Disclimer: I know it is not in my usual style to talk about a non-animated film, but since it is so similar to an animated film that I previously wrote about, I figured it would count. This article contains spoilers for Perfect Blue and Black Swan. Read with caution. Also note that the following video contains clips from Perfect Blue, but the audio from the Black Swan trailer.
Black Swan is the Academy Award winning 2010 film by Darren Aronofsky. Perfect Blue is the 1997 Japanese animated film by Satoshi Kon. I have previously discussed the latter in an article in which I focus on female identity and the male gaze in Perfect Blue. It wasn’t until I started writing the article that I found out that Black Swan and Perfect Blue have a lot of similarities, other than having a color in their titles. I knew that Darren Aronofsky was a fan of and was influenced by Satoshi Kon, by the fact that he had used a particular bathtub scene from Perfect Blue in his 2000 film Requiem for a Dream. What I did not realize is that he would later take pretty much the same plot and even some of the same exact scenes from Perfect Blue to construct an entire movie. This motivated me to watch Black Swan for myself. The similarities are obvious. Both films tell the story of a young woman moving into a more high-pressure job that forces them to bring out a side of themselves that they hadn’t before, and follows their eventual psychotic break as the films go on. In Perfect Blue the story follows a woman named Mima going from a pop idol to an actress, and Black Swan is about Nina who takes on a demanding role in a ballet production of Swan Lake. The plot and the main characters aren’t the only similarities. In both films the main characters witness doppelgangers of themselves, which may or may not be a hallucination, they both at one point think they killed someone, they both experience sexual assault, and in the end there is a doppelganger fight that involves choking and broken glass in the belly. Some scenes are even exactly the same, such as seeing their doppelganger in a reflection, scenes involving the subway trains, and a scene in which pictures on the wall start talking. Cracked.com has pointed this out twice – once in an article and once in a video. But I am not here to talk about plagiarism and copy-cat movies. Instead, I want to compare the two films and the directors’ style and writing. After watching both movies, I would have to say that both are great films, and Aronofsky and Kon each have a superb style that knows how to create atmosphere, a compelling plot, and realistically human characters. Black Swan managed to have talented engaging actors, but when looking at most of the other parameters of what I think these films were trying to accomplish, I’d have to say Kon’s animation does the psychological thriller better, and Perfect Blue is the better film.
The Main Character
Starting out with the main character from both films – Mima (Perfect Blue) and Nina (Black Swan), we see that not only are the names are practically the same, but their character arcs are very similar. Both stories do an excellent job at showing the characters struggle with their identity and image of themselves, and how this can be very damaging to the psyche. Though their challenges are the same, their response to said challenges are very different. Mima’s tale can be seen as one of growth, while Nina’s is one of a tragic downfall.
Starting off with Mima, who is a somewhat timid pop idol trying to strike out on her own in a challenging new career. She is likable, stays kind and motivated despite her troubles, fights back when in trouble, and despite being a victim is by no means a damsel in distress. She is a character you want to root for. In the entire film, her reputation is changed dramatically, and how she sees herself is challenged. It is in the most climactic part at the end, when she is injured and tormented physically and mentally, that she manages to just hold onto her sense of self enough to declare “I am Mima!” Mima’s story is one of triumph, and is very motivating and empowering to the viewer.
Nina, like her anime counterpart, is quiet and fragile, but she is also backhanded and manipulative. She certainly defines the duality of the roles of the White and Black Swans well. However, she is a really unlikable character. She is paranoid, treats others terribly as a result of a lack of her own self-worth, and even steals things from and sabotages her fellow dancers. Like Mima, you feel sympathetic for her situation, but sympathy and empathy are not the same thing. The movie really made me dislike Nina, and it even made me feel like she deserved what she got in the end. Thinking that made me feel dirty, because the movie essentially made me blame the victim of sexual assault and of self hurt. From a moral standpoint that feels wrong, but it is also damaging from a writing standpoint. I don’t think a writer should make the viewers want to hate a main character. In my opinion, I have a very difficult time liking a film if I can’t like the main character. I can’t relate to the main character’s situation if they act in such a detestable way.
