It struck me while I was rewatching Satoshi Kon’s “Perfect Blue.”
I have a type.
Not a human type, obviously. An asexual’s only type is a really good pumpkin bread. But I’ve discovered I have a type when it comes to movies and shows. A very, very specific type:
Contemporary or near contemporary stories featuring female protagonists whose most common themes are loss of innocence, altered perception, isolation, the definition of “reality,” and questions of identity.
Boom. My other types are baseball anime focused on the dynamic between an eccentric pitcher and an ace player, and anime where the Vatican is Nazi militant and controls elite supernatural soldiers, but we’ll talk about those another day.
Here are my top picks for perception-twisters, on a scale from “It Messes With You” to “My Brain Is Dripping Out My Ears and I’ll Never Feel Safe Again.”
Out of Sight
We’ll start light. “Out of Sight” is a lovely pastel short film out of the National Taiwan University of Art. It follows a little girl who chases her runaway dog into a dark place, and must then use her imagination to make sense of a strange world. To say any more would be to spoil the ending, which changes the viewer’s perception of everything that’s happened–this will be theme going forward. It’s adorable, extremely creative, and soothing to the soul.
In the wake of the Emmys, you might have heard Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag” come up more than once. It’s a fantastically constructed series with the careful, compacted efficiency of a short story in every scene.
Bordering on absurdist and downright vulgar, every episodes oozes with black comedy and never pulls a punch. Throughout the process of grieving, our unnamed protagonist uses the audience as a crutch to justify her disconnect from the world. Then, in season two, someone notices she breaks the fourth wall. Makes tragicomedy look simultaneously much easier and much more existential than you thought.
(Compare “Wit,” a movie about a poetry professor walking the audience sarcastically through her battle with ovarian cancer on a basis of motifs in classical writing. Much like “Fleabag,” it began as a play.)
A Simple Favor
More of you ought to be familiar with “A Simple Favour,” the story of an overbearing mommy blogger forming an obsessive friendship with a cold, glamorous woman named Emily who disappears without a trace. This one is a ride, jumping between drama, comedy, suspense, horror, and tragedy with no fear of whiplash. At times hilarious and at times chilling, this story also undergoes many Perception Shifts (TM) as Emily’s complex and deceptive past is revealed.
Every time you think you know what’s happening, a character will step forward and reveal they wanted you to think that. Or maybe the character was the one who wanted to think that?
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
I love anime. Animation is easily my favorite visual media, given how many opportunities there are to communicate with an audience non-literally. Like garden-variety symbolism in literature, a certain animation shorthand develops between animation and an experienced audience, like really cute character design. This show takes all of the metaphorical shorthand viewers like me are used to and upends them brutally.
Initially setting up for bleeding heart Madoka to become a “magical girl” by entering a cat-like being’s contract to fight evil witches (and have her greatest wish granted in exchange), the series throws the steering wheel in episode three towards decapitation, soul-stealing, and universal entropy. It never looks back. Things like German cryptograms and blatant “Faust” parallels begin to inform the narrative. Everything then gets worse forever.
The animation of the “labyrinths” where witches appear gains special mention for being wildly different from the normal animation and usually made of collaged images. Take a look.
Black Rock Shooter
Almost like a spiritual predecessor to the previous list entry, “Black Rock Shooter” (the series, not the movie) tells the tale of cheerful tomboy Mato, who has loved an illustrated book about a bird traveling a “world of many colors” all her life. Upon meeting a shy girl at her school who also loves the book, she forms a surprising new friendship.
Meanwhile, voiceless color-themed fighters battle for dominance of a bizarre 3D-rendered dimension that endlessly morphs to accommodate whoever is in control.
Screenshots don’t really do it justice. Note the distinctive color differences. While this narrative seems at first like a figurative parallel of the main cast struggling with each other and demons from their pasts, we find out it…isn’t quite. And then everything gets worse forever.
It should be obvious by now I love me a good eerie short film. (See “Possibly in Michigan.”)
