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Gothic Themes in Perfect Blue (1997)

This article examines the use of Gothic imagery in Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue (1997). Meant to convey feelings of madness, how are they used, here, and how do they manifest for the viewer in a Gothic sense?

Note: Spoilers!

Madness is central, in Gothic stories. Generally manifest through a kind of palpable affect, the monstrous is an experience felt through horror and terror. Presented to the audience, this charge is stored either inside a location or upon its imagery. Viewed, the promoted surfaces compel specific responses—either from victims trapped inside, or those who feel as such (the audience). Call it a "shared gaze," if you will; the madness remains vicarious.

In blander terms, Perfect Blue is a psychological thriller, one that concerns shared psychosis, or folie à deux. In Gothic terms, its madness is not limited between two people, but an entire location—what I'll call chez folie, or "mad place." A haunted house is more than the heroine and killer, inside; it involves a great number of moving parts, all cooperating to produce a madness exhibited. Once cultivated, this insanity is channeled through a pointed, liminal gaze, often the heroine's. Under attack, her sense of reality crumbles. Is she mad, or is the killer merely hidden, concealed within the mist? This affliction extends to the audience looking through her eyes; when the killer is near, reality starts to break down (a familiar notion for those acclimated with Silent Hill [1999] or H. P. Lovecraft).

Perfect Blue's heroine is Mima, a disenfranchised pop star. Onstage, life is easy. When a fight breaks out during a random performance, however, Mima calls it quits. Her persona is thrown off, abandoned. It makes headlines, and Rumi, her agent, is devastated. That afternoon, Mima receives a fax, which reads "Traitor!" She scoffs (an angry fan, no doubt). Time goes on, but strange things persist. At a shoot for a small acting role, Mima envisions someone watching her. In the blink of an eye, he is gone. Did she see him? She's not sure. Neither are we.

Next, Mima finds an online journal that cannot be dismissed. Written by "her," it depicts real events, her private life turned inside-out. Confused by the intimacy and accuracy of such reports, Mima connects them with her departure—from the safety of the pop world. She remembers the fax, taking it so seriously as to feel cursed. Doubles are a key device in Gothic stories, are used to achieve a sense of mutual confusion. So are counterfeits. In Perfect Blue, Mima's identity is forged (the diary) and mistaken (the killer), but also shared (the persona). The madness onscreen elides these individual facets, whose combination overwhelms the audience sharing Mima's opiate point-of-view.

Soon, people around Mima start to die. One such victim is a photographer she briefly works with. She imagines his death, with her as the killer(!). While not entirely fabricated, the scene is exaggerated, imagined by a fear-stricken heroine. Mima's nightmares weigh her down. However, these are triggered by actual, off-screen events. Announced on television, Mima learns that "so-and-so was murdered. The killer remains at large." Worse, she knows the victims. This mirrors The Terminator (1984), whose victims are killed on- and off-screen. Afterward, their deaths are announced to have been connected, the victims having "virtually identical" names. Sarah Conor hears this inside a public place occupied by random men. Any one of them could be the killer(s)! The fear  associated with her name becomes a shared state—felt by her, but also by us through her eyes (and ears). She looks around in muted alarm; the music modulates, promoting uncertain peril.

Like Sarah, Mima feels threatened through her connection with the recently-and-violently deceased: her name. She actively hallucinates; the images around her "come alive." This affect plagues her especially well, given the images' likeness to her on-stage persona, not her actual self. Unlike Sarah, Mima is a pop icon—the icon being used by the killer to conceal murderous deeds. It not only comes alive inside Mima's mind; it is used by the real killer as a disguise. One intentional side-affect is Mima's subsequent confusion, of feeling haunted or threatened by an icon she cannot separate from herself; it looks too much like her, and is plastered everywhere—before, during and after the murders. The "clothing" is hers, worn by Someone Else. Donned by whomever that is, Mima sees herself, and begins to fret. Unlike Sarah, who felt like a potential victim, Mima feels like a potential killer. The state of madness is equally liminal, its outcome merely reversed.

Over time, Mima's madness is incensed, driven to hyperbolic levels. Her sight all but fails in face of the real killer. Fully exposed, the culprit cannot be viewed as it actually is, hides behind the pop idol persona. The killer, the stalker, the victims—Mima cannot tell them apart, nor separate them from herself. Eventually she is attacked. However, when the imitator advances, Mima sees Mima, but something is horribly wrong. This is unlike Rear Window (1954), where Jimmy Steward is approached by a safe, ordinary-looking man; preceded by an air of menace, the man is betrayed by context, alone. However, in Perfect Blue or similar stories, the killer imitates the intended victim before it kills them. Think of the security guard, in Terminator 2 (1991). Right before he is lobotomized, Lewis stares, frozen in confusion. Before him stands an uncanny image, both familiar and strangely alien. Such paralysis lulls Lewis into a weakened state, long enough for the killing strike to be administered.

