Helter Skelter Review #1
Written by Arisa Kaneko and Kyoko Okazaki
Directed by Mika Ninagawa
Browse through the magazine section of a local book or newsprint media retailer and one quickly notices, as if they had never before, that a gargantuan number of magazines specialize in beauty, health and style and, for the most part, feature brilliantly glamorous photographs of celebrities on their covers. It virtually goes without saying that culture in the industrialized nations is heavily driven by interest in those people deemed worthy of celebrity status, even if some people would rather not admit to it. Occasionally a story will leak about how the obsessiveness spreads into the minds of those being objectified as well, with rumours of photoshop, too much makeup and even plastic surgery.
Director Mika Ninagawa, mostly known for her photography and music videos, delves into the world of beauty and celebrity with her sophomore effort, Helter Skelter. The protagonist, a jaw-dropping attractive young woman who goes by the name of Lilico (Erika Sawajiri) is atop of the fashion world. Teenagers idolize her, everyone wants to interview her, the team of people who do her makeup and scheduling are essentially slaves to her every bidding, and she gets to have sex with her current beaux in the dress up room. Unbeknownst to the world apart from those closest to her, Lilico’s beauty is but the result of oodles of plastic surgery, the repercussions of which are starting to show signs. Then there is the arrival of a new, younger beauty onto the scene, Kozue (Kiko Mizuhara), which is when Lilico’s problems get really serious.
Mika Ninagawa’s Helter Skelter is an unclassifiable film. The only description that comes close to aptly providing a sense of the tone and story is a kaleidoscopic, dreamscape, manga influenced journey of a woman coming to the realization that her reign as a queen of fashion shall soon come to an end for horrific reasons yet struggles onwards, foolishly, to preserve complete and utter control over her life and career. The manga part is a bit obvious considering that the film is inspired by a manga book after all. The adventure viewers are invited to embark on is a decidedly strange one, never swaying too far in one specific tonal direction more than any other but continuously intriguing for its development of the disturbing and pathetic the central figure.
From a visual standpoint, it is clear that the filmmakers wanted to create an uncomfortably flashy universe. Colours, emanating from fancy lighting and set design, is everywhere. That said, the aesthetic does not strictly create an aura of beauty and wonderful imagination. Granted, the movie often looks very, very nice, but the visuals do more than merely look good. There is something undeniably creepy about them. There is excess, there are set design touches that do not really mesh well together, colour patterns which feel just a tad off, etc. In essence, the films’s visual palette is an extension of Lilico’s wild, fetishistic desires and inhibitions. Just as she is uncontrollable in many respects, so are most of the visual flourishes which litter the movie.
The story itself, while not wholly original, is nonetheless effective and deserves some praise for how it never quite follows patterns one might predict it would or even should. After the first portion establishes Lilico’s dominance of the fashion industry, the hints of many things afoot rear their ugly heads, such as the discomforting black marks on her forehead, marks which become more pronounced later on. From then on, the gist of the story pertains to her bizarre, increasingly ludicrous, insane fight to retain dominance over the few people who still adore her despite her rather obvious repulsive traits. Lilico’s refusal to be kicked by the wayside, which itself is understandable, encourages her to make the most ostentatious, far fetched, unbelievably egotistical demands from her helpers and just about anyone she believes she can put a spell on. Needless to say, several of these requests involve sullying the career of her new rival, Kozue, while others are of the more sexually devious variety. When her command over the masses has eroded, her knee jerk reaction is to emphasize her command over those closest to her.
Things do not go as smoothly as she anticipates however as Lilico’s experience proves a far more titanic struggle on her body and mind. Director Ninagawa is keen on showing that even though Lilico’s behaviour is disgusting, the character is fighting. Against what exactly? That is, in some ways, the most interesting aspect of the movie’s second half. Drug addiction, insanity, bodily decomposition and eventual self-inflicted wounds appear too much for Lilico to withstand as she frequently breaks down in moments of spectacular fragility.
