples such as Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, 1964) remake of Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961) – uncredited, but consistently ‘acknowledged’ in critical commentaries – suggest that taxonomies need attend not only to the nature of textual remakings (‘free’ or ‘faithful’), but to contextual (or extratextual) markers, such as credits and reviews, that enable the identification of the intertext,” (Vervevis, 31).

One reason that Black Swan could be considered an homage to Perfect Blue is due to the variety of similarities between the two in terms of plot and themes. Both films depict characters who are artists who are attempting to step up and take on new challenges, but instead are plunged into a world of insanity. In Perfect Blue, Mima, the main character, is introduced during her final performance as a member of CHAM! an idol group that she was formerly a part of. Mima has chosen to abandon her work as a singer and dancer in order to pursue a career in the acting business and is given a role on the fictional hit show Double Bind as a rape victim. Mima accepts the role, but her decision met with much disdain from her overprotective manager Rumi. Rumi, a former pop-star herself worries the role will ruin Mima’s public perception. While this may seem trivial to American audiences, scholar Chris Perkins explains: “This notion of tarnishing relates to Mima moving from one set of descriptions to another, in this case from the niche idol world dominated by all things kawaii (cute), to the harder, more overtly sexualized world of television. The structuring descriptions of kawaii identity include ‘sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle, vulnerable, weak and inexperienced social behaviour and physical appearance.’ Mima’s decision to change from  kawaii idol to actress is akin to the destruction of the sense of self of the fan who consumes Mima as idol, ” (Perkins, 12).  But Mima nonetheless continues on, and after filming the rape scene, she finds herself shaken. And she descends into violent madness as a result of her inability to decipher between the events of the television show as it films, and her real life. In Black Swan we see Nina, a ballerina, attempting to step up and take on the lead role in the upcoming season’s performances of Swan Lake. The Swan Queen role that Nina longs for is something that requires her to search within herself and become something else in order to truly master it. For, The Swan Queen role needs to possess both the grace and elegance of the white swan, but also the dark and sensual nature of the black swan. While Nina is excellent as the white swan, her pursuit to capture the essence of the black swan is one that drives her to violent insanity. This can be best summed in the words of film scholar Amanda Sandido who describes Nina’s fall from grace accordingly: “As she strives towards beauty-making and an ideal performance, Nina’s experiences become increasingly violent and fragmented. She is ever more plagued by hallucinations of violence, panicked through obsession and paranoia, and drawn to self-mutilation that culminates in an apparent suicide attempt. Yet, through these progressions, Nina’s arts-making climaxes in a performance that is, in her own words, ‘perfect’.” (Sandido, 7)

Both films deal with the idea of identity throughout in similar ways, as both characters and the audience begin to question the actions of the characters throughout. In Black Swan, Nina attempts to let her true identity, the white swan, go in order to transcend as an artist and become the black swan. Nina is seemingly haunted by herself throughout the movie, through hallucinations of doppelgangers of herself. As Nina struggles to embrace the black swan, she becomes increasingly more aware of this duality, and we see these hallucinatory doubles of herself more and more frequently as the movie progresses and the black swan identity takes over more and more of Nina’s mind. While in Perfect Blue Mima finds herself also haunted by losing track of time and, depending on how one reads the film, developing dissociative personality disorder. She is constantly taunted by crimes that she may or may not have committed, as well as hallucinations of doubles of herself towards the end of the film. As Mima slowly loses control of her identity in the third act of the movie, viewers follow Mima into a new world than the one presented at the beginning of the movie. A world that lacks rules, as the legitimacy of the narrator has been compromised. This situation is described by film scholar Susan Napier to be a: “a postmodern realm where illusion and reality commingle in ways that threaten the autonomy of the individual,” (Napier, 125). This lack of ability to understand what is and isn’t real is also reflected in the third act of Black Swan, as Nina spirals out of control in a similar fashion.  

Throughout these films, the main characters are driven forward and affected by the fear of mediocrity, placed there by the older women in both of their lives. In Perfect Blue Mima can be seen pushing forward into an acting career, fearing that her popularity as a singer has peaked, and can only go downhill from there. Mima is constantly accompanied by Rumi whose failure to continue to hold onto her fame seems to haunt her. Rumi can be seen pushing Mima to do various things throughout the movie, based off of what will hold onto her public standing more, and almost seems to be living vicariously through Mima as a result. Whereas in Black Swan, Nina is constantly pushed by her mother towards success. Nina’s mother, a failed ballerina herself, manipulates Nina in the same way that Mima can be manipulated by Rumi, as both women push the girls farther in an attempt to live vicariously through them. Nina longs for the spotlight, and doesn’t want to fade into obscurity the way that her mother did.  

Both films are shot/animated in similar styles too. Perfect Blue Director Satoshi Kon’s realistic take on animation establishes a world that looks just like the world we live in, but his scene structure often leaves large open areas of the frame in order to create tension. By also filling every scene with different reflective surfaces, and establishing that Mima’s doubles can appear within reflections, Kon manages to establish an eerie feel in each scene. Viewers are forced to question and pay attention to the surroundings, looking for potential places where Mima’s doppelgangers can appear. Aronofsky uses a similar shot composition in Black Swan making most of the scenes in the film take place in dance studios, dressing rooms, bedrooms or bathrooms, as Nina’s reflections also trigger negative events throughout the film. Both directors use plenty of grotesque surreal imagery throughout their films, namely in the third acts, as the deterioration of the characters minds becomes more and more evident. In Black Swan  it is notably grotesque, as  Nina is sometimes transformed into a swan-human hybrid. The vast majority of both films take place at night, and scenes tend to switch back and forth between dark and shadowy, as well as overly lit and bright. Kon and Aronofsky seem to keep both the harsh lighting and shadowy urban scenery reminiscent of the classic noir films of the 1940’s and 50’s. These similarities in style between the two films are unmistakable, as well as Perfect Blue’s influence on Black Swan.

Due to the immense amount of similarities that the films share in terms of style, character development, and story content as a whole, Perfect Blue and Black Swan are eerily linked in terms of craftsmanship. And due to the similarities between the films, it only makes sense to consider Black Swan a remake to Perfect Blue, in terms of homage. As pointed out throughout this essay, both films share many similarities, and one final similarity that they do share is that they are both perfect examples of homage remakes in cinema.

Sources:

Napier, Susan J. “Cinema Anime: Critical Engagements with Japanese Animation.” Ed. Steven T. Brown. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.

Perkins, C. “Flatness, depth and Kon Satoshi’s ethics”, Journal of Japanese & Korean Cinema 4: 2,(2012)  pp. 119–133

Sandido, Amanda. “On Perfection: Pain and Arts-making in Aronofsky’s Black Swan.” MavScholar. N.p., 1 Dec. 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2016.

Verevis, Constantine. Film Remakes. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

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8 thoughts on “Perfect Blue and Black Swan: An Homage to Insanity

Add yours

      1. NGE, KlK – I get it. I’ve only seen Free! and Hibike! from Naoko Yamada. Obviously I’ve heard of her work but I haven’t gotten to it yet… I did love Hibike much more than most people did though.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. If you haven’t seen Gunbuster by Anno, I HIGHLY reccomend it. The first 2 episodes are slow, but it builds to an incredible climax for such a short OVA series.
        As far as Yamada goes, K-On is the one consistent thing that I choose to watch when I am feeling down. And both films she has directed, Tamako Love Story and Koe No Katachi are some of the most aesthetically beautiful films in anime, in my opinion. Her cinematography and use of color is just gorgeous.

        Liked by 1 person

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