Sunday, June 02, 2013

Helter Skelter: feeling pretty? betsuni

A little background before we start with this review: a few years ago, Erika Sawajiri was an up and coming actress. From beginnings in modeling and gravure, she gained popularity from a number of TV dramas, especially the dramas “Taiyo no Uta” and "1 Liter of Tears," where she played the lead role. With both an acting and singing career on the way, she seemed to be on the fast track to the top of the Japanese entertainment industry. However, it all came falling down when she was promoting her latest film at the time, Closed Note.

Obviously in a bad mood, Sawajiri answered questions during this promotional event in a very rude manner and seemed to be either distracted or uninterested in being there. Perhaps somewhere else, or with a different actress, the reaction may have been different, but this was Japan. The backlash from this incident was great: despite a formal apology and several interviews to try to salvage the situation, Sawajiri’s career was more or less done. She didn’t get any more work, her agency dropped her and she faded into the background, marrying a man twice her age. Soon after she became tabloid fodder, often the topic of various stories of her exploits abroad.

Now, five years later, Erika Sawajiri returns to the big screen, and she does it full force, like a storm over the seaside.

Helter Skelter is based on a josei manga by Kyoko Okazaki. It tells the story of Lilico (Ririko in other translations), a hugely successful model and actress. She is considered a trendsetter and her public image is pure and sweet. However, her private image is far from clean: she sleeps her way to the top, abuses her assistant and is generally an unpleasant peson. To add to that, her picture perfect looks are artificial, having undergone extensive plastic surgery to improve her looks. The problem is, the illegal and dangerous procedures that give her the look need to be done regularly, or else everything breaks down. And Lilico’s body is beginning to show signs of breaking down: she eventually needs stronger meds and more frequent procedures. To add to that, a younger, prettier model (played by Model/Actress Kiko Mizuhara) is stealing her spotlight. As she unravels, Lilico is determined to spread her misery and self destruction to everyone around her.

The film adaptation follows the manga quite closely; at times scenes are word for word copied from the original. While both the film and manga can be considered a critique of the shallowness of beauty and the entertainment industry, the film conveys this shallowness through imagery. Director Mika Ninagawa is, first and foremost, a fashion photographer, and it shows in the lush and vivid imagery throughout the film. Like her debut film Sakuran, Ninagawa uses color and motifs to drive the story forward. While at times the color and set design matches the mood, in other scenes, the colors come across as too garish, which may be intentional.

Erika Sawajiri acts her butt off in this film. Given the parallels between Lilico and Sawajiri herself, it makes the movie experience that much more close to home. Acting against her earlier pure image, Sawajiri’s Lilico lashes out with rage and almost nihilistic tendencies, and yet we sense that deep down inside her, a part of her original self remains. This film is her best acting role yet, and before this film she was no pushover, either.
Much buzz was given to Erika Sawajiri’s many sex scenes in this film, but most of them are not aimed for tittilation (although that’s never stopped anybody from trying anyway.) Usually, whenever Lilico has sex, it is either to manipulate someone or to inflict emotional damage on someone else. It was unnerving in the manga, and it has the same impact here.

The supporting cast delivers their roles perfectly. Shinobu Terajima deserves some sort of award as Lilico’s oft-abused assistant, and Kiko Mizuhara proves once more (after a great showing in Norwegian Wood) that she isn’t just a pretty face. Nao Omori also shines in his role, and Kaori Momoi nails it as Lilico’s manager/mama-san. Props go out to a special cameo by fellow model/actress Anne Suzuki.

While exposing the hypocrisy of society’s views towards beauty, and the fragility of celebrity, neither the film nor the manga offer a solution to the problem. I honestly can’t offer anything either; it’s just how the system works. At least, however, I hope that the film gets people to think about it and try to consider true beauty and what it means to them.

The ending for both manga and film are the same, although the film is a bit less vague about it. As for its meaning, I’d like to know too. It's crazy beyond the imagination. But like the manga says at the last page, that's a story for another day.

fun note: there's a cameo by director Ninagawa in one of the montages of Lilico. Also, somewhere in the film, an actual photobook by Ninagawa and Kiko Mizuhara can be seen in a stack of magazines.