I am doll eyes, doll mouth, doll legs
I am doll arms, big veins, dog bait
Yeah, they really want you
They really want you, they really do
—Hole, "Doll Parts"
I don't think the modern culture of beauty started with the onset of the information age, but I'm not sure the power of the information age to demythologize and quantify everything will be the end of the beauty cult, either. If anything, the human body today has become all the more a set of mere assets to be digitized, manipulated, and perfected. If we could, in fact, make ourselves look like whatever we saw in a magazine, via 3D-printed body parts and genetic design, wouldn't the whole debate about the damaging effects of impossibly perfect beauty become moot?
If you're as disturbed by these questions as I am, there is a good chance Helter-Skelter will fascinate, unsettle, and disgust you as much as it did me. I do not say these things because I automatically find stories that unsettle or disgust to be automatically worthy by dint of being unsettling or disgusting — although if they're fascinating, that by itself redeems a great deal. I say this because the subject Helter-Skelter takes on — the commodification of human beauty, and by extension the commodification of human beings — needs not to be too easy to swallow.
Maybe that's a contradiction: too easy to swallow, and the meaning gets diluted; but too hard to swallow, and no one reads it. Somehow, Kyoko Ozaki and director Mika Ninagawa managed to walk that line in different ways, each one leveraging different powers inherent in their respective mediums — manga and live-action film — to make this grotesque material work. Curiously, the more graphic and realistic of the two, the live-action movie, is also the less effective, and not just because the comic accomplishes so much by being deliberately spare in its designs and pointillist in its storytelling.
Pretty hate machine
A friend of mine once remarked that fame is when the world finally just calls you by your first or only name: Prince, Madonna, Oprah. By that standard, Lilico has more than arrived, as both her name and her face are household worlds throughout Japan. With a body that adorns countless ad posters and a face that winks gleefully out at throngs of fashion-conscious girls from the covers of slick magazines, Lilico is at least as much product as she is personality. Maybe more the former than the latter: after all, it's her perfection, her outer beauty, that draws all that attention. Who she actually is as a person hardly matters, not when it's her job to be the face for a whole gamut of industries that sell surfaces and images.
We're barely five pages into Helter-Skelter before the mask is ripped off. Go backstage with Lilico, and you'll see a spoiled brat who throws a tantrum because a rival model has a bigger spread, or who balefully spits a mouthful of bottled water in her manager's face because it's the wrong brand. But she knows better than to pull stunts like that in front of lay audiences; when it's her turn to grin and blush for the camera for the promotion of a movie she's new starring in, she does her turn with nary a crack to be found from the façade to the foundation.
But the cracks are there if you look for them. That night after her movie promotion, a blemish — bruise? rash? blood blister? — the size of a thumbprint shows up on Lilico's forehead. It's one of the ongoing by-products of Lilico's beauty, courtesy of a grey-market clinic that charges exorbitant prices. "The only parts of her that are real," says Lilico's agent "Mama", "are her bones, eyeballs, nails, hair, ears, and twat." The rest is all fakery that requires constant maintenance, and the price for neglecting such routine service is to end up looking like an overripe cantaloupe. Only Mama and Lilico's manager know the truth, and in fact it was Mama who discovered Lilico and fixed her up — in Mama's own image, no less — to make her into a new, fresh version of the idol she herself once was.
If there is a "real" Lilico, apart from whatever bits and pieces weren't surgically altered, it's one that comes through in two ways: her lashings-out at those immediately around her, and the mental asides Okazaki allows us to hear. Inside, she knows she's all fakery, and the surgery isn't even the reason, it's just one of the symptoms of how for she has to go to keep up appearances. It wasn't just that she herself wasn't content with looking chubby and plain, but that the rest of the world doesn't care to see such people, doesn't like to put such faces and bodies in front of others. She is only what the world demands of her, and while it disgusts her, it's not as if she was able to come up with a better plan for her own life. In Mama's hands, she's become a product — and Mama tells her so in as many words, hinting that the cost of her "maintenance" has become too great a burden to bear.