Both characters are put in similarly stressful situations, and their reactions to said situations feel very real, making them both complete and human characters. But Perfect Blue is much more effective in making me feel for the main character. I worry about what happens to her, and she is much more relatable, even when she starts mentally spiraling downwards. The journey following Nina’s psychological downfall is not just watching a poor girl fall into a pit of perfection-seeking-fueled self-harm, it’s also a journey of her becoming a rather terrible human being. Is that effective writing? Yes. Is it a creation of a believable character in a believable situation? Yes. Can I relate to her? Do I want her to succeed? Do I care what happens to her in the end? All no. And that’s important. I’m fine with having an unlikable person for a main character, but you have to create enough interest in them that I actually care what happens to them in the end. Her fate is a well written tragedy, but I just didn’t care what happened to Nina.
Despite me having a distaste for Nina’s character, the acting of Natalie Portman was absolutely phenomenal and worthy of her Academy Award win for Best Actress. The acting of all of those in Black Swan was great. I was especially amazed at all of the training that Portman and co-star Mila Kuniz went through to get into the shape and to attain the skill that they did. Both went through rigorous exercise and ballet practices, and both lost an unhealthy amount of weight to get themselves to the realistic body shape of a professional ballet dancer. Even though body doubles were used for the more technical and intense dance scenes, a lot of Nina’s dancing was done by Portman herself. Though incredibly unhealthy and dangerous, that amount of effort to get into the role really makes me respect those two actresses.
Portman was perfect in her role. When Nina was scared, or paranoid, or nervous, or having a mental breakdown, you really felt it. The emotions came across the screen almost viscerally, and she did a great job at showing what she was thinking. I may not have liked her character, but Natalie Portman did an impeccable job in portraying it.
As for Perfect Blue, I’ve seen the film in both the original Japanese and in the English dub. The voice acting in both is rather mediocre. It can even be campy at times. The original voice actors are decidedly better, but the English version certainly isn’t the worst dub I’ve heard, and does a decent job at mimicking the vocal mannerisms of the Japanese version. Still there is not much to say here. I feel that in the case of Black Swan, the actors had more of an ability to shine and their talent was very obvious, while in Perfect Blue, the “humanness” of the characters were mainly due to good writing and direction, rather than good acting.
Both films fall under the “psychological thriller” category, with Black Swan being further categorized as “psychological horror”. This makes absolute sense for a film like Perfect Blue, which explores our main character’s psyche as terrible events and murders happen around her. Mima experiences hallucinations, she forgets things or is confused about events that happen, a stalker is following her, her self-identity begins to unravel – everything about the film is mentally terrifying. Furthermore, there is a sense of mystery throughout the film. Are all of these things just in Mima’s head? Is she killing all of these people? Is someone framing her? Is the stalker doing it in a creepy attempt to “save” her from her troubles? You literally don’t know anything about what is happening until the very end. The movie keeps you glued to the screen, and with the way that Kon edits his films by switching from one scene to the other so quickly, you literally cannot look away from the movie without missing something.
On the other hand, the “thriller” and “horror” label of Black Swan, really confused me while watching the film. When I had heard that the plot and certain scenes of Black Swan were copied from Perfect Blue, I was expecting a similar viewing experience. I was expecting to be unsure of what was going on, or having something terrifying happen, or that the ending would be ambiguous. I was surprised to find that none of that happened. Everything in Black Swan was pretty obvious to me. There wasn’t anything “thrilling” or “horrific” about it. Nothing made me wonder what was going on, and nothing elicited any amount of fear. In fact, throughout the entire film it was pretty obvious that most of the things that Nina experienced were hallucinations. That is why I’d sooner categorize the film as “psychological drama”. Black Swan isn’t terrifying or mysterious. It’s just about someone wanting to obtain perfection, and the mental stress and consequences that result from attempting to achieve something impossible. It’s still a compelling tale, and it is certainly tragic and horrific from a humanistic standpoint. But there are no twists and turns. There isn’t a sense of wonder at what will happen. There is no question about the psyche of our main character. She is simply under pressure from a demanding role, and goes through boughts of self harm, and mental breakdowns as a result of wanting to be the best. Black Swan tells a powerful psychological journey, but not a scary one.