Helter Skelter is an experience, make no mistake about it. The sights, the sounds (wonderful usage of classical pieces and a great score courtesy of Koji Ueno), characters bogged down in a quagmire from which there is no exit until Lilico herself either takes a stance or…worse. Then again, it is the sort of experience one will find at a festival the likes of Fantasia, in other words, a little too weird for mainstream crowds. It fact, the movie functions a lot like a fashion show. Said events often showcase costumes, makeup and styles no regular person in their right mind would ever wear on just any ordinary day, but as an event that lasts a couple of hours, it is kind of fun.
Kyoko Okazaki’s manga Helter Skelter, published by Shoudensha in 2003 was an award winning satire of those particularly kaleidoscopic and ceramic coated dimensions of contemporary Japanese celebrity culture, alongside its elitist associated fashion businesses and boutiques. When second time director Mika Ninagawa was announced as the maestro of the film adaption the fans must have gone wild, as it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect marriage of clothes horse to glamorous kimono, as Ninagawa is one of the finest fashion photographers in Japan, an oriental mesh of David Bailey and Anne Leibowitz, who would be ideally empowered with her unique position within the goldfish bowl of the industry to luminously ridicule its shortcomings and distorted practices. The project was further enhanced with the casting of Erika Sawajiri in the central role of Ririko, as a real life ‘idol unit’ graduate whose star has recently been in the descendant she was an ideal candidate to portray the fading central star in this delirious and delicious hyper-real satire, defining a world at once a million miles away and ironically very close to the star parades of California or Cannes, a massive hit in its native Japan Helter Skelter is a clever, beautifully photographed film which further heralds Ninagawa as a talent to watch with a paparazzi’s rabid glee.
Lilico (an eerily brutal Sawajiri) is the current goddess of the Tokyo fashion and celebrity scene, an unearthly beautiful angel with a demeaour one part Lady Gaga to two parts adolescent Gloria Swanson, a hermetically sealed entity who is spirited from fashion shoot to product launch in a cloud of choking, constricting cotton-wool. Beneath the facade Lilico is cracking, quite literally falling to pieces due to a disintegrating plastic surgery varnish which has transformed her into some warped porcelain Bride Of Frankenstein, with a retinue of fawning admirers she finds life at the top deeply isolating and lonely, with only her meek personal assistant Michiko (Terajima) serving as the butt of her cruel treatments retainin even the faintest sliver of connection to the world of mere mortals. With a clutch of younger, more perfectly smooth and glowing models snapping at her heels and beginning to encroach upon on her lucrative contracts Lilico turns to desperate measures to preserve her authority, with explosively shattering consequences….
Alongside Antiviral there seems to be backlash on the cult of celebrity reverberating around the corridors of visual power, like Sofia Coppla’s luminary case studies Helter Skelter is imbued with a unique insight from within the bubble of the rich and famous, its ridiculous foibles and egos displaced into an ironically lonely and paranoid existence, where Coppola opted for coolly scored, ennui laced detachment Ninagawa aims for the emotional and physical, like its media surrogates the film is populated with sex of many different flavours, it’s a very carnal and vivid film, with its prismatic colour patterns demonstrating her remarkable visual eye. Mirrors festoon the apartments and work spaces and a labyrinthine aura of isolation and image is invoked, this oriental snapshot Picture Of Dorian Gray of the 21st century, strobed to the flashing gunshots of the photographer’s blinding bulbs.
The film is much too long and could easily endure a trim of twenty or thirty minutes, many points are repeatedly made which don’t necessarily compound early points or advance the plot in any meaningful way, although two hour plus length doesn’t seen to have deterred its native fans for turning out in their droves, as Helter Skelter has proved to be a massive hit in its native Japan, and is opening across other Far Eastern territories over the next few weeks. A flamboyantly energetic, international addition to this year’s London Film Festival.