“Perfect Blue” (1997) vs. “Black Swan” (2010): Is Aronofsky’s Black Swan Perfectly Blue?
November 2, 2016 13 Comments
Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 feature “Black Swan” is an Academy Award-nominated film, telling the story of a young ballerina Nina Sayers, whose transformation from a shy ballet dancer to a leading heroine ballerina of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” production causes a psycho-sexual breakdown. “Perfect Blue” is a lesser known 1997 Japanese animated movie based on a novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi, telling the story of Mima Kirigoe, whose rapid descent from an admired pop-idol into a “tarnished” rookie actress has disastrous consequences.
In this piece, I will compare the two films closely, arguing that the two films share substantial similarities in terms of the plot, character, style, design, execution and the little details, pointing to the conclusion that the very underrated “Perfect Blue” was – at the very least – the direct and main inspiration for “Black Swan” (and even something much more than that), though Aronofsky himself denied the claim. Going further, the similarities are so striking that it could even be said that Aronofsky essentially re-made “Perfect Blue”, but changed the setting to a ballet, and re-modelled some characters, disguising them as others.
Note that since Aronofsky bought the rights to “Perfect Blue” to use one of its scenes for his “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), he had legally every right to replicate every scene in “Perfect Blue” for “Black Swan” or any other movie. Hence, this comparison is not about plagiarism, but just about giving recognition/credit to films where it is really due: to films which one definitely had in mind when filming any other. In this sense, Aronofsky’s swan is clearly imperfect here: it is blue.
The similarities are striking, and are as follows (**SPOILER ALERT**):
Main heroine: in “Perfect Blue”, there is Mima; in “Black Swan” there is Nina; but similar names and hair colour are not the only things shared by the main heroines; Nina and Mima are young, pretty, and both work in the entertainment industry: Nina as a ballet dancer, and Mima first as a singer/pop idol in a girl band, and, later, as a rookie actress. Both girls have big dreams, with Nina hoping that her coach, Thomas Leroy, will feature her more in his productions, and Mima hoping that her career move to become an actress will bring her greater fame and success. Both Mima and Nina are also shy and cautious, despite their growing popularity and “public” lives, and they are also both loners. Mima is lively and confident as she sings, but when it comes to announcing her departure from the band, she appears quiet and timid. Nina also appears shy and withdrawn. Both girls do not socialise and prefer their own company. Mima lives alone and has no love interest. Nina also has no current boyfriend, does not socialise with her co-workers at the theatre, preferring to practise her dance moves alone in the corner and not go out in the evening.
Older male figure: in “Perfect Blue”, there is Tadokoro, Mima’s agent; in “Black Swan” there is Thomas Leroy, Nina’s ballet coach. What do they have in common? Well, it turns out quite a bit. It seems that both Tadokoro and Leroy emphasise the financial considerations over Mima/Nina’s true feelings/desires. Tadokoro moans about the lack of record sales from Mima, pushing her for a “dirty” actress career, and Leroy stresses that they need “cash” so Nina better smile at their theatre gathering to announce the departure of Beth. Both Tadokoro and Leroy are instrumental in getting Mima/Nina to grow professionally. Leroy selects Nina for a Swan Queen, and Tadokoro pushes Mima to be an actress, later persuading the producers of a new TV series “Double Bind” to give Mima a larger role. Both Tadokoro and Leroy also push the main heroine to do “bad” things to succeed in her new profession/role. It is Tadokoro who persuades Mima to do a “rape scene” in a new TV series, causing Mima to be liberated sexually, and it is Leroy who pushes Nina to explore her sexuality to perform the Black Swan. Incidentally, both Leroy and Tadokoro later either suggest or take Mima to dinner to celebrate her initial success.
“Mother” figure: in “Perfect Blue”, it is Rumi, Mima’s second agent; in “Black Swan” it is Erica Sayers, Nina’s mother. Erica and Rumi play the mother figures for Nina/Mima, wanting to see the main heroine “pure and innocent” and resist her changing into a “black/dirty” counterpart. Rumi speaks to Mima more than her own mother does, and teaches Mima about the wonders of internet almost like a mother would. Rumi is also the first one to ring alarm bells when Mima is offered the role of a “rape victim” in a TV series, worrying for Mima’s pristine reputation, and persuading her to try to change the series’s script. Likewise, Nina’s mother Erica is calling Nina “my sweet girl”, being concerned about the rash on her skin and her late evening whereabouts. Both Rumi and Erica also completely oversee Mima/Nina’s careers, trying “to live through” the main heroine as their own careers were less successful, and are secretly jealous of Mima/Nina’s professional successes, being overly controlling of the main heroine’s actions and causing Mima/Nina’s ultimate downfall. Rumi is Mima’s career manager, and Nina’s mother, who once also was a ballet dancer, has a full control of Nina’s career, saying that if she had not taken Nina to each and every of her ballet classes, she would have been completely lost. Rumi is an ex-pop idol who, although appearing like she has Mima’s best interests at heart, is ultimately responsible (or her other personality) for Mima’s slide into madness. Nina’s mother also appears to have Nina’s best interests at heart, but her controlling nature eventually means that (contributes to) her daughter also goes mentally unstable.
