Hurling into an operatic montage, Liliko (Erika Sawajiri) narrates: “A word at the start: laughing sounds a lot like screaming.” We are inundated by images of girls in doll-like replication, dissected for our viewing: large double-lid framed eyes, curled lashes, impossibly smooth glossy lips. A studio light flashes and we see Liliko, her face concealed by white bandages. The pace quickens, bombarding our senses further: makeup products, Japanese school girls in kogyaru uniform, Shibuya’s busy metropolitan streets, an array of beauty magazines––all with Liliko plastered on them. In the parallel sequence, Liliko stands in a pop-art construction, with walls and floors adorned in bold red and white geometric patterns. She unwinds the bandages masking her figure, revealing to us her own nude doll-like body. She stares at herself in the mirrors that surround her––her strip-tease directed not just at the audience, but at herself. We consume her just as she consumes herself; her commodified image endlessly reproduced in the mirrors behind her.
Adapted from Kyoko Okazaki’s 1996 manga, Mika Ninagawa’s 2012 film follows protagonist Liliko, who undergoes a series of cosmetic surgeries to achieve an image of ideal Japanese beauty that launches her into stardom. Though famed for her looks, the surgical procedures prove to be temporary, and her beauty begins to fade––she spirals while attempting to cope with this loss. Devoured by her narcissism, and trapped by a society’s commodification of her, Liliko may not appear quite the feminist icon. However, Okazaki’s manga––and in turn Ninagawa’s film adaptation––plays with shoujo manga tropes, making Liliko a transgressive representation of a Japanese woman, one who subverts traditional Occidentalist and Orientalist impulses.
Shoujo manga, which caters to young women, produces a subcultural space enabling explorations of female selfhood, yet simultaneously a space of continued patriarchal trappings. Occidentalism––the Western counterpart of Orientalism––is as described by James Carrier (as cited in Rie Karatsu, 2016): “a stylized and essentialized construction and representation of the West utilized for social, political, and economic purposes.” In shoujo, this essentialized ‘West’ serves to enable these dual spaces of empowerment and oppression; on one hand, as Fusami Ogi argues, it enables Japanese women to free themselves from their local patriarchal context and resist Orientalist exoticization (Karatsu). Yet shoujo manga serves the essentialized West in sexist, heteronormative forms: unachievable standards of white beauty and a singular construct of heterosexual romance, in which women must remain passive. The contemporary shoujo, while offering subjectivity to its female protagonists, still bestows on them an essential Western beauty. The protagonists can enter a private, subjective space contingent on an adoption of Occidentalist looks and location; “the large-eyed, fair-skinned, and slender” ultimately exists in a space divorced from reality which constructs a “purely narcissistic” worldview, granting only an illusion of self-sufficiency (Karatsu).
Okazaki’s Helter Skelter resisted these shoujo conventions, which as Rie Karatsu suggests, “forces her readers to step out of narcissistic spaces separated from the reality.” The manga explicitly constructs subversive intertextual references to Western fairy tales and explores female sexuality in ways that depart from a heterosexual matrix. Much of the original manga’s transgression rests on its denial of the shoujo style: Liliko is illustrated in a uniquely grotesque, rather un-kawaii manner; visual flatness and monotony replaces any of the material excess associated with cuteness; Okazaki imbues Liliko with a sexual agency instead of passivity (Karatsu; Kinsella). However Mika Ninagawa’s filmic adaptation re-appropriates the shoujo style, which furthers the story’s feminist leaning and imbues it with Ninagawa’s characteristic visual lushness.
Before Ninagawa began working as a director, she was (and still is) a photographer. Her work features an intensely vibrant color palette, full of natural life––flora, fauna and the like––and overflows in kitsch (Haddick). When transplanted into Liliko’s story, it translates into pristine cinematic compositions that highlight an exploration of local patriarchy and racial otherization, materializing Liliko’s struggle with these forces. Excessive decor visually codes spaces, representing essentialized ‘West’ and ‘East’, respectively.
In the former, there is the “Orientalist Love Hotel,” a room with “paper sliding doors, a bamboo blind, and a fan (Karatsu).” There Liliko sleeps with a film producer, not for pleasure, but to acquire more close-ups of herself––an articulation of her local patriarchal context. Sex becomes a means for mobility based entirely on a deeply internalized commodification of the self. Her value is reduced to a constructed image. In the latter, there is her own room, lavishly embellished in kitsch glory. It features an array of “Occidental kitsch”: from the furniture, the glass chandeliers, the wooden horses, the statues of Venus and Christ, to the fake eyelashes on her dresser, all are “shown as iconographies consumed by girls and women (Karatsu).” Near her bed is a wall of her own portraits––having transformed into an idealized image of Western beauty, her wall objectifies the Occidental-fueled narcissistic space that ensnares her. Re-appropriated from shoujo, the space functions dually as her own psychological realm, permitting her subjectivity. It is in her room, after all, that she comes to understand her predicament.
Helter Skelter also plays with extra-diegetic information, promoting critical reflection for the industry and for film audiences. Ninagawa appears in a cameo on Liliko’s fashion shoot, nodding towards her––and the industry as embodied by her––complicity in “the system of objectification of women (Karatsu).” Kozue, Liliko’s rival model, whose beauty is supposedly ‘natural,’ though she must starve herself to maintain it, is played by real-life model Kiko Mizuhara. Mizuhara, like Kozue, is a beloved star in Japan; her beauty is a mark of aspiration for many young girls. Mizuhara, along with actress Erika Sawajiri, are both half-Asian––their own proximity to the shoujo standard of white beauty, undoubtedly a pointed casting choice.
Helter Skelter’s deeply narcissistic Liliko resembles another film star, namely Cléo Victoire in Agnes Varda’s 1962 Cléo de 5 à 7, who similarly grapples with her beauty and the public eye. In a scene with notable visual similarity, Cléo stares at herself in a mirror, her voice narrating: “Ugliness is a kind of death…As long as I am beautiful, I’m alive.” Liliko echoes the sentiment, staring at the image reflected back at her: “If I stop being pretty…Then they’ll all leave me.” Ugliness is a kind of death to Liliko, and Helter Skelter explores the specific currency of superficiality, of self-objectification, that enables female social mobility. Liliko’s chosen method of liberation is self-disfiguration because there simply is no other mode available to her. In a capitalist, patriarchal society, can women liberate themselves from a commodifying notion of beauty in a way that is not self-destructive? What does beauty look like in the absence of the objectifying heteronormative gaze of society?
*Helter Skelter (dir. Mika Ninagawa, 2012) is available to stream here. Cleo de 5 à 7 (dir. Agnes Varda, 1962) is available to stream on HBO Max and Criterion Channel.
For more on Helter Skelter, check out Liza Wemakor’s blog On Beauty’s Violence: Three Films.
Berndt, Jacqueline. “Introduction: Shōjo Meditations.” Shōjo Across Media, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-24.
Haddick, Alicia. “Mika Nikagawa’s Brightly-Colored Masterpieces––Your Japanese Film Insight #6.” Otaquest. February 27, 2020. https://www.otaquest.com/japanese-film-insight-mika-ninagawa/
Kinsella, Sharon. “Cuties in Japan.” Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan, The Curzon Press and The University of Hawaii Press, pp. 220-254.
Karatsu, Rie. (2016), Female Voice and Occidentalism in Mika Ninagawa’s Helter Skelter (2012): Adapting Kyoko Okazaki to the Screen. J Pop Cult, 49: 967-983.