How does the representation of the postmodern city and its people in The Perfect Blue (1998) and Paprika (2006) offer a neo-noir vision of urban space?

The Perfect Blue (1998) / Paprika (2006)

Directed by Satoshi Kon

How does the representation of the postmodern city and its people in The Perfect Blue and Paprika offer a neo-noir vision of urban space?

Speaking of contemporary Japanese film makers who really impact the world by their cinematic works, if there is the name of Satoshi Kon, the animator, appearing in that list, this will not be a surprise at all. Regarding to his launched animation works, he started working on his theatrical career by The Perfect Blue, a psychological-thriller animation released in 1995, this film really stunned the audience by its spectacularly visual and narrative style, so this film was highly praised by film critics, as well as a good feedback from general audience after the screening (Napier, 2005). This action made Kon’s name very well-known as a prospective animator, as well as a film maker.

Kon’s following works were also produced continuously such as Millenium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfather (2003), and very recently in 2006, Kon released his another animated feature named Paprika, teaming with Sony Pictures Classic, presenting the futuristic sci-fi thriller story, this film was also given positive feedbacks not only in Japan but also in the international level besides Hayao Miyazaki and his animation production house. As Andrew Osmond mentioned in his book, Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist (2008), that Paprika is the great way to introduce Kon to international audience, especially the Westerns, by director’s thematic message, twisted way of narrating and captivating the audience with the fantasy visualisation.

The global success really proves that Satoshi Kon is absolutely considered as one of the world-class film makers, so do his works, especially his debut film, The Perfect Blue and his latest work, Paprika. These two animations are outstandingly projecting the life of people living in Japanese urban space through their twisted-thrilling narrativity, as well as the protagonists appearing in the films. Exactly the same as other films which can literally represent the society and people, these Kon’s animation works, The Perfect Blue and Paprika, are also used reflecting these elements through the imaginary space on film by their simulated settings, crime, fictional characters, or their fantasised and ambiguous behaviours,  which can possibly use as a text to study the social representation, especially the postmodern city and its people, that reflects through the way these two animation films are presented on screen.

Consequently, city settings and people are important factors of film which present the neo-noir vision of urban space.  In this paper, The Perfect Blue and Paprika will be raised as an example illustrating the neo-noir aspects in film, which proceed the story on these urban settings, by observing these fictional characters living their life in an urban city. Therefore after this cinematic observation, we can understand how these Japanese animation features offer their visual and thematic style that we can possibly call them as neo-noir films, which really focus on the noir content rather than the noir visualisation.

City – Cinematic Space

City and film are mutually influent to each other, film projects or simulates the city as its setting where the film’s story takes place, while the city often shapes itself according to its reflection on screen. In Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a global context (2001), Mark Shield mentioned about the relationship between city and film is that “Thematically, the cinema has, since its inception, been constantly fascinated with the representation of the distinctive spaces, lifestyles and human conditions of the city from the Lumiere Brothers’ Paris of 1895 to John Woo’s Hong kong of 1995”. This really indicates that film and city are tightly attached to each other in a very close relationship, the same way that Film Studies do as an interdisciplinary conjoined factor to other social sciences such as Cultural Studies or Sociology.

Although basically the term of Postmodernism, particularly postmodern city, is seemingly new for people outside the academic field, as long as we, humans, are still related ourselves to our city or culture, we cannot escape perceiving this academic term. David Harvey described in The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (1990) that the postmodern city is a space which has a connection to the rise of historical eclecticism, multiculturalism, and spectacle. From this sentence, we can understand that postmodern city is formed by the consistence of these three elements which are inventing tradition by imitating the older forms, local or ethnic cultures and commercialization of built environment, as given further explanations in Urban Design in the Postmodern Context (Velibeyoglu, 1999).

The postmodern city is absolutely the same as other city which can be projected or represented by film as well. Likewise through these two animation films by Satoshi Kon, we can absolutely feel the sense of that they are really presenting the story of the postmodern city and also its people. The Perfect Blue is a reflection of contemporary Japanese society which contains many postmodern elements such as the metropolis setting in which people lost their connection or misidentified themselves because of the human-invented technology, or the role of media which dominate the life of these characters in film. Likewise, in the film Paprika, the film story is told through the futuristic and fantasised metropolis setting, considered as Tokyo, which give the characters, as well as their city setting, the misplaced or misidentified feeling that turns into the conflict in the film.

Representation of Neo-Noir in urban space

Generally, in Neo-Noir: the New Film Noir Style from Psycho to Collateral, the word “noir” and “neo-noir” are styles of filming that supposedly made around the 1940s and kept continuing their visual and thematic influence to the film production in the twenty-first century (Schwartz, 2005). While noir films are considered as films which were produced by French film makers during the classical noir period or 1940s, neo-noir films are used for contemporary noir film, especially for the post-classical noir film, based on American film studios.