In Perfect Blue, Mima is not killed. Instead, she bears the attack as a woman slowly going insane (as often is the case, in Gothic novels). Rumi appears concerned, but level-headed. She objects to Mima playing a gratuitous rape scene. Later, when the scene is performed, Rumi cries. Here, we see what Mima cannot, for she is not looking at Rumi (that, or the camera is not Mima's ocular point of view, but an imagined variation—a daydream). The distinction—of the images being imagined or seen by Mima—does not matter, provided the sense of confusion remains; it's less an explicit statement of madness, and more a feeling shared between Mima and the audience. She is our vehicle to chez folie.

Nothing is wholly separate, in a Gothic location. Instead, the images are presented in vague, unclear terns. Mima's madness is liminal, interwoven with acting scenes that parallel her active predicament. A woman whose newfound job has her acting out murder and rape, Mima becomes afraid of either befalling her. When her scenes initially occur, they are presented as real, meant to shock the eventual audience the studio has in mind. Moments later, the shouting of "Cut!" by the director breaks the spell. Other murders happen that are very real, however. Announced with impunity by the news, they send Mima into a mounting state of panic. She knew the victims, and begins to see the killer(s) everywhere: her ubiquitous image.

When Mima is faced with a real threat, Me-Mania, he mirrors past examples, actual and fabricated. During the opening scene, he watched Mima (only to vanish like a ghost, later, when she saw him at the photo shoot). Sporting the "Innsmouth look," his eyes bulge; his teeth are awful, boar-like. As something to observe, he remains ontologically uncertain, an exaggerated threat. Mima eventually brains him (when she does, I half-expected to hear "Cut!"). While the scene plays out very much as it had, before, no one is acting when Me-Mania is killed. My doubt remained, postmortem—a testament to the movie's Gothic craft.

After the attack, Rumi walks in, ostensibly solicitous. She takes Mima home. Once there, Mima is confronted by the killer-in-disguise, a duplicate "Mima" wearing her counterpart's old stage costume. The real Mima stares. How can this be? she wonders. Me-Mania is dead; she killed him!

Like so many other Gothic stories, there is a very real explanation. However, as the movie unfolds, we cannot qualify Mima's intelligence as genuine; certain scenes also provide "exclusive" information, data Mima is not privy to. Early on, when Me-Mania sees Mima onstage, he "holds" her in his hand. Yet, this so-called "privileged" information is, in itself, deceptive. It implies—to us, and not Mima—that the killer is singular. There is more than one, evidenced by Mima's newfound double, who appears in her apartment after Me-Mania is killed. The imitation wears Mima's old dress. However, the disguise works not because of a visual trick. Unlike many Gothic novels, the killer does not actually resemble the victim (the so-called "spitting image"); nor does the killer, when viewed, resemble a friend. Instead, the disguise works because Mima is psychologically shaken. She does not see who wears the dress at all; she merely sees the dress, itself. An object of fear, it causes Mima to hallucinate. Indeed, the killer wears it for this very reason.

Here, the material is the victim's "skin," but also the killer's. Many monsters use a likeness to shape-shift into a human replica—of its confused victim before, during and after the kill. The attack is psychological; like that of a demon, it is preceded by a web of images and material by which to hide behind, waiting to strike. Yet, the monster kills to promote its own survival mechanism: the image, itself. Self-replication copies the mask. In Perfect Blue, the killer is bent on preserving Mima the image, not Mima the person. The killer advances, hidden by the image, and Mima must try to survive.

The killer is revealed to be Rumi. During the attack, however, Rumi is shown to be inseparable from Mima, the image; the two glide back and forth over the same surface. Until now, Rumi appeared to protect Mima; in truth, she cared about Mima's persona, her icon. Unable to scare Mima into submission, Rumi switches tactics. In her mind, killing Mima (the person) is an act of vengeance, honoring the image whose sanctity Mima threatened. Her departure was a "traitorous" act, one that left the "trinity" a lesser pair. The fall only accelerated when Mima let herself be "raped," driving home a hidden wedge between her and Rumi. For Rumi, it makes no difference if the rape was real or not, nor how much blood she spills. All that matters is the image.

While Rumi's weaponized delusions madden Mima, the ambiguity extends to how the victims are presented. The last in a long chain of dead bodies, Mima is similar to Ellen Ripley or Laurie Strode in that each is brought to her wits end as the final girl, the ultimate victim. Each story contextualizes the violence, either belonging to a small town, space truck, or Japanese metropolis. In Perfect Blue, "death" and "rape" are part of the job. When Mima's studio advocates for a rape scene, the "rape" violates Mima the image, but also Mima the actress. Professional, she and the other employees are bothered, but not terminally so. Mima's discontent is known to us. She has already complained (to no one in particular) how she took no pleasure in being "raped." Mima's protest, however, is concealed by a complacent, even eager exterior ("I'll do my best!" she swears). Likewise, the male actor who "raped" her apologizes—merely a whisper, drowned out by a "cheering" crowd. People want to see her "raped"; could their minds tell the difference if it actually happened?

