Back in 2010, a certain segment of anime fandom was abuzz with arguments over whether Black Swan was a rip-off of Satoshi Kon’s 1997 film Perfect Blue – think the Battle Royale/Hunger Games debate, but for the Very Serious Art Film crowd. It’s no secret that Aronofsky is a fan of Kon’s work (witness this direct homage in Requiem for a Dream, just for starters), and the two films do share, on a basic level, an identical premise: a young artist seeking to advance her career, previously shackled by her image as a “pure” object, takes on a demanding and very sexual role; the strain of this choice and outside factors causes a breakdown in the artist’s psyche, including persistent images of being stalked by a doppelganger of her “other” self.
There are broader similarities too, from a slimy director using the artist for his own ends to a mothering figure who is actually an oppressive threat – you can begin to see how the conspiracy theories came about. There’s even a story about Aronofsky supposedly buying the film rights to Perfect Blue in order to make his Requiem homage – and, correspondingly, denying that Perfect Blue was an overt influence (instead, he names the Swan Lake ballet and Dostoyevsky’s The Double). Given the number of plot similarities and a few downright identical shots, the likelihood of it having no interest strikes me as about as believable as George Romero’s claims that he for sure no really didn’t intend Night of the Living Dead to comment on racism; or indeed, Kon’s own assertion that Perfect Blue isn’t a comment on the then-new cultural phenomenon of moe.
But everyone and their dog has commented on the similarities between these films. Five minutes on Google will give you dozens of articles to read on the subject, even if most tread no further than “hey, did you know this is a thing?” For me to belabor the point any further would be a grave redundancy. And to tell the truth, I’m more interested in the places where the films diverge in their examinations of their protagonists (Nina and Mima, respectively, and oh come on). Black Swan has been called an “expansion” of the themes found in Perfect Blue, but I’m not sure that begins to cover it. They are different beasts, placing different emphases on the shared themes of “individual vs collective” and “protagonist as agent vs object.”
As always, a brief acknowledgement of the fact that I am an American, and that even decades of immersion in and study of Japan’s artistic exports (primarily anime and film) is never going to wash away the fact that I’m an outsider, and thus always a step removed in these examinations – the same as a Japanese film scholar approaching this dual topic from the opposite direction. Such are the perils of the globalization of art.
Let’s start with moe, that ever slippery term. Broadly, it’s a sense of cuteness and usually innocence that inspires protective instincts in the audience (and thus often implies a certain helplessness in the – usually female – character). While some place the origins of the phenomenon with Sailor Moon’s Hotaru or as far back as Castle of Cagliostro’s Clarisse, it entered a new phase of subcultural obsession with Rei Ayanami in 1995. In 1997, Hideaki Anno gave the world his scathing critique of his show’s fandom with End of Evangelion. And that very same year, Perfect Blue arrived on the scene.
With even a little knowledge of the history of anime fandom, it’s frankly hard not to read the movie as a critique of moe and the surrounding impulses. One of the driving threats, after all, is an overly obsessed fan who begins stalking and threatening Mima with violence when she breaks from the image of a pure idol that he worships, eventually breaking down into base sexual violence once he’s cornered her…not so hard to draw parallels from the very real death threats Hideaki Anno received following the finale of the Evangelion TV series, which happened right alongside the booming market of sexualized figurines of the show’s heroines. Mima’s story is very much about being caught up and nearly crushed in the demanding, often mutually exclusive identity politics of the world around her.
At the same time, there’s an undeniably removed element. There’s a Hitchcockian element to Kon’s early work in particular that becomes obsessed with the suffering and survival of a heroine (though as far as I know, Kon lacked the disturbing tendency for tormenting his actresses and occasionally ruining their careers out of spite). The director put it thusly:
Kon: It’s because female characters are easier to writer. With a male character I can see only the bad aspects. Because I am a man I know very well what a male character is thinking…on the other hand, if you write a female protagonist, because it’s the opposite sex and I don’t know them the way I know a male, I can project my obsession onto the characters and expand the aspects I want to describe.