In fact, neo-noir films are almost the same as classic noir films, by its style of composed visual elements or themes of violence and crime. According to the book The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, Mark T. Conard claims that the term “neo-noir” is used only to describe any films coming after the classic noir period, these films still have particular elements of “noir” that contain the theme about the ambiguity in morality and anti-hero protagonists These elements totally give the audience noir sensibility. However, he still adds in his same book that there are some upgraded aspects in each film such as the influnce of psychological element or modern technology, which intentionally provide the audience more sense of up-to-date noir contents. Through these films, we may be able to classify their neo-noir appearances by these following aspects.

Multicultural Elements

As mentioned in this article about the postmodern city, muticulturalism is one of the noticeable characters of the postmodern city, so does the neo-noir film. In this sub-genre of noir, these multicultural aspects are totally affecting the city and its people. We can notice this presentation of multicultural society in The Perfect Blue and Paprika, it is possible to say that these fictional Japanese cities are really imitating the reality.

In these modern days, Japan, and its capital Tokyo, is considered as the powerful country with high-paced living culture, like other metropolis such as New York or London. Technologies and facilities of this city are fully developed, which really help Tokyo grow much rapidly, comparing to other Asian countries. This is really the reason why Japanese people have a very quick access to any information from around the world which help them update their way of living. But in the same time, Japanese people are also conservative, because they have their own cultures which have been forwarded through many generations. Therefore, contemporary Japanese culture is the mixture, between domestic, or old way of living, and imported aspects. This seems to be the cultural duality by which Japanese people are living their life during these present days.

This element really affects to the life of fictional characters presented in both animation film, The Perfect Blue and Paprika. Although, in the first film, we may feel less senses of multicuturalism than the second one, but in fact there are still these elements appearing in film anyway. The Perfect Blue shows the audience that the crime is committed after Mima, the protagonist, decides to abandon her shojo or lolicon idol image, which is totally a famous part of Japanese modern culture, transforming herself to be a sexy-looking actress, which has been adapted from the image of a Hollywood or Western actress.

While The Perfect Blue is presenting the shape of muticulturalism through the transformation of Mima’s identity, in Paprika, there are many multicultural elements, illustrated during the film. Especially, in the parade, Kon intends to put this variety of cultures in the scene where we can notice the elements presented in the dream parade. In this scene, those people who gather in the parade represent the muticulturalist aspects in Japan such as we can see the Japanese dolls walking in the parade alongside with Russian dolls, as well as other Werstern-style-dressing dolls. Besides that, we can see other cultural representation joining in this parade for example, the Chinese warriors, the American Statue of Liberty, the European Knight’s armour or the Siamese dancing girl etc.

In addition, in the film Paprika, Kon still puts these muticultural elements presenting through the role of Paprika, as we know that she is a character in dreamland, so she is capable of trasforming herself into many ways, including her costumes. In many scenes, the way that Paprika’s dressing absolutely show the multicultural aspects such as the Chinese dress she wears when she is helping her chief from the parade, Sun Wukong or the Monkey King costume from the Eastern famous mythology Journey to the West or the green fairly-looking dress, as Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell, these are the good examples of multicultural elements in this film which are also considered as neo-noir characteristics presented in films, according to the result of them.

During these films, these multiculturalists are invading the peace of city and its people, especially in Paprika, the multicultural-toy parade is ruining the normal way of living, forcing them to join the parade line unconsciously which lures them from their unique identity and brings the city a chaotic situation, so do other postmodern city, where people do not know exactly who they really are according to the social-border abolishment which merges people from different culture, ethnicity or class together, turning them into one final society in which everybody is not different at all and putting the neo-noir paranoid ambient; not knowing the inner mind of each other, into these animation films.

Double identity characters

The idea of double-identity, especially in the protagonists, seems to be the distinguished neo-noir element presenting in these films.Since the first part of each film, we can notice that protagonists always relate themselves to the mysterious or unsolved crime which turns to be worse after that they feel uncertain about their own self, doubting their “second” identity as a crime committer. In The Perfect Blue, Mima Kirigoe, an ex pop-idol from the J-pop (Japanese-pop) group called “CHAM!”, decides to leave the group, neglecting her idol image and becoming an actress in a TV-serie called Double Bind. This decision really makes Mima have two identities; an ex-pop idol and a newcomer actress. Similarly, in Paprika, Docter Atsuko Chiba, the leading character of the story, is a psychiatrist who treats her patients by going inside their dreams under of her alternate identity named Paprika. While Atsuko seems very frosty and serious, differently, her alternate identity, Paprika, is more charming, easy-going and friendly.  This is also the double-identity presenting through the film’s  protagonist.

This negative effect of double-identity characteristic is noticeable in The Perfect Blue, in the film we, the audience, will not even know which character committed those criminal acts, according to its noir story-telling style that everyone such Mima, her unconcious self, her stalker, or anyboby around her could be that mysterious serial-killer. At the last part of film, we can see Mima’s dissociative identity disorder symptom, she does not know which identity; a pop idol or an actress, is really herself. These symptoms are exaggerated through the use of rapidly jump cuts, fascinating fantasy such as the ghostly Mima’s doppelganger, and by the foreshadowing of plot points through filmed scenes for the psychological thriller TV series in which Mima takes part, as well as the haunting repetition of Mima’s saying “who are you” entire the film.

