A decade has passed since the cult success of Katsuhiro Otomo's graphically stunning, spectacularly indulgent Akira, but Japanese animation has yet to emerge from its immense shadow. Perfect Blue is one of the few, more ambitious efforts to escape the lurid direct-to-video market in recent years, but it still suffers from an Akira-esque tension between the artful and the prurient, with striking designs and complex philosophical themes pitted against unsettling teen softcore and gratuitous bloodletting. Though never torn asunder by demon phalluses, Mima Kirigoe, the shrill protagonist, is victimized by a stalker when she decides to leave Cham, a sugary girl-pop trio, to pursue an acting career. In order to expand her role on a tawdry TV psychodrama, she poses for nude photographs and agrees to participate in a rape scene, tarnishing her wholesome image as a pop idol. This draws the ire of an obsessive webmaster who starts killing off the show's creators and haunting Kirigoe with a vengeful, illusory version of her old persona. In its blurring of fantasy, reality, dreams, and images, Perfect Blue is no less accomplished than Open Your Eyes, The Matrix, or other recent exercises in metaphysics. But despite clever moments and flashes of inspired animation, Perfect Blue is marred by a vapid central character, thuddingly banal dialogue (aggravated by poor English dubbing), and increasing unpleasantness. With its fluidly changeable surfaces, animation may be the ideal medium for confronting the public's growing uncertainty with reality, but Perfect Blue is a missed opportunity, too shallow and exploitative to be taken seriously.