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Helter Skelter – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Known for her gorgeous looks, supermodel LiLiCo is the absolute standard in which beauty is measured. But LiLiCo is also a conceited, narcissistic woman who makes everyone around her – including her long-suffering manager–incredibly miserable. However, LiLiCo also holds a dark secret that only her talent agency boss and stylist know—LiLiCo’s seemingly perfect image was entirely created through strenuous plastic surgery. When LiLiCo’s constructed body begins to fall apart, her psyche begins to shatter from her paranoia and insecurities concerning her future in the entertainment industry.

It seems bizarrely fitting to have director Mika Ninagawa helm the deliriously chaotic Helter Skelter, if only for the simple fact of her close relationship to the exact beauty industry in which the film aggressively explores the darker realm of. Already well renowned for her work as a fashion photographer within Japan, Ninagawa’s relatively newfound status as a fledging director—having only debuted with the vividly colorful Sakuran (2007)—has yet to be fully proven, but considering her keen insight into the beauty industry that surrounds Helter Skelter, the film may be more revealing than we may expect. Couple this with the fact that the film’s lead character LiLiCo is played by Erika Sawajiri, whose own life within the entertainment world has been in a tumultuous state due to scandals for the last five years, one can also view Helter Skelter as a much more reflective piece upon which Sawajiri is paralleling her own life to that of LiLiCo’s, courageously confronting long felt issues of rejection, public scrutiny, and industry standards.

Of course, Helter Skelter is first and foremost presenting the extremities of the entertainment industry rather than focusing on the plausible hardships that your everyday supermodel may actually face. Based on the manga series by Kyoko Okazaki, the source material for the film was indeed a dark and gritty examination of the Japanese beauty industry, and perhaps more importantly, a critique upon the ‘constructed’ images of idols that are plastered across billboards, magazine covers, and television screens alike. The manga explored how popular culture icons are made into products to be consumed by the masses, only to be aggressively cast aside as the next best ‘product’ comes to fruition. It effectively portrayed the entertainment world as a ruthless industry with a genuine sense of human vanity and despondency, with us as readers witnessing the emotional and physical turmoil of LiLiCo and her world continually spiraling down before us. The story revealed much truth regarding the disastrous effects that are wrought upon an individual seeking to uphold an image of unequivocal perfection.

When looking at such a narrative envisioned through the medium of a live-action film though, much is to be desired considering the strength of the source material. For one, the internal dialoging conveyed by LiLiCo viewed throughout the manga is nearly absence here, instead relying more upon her bodily demise rather than her deteriorating psychological state. This approach seemingly detaches much of the sympathy one may have felt for LiLiCo when reading through the manga, interpreting her here as seemingly a rude and obnoxious supermodel that deserves what is happening to her. The same can be applied to LiLiCo’s manager Hada, who while playing a significant part in the manga, is merely showcased here as someone without much personality that simply bends to LiLiCo’s will at a moment’s whim. Now, while the manga does detail Hada as an individual slowly being absorbed into the pandemonium established by LiLiCo’s downfall, she was presented as a more realized character through her interpretation of LiLiCo’s destructive actions showcased through moments of personal reflection concerning her relationship to LiLiCo, which is not really present within the film. These two overall changes to characterization considerably lessens the social commentary that was seen in the manga, even if small remnants of it still remain throughout the live-action adaptation of Helter Skelter.

This is where the issue of style over substance comes into fold, as the film version of Helter Skelter is only as strong as the material it selectively chooses to showcase. It would be plausible to suggest that Ninagawa simply chose to portray more of the physical elements that encompass the universe of Helter Skelter rather than its psychology, allocating much of its roughly two-hour running time towards showing the sheer remorselessness of LiLiCo towards those around her rather than her own internalization surrounding the personal issues that plague her. We begin to view her as simply a spoiled, manufactured brat rather than the tragic protagonist as viewed in the manga, easing us into a strange realm of self-indulgence by LiLiCo that hinders the narrative as a whole. Instead of offering moments of truthful introspection, we witness elongated scenes—usually coinciding with sexual intercourse between LiLiCo and one of her close associates—that were only minor segments within the manga. Much is also left out regarding LiLiCo’s relationship with her family that was elaborated upon in the manga as well, many elements of which could have developed her character much more throughout the film.

But as the narrative of the film may be deemed a disappointment considering the expanded topical range viewed in the manga, the cinematography and performances are the film’s saving grace, but they are both remarkable elements of the film in their own right. Erika Sawajiri delivers a powerful performance here as the disturbing LiLiCo, aggressively tackling the role and making it her own in almost every way. There are many things throughout the film that one would not have dreamt of Sawajira performing several years ago—nudity, sex scenes, drug use, smoking, drinking, etc.—but here we see a tour de force that equally measures her skills as an actresses to that of her real life experiences as an individual within the hostile entertainment industry. Similar to LiLiCo, but to a significantly lesser degree, Sawajira has also fallen to the wayside in her career, but has stepped back into the acting world with Helter Skelter. The cinematography of Helter Skelter also corresponds to the disorderly nature of the film itself, with Ninagawa bringing forth her expertise as a photographer to convey the disturbingly superficial and isolated environments that enclose LiLiCo and company, slowly delivering us into a nightmarishly colorful splendor that is simply impeccable and once again showcases her stance as a visionary director.

Although Helter Skelter is a film that may be disappointing to many fans of the manga series regarding what it chooses to omit, it is still a film that presents a look into an industry that is often rarely questioned for its ethical standards, or perhaps the lack thereof. With a powerful performance by Erika Sawajiri, an arousing musical score by Koji Ueno, and excellent cinematography, Helter Skelter is a surrealistic journey consisting of a search for one’s true identity amidst an industry that advocates for the suppression of such individuality. Like LiLilco herself, Ningawa’s interpretation of the source material offers a rather shallow look into an industry that relies on manufactured images to sustain itself, with Helter Skelter offering an exaggerated but authentic exploration into the immense price that fame and fortune entails upon the body in a needless search to uphold that perfect image.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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