Here is a thing I never do: watch movie adaptations of books I love. Or even books I’ve read. And the converse is also true: I never read the book a movie I’ve seen is based off of. This is such a fixed and longstanding rule for me that when I declared my intention to boycott the Ender’s Game movie because of the author’s outspoken and virulent homophobic bigotry, a friend noted dryly that I wouldn’t have gone to see it anyway because I had already read the book. And he was right, although I tried to pretend that he wasn’t to make my declared boycott more effective somehow. So I surprised even myself by reading Helter Skelter.
The book had been on my reading list for some time, but was one of those things I always forgot to get when I was in Japan. I don’t read a lot of ladies’ or shojo stuff, but even I know that Kyoko Okazaki is a seminal force in the world of manga for woman, shaking things up with her open and provocative attitude toward sex, drugs, and more sex; she likes ye olde controversy. Current manga juggernaut Moyoco Anno also worked as her assistant. And Helter Skelter is supposed to be her masterwork, not to mention basically the last thing she was working on before she was hit by a drunk driver and forced into an early retirement at the young age of thirty-three. So if you happen to be a person who makes her living from manga, Helter Skelter is one of those books you should read.
But given the length of my reading list, I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that I had not gotten around to reading it, many years after its initial publication, when a certain master of all things comics-related invited me to join him at a screening of the film (automatic noise maker warning) based on this manga, directed by Mika Ninagawa, whose first film was an adaptation of Sakuran by Moyoco Anno, which means we’ve come full circle or something. I haven’t seen Sakuran because of the aforementioned rule about not seeing movies based on books I like, but I just might see it now having both seen Ninagawa’s Helter Skelter and read Okazaki’s Helter Skelter. Ninagawa approaches the work in a way that is very different that didn’t interfere with my reading of the manga at all.
Supermodel Liliko is at the top of her game, but she feels threatened and knows that her days at the top are numbered. She equates being forgotten with dying, so it’s little wonder that she tries desperately to stay on top. And if she can’t stay on top, she’ll take everyone she can down with her. At the same time as she struggles to stay relevant, Detective Asada is investigating a series of seemingly related deaths. The two threads converge on each other, with Asada’s story filling in some of the details of Liliko’s situation.
The film is perhaps necessarily more outward directed. It’s hard to get at a character’s inner thinking without annoying narration or awkward monologues. Obviously, a good film should be able to show you what a character is feeling or thinking, but the specifics of those thoughts are going to be lost without some kind of voicing. So Liliko was, to me, much more relatable in the manga. In the film, although we are amply shown her motivations, we don’t get to see the things that go on in her head and so she seems so much more monstrous as she tries to ruin the lives of the people around her. She seems sadistic and cruel for the sake of being sadistic and cruel.
In the manga, we see so much more behind the scenes. More of not only Liliko’s thinking, but also the thoughts of supporting characters like her very put-upon manager Hada and make-up artist Kin, all of which makes the action seem so much more understandable, even if you can’t condone it. Because damn, Liliko goes to some serious lengths. She might be a super model, but all that beauty is not even skin deep. As her seriously creepy manager (called “Mama” by Liliko, leading me to the temporary conclusion that she was in fact her mother. The way family titles are used to refer to not-family people in Japan will never stop confusing me (an aside within an aside, I worked with one woman for almost a year before I realized that the “dad” she would mention was not her dad but in fact her husband and the father of her child. And I only realized this the day she introduced me to this “dad” and he was far too young to be her actual father)) notes, basically the only original parts Ririko still has are her ears and her you-know. And of course, all this surgery was paid for by Mama and done by a rather shady clinic that puts dead babies in their medicine or something. Stop paying for the very pricey treatment and watch your hard-won beauty fall apart.
The art is weirdly beautiful and not beautiful at the same time. If you’ve read Moyoko Anno’s stuff, then you’ve seen the exaggerated lips and eyes you’ll find gracing these pages. But Okazaki’s work has much more of a loose feel to it and there’s a deliberate ugliness to some of the panels. I particularly loved the use of screen tone for highlighting or shadowing, always noticeably off from the lines drawn on the page, but seriously way off in panels where Liliko is deeply upset or disturbed for whatever reason. It’s a great effect, subtly insisting that the emotional disturbance is so great that her shadow has shifted far off to one side.
There is a lot jammed into these pages as we watch Liliko’s terrible descent to the bottom. Critiques of the standards of beauty women are held to are the most obvious point Okazaki is pushing toward, but there is also a fairly extensive critique of an excessively capitalist Japan, especially coming off of the economic bubble, which is when Helter Skelter was being written. Although unlike your usual manga, the book was published several years after the serialization of the manga in Feel Young, possibly because of the very, very tantalizing “To be continued” that graces the bottom of the last page. Was this story supposed to continue only to be cut short by Okazaki’s accident? Or are these words only meant to convey the idea that this horrible rat race never ends, that women will always be slamming up against the wall of what is expected of them? (Japanese Wikipedia has it that the story is, in fact, unfinished, but I am leaning more and more towards my rat race interpretation.)
The edition of the book I picked up is beautiful, printed on heavy stock with a gorgeous cover under the jacket, stark white with just the title and the author’s name in a small font. It’s so arresting and so fitting with the content of the book that I really wish they had been brave enough to let that be the cover rather than the painting of a half-naked drunk woman.
And if you can’t read Japanese, don’t worry! This is one of those rare books I read that’s also available in English. Published by Vertical, it looks very lovely and I’m looking forward to checking this story out in translation once I get back to the English-speaking world. I will enjoy all the versions!