Through appearances that overwhelm through powerful content, Kon demonstrates how easily truth is lost. During a provocative "nude shoot," Mima disrobes in pornographic fashion; the presentation becomes opaque despite the goal to strip, thus reveal. For Rumi, Mima's shoot is sacrilegious; Mima lies under the cameraman much how she had, when being "raped." In other words, Mima's naked picture is duplicitous, as are the myriad reactions tied to it. This includes ours, for we cannot tell whose point of view is being shown to us; it has bled into Mima's psyche, her dreams. Instead, the photographer leers, undressing Mima with his eyes; she smiles back, innocuous and complicit. So does the killer, when the time comes. Or rather, Mima already feels culpable, hears the broadcast and dreams the photographer's grisly murder. She sees lurid snapshots, her naked body flashing over images—of the leering man being stabbed to death. Both are teased out, bled into a single collage. Where is the killer?

The duplicity is not simply the image; it is the viewing of it as contested. While Rumi and Mima might view the photographer with mutual disdain, the image of the murder is ultimately produced inside Mima's mind—a mind stimulated by distant, ambiguous threats. While off-screen, Rumi's murders are announced on the radio; associated with a shared persona, the killer remains at large. When the victims are killed, it is by Rumi, Mima's impostor. Affected by the killer, Mima imagines butchery far worse than anything actually communicated by the news. Dainty and polite, she harbors gruesome feelings—a madness induced by the killers, and those who scavenge on their corpse trail. Whilst all operate inside a kind of grisly cycle, the presence of rape and murder remain integral to Mima's professional life. Her contacts, roles, and admirers help promote a constant threat, told through a mutual hunger. She sees it in the eyes of those who love her, looking ravenously upon her likeness.

Things progress; Mima is pushed further into madness, but also professional instability. Cutting room reels replay discussions between movie characters, waxing trivia about illusions, and split personalities. One scene has Mima locked up in a mental ward, art imitating life. For one second, I thought "This is real." When the director yells "Cut!" the scene stops for everyone except Mima. Sipping tea, the teacup breaks in her hand, cutting her palms. As her image breaks down, so does her mind, spurned by a hidden rival she knows not of. Instead, she blames herself. She must be crazy or responsible, somehow. The male actor was merely doing his job; he meant her no harm. An actual rapist, Me-Mania's actions became (for Mima) synonymous with that of the photographer and his lusty camera. This suspicion is off-mark, Me-Mania inspired and instructed by Rumi, whose own inner rancor produced the false diary replete with stolen entries. These entries were not false; the author was merely impersonating the individual those events belonged to. The diary that inspired Me-Mania also drove Mima to madness. Written by Rumi, Mima mistook it for her own. Yet, both were ensorcelled by the same murderous web.

This echoes Ann Radcliffe's Gothic novel, The Italian (1797). In it Father Schedoni, a master manipulator, is deceived by appearances. Preparing to plunge his dagger into Ellena Rosalba's breast, Schedoni freezes, having seen a pendant whose miniature "resembled" him. In truth, while it did, the picture was actually of Schedoni's brother, the Countess di Bruno. Killed by Schedoni years earlier, the Countess' likeness is similar enough to Schedoni's stolen role that he thought he saw himself. In a cruel twist, he grows convinced that Ellena bears his likeness, is actually his long-lost daughter. While Schedoni had sired a child through his brother's wife, it had died while he was abroad. In truth, he is actually Ellena's uncle, and her father was Schedoni's murdered brother, the Countess. Unable to safely murder Ellena, Schedoni forces her to travel with him through the Italian countryside. There, both spend the better part of the novel in a state of mutual confusion.

Here, the identity of the pendant was not merely shared, but stolen. There was an intentional impostor Ellena could neither dismiss nor confirm, and an unintentional likeness borne by the victim Shedoni originally planned to kill. Unable to ascertain the exact manner of their relationship, he chose not to act—a decision what would later cost him his life. The confusion that stayed Shedoni's hand froze Ellena in place. Likewise, Mima looked upon the diary and thought herself mad, unaware how Rumi was doubling as her (or rather, her persona). Like Shedoni, Rumi knew more than Mima, but was still helpless to the swirl of deceit and images she could not fully control, including whatever influence the lies eventually had on her. By the end, she is completely insane, unable to escape her own laid trap.

In the end, Rumi is exposed. The spell breaks. She is too big for the costume, and stumbles about clumsily. Her madness is real, Mima's merely a byproduct of proximity with it. Madness and guilt, in Gothic novels, are physiological; they manifest as physical maladies unto the mentally affected (who, in turn, are more inclined to give supernatural verdicts). Viewing them in a suspended, liminal state, the confusion becomes ours to put on, like a mask. In Perfect Blue, the images are not simply donned by the killer, victim, or populace; they're plastered all over the place. Everyone is trapped in a Japan supersaturated with symbols. These imply real-life persons or places affected by their sensationalized counterparts. Neither is wholly separate.

Somewhere in all of this, an actual killer lurks. Perfect Blue effectively explores the influence of fear under such misleading and proliferated conditions. It shows you the killer in a mask, except the mask is you, not the murderous six-year old down the street (à la Michael Myers). The destruction of the image sunders its woven spell. In Mima's case, Rumi is incarcerated. Mima, herself, is free, can "exit the hospital." She's not insane after all, she thinks. Thank God!


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