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Bloodstained

Interview: The Giallo of Perfect Blue with Sean Woodard

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The stunning anime Perfect Blue has made its way into Bloodstained Narratives: The Giallo Film in Italy and Abroad, a collection of critical essays edited by Matthew Edwards and Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns.

Bloodstained Narratives features in-depth exploration from cinematic intellectuals, academics, and filmmakers, with each talent contributing their own chapter to focus on specific films. They analyze Giallo, or an international interpretation of Giallo, while dissecting the massive influence Giallo films have in cinema.

Among these intellectuals is former Frida Cinema volunteer and dear friend, Sean Woodard. Woodard is currently a PhD student and graduate teaching assistant in the English Department at the University of Texas at Arlington. An avid horror fan with a deep passion for Giallo, Woodard found inspiration for this chapter in the Japanese anime Perfect Blue, where he noticed multiple connections to and influences from Giallo.

Satoshi Kon’s 1997 psychological thriller, Perfect Blue, explores the dark side of fame and obsessive fan culture. When pop idol Mima decides to leave the popular pop group CHAM! to pursue her dream of becoming an actress, her first role is on a murder mystery television show, which requires her to be sexually provocative. This shedding of her “good girl” pop princess persona triggers an obsessive fan to commit a series of violent murders, causing Mima to doubt her own sanity.

Woodward shares with us his introduction to Giallo, what he sees as Giallo in Perfect Blue, and what’s to come for this rising star of horror-themed academia.

Bonilla: When did you start becoming interested in Giallo horror? 

Woodard: I got into Giallo sophomore year of college. During high school, a friend of mine who worked at Blockbuster, named Ken, recommended I watch Dario Argento’s Suspiria. At that time, some of my favorites were The Omen, John Carpenter’s The Fog, and The Exorcist, but I hadn’t seen any Italian horror films.

I remembered Bravo’s The 100 Scariest Movies Moments talking about the first death scene in Suspiria. I thought this looked like something I would want to watch.

I wasn’t really a big fan of Suspiria at first. I loved the color and the set design. But I was also watching it at 10 o’clock at night, and I was really tired, so I couldn’t fully appreciate it. In college, I thought I should give it a second try—and I fell in love with it. As you know, Suspiria is my baby. Then I wondered what else Argento had directed.

This led me to Deep Red, Tenebre, Opera, and every film Argento’s directed. Then, I expanded from there into more Giallo. Granted, I’m more drawn to Gothic or paranormal supernatural horror, stuff that’s very atmospheric. I wasn’t into slashers that much at that point, although I liked the Friday the 13th series and the Halloween films.

I liked the mystery aspect to Giallo more than the slasher aspect, but they made murder look, in a way, like art. And just to clarify, Suspiria is not a Giallo. I will fight anybody on this. It’s a supernatural horror film with witches.

What are your favorite Giallo films? 

You can’t go wrong with Argento. Deep Red is the pinnacle of them. But I really like Tenebre and Opera. I like Tenebre because [it has] a writer as its central character. But Opera is probably my favorite by him because of the conceit of that film centering around an opera production of Verdi’s Macbeth and how [Argento] used his tracking shots. The kills caught me by surprise in Opera, especially the classic bullet through the peephole in the door. Poor Daria Nicolodi.

Aside from Argento, Don’t Torture a Duckling by Lucio Fulci comes to mind, even though, being raised Catholic, I thought it was very critical of the Catholic Church. The mystery in that one was really good. I’ve come around to liking Torso and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail by Sergio Martino.

I also can’t forget Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace. What Bava did with lighting is just phenomenal. Even though the ideas of what constituted Giallo wouldn’t be codified until Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage, it’s just fun to see what Bava’s doing at that point.

Italy eventually shifting away from Giallo in the late 1970s and ’80s. There have been some very good throwbacks like Knife + Heart and The Last Matinee. The Onetti Brothers have also done some interesting ones.

How did you become a part of this book?

This started back in 2019 when Nicholas Diak, a friend of mine who’s an independent scholar, recommended that I get writing again. I had been out of academia for a few years.

At the time, he encouraged me to attend the Southwest Popular and American Culture Association Conference that happens in Albuquerque every year. I went and gave a presentation on Perfect Blue. I explored those Giallo connections and the tropes, what does that mean for the main character, etc. It was a fun presentation.

After that, one of my former professors at Chapman University, James [P.] Blaylock, forwarded me a call for papers for a collection on Giallo films to be edited by Matthew Edwards and Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns. Not just the more popular ones in Italy but more of [Giallo’s] global influence. I thought that I could take my presentation, which was a PowerPoint and some speaking notes, and update it. I submitted an abstract, and it got accepted.

In the summer of 2020, when we were in lockdown and before going into my PhD program, I drafted that paper over a week and then sent it in. That began the process of feedback from the editors and revisions. It was practically a three-year process from when I submitted it to when it got published on March 12th.

Which Giallo tropes do you see in Perfect Blue?

I ended up comparing Perfect Blue with Deep Red, Perfume of the Lady in Black, and The Psychic to show how a lot of these tropes are present. Perfume of the Lady in Black, in particular, because it deals with the idea of reality as we understand it from Mima’s point of view. There’s also this element of gaslighting and a lot of other psychological duress that Mima has to undergo in the narrative of Perfect Blue.

