Mika Ninagawa, daughter of celebrated theatre director Yukio Ninagawa - recently seen in London with his production of Cymbeline starring Hiroshi Abe - is one of Japan’s leading photographers and made an impressive cinema debut with her extremely colourful story of a geisha, Sakuran. Like Sakuran, her second film Helter Skelter is also a manga adaptation, but this time of Kyoko Okazaki’s manga about the dark side of the fashion world.
LiLiCo (Erika Sawajiri) is the top fashion celebrity of her era. Idolised by thousands of teenage girls and lusted over by men of all ages her worth in terms of revenue cannot be measured - she is an industry all to herself. For the cameras she’s cute and demure but behind the scenes she’s a ravenous diva; she takes everything and gives nothing. However, she has a secret which is the reason for some deep-seated anxiety and insecure bitchiness - she is almost totally artificial, literally a manufactured superstar. Obviously, I don’t mean she was grown in a vat or anything, merely that she was once a plain looking and pudgy teenager who, having been discovered by her manager, underwent full body cosmetic surgery to become the LiLiCo that every high school girl in the country is desperate to resemble. The only original part of her left is her eyeballs; everything else was sculpted by surgeons at the design of the manager.
However, this ‘revolutionary surgery’ is not all it’s cracked up to be as LiLiCo needs to have constant checkups and take a strict regimen of medication. Even this does not prevent the growth of black lesions across her skin which look horrifically necrotic and have to be covered up by her trusted make-up artist (Hirofumi Arai). If anyone found out about LiLiCo’s ‘fake’ nature, her career would be over and, sadly, she’d have nothing left. LiLiCo has of course been around a while and such fame and ‘beauty’ can only last so long even with the best surgeons in the world, so when when a new, naturally pretty, smart, clued-up youngster comes on the scene you can bet LiLiCo begins to panic. Around this time she starts to lose it big time, and the effect of her erratic behaviour on those around her is truly shocking to behold.
It is at this point I should make clear that I haven’t read the original manga so I’m not sure exactly how many of the issues of the film directly relate back to its source material. Mostly the story focuses on LiLiCo and her ever spiralling loss of control, but there’s also a side strand with some very strange policemen, one of whom has a distinct philosophical bent and seems to be completely entranced by the entire LiLiCo phenomenon. For reasons that didn’t seem completely clear to me, Japanese policemen presumably have their assignments assigned to them rather than chasing interesting phenomena - this particular policemen realises there’s something fishy about LiLiCo and ends up investigating cases of other women who’ve been treated by LiLiCo’s clinic with disastrous results. Occasionally the policeman turns up to offer zen-like advice but is otherwise found discussing the film’s issues with his female colleague. The interaction between these two strands of the story is quite clunky and they never quite manage to successfully integrate.
It also has to be said that the film’s message does appear a little old hat - ‘the fashion industry is fickle, cannibalistic and parasitic and people pay too much attention to superficial notions of physical beauty’ - it’s not exactly headline news these days. Exploiter or exploitee, it’s all a massive cycle of use and misuse where everyone is complicit from the gossiping high school girls to the dodgy cosmetic surgery clinic, the managers, publicists and the media at large. While it’s quite difficult to sympathise with LiLiCo as she’s a total monster for a great deal of the film, it is difficult not to pity her by the end as she’s obviously been fed a dream that was never going to be fulfilled. Manipulated and manipulating; there must be many people in such industries in much the same position.
Strong on visuals but muddled when it comes to storytelling, Helter Skelter is a frustrating experience. An undoubtedly strong performance from Sawajiri in the lead isn’t quite enough to hold the film together when all of its different aspects fail to coalesce. Ninagawa is certainly a talented director with a strong eye for visual flair, but the look and theatricality of the direction often overwhelm its intention. A flawed film then but certainly an interesting one, Helter Skelter ends up feeling ironically superficial, too much style over substance to prove worthy of a stronger recommendation.
Helter Skelter screened at the 56th BFI London Film Festival in October 2012