Having not set foot on Japanese soil in many years, I often harbor an anxiousness that I'm missing incredible breakthroughs in culture that will put to shame anything happening across the Pacific. Sometimes my trepidation turns out to be justified, and at other times I can breathe a sigh of relief when seeing that other things have been almost perfectly preserved in the same state that I left them years ago. This is certainly the case for the hyperactive teen girls' subculture whose conspicuous consumption must account for a good swath of the country's GDP. In Mika Ninagawa's 2012 psychological thriller Helter Skelter, the clique-y high school girl gangs are practically identical to those I encountered in Tokyo in the previous decade: holding court in their Shibuya sanctuaries (i.e. McDonald's and tacky cosmetics shops), they giddily fixate on fashion accessories and the latest gossip revolving around idoru ['idols'], those multi-media icons who parlay their carefully assembled looks into lucrative careers rife with product tie-ins. They adore and aspire to merge with these evanescent models of kawaii beauty, yet - as shown in the film - are perfectly satisfied with destroying their icons if they deviate in any way from the expectations placed upon them. In one of many shrewd directorial moves, Ninagawa never moves the camera anywhere near the girls' faces when they are in the thick of their gossip and putdown sessions, hinting at the harsh uniformity of their opinions.
Based upon Kyoko Okazaki's manga of the same name - which was serialized in a young girls' comics digest called Feel Young - Helter Skelter tells a story that won't be foreign to serious students of drama, or really to anyone familiar with modern, affluent societies' conceptions of beauty and fame. This is not at all the first Japanese film to deal with the dark side of the 'idol' culture's commercialized glamour, although it is a very compelling and engrossing one. Helter Skelter follows the story of Liliko (Erika Sawajiri), a walking amalgam of all the beauty magazine archetypes from the previous seven decades, as she goes to horrific extremes to maintain her looks and to thus continue her addiction to public recognition. She is shown time and again to be a victim of her own success, particularly when the heir to a department store fortune terminates his romantic relationship with her in order to save face and "status". Yet she is an equally capable victimizer: her hopelessly starstruck caretaker Hada-chan (Shinobu Terashima) bears the brunt of this abuse, being commanded to slash up the face of upstart beauty rival Kozue (Kiko Mizuhara) and being made to watch as Liliko seduces her boyfriend in front of her.
The film is unique for this type of story in that it ignores the typical "half rise, half fall" arc that more conventional filmmaking demands: instead it sums up the heroine's ascendancy to stardom in a few opening minutes (backed by a wonderfully operatic, over-the-top Jun Togawa song), and the remainder of the film is spent on her attempts to prevent the free-fall of both her career and psyche. From the very beginning of the action, when she opens her narration by warning us about the similarity between laughter and screaming, Liliko is in already in a deeply confessional mode. She claims that every time a camera's flash goes off in front of her, her "head empties out": this is not the mushin or "emptiness of mind" seen as a virtue by practicioners of Zen Buddhism, but rather the stealing of the soul that many pre-modern cultures believe to be the result of being photographed. While on set for TV talk shows and fashion magazine shoots, this emptiness is palpable as she blanky gazes out from little synthetic wildernesses saturated with lurid color and kawaii iconography.
Such emptiness is clearly the foundation for her own personal hell, although this absence of meaning is the same phenomena which causes Liliko's fictional fans and real-life idoru worshippers to shriek out in ecstacy at the sight of their idealized objects. Jean Baudrillard once claimed that fashion is successful "for the sole reason that it never passes via the mediation of meaning,"[i] and through this we can maybe understand a little better how its adherents in hypermodern Japan can remain so fanatical. In a culture where the youth are constantly pressured to instill deep meaning into their every dutiful action and civic obligation, to the point of 'reviving' the latent Japanese spirit, this release into a less demanding realm of pure color and vibrancy can have an intense narcotic effect.