Satoshi Kon employs cuts and clever editing to confuse and disorient the viewer, while Aronofsky tends to use an unsteady or spinning camera to produce a similar effect. Both allow the viewer to have a peek into the psyche of our main characters, but while Kon’s technique is effective in making the audience mentally disoriented by tricking us about what we are seeing, Aronofsky’s shaky cam technique leaves us more physically disoriented, which is metaphorically astute, but visually misguided. This is because even though the disorienting effect is successful, it is sometimes difficult to tell what is going on on screen and doesn’t give us much to look at. Kon allows the viewer to see full well what is going on, with a calm, focused “camera”, but this simply lulls the audience into a false sense of security before pulling the rug from underneath us and telling us what we thought we saw was wrong. Each style has a similar psychological effect, but one is much more mentally manipulative and arguably more clever than the other.
Furthermore, Aronofsky relies too heavily on sound and music to get the emotion of a scene across. I don’t have a problem with this, and I respect a proper use of musical accompaniment to good visuals. However, I feel like Aronofsky’s use of music is sometimes too obviously manipulative, and I feel like sometimes he forgets how silence can be just as scary or emotional. Take the two bathtub scenes from Perfect Blue and Requiem for a Dream for example. The Perfect Blue version is incredibly silent, mimicking the deafness one experiences when one submerges their head in the water. It is silent up until our main character screams out in frustration, shocking the viewer out of the silence. We don’t expect it coming until she screams, and the silence that precedes it makes the situation feel a lot more claustrophobic and allows the viewer to empathize with Mima’s solitude and vulnerability in the moment. The Requiem for a Dream version has music playing over the scene, with a sharp note rising up until the moment of the scream. In this version, the music is emotionally manipulative, yet the scream is expected due to the rising tone. It is the psychological drama equivalent to a cheap jump scare in a horror flick.
The use of music to gain an emotional punch isn’t something that should be frowned upon. In fact, a lot of time it should be praised, and Aronofsky is good at combining a lot of different film techniques, from visuals to sounds to acting and dialogue, to create a very strong scene. But what I think is more amazing and a more skillful display of a good filmmaker is Kon’s ability to create an equally effective scene with JUST visuals. He’s so good at creating a visual atmosphere that he doesn’t always need anything else to create an excellent setup and execute a powerful moment.
Now some of the things that makes Kon so good at this is the fact that he is using a much more flexible medium – that being animation. Kon once expressed that he chose to work with animated films instead of live action because his editing was too fast for live action. He could do more and say more with fewer frames and relay information more quickly with animation that one could ever do with live action, simply because he had more control over what was going on. Animation allows a director a certain amount of freedom to do some things that one simply cannot do with an actor and a camera. And that is where I get back to Kon’s cuts and scene switches. He can perfectly choreograph two scenes spliced together and can tell a story in a way that live action films cannot. If you want to see more specific examples of how Satoshi Kon edits his films, I highly recommend this video from “Every Frame a Painting.”
I literally have never seen anyone create animated pieces like Kon’s. It was his creativity and aptitude for consistently messing with his audiences that made his films great. By comparison, it sometimes felt like Aronofsky was using relatively overdone techniques to manipulate his audience in Black Swan. There wasn’t a lot in that film that I hadn’t seen before. And that’s probably because I watched Kon’s films, which Aronofsky, time and again, seems to have been heavily influenced by, but unable to get to the heart of. There is no doubt that Black Swan shows off Aronofsky’s skill, and the film is an interesting watch. However, Perfect Blue and the rest of Kon’s films are an experience to behold, and I would recommend every single one of them.