Title: Helter Skelter
Author: Kyoko Okazaki
Publisher: Vertical Inc.
Volume: One-shot, $16.95
Vintage: 2003 by Shodensha (serialized 1995-96), 2013 by Vertical
Genre: Drama, 18+ (for sex, drugs, suicide, nudity)
Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly; though a better subtitle might be “beauty is fleeting.” And boy is it ever. Helter Skelter follows supermodel Liliko, a virtually manufactured beauty who is struggling to stay on top as she ages and her body begins to break down. Surgery after surgery keeps her body looking perfect, and drugs upon drugs hide the effects and hold her body together. Unfortunately, they also have the side effect of mental instability, which coupled with the stress of her job makes for a very unhinged woman. To forget the pain her body is almost constantly in, as well as the stress of a job that relies on perfection, Liliko takes drugs, drinks, and has sex. Lots and lots of sex. With the rich boyfriend she hopes will eventually marry her so she can quit the job she hates, or the producer who can control the amount of her screen time in a movie. It’s a form of escape, one she eventually pulls her manager, Hada, into, and even Hada’s boyfriend. But Liliko does work very hard. She wants to support her family back home, build a comfortable nest for herself, and, of course, she wants to be memorable. In a world of fast, easy consumption, it’s difficult to remain in people’s memories for very long, and Liliko is desperate to. To stay on stop, she has to be perfect in every way – the perfect body, perfect look, perfect answers during interviews. Everything precisely calculated. Despite appearances, Liliko is intelligent; she knows what people want and how to give it to them. The problems arise when the stress from constant surgeries couples with the stress of her chaotic profession, and her body literally starts following apart. A bruise here, a lump of skin unable to hold its shape there, a clump of hair falling out, a nip or tuck that comes undone. That means more (very expensive) surgery and more drugs, and more wear on her body. A body that really can’t take much more. Liliko’s life starts unraveling when her chosen prince marries a more respectable woman, and her manager takes on a new and much younger protege named Kozue Yoshikawa. Things start spiraling out of control in the background, too, as the local precinct opens an investigation into the suspicious (and possibly illegal) workings of a certain hospital – the very hospital Liliko, and many others like her, visit for their operations.
Liliko has a child-like quality to her, always desperate for her Mama’s attention, spoiled, selfish, and demanding. She always gets and therefore always expects to get what she wants. When the slightest thing falls askew, she becomes unhinged, throwing tantrums and lashing out at the people around her. Her manager literally created her. Took an ugly, fat child and made her into a supermodel. Sucked out the fat, tucked away the skin, made her perfect. Then worked her to the bone. It’s no wonder Liliko is mentally unstable. She doesn’t really know any other life. Stay looking perfect, and keep working. The one time she really tries to find a way out, it backfires, and she’s back where she started. The book is really heavy on its themes regarding beauty and the feminine ideal. Liliko’s fans laud her perfection and complain about not being thin, comment on her long skinny legs, and cut their hair to match their idol. Of course, it’s all fake. She doesn’t swim two km a week. She doesn’t eat whatever she wants. She has difficultly sleeping, starves herself, and uses the most expensive and powerful cosmetics. If Liliko was a modern day model, she would probably be heavily photoshopped as well. Her look and her life are lies. And the quest for similar beauty leads at least two young women in the story to commit suicide. This really is a powerful book, and it’s familiar. Every woman knows what it’s like to look at a celebrity and wonder why they’re unable to look that way themselves. To flip through a magazine to see the projected ideal, and feel bad for not meeting it. We can’t forget those celebrities or models themselves, however. Models that are told that even their skinniest is not skinny enough. Models who swallow cotton balls so they won’t feel hungry, and die because they stop eating. Celebrities told to lose weight for a role, or whose bodies are are ‘perfected’ on magazine covers. Liliko represents the people in the photographs or on the runways. Pushed to attain an impossible ideal until they snap. Though she just as easily represents those watching, struggling to become what they’re told they should be, and the dangers both paths represent.