“Stalker”: in “Perfect Blue”, there is Me-Mania (Uchida), Mima’s secret stalking fan; in “Black Swan” there is Lily, Nina’s “friend” and co-dancer who symbolises for Nina the Black Swan “ideal”. The two characters have more in common than initially meets an eye, such as their “stalking” behaviour and their jealousy. Me-Mania stalks Mima everywhere she goes, lustfully jealous of her mere presence, and, in the same vein, Lily, who, “wanting Nina’s role”, seems to appear out of nowhere wherever Nina is around, for example, on a subway train, and ringing Nina’s home to ask her out for dinner. Both Me-Mania and Lily contribute to the main heroine’s mental breakdown, replacing Mima/Nina either online or professionally; have a taboo sexual contract with Mima/Nina, and then either through imagination or in real life fight “to the death”. Me-Mania’s obsession with Mima causes her to go mentally unstable, and Nina’s paranoia regarding Lily causes Nina’s sense of what is real to shift. Me-Mania sexually assaults and tries to rape Mima, and the ensuing fight between Mima and Me-Mania subsequently results in death. Lily and Nina also have an (imaginary) lesbian sexual encounter, and at the later stage an (imaginary) fight between Lily and Nina results in an (imaginary) death.
Heroine’s innocent/humble beginnings: in “Perfect Blue”, Mima lives alone in a cramped little apartment, and, despite her band’s large fan base, lives a very ordinary life, such as going to a supermarket after work. In “Black Swan”, Nina is a perfectly ordinary girl, living with her mother in a tiny apartment, taking a subway to and from work. Mima and Nina present what may be called a “sweet girl” image. Mima’s apartment is decorated with girly posters, white/pink teddies, hearts, dolls and flowers. Likewise, Nina’s bedroom is filled with pink/white girlie stuff, such as giant teddy bears and heart cushions. In “Black Swan”, Nina’s mother calls Nina a “sweet girl”, and the movie starts with Nina dreaming that she is dancing the innocent White Swan, while in “Perfect Blue” Mima sings “girly” songs about higher notions of love and innocent infatuations. The girls’ outfits are also of the same pink/white colour. Throughout the film, Nina is dressed in her pink coat with a white scarf, while Mima’s band outfit features ballet-like pink/white dresses.
Heroine’s transition into something “bigger” and more demanding: in “Perfect Blue” Mima is making a career move to become a professional actress, trying herself at something new to her, and, more importantly, makes transition from a group to a solo performer. In “Black Swan”, Nina is chosen for the lead role of a primarily solo performer – the White/Black Swan. For both Mima and Nina this transition was not smooth or imminent: Nina first thinks she had failed her audition for the lead role with Leroy, and Mima first gets only one sentence to say in the new drama series.
Presentation of the extremely competitive/pressured side of a show-business: “Black Swan” deals with the competitive world of classical ballet, portraying the usual hardships (both mental and physical) of becoming a good ballet dancer. But, the show-business world in “Perfect Blue” is as harsh and competitive. Mima is already stressing out before her performance, saying to her agent “don’t pressure me!” The Japanese pop culture means that, on stage, Mima should be perfect, completely synchronous with her band members and always singing in tune. There is a lot of pressure to perform extremely well, probably just the amount required of a professionally trained ballet dancer. One wrong step and no one will pity you.
Heroine’s discomfort with her new “role”/the pressure to become “bad” to succeed: Nina feels uncomfortable dancing the Black Swan, not knowing initially how to perform her new role well, with her movements being too precise and lacking passion. Mima also feels awkward as a rookie actress, sometimes too nervous to perform well. Both Mima and Nina have to “get their hands dirty” and “tarnish” their “sweet girl” image to perform the bigger role they had been given. In “Black Swan”, Nina feels like she has to seduce Leroy to get the part of the Swan Queen and to dance the Black Swan well, as well as to socialise with Lily, doing “bad” things, like taking drugs, and meeting boys. In “Perfect Blue” Mima is also pressured to accept the role of a rape victim in a TV drama (which includes performing striptease in a nightclub) and to do a naked photo shoot, though knowing deep inside that accepting these conditions will forever tarnish her pure pop idol reputation.
