Darren Aronofsky, one of the budding greats in the film industry today, bought the American rights to Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue. Why? So he could copy a scene in, which I like to call “Crouching Idol, Tiny Bathtub,” for his highly acclaimed film Requiem for a Dream.
But even though Aronofsky claims that Perfect Blue had little influence, is Black Swan the Americanized live action adaptation we’ve been waiting for? Let’s take a look at the two films and find out.
Now I’ve seen posts going around tumblr how Aronofsky should have credited Perfect Blue and how it dishonored the memory of Satoshi Kon but I think they are missing the point. This isn’t as original an idea as you would think. So, please understand that this comparison is not to berate Aronofsky for “stealing” Perfect Blue, but rather to note all the interesting and fascinating similarities. Hell, even if he did adapt Perfect Blue into Black Swan, why are we complaining? Black Swan is a very well done movie and had it been a real adaptation, it would have been the best we could have hoped for. Again, this article is just for fun, not to criticize.
First off, the plots of the two films are pretty similar. I did a full review of Perfect Blue a while back, but I’ll still sum it up quick here. Mima Kirigoe leaves her pop idol group to try to become a serious actress but finds the real world harsh and difficult. But as people start dying and a mysterious blog appears, Mima becomes central to a crazed world of conspiracy and fantasy. Black Swan is about budding ballerina Nina who suddenly finds herself as the lead in Swan Lake. However, as the pressure mounts on this perfect prima dona, not to mention the insistence of her choreographer to be more sensual, and a new talented rival, her world begins to turn upside down in an insane asylum sort of way.
Right off the bat, there are a lot of superficial similarities. The main characters share a similar name, both are young women in the prime of their career, they both work in the high-stress entertainment industry in one form or another, they both feel extreme pressure, and they both suffer from hallucinations and general craziness as the story progresses. However, it’s clear to see that the plots of the two films don’t quite match up in the main detail – the job itself.
Being a Japanese idol is not exactly like an American ballerina. While ballerinas are under extreme pressure to remain thin, to get the steps down perfectly, pushing their bodies to extremes, the idol industry in Japan is worse. First of all, being an idol anywhere in Asia is about image. Not just being thin and pretty, but also about being pure. You can’t date in Japan, you have to be cute and innocent, and you better not sing too off-key or mess up the dance steps. When an idol makes a career move or choice that the fans don’t like, their diehard love turns into a very frightening hatred. The fans often times feel betrayed or hurt when an idol does something that is considered unpopular or wrong. Girls get fired for not gaining enough popularity, or by doing or saying the wrong thing. Idols are scrutinized in every way and must fit very specific, assigned role. Ballerinas get it a little easier (though not by much, mind you) because they don’t have public personas; they don’t have to go on TV and do interviews, their fans aren’t going to suddenly hate them for choosing to dance in The Nutcracker rather than Peter and the Wolf. Still, these are two incredibly high-stress entertainment careers and they do take their toll on those who work within them.
That being said, there are some deeper themes they share. Both deal with issues of self identity and “the doppelganger ” These are both women who want to be the best they can be, but have insecurities and issues that hold them back, specifically those of self identity. There is a clear and separate divide between who they are and who the want to be; the failure and the success. No matter how hard they work, nothing compares to that perfect other they want to be. This manifests into a doppelganger, a perfect copy who is successful in every way that our main character is not. For Mima, the doppelganger is imaginary, linked to a real life stalker who is writing a blog as her. For Nina, this comes in the form of Lily, a sensual new ballerina at the company who can dance the Black Swan like she was born to do it. This is what slowly pushes these women to lose it – now that their desired self is real, they have become less than adequate and in the desperate attempt to keep in control, they fall into a spiral of madness.
Obviously, both works deal with very real mental illnesses. While it would be wrong to say that either women has out right paranoid schizophrenia, both of them do suffer the effects of very extreme stress and have very real, very scary hallucinations. And if you don’t think paintings can move and talk to you, then you have obviously never been a small child staring at a picture for hours on end.
The worst is that these women never actually get the help they desperately need. Spoiler alert and what not, but both films end rather badly for them. Hell, the whole reason people get murdered in Perfect Blue is because Mima’s manager Rumi doesn’t want her to ruin “Mima’s” perfect image as an idol probably the way she did all those years ago, attempts to kill Mima, and then is permanently institutionalized. And suddenly, at the end of the film, Mima is somehow okay with this? I’m pretty sure she’s going to be rather seriously disturbed for a long time, especially considering that Rumi is still very much alive. Nina literally stabs herself and dies (supposedly) on stage, finally achieving the perfection she wanted. I’m guessing it’s nice that she died happily, but she died never receiving all of the praise and joy she wanted, and after giving only one perfect performance. I’m pretty sure with some therapy she could have been okay and even had an amazing professional career.
But these films ultimately share is the theme of the distortion of reality, and what the line between dream and nightmare really is. Often Mima and Nina have hallucinations and dreams of events that seem real, even are convinced that these events have really happened. They see a world where they can’t distinguish the performance from reality, and vice versa. Mima becomes a woman with a split personality, just like in the TV show she’s working on, like Nina becomes the Black Swan as she prepares to dance Swan Lake. Are those strangers on the street real? Are you being followed? Is there someone waiting in the darkness of your kitchen or are you just insane? These movies not only remind us that reality is subjective and easily messed with, but that there’s little distinction between living a dream and living in a nightmare. After all, the movie begins with the two women getting what they wanted, and watch it all come apart, and how that dream can be mangled in a thousand different ways.
Whether or not Black Swan is as close to an adaptation to Perfect Blue as we’ll ever get is still open for debate. But what is to be sure is that these films, while separate, deal with very similar issues from different cultural viewpoints, which is pretty interesting. One is all about the purity and innocence of one’s self image as well as public image, and how changing that can lead to some nasty consequences, both internally and externally. The other is about frail and broken self image and growth, and how sometimes in order to attain perfection, we sacrifice ourselves and our well being, blinded by the promise of glory, and the will to succeed. In fact, they might even be better as companion pieces rather than the same story. I encourage you all to watch both and decide for yourself. Personally, I’m never going to be able to sleep again.