“Pencil Face” is definitely cut from the same cloth, containing not a single line of dialogue and only one character. It’s about a pencil. With a face.
Also about leaving childhood too soon and being thrust into a world you aren’t prepared for, but. Mostly a pencil with a face.
“Paprika” is gorgeous. It’s my favorite film, beating out both “Lord of the Rings” and “Sword of the Stranger” despite the heart-rending soundtracks. It’s often compared to “Inception,” but is only similar in that it involves entering into dreams. Though parallels can be drawn, “Paprika” feels very different in terms of message, characters, and conflict.
A group of therapists invent a machine called the “DC Mini” which can record and interact with dreams to help treat patients. However, while it’s still in testing stages, someone on the inside steals it and begins using it to insert recorded dreams into other people’s heads. Thus, protagonist Atsuko and her other self “Paprika” plunge in and out of psychedelic, chaotic dreamscapes, until it becomes unclear why, if everyone sees them, dreams can’t be reality.
Director Satoshi Kon is kind of known for this. He’s also done “Paranoia Agent” and “Millennium Actress,” which do the same thing. He’s also done…
This one is often compared to “Black Swan.” For very good reason. Pop idol Mima attempts to break out as an actor by giving up her singing career, and discovers a blog called “Mima’s Room” which goes on describing her life as if she was still a pop idol. Meanwhile, a series of murders begins cutting out people involved with the production of the drama show she is in, and another version of herself appears to haunt her.
Satoshi Kon could tell me my shoelace was untied and I would weep from the artistry. But his debut film, “Perfect Blue,” might make me weep for different reasons. It’s extremely distressing. Just get a load off this theme song.
As we progress, the narrative begins to confuse itself between Mima and other Mima. Then between “Perfect Blue” and in-universe show “Double Bind.” Then the Big Reveal upends everything you thought you knew. And then the stinger upends that.
All of this is ten times as complicated and nuanced as it sounds.
Rewatching this film after learning the Big Reveal changes everything about the way you understand it, and there’s a lot to understand. There are essays upon essays about this. The use of blue is commonly interpreted to mean “Mima,” and red to “other Mima” or more generally to insanity.
Pay close attention to Mima’s room–the intensely detailed space will occasionally be slightly different. Everything in it is important. Sometimes things that are blue will become red, like clothing or wallpaper. Sometimes a reflection will be shown talking without the character. When you think you might be in a delusion, check the expressions of any nearby characters to see how they react.
This story is told by all of the narrative. Don’t look away for a second.
Serial Experiments Lain
Last on our list of mindbenders is “Serial Experiments Lain,” from 1998, only one year after “Perfect Blue.” Much like in “Perfect Blue,” the Internet and computers are new household concepts and play a very important role in the plot.
Now, “Serial Experiments Lain” is about something. I’m positive. I just don’t quite know what.
One episode has a cold open about news reports on Area 51 with cryptic video footage. It’s like a careening truck–you’re not sure if you should buckle up or jump out.
I think what happened is that the Internet and the god of the Internet were born simultaneously and everything that happens over the rest of the series is reality trying to cope (with the understanding reality comes from perception). Technically I guess it’s also an allegory for the networking boom and the rise of Apple, and there’s also a lot of evidence to suggest Lain might suffer from paranoid schizophrenia, but whether that’s the cause of everything or just in addition to everything is impossible to tell.
Sometimes the animation is just incredibly off. The attention to body language is superb and unsettling. The “camera” always shakes just a little. There are powerlines everywhere, and they are always buzzing. There is practically no background music in “Serial Experiments.” And there is always something going on with the lighting.
This thing is dense. It’s stuffed full of references to philosophy, coding, and literature that assume you’re already in on the joke and do not apologize. If you want to take your own stab at interpretation, you can find the whole series here on Funimation’s YouTube.
Plug in a headset, sit in a claustrophobic space, and give it a watch. I guarantee you’ll feel like aliens and the government are watching you by the end.
Well, that’s my list! Hope you found something new, humorous, or horrifying. Currently my posts are going a couple days apart–that might keep up for a little while. Until next time!