So even in a story about how the protagonist is consumed and shaped to fit the exacting wants and desires of the people around her, even the director approaches her as a vessel for his own thoughts and feelings. One might argue that such an approach is what all art boils down to, and Kon did write some wonderfully interesting women in his time (particularly, for my money, Tokyo Godfathers’ Miyuki and Hana). But it is still an approach that defines women as an Other that is, on some level, unknowable – the very mindset that helps give rise to the standards that torment Mima.
Black Swan isn’t necessarily better in this regard – it, too, is a story about women written by a man, though it is helped tremendously by Natalie Portman’s involvement (to the point where she was interviewed about the film nearly as much as Aronofsky) and his self-described approach of searching for universal elements in writing a very gendered story. But it is in some ways more interested in its protagonist’s journey above and beyond her state of mind. Mima’s story is one of survival, grasping a sense of herself after she has, in true horror fashion, survived the monster and come out the other side. Nina’s story is about collapse, or perhaps becoming – Mima suffers from delusions of who she is because of the labels ascribed to her, and her victimization often comes in the form of her female-coded body being read as a commodity, but Nina’s body is itself the thing that eventually begins to betray her.
Mima is presented as something of a sexless being; that is to say, free of outside influences, she seems to have no strong sexual or sensual desires of her own beyond the want for privacy and to further her career as an actor.
Nina’s sexuality, on the other hand, is an active force: she cannot purely “blame” her newfound place as a sexual being on her role as Odette, and that is terrifying to her. She hallucinates not only herself and others in sexual situations but sees her own body as becoming a monstrous Other. Which fits with a Western sensibility of women’s sexuality. The concept of “moe” isn’t as pervasive a cultural force (parallels in regard to the slutshaming of former Disney stars aside), but the virgin/whore dichotomy certainly is: the high value of a woman’s virginity, the impossible tightrope act between “prude” and “slut,” and the ever changing demands of what makes a girl “good” or “bad” (and no, I’m not sorry about the scare quotes; those are exactly as many scare quotes as this bullshit deserves, if not more).
Sexual awakening becomes a terrifying thing to be tamped down, acceptable only when it comes from without (see the sickening terror but lack of body horror in the private rehearsal scene). Nina’s masturbation is likewise acceptable at the behest of her male director, but the fantasies that come after become increasingly dark and terrifying – particularly when her part is imperiled, taking away her excuse to be a sexual being.
Unlike Mima, who has externalized threats of sexuality and identity imposed upon her but is able to come away as a whole “self” separate from those expectations, Nina is transformed by from one extremity (her room is made for a five year old, quite blatantly) to another, and finally to a new being that cannot exist in the skin she’s expected to live in day to day. She can give only one performance, there on the stage, and then die – having accepted the power of her role as a “monster,” for which there is no place in the world.
Mima’s story is almost triumphant by comparison – she passes from object to person, awoken to her individual identity and possessed of a new self-confidence (she has a car and sunglasses in the epilogue, representative of self-directed mobility and a protection between the world and her “soul” respectively). The world, of course, hasn’t changed, but Perfect Blue ultimately isn’t concerned with that. Like any horror movie, it’s rewarded its heroine for being honest and true of heart; she’s earned this happy ending for the grand achievement of surviving a world calibrated at every turn to demean and murder her (in identity if not body).
And while it’s arguably a touch simplistic, it’s hard to begrudge. It plays into the fantastical elements of the film, trading out hallucinations and ghostly doppelgangers for the grand fantasy that a woman might one day reach a point where her life is no longer caged by an eternal struggle against a society that demeans and commodifies her, silencing any protest against it as the hypersensitive whining of an over-privileged minority. More hopeful, if perhaps less beautiful, than the idea of embracing self-as-monster and accepting death for it.