What plan Lilico has to defend her gradually contracting circle of opportunities consists mostly of emotional blackmail. She uses sex and threats to keep her manager and her manager's boyfriend in line, and the two of them are too terrified and intimidated by her — not just her, but the shadow her reputation casts — to step back. When Lilico's boyfriend reveals that he's marrying a society girl, she responds by having her manager throw acid in the girl's face. Lilico's sister shows up, seeking to make a reconnection with the sibling she's always idolized, and Lilico discovers Mama has not been wiring back money to her as she asked. A rival model, Kozue — as easygoing, comfortable, and undemanding as Lilico is type A, controlling, and paranoid — enters the picture and steals Lilico's spot in the limelight without trying. And to top it all off, a police detective and his partner have started nosing around the clinic, trying to build a case against it for malpractice, and have Lilico testify as a witness against them — as good as an admission of failure on Lilico's part as any. And once the media begins circling, Lilico decides it's time to take matters into the public eye, and entirely into her own hands.
The bad and the beautiful
I sometimes think the more evangelical fans of comics put a little too much emphasis on how good something looks as a way to ensure that their recommendations get heard. The art style Okazaki uses for Helter-Skelter could serve as an example of what an evangelist for manga might shy away from: it's spare, stark, unglamorous even, with little use of screen tones or varying line weights. But that starkness is a good fit for the material, which needs to be stripped down rather than built up. Like a black-and-white documentary, the comic doesn't make the goings-on seem too appealing for their own good. The few color plates in the front of the book only confirm this, although Okazaki wisely gives most of them a sleazy, deliberately overdone look that only makes us want to turn past them all the faster. Plus, the storytelling itself is fast on its feet, with few scenes lasting more than a page or two, and with Okazaki trusting us to understand the transitions for ourselves.
What director Mika Ninagawa did for the live-action adaptation of this story, though, seems like a deliberate reaction against such an approach. Instead of paring things down, she builds them up, cramming every shot with color and glamour and flash — until, as you might imagine, it becomes suffocating and dizzying, nauseating even, and again, not enticing. Ninagawa's earlier Sakuran, also an adaptation of a manga, employed a similar tactic, but as a way to depict one character's brassy defiance of a melancholic decadence: ts Edo-era red-light-district story was saturated with actual red lights (and lights of plenty of other colors) to the point where what would nominally be enticing became faintly repulsive. With Helter-Skelter, Lilico's world — her lurid point-of-view shots, her overdecorated apartment, the sterile operating-theater environment of her dressing room — are all put in hard contrast to the more mundane rest of the world.
The main problem with the movie, though, is that it doesn't know when to stop. That I don't blame on Ninagawa's direction per se, or on the actors. Erika Sawajiri in particular is great as Lilico, switching in midsentence from all outward sweetness and flair to inward collapse. And Arisa Kaneko(the live action Train Man)'s screenplay follows the manga closely — in some cases word-for-word and implication-for-implication. The real culprit is in the editing, which allows too many of the scenes to play out at easily twice the length they need to make their point. When Lilico freaks out on a talk show and Ninagawa gives us a subjective view of her terror, all distorted lenses and fractured editing, it's appropriately funny and horrible, but it plays out to the point where it stops doing anything other than calling attention to itself.
I'm tempted to say Japanese filmmaking in general often seems afflicted by problems of pacing, but that may just be my sensitivity to it when those issues do show up, since Sakuran felt snappy and smart all the way through. Helter-Skelter not only drags, it doesn't know when to call its quits. We're supplied with what feels like four endings when any one would do: a climax, and a conclusion, and a denouement, and a postscript. That's all the worse since the movie's conclusion is, again, taken almost beat-for-beat from the manga — but there, it didn't feel like the story was working overtime to overstay its welcome. Another side effect of the draggy editing is how it unintentionally creates bad performances out of good ones. Nao Omori (miles removed from being Ichi the Killer), playing the philosophical detective trying to build a case against the clinic that built Lilico, comes off as long-winded and ponderous. Maybe his lines just worked better on paper?
What does come through in both versions is the pathos Lilico experiences, the despair that invades her as she realizes not only is she a defective product with a limited shelf-life, but that she didn't have a chance to ever be much of anything else. Kozue, her would-be rival, knows that you can't do this stuff forever, and has planned accordingly. Her life is not her work. Lilico was doomed never to be able to separate the two. A lesser story would have been unable to make her plight not only as interesting, but as blackly, horribly funny as this one does. Nor would a lesser story have been able to give us the ending Lilico deserves, one where she finds she has more of a career as an object than she does as a person. And in both film and comic, the creators take the time to turn things around and indict us for creating her in the first place — all of us who unthinkingly demand beauty as a commodity, beauty as a goal, beauty as a product and a thing and an impossible ideal.
If you see a monument for Lilico, look around you. Better yet, try a mirror.
Perhaps I should let Courtney Love supply the last insight, as I let her supply the first: I fake it so real I am beyond fake / And someday you will ache like I ache.