In the mean time, in Paprika, the coexistence between Atsuko and Paprika, as well as the connection between reality and dream, turns to be a problem to the audience or other characters in film, because it seems very difficult to identify which one is real and which one is only an fantasised identity. This ambiguity in protagonist’s self which causes the misconception of identity gives the suspicious emotion to the audience, petrifying them with the narrativity of these neo-noir stylish animations.

The influence of  human’s inventions

Originally, crime is the most outstanding aspect which we can see in general noir films, so do neo-noir films. The appearance of criminal behaviours is still existing in this sub-genre of  noir film. In the postmodern city, like settings of The Perfect Blue or Paprika, crime is not only a man-made action, but also because of those man-made invented technologies such as computer, internet, TV-serie, film or other scientific inventions. In these animation films, these technological divices are the main cause, which starts all the important conflicts in each film.

Clearly, in Paprika, Kon presents that he really concerns about the influnce of modern technologies which dominate our life nowaday. In the film, the DC-mini,  the dream projecting machine, has been stolen from laboratory and been used as a terrorist divice to destroy the fictional reality in film. The DC-mini is the same device which Dortor Atsuko (or Paprika) uses for examining her client’s mind, this seems to be a good thing for modern medical treatment, curing people’s mental problem through their dream, as soon as the villain steals it, it turns to be an evil’s tool to ruin this postmodern city. All entire the film, Doctor Seijiro Inui, the chairman of Atsuko’s scientific institution always mentions about the immorality of interfering or intruding other people’s dreamland, he says that dream is the sacred place only for its owner, not for general audience. But he finally accepts this device and turns to be a villain himself, using the DC-mini to control and to damage the city in order to fulfil his greed of power by merging dreams into reality. This is really showing a curse which is driven by human’s scientific inventions.

In the same way, in The Perfect Blue, Mima’s identity is shaped and forwared  by media such as newspaper, magazine, television or radio. According to her idol career, her life, as well as her personal life, might be unavoidably followed by those newspaper or tabloid journalists, evem stalkers who are always creepingly following their beloved idol. This lack of personal privacy is totally caused by this existence of media which is influent the image of Mima, herself, in the film and drives her to be jeopadised under her mental malfunctioning situation.

These looks like a parory, mocking the postmodern city where people are always depending themselves on technologies without paying attention to their necessity. In Paprika, there is a parade scene where the people, who are spelt in dream and are transformed to many human-invented things thanks to their fantasy, are parading and celebrating along the city street. In this final scene’s parade, there are many people who are transformed into creatures with the shape of technological equipments such as Japanese school girls with mobile-phone shaped head, salary men who transforms to be the walking musical intruments, or Doctor Tokita who changes himself into a robot. This curse causes the city and its people to encounter the apocalypse. This fictional problem presents the neo-noir aspect about the over-usage of modern technology which seems convenient but, in fact, harmful on the other hand. Eactly the same as a classic noir character who has lots of faces hidden in himself, this really turns the setting into the city of crime, not the prospective one.


Bould, Mark, Glitre, Kathrina, and Tuck, Greg (Eds.). Neo-Noir. London: Wallflower Press, 2009.

Conard, Mark T. (Eds.).  The Philosophy of Neo-Noir. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009.

Harvey, David. The condition of postmodernity : an enquiry into the origins of cultural change. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1990.

Mes, Tom, and Sharp, Jasper. The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film. California: Stone Bridge Press, 2004.

Napier, Susan. Forward. Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. XVII.

Osmond, Andrew. Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist. California: Stone Bridge Press, 2008.

Paprika. Dir. Satoshi Kon. Writ. Yasutaka Tsutsui, Seishi Minakami. Perf. Megumi Hayashibara, Toru Furuya, Koichi Yamadera. Sony Pictures, 2007. DVD.

Schwartz, Ronald. Introduction. Neo-Noir: the New Film Noir Style from Psycho to Collateral. Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, 2005. pp. IX-XIV

Shield, M. and Fitzmaurice, T. (Eds.). Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a global context. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

The Perfect Blue. Dir. Satoshi Kon. Writ. Sadayuki Murai, Yoshikazu Takeuchi. Perf. Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji. Manga Video, 2002. DVD.

Velibeyoglu, Koray.  Urban Design in the Postmodern Context. Ph.D Diss. Izmir Institute of Technology, 1999. 10 January 2010. Web.


About kolokoz

Postgrad in Film Studies, currently living a dream in Bangkok. Interested in Film, Theatre, Music and Newcastle United.
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One Response to How does the representation of the postmodern city and its people in The Perfect Blue (1998) and Paprika (2006) offer a neo-noir vision of urban space?

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