Quite possibly the best looking and most hysterical film of 2012, “Helter Skelter” marked the return of Japanese director and former fashion photographer Ninagawa Mika some 5 years after her colourful debut “Sakuran”. Based on a manga by Okazaki Kyoko, the film also saw the return of controversial and gorgeous actress Sawajiri Erika (“Shinobi”) in an over the top and frequently insane look at the Japanese entertainment industry, packing in madness, sex and black market plastic surgery.
Sawajiri headlines as LiLiCo, the country’s top model and all-round media darling, famed for her amazing beauty and elegance. Unsurprisingly, behind her flawless image lurks darkness, and LiLiCo is in fact a vain, cruel woman who uses and treats everyone in her life terribly, in particular her manager Michiko (Terashima Shinobu, “Caterpillar”). However, she herself is suffering behind her smile, being moulded and manipulated by her talent agency boss and mother figure Hiroko (Mamoi Kaori, “Memoirs of a Geisha”) who urges her into radical and illegal plastic surgery to keep her looks and body intact. With a pushy policeman (Omori Nao, “Golden Slumbers”) investigating her and a new, fresh-faced young model (Mizuhara Kiko, “Norwegian Wood”) grabbing the front pages, the pressure on LiLiCo builds, and her mind slowly starts to crack.
On a visual level, “Helter Skelter” is absolutely stunning throughout, Ninagawa Mika delivering some mind-bending, jaw-dropping eye candy, and it’s a film which fairly sears itself onto the eyeballs. Luxuriating in its opulent, glossy production values, the film is a directorial tour-de-force, stylish to a fault and filled with arresting tricks and techniques, with pretty much every single scene having something in it to grab the attention. Ninagawa’s photography background comes to the fore and the film shows some amazing and intricate shot composition and bold, sweeping use of colours and colour clashes. This all combines to give the film an impossibly glamorous feel, and a bewitching, insane beauty which fits its subject matter perfectly, even if it does threaten at times to overwhelm the viewer.
Though open to accusations of style over substance, there’s thankfully enough going on behind the film’s pretty face, Ninagawa focusing on the manga’s themes of celebrity culture and the price of being obsessed with beauty. Though such issues are common enough in cinema around the globe, the film’s over the top approach and near-surrealism give it a powerful and engaging edge. Wisely, though the film is ostensibly a drama, and one which goes to some very dark places, Ninagawa avoids being too serious or stoic, and the overall feel is of a manically comic tragedy, almost revelling in the grotesquery of the garish yet seductive world it portrays. The film also benefits from a definite moral ambiguity and a mile-wide streak of knowing irony, walking a fine line between inviting the viewer to both admire and despair at its wild excesses.
Ninagawa has a perfect leading lady in Sawajiri Erika, who utterly dominates the film, turning in a superb, mesmerising performance. LiLiCo makes for a quite daring choice of protagonist, an anti-heroine of sorts who is in many ways a paranoid, empty shell of a woman and whose behaviour for the most part is genuinely horrible. Though this does mean that the film is cold, Sawajiri is captivating in the role, and succeeds in the challenge of making such an aggressively monstrous character interesting, engaging and even sympathetic, in a pitiful kind of way. It’s certainly a brave part for the actress to have taken, mirroring some of her own real life troubles, and demanding a great deal of nudity. Fascinatingly, despite being about beauty and featuring LiLiCo in various states of undress and with her various sexual partners, the film is determinedly unerotic, Ninagawa regarding her subject with an eye which is both detached and fanatically adoring, with a bodily obsession that at times recalls the work of Cronenberg.
As its name suggests, “Helter Skelter” is a crazed, provocative ride that makes for hallucinogenic and dizzying viewing. Marking a triumphant return for both Ninagawa Mika and Sawajiri Erika, though possibly a bit too much for some tastes, it’s a fantastic and unique piece of sensationally visual cinema.
Mika Ninagawa (director) / Kyôko Okazaki (manga), Arisa Kaneko (screenplay)
CAST: Kaori Momoi … Hiroko tada
Erika Sawajiri … Ririko
Kiko Mizuhara … Kozue Yoshikawa
Mieko Harada … Hisako waku
Nao Ohmori … Makoto asada
Shinobu Terajima … Michiru