Of course, what could be a healthy psychic release instead leads to insatiable desires for continual upgrades to this ectstatic meaningless, pressuring its torch-bearers to find more unorthodox methods of maintaining their synthetic shimmer. As Helter Skelter progresses, its heroine is revealed to be the product of radical, full-body cosmetic surgery. Every tactile surface of her body, save for her eyes and ears, has been replaced over time, to the point where her former self bears no resemblance to the luminous idol with neotenous eyes. Numerous players have a stake in maintaining the illusion that this prosthetic product is simply an incredibly gifted anomaly of nature: these include Liliko's "mama" / modeling agency manager and the cosmetic surgery clinic that treats her. In a Ballard-ian twist, the latter uses illegally obtained baby placentas to carry out their work, a process that eventually causes nasty dermal blotches to break out and to necessitate further trips to the clinic, holding the bodies of patients hostage for the remainder of their lives. Several patients, after depleting the financial resources needed for the upkeep operations, eventually commit suicide. "Mama," in her collusion with the clinic, is no more moral herself, using her creation as an apparent means of compensating for past failures.
On a purely technical level, Helter Skelter is a very high-quality undertaking, avoiding stylistic 'easy ways out' and occasionally offering sensory juxtapositions that display a refreshing disregard for pandering to the film's obvious built-in audience. For example, rather than cobbling together a soundtrack purely from the hyperactive Avex Trax electro-pop hits that idoru followers adore, the film offers a mix of slightly discordant chamber music arrangements by Kouji Ueno, and well-known pieces from the Western classical repertoire. Two of the pieces employed here - Rossini's Thieving Magpie and the final movement of Beethoven's 9th symphony - were already used to similar effect in Kubrick's film adaptation of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, though familiarity with that classic film won't totally blunt their impact here. The film also wastes no time establishing itself as a visually striking - perhaps even overwhelming - work. In a manner similar to, but not indebted to, Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, the color-coding of the sets establishes the motifs as well as any of the actual dialogue. The deep crimson tones of Liliko's personal sanctuary perfectly communicate the tumult of her spirit, while the blinding whites of her cosmetic surgery clinic telegraph the post-human aesthetic purity offered to those who can afford it. Ninagawa seems to have absorbed the lessons of surrealist cinema as well, as scenes of gore seamlessly transition to scenes of crystalline beauty: one Buñuel-esque moment involving a stab in the eye segues into a gentle rain of red feathers.
Ninagawa's flair for contrast also comes through in the character relationships themselves. In a memorable sequence where Liliko meets in a secluded spot with her homely sister Chikako, the relation of cosmetic beauty to more intangible character traits is discussed in a way that reveals their opposite physiognomic views. While Liliko's sister praises her famous sibling's beauty as being a side effect of her inner strength, Liliko herself retorts that this formula should be turned on its head: strength of character is the product of being beautiful, and no more. Not all is so bleak in the film, although we have to look to secondary characters - namely, Liliko's makeup and fashion coordinator "Kin-chan" - to find some possible respite. The fashion critic Elizabeth Wilson has pointed out that "fashion, the epitome of consumerism, is also its stealthiest critic […] there are still gaps in the apparent seamlessness of consumer culture through which we can escape into re-enchanted worlds."[ii] Indeed, Liliko's quirky confidant provides one of the only hints of something positive arising from the emotional and spiritual rubble that is her ruthlessly examined life. Confessing in the film that doting on Liliko is "the best job he has ever had," the optimisic spirit of this character persists even as his charge's perfect surfaces become consumed by parasitic blotches. Though the character of Kin-chan is eventually drowned out by the mounting misery of Liliko, he offers a slight suggestion that the spirit of healthy, non-purposive playfulness can survive even within vicious quests for perfectability - the construction of beauty can still be a 'contested territory,' as capable of inspiring wild dreams as it is of enforcing thoughtless conformity.
One of the most interesting twists here is how the film sharply critiques a culture that its players help to shape in 'real life.' Lead actresses Sawajiri was already established as a kind of idoru, i.e. a combination of TV personality and pop music star, before she signed on to this project. As such, I can only guess at how she publicly rationalizes her participation in this indictment of superficial lifestyles while still being part of the machine that produces them. One hint, though, comes in the form of a brief commercial for the Parco department store that features both Sawajiri and Mizuhara in character as Liliko and Kozue: that is, simply providing more fuel for the kawaii machine without alluding at all to the movie's uncomfortable message of addiction and cruelty. In the absence of any marketing that really plays up that cautionary message, it's entirely possible that young Japanese audiences have come to see the tragic Liliko character as an isolated fantasy, and not at all as trenchant comment upon an entire subculture's belief that cosmetic beauty is the road to strength.