Heroine loses her “innocence”/innocent qualities by doing “bad” actions to succeed in her new role: Mima and Nina abandon their “sweet girl” image all for the chance to succeed in their new role. In “Perfect Blue”, Mima is forced to perform as a stripper, and becomes a rape victim in a new TV series, as well as agrees to do a naked photo shoot. In “Black Swan”, Nina re-discovers her sexuality thanks to Leroy, and partners with Lily to disobey her mother, go to a nightclub, do drugs, flirt with boys, kiss with a stranger, as well as later engage in what-she-thought was a sexual activity with a girl.
Black/white-good/evil-innocence/corruption presented as juxtapositions while touching upon double-personality disorder: innocent, scared and shy Mima/Nina is constantly presented alongside the evil/outgoing/mature/confident Mima/Nina, emphasising the contrast between the two. This duality runs throughout the two films. In “Perfect Blue”, while Mima does an adult-content photo shoot, her former band members are singing innocent girly songs; when Mima-actress (dressed in dark clothing) looks in the mirror, there is often Mima-role model/pop idol (dressed in light clothing) taunting her about her career choice. In “Black Swan”, Nina’s “black swan” double is often there in the mirror, or is passing her in the alleyway. Nina also changes to dark clothing in the nightclub, and just before taking drugs, to “transform” into her dark/outgoing personality counterpart. “Perfect Blue” also has this stress on a split personality disorder: Mima is involved in a TV series “Double Bind” which specifically deals with a girl suffering from a split personality disorder, it turns out that Rumi did, indeed, suffer from the disorder throughout the whole movie, and Mima herself start to wonder whether this is, in fact, what she has, because she asks “what if my other self starts acting of her own accord?” In “Black Swan”, Nina’s transformation into the Black Swan on stage also involves the split of personality in some sense: she is completely different in her new image.
Heroine’s double life/inner “fight” between being a “good” girl and a “bad girl”: “Perfect Blue” and “Black Swan” both have these scenes of imaginary/non-imaginary and inner/real “fights” between the heroine and her double, with Mima/Nina often having to lead a double life to accommodate her two personalities/ways of life. “Fights” are, of course, Nina’s delusions of her “black double” counterpart everywhere, stalking her, and her antagonistic attitude towards Lily, who embodies qualities that Nina initially lacks. Similarly, in “Perfect Blue” the real depressed Mima-actress has to battle with the carefree and happy Mima-role model or pop-idol who constantly mocks her, saying “no one likes a pop idol with a tarnished reputation” and “you are filthy now”. What is striking here is that when Mima decides to break off for good with her innocent pop-idol image by agreeing to do (doing) “dirty” scenes in a series, she comes home to find her fish dead in their reservoir. This marks the irreversible loss of her childish/pure beginnings. A similar thing happens in “Black Swan”, when Nina throws away her soft toys, marking her break from the “sweet girl” image and her imminent transformation into something else.
Element of female, work-related jealousy, and best friend becomes worst enemy: In “Black Swan”, at one point or another, Beth, Lily and Nina’s mother display signs of conscious/ unconscious jealousy regarding Nina’s career boost. In “Perfect Blue”, Rumi’s innate jealousy of Mima had a devastating impact on Mima. In the movie, it is Rumi who transitions from Mima’s best friend to her worst enemy when she tries to kill Mima in the end. In “Black Swan”, the only person Nina gets intimately close to, Lily, tried to kill her (or so Nina thought). There is clearly an element of betrayal by a friend in both films as Nina watches her “prince” being snatched by Lily during a scene intermission, and possibly it is Rumi who is responsible for killing Mima’s fish.
Presentation of the “dirty” side of a show-business: both “Black Swan” and “Perfect Blue” make reference to getting “dirty” to succeed in a show-business. Upon receiving a lead role in the “Swan Lake” production, Nina is labelled “whore”, and both Beth and Lily think she has done sexual favours to Leroy to get her part. Moreover, Nina thinks she must seduce Leroy by putting on lipstick and acting provocatively to get her part. In “Perfect Blue” Mima is obviously agreeing to strip and behave provocatively on camera, as well as do “naughty” scenes in a TV series, to be successful professionally and get rid of her pop-idol image.
Heroine is stalked by her doppelganger/ is sent a threat calling her names: in “Perfect Blue”, Mima is “stalked” by her double-pop-idol, but also by Me-Mania, who could be considered as her “real-life” double if he posts and acts as Mima online. In “Black Swan”, Nina is often followed by her lookalike, and Lily also admits to going to some length to follow Nina home. Both Nina and Mima receive a threat calling them names: Mima – by way of a fax message, calling her a traitor; and Nina – by way of a message written on the mirror of the ladies’ toilets, calling her a whore.