There are kill scenes in Deep Red and Dressed to Kill that I compared to Perfect Blue. But the psychological element in Perfume of the Lady in Black is the one I wanted to focus on the most.

How is Mima being taken advantage of throughout Perfect Blue?

Everyone’s trying to control Mima’s image. All she wants to do is transition to television. She wants to be taken seriously as an actor. Not just an entertainer or a singer. There are people who have different ideas on how to do that. When Mima’s doing the Double Bind television series, you have the writers and producers basically saying, “Okay, we’re going to do this very controversial simulated rape scene” or “We’re going to give you more dialogue in the scene to make your character more prominent.” And “Mima, you’re going to do this photo shoot to bring a lot of attention to yourself as a serious person and get you away from your J-pop image.” They’re using sex to do that. It’s really sad to see what happens to her, how it really affects her.

Also, to know that the person that Mima trusts the most, her agent Rumi, to help her through this stuff, is actually the culprit killing everyone around her on set and whatnot—that modicum of trust is lost, and she finally realizes what’s going on.

Mima does receive criticism from her mother at the beginning, who asks if acting is the right move to make. However, aside from that early phone call, her family is absent from the rest of the film. This shows how isolated Mima becomes.

There is a strong commentary on toxic celebrity culture. How relevant is this commentary with modern toxic celebrity culture?

It’s very interesting that we can tie it with pop culture and stuff going on now, considering this film came out in 1997. You can see this happening with American culture. It’s like this idea that fans have this, quote, unquote, “relationship” with whomever they are enamored with in celebrity culture. If something happens or the celebrity decides to change or break away from that image that we have built up about them in our minds, then it’s a shock to our system, as consumers, as people who want to know everything about celebrity culture.

I’m thinking of what happened with comedian John Mulaney over the past few years. He got a divorce and had a child with actress Olivia Munn. A lot of people had this very “rose-tinted glasses” view of him. People saw him as a really great guy who wears these suits when he does stand-up. He seemed like a swell person. Then, this thing blew up in his face. People thought, “Oh, no! I didn’t know he had a drug problem and needed to go to rehab. And what’s going on with Olivia over here?”

The point is to not to call out Mulaney, just the reaction of fans. We also see this in instances where K-pop and J-pop stars have been stalked or sadly driven to suicide as a result of the attention they receive and all its associated pressures. We have a certain idea of who we think these celebrities are. And when that is challenged, our reactions can become problematic.

What is your favorite scene from Perfect Blue?

The car garage scene when the writer of the show [is] getting stalked. He’s heading towards the elevator of the parking garage and starts hearing this weird music. The elevator doors open, and he sees that boombox playing that CHAM! song. Then, it cuts to his body in the elevator with his eyes stabbed out. That caught me off guard.

It’s very eerie. You feel like you’re with him in that situation. Then, out of nowhere, here comes the killer with a screwdriver. It’s that one scene that I like in terms of the murder set pieces.

The reason I liked that scene was that it reminded me of Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill. It seemed like a throwback or a tongue-in-cheek intertextual reference to it—the way that the body is lying there in the elevator. I don’t think Kon had said anything about whether that was an intentional reference or not. But I know he was very open to how other people interpret his films.

For readers interested in films like Perfect Blue, which films would you recommend?

I would say check out Kon’s other work. A lot of his films are now getting 4K restorations, like Millennium Actress. The Frida annually plays his Tokyo Godfathers around Christmastime. That’s a good starting point. I also can’t stop coming back to [Yann Gonzalez’s] Knife + Heart.

A Giallo-influenced film I like from Italy is from 2007, called The Girl by the Lake. Toni Servillo plays a police detective who has to figure out who murdered this young girl in a lakeside town. What I liked about that one is that it’s more of an interior character study, even though it is a police procedural.

What are your thoughts of critics who don’t take anime cinema seriously?

For the people who say that anime can’t say anything substantial, those critics are wrong. As Guillermo del Toro says, it’s a medium. It’s not just a cartoon. You see Perfect Blue working as this critique of J-pop culture. At the beginning when Mima’s giving her final concert, we see Me-Mania, Mima’s stalker, looking at her through the palm of his hand.

That makes you question whose point of view we are looking at in this film. Who are we complicit with? As a viewer, can we accept a certain point of view from the camera? Of course, this is what creates the misdirection and stuff going on in the film.

Any upcoming articles or projects?

Right now, I’m mainly teaching rhetoric and composition. This semester, I get to teach a relatively new course for this year, called Writing about Film. I’m focusing on the Western. We just talked about hybrid westerns like Near Dark and Marvel’s Logan. I’m going to be teaching a class on literature of the American West in the fall.

I’m also still the film editor at Drunk Monkeys. We’re releasing our pop culture issue later this month, so be on the lookout for that. I’m still really enjoying my time there. I do have another book chapter on the films Wake in Fright and The Nightingale for a collection called Journeys into Terror. That’s going to come out from McFarland sometime soon.

I’m also keeping busy writing a bunch of essays on horror. I’ll keep you posted.

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