Heroine’s complete descent into madness given work pressure/new role: Mima and Nina both suffer from instances of delusional paranoia and hallucinations. In “Black Swan”, Nina sees blood/her other self and Lily everywhere, whereas, in fact, there is no one there, and becomes unreasonably suspicious of Lily and her behaviour, saying to Leroy at one point: “she (Lily) is after me”. Similarly, Mima sees her pop-idol image in every mirror, and becomes paranoid that she may be responsible for the ongoing murders. It is clear that both Nina and Mima experience considerable amounts of stress as Nina tries to make sense of how to embody the Black Swan, and to deal with confusing Lily, demanding Leroy and her controlling mother, and Mima deals with a crazy stalking fan, ongoing murders, pressures of doing violent TV scenes, and the guilt of leaving her girl band. Here, it is also clear that both films incorporate a constant blurring between fantasy and reality: Nina and Mima’s worlds become distorted, to the point where they can no longer distinguish real events from imaginary/dream ones. For example, in one sequences, Mima wakes up numerous times on her bed not being quite sure what day it is, or whether what had happened previously was merely a dream. Nina, likewise, often sees blood, where there is none, being not quite sure what is going on.
Heroine’s belief she killed someone: At one point in “Perfect Blue”, Mima believes she is responsible for killing people, such as one person when she (imagines) discovers blood-covered clothes at her home, or when she thinks she killed Me-Mania in self-defence as he tried to rape her. In the same vein, in “Black Swan” Nina believes that she killed Lily in her changing room, just before her on-stage transformation into the Black Swan.
(Near) traffic accident: “Black Swan” and “Perfect Blue” make reference to a (near) traffic accident/collision because in “Black Swan” retiring Beth, supposedly, threw herself into oncoming traffic and, in this way, was hospitalised, and in “Perfect Blue”, Rumi steps onto the path of oncoming traffic before being miraculously saved by Mima.
Ending: one girl counterpart/personality kills/overpowers another to succeed: “Black Swan” and “Perfect Blue” both involve the final fight between the “black” and “white” girl images, the same “death” on the broken mirror edge plus the same dying embrace with white light as background. In “Perfect Blue”, the two personalities (black and white), Mima and Rumi, are fighting, and Rumi is unintentionally pierced by a broken mirror edge, and while bleeding steps onto the path of the approaching traffic with lights. In “Black Swan”, Nina is fighting Lily in the changing room (or so she thinks), and with a broken mirror edge “kills” Lily, letting her lie in the pool of blood, while she herself later embraces her moment as light from the audience descends upon her.
- Little details:
Controlling/worrying mother: in “Black Swan” Nina has a very controlling, domineering mother, Erica, who virtually dictates Nina’s every step in life, always calling her on the phone to ask her where she is. In “Perfect Blue”, the moment Mima arrives home, her mother is also already worried, calling her on the phone. Both heroines share a sufficiently close relationship with mothers.
Mirrors and reflections: in “Black Swan”, Nina constantly finds herself pursued by her double in the mirror, and finds her reflection staring back at her. Accordingly, in “Perfect Blue”, Mima’s double comes from the mirror, and her reflection in the mirror also often does not correspond to her current actions.
Lavatory and staircases: in “Perfect Blue”, there are shots of Mima: running the subway stairs to get to the day light; chasing her double on the stairs; and Mima could also be found locked in the girls’ lavatory while the film crew awaits her return. In “Black Swan”, there is a shot of Nina and Leroy having a conversation on the stairs, and Nina often finds herself in the girls’ bathroom: she once meets Lily there, and changes to her “black” top before partying also in the bathroom.
Heroine’s full bathtub submersion: in “Perfect Blue”, the heroine submerges herself fully in a bathtub, presumably to kill herself, while in “Black Swan”, there is also a shot of Nina submerging herself fully in a bathtub for reasons debated.
Moreover, since both “Perfect Blue” and “Black Swan” are psychological thrillers, I take it for granted that they share the same obsession with blood, death, sex and violence in general.
- Some of the same individual scenes:
–Mima/Nina stares at herself through the window of a subway door:
-Taunting animated pictures on the wall:
The verdict? There are many plot differences between “Perfect Blue” and “Black Swan”. “Perfect Blue” has many extrinsic characters, for example, Me-Mania & Shibuya, and events, for example, murders, and “Black Swan” incorporates the story of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and takes the world of ballet as its setting. However, as one reviewer put it, both films are constructed from the same bricks. The similarities between the two films are too overwhelming both in their quality and quantity to pass as mere coincidences or amount to some simple “inspiration” drawn. The characters, story, details and the individual scenes of the two films become virtually indistinguishable through a prism, leading to the only conclusion: “Black Swan” can easily pass for a remake of “Perfect Blue”. “I just want to be perfect”, says Nina in “Black Swan”. Little does she know that she is closer to her wish that she actually thinks. Darren Aronofsky et al.’s swan is of a perfectly blue colour.