Sex, drugs, and vanity in “Helter Skelter”

By Kory Cerjak

Title: Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly
Author: Kyoko Okazaki
Publisher: Vertical

helterskelterKyoko Okazaki is a relatively well-known figure in the Japanese manga market. However, given that her most famous works are josei titles (which historically haven’t done well in the States), I hadn’t heard of her until Vertical announced they would be putting out Helter Skelter and Pink. A lot of her titles are published in French, though. According to Wikipedia, and you’d have to talk to someone like Vertical’s Ed Chavez for more detail, Okazaki is one of the spearheads to the trend of shojo/josei manga (especially in the late ’80s and ’90s) regarding “gal” (gyaru) manga, which is about girls but also about sex and drugs.

Helter Skelter is about a young(?) woman named Liliko who has undergone extensive plastic surgery to achieve her current look. I don’t remember the exact quote, but it was something like only her eyes, bones, and cooch are still hers, which I found rather humorous.

It’s not just the physical deterioration of Liliko that’s the focal point of the story, though. Through narration, it describes from a future point of view how her mental state was also unstable, fluctuating from nice girl to overall awful person to sex fiend.

Through the first few chapters, you don’t really see deterioration as much as was described in the press releases I’ve read. Sure, it’s there and I’m sure it’s coming, but it’s very gradual right now. Liliko’s deterioration is very much mental right now, and it’s wearing down her manager, Kin. In fact, Liliko has sex with Kin’s boyfriend in front of her, which can only exemplify her deteriorated mental state.

There is lots of nudity in this comic, but it’s not done without class. Nudity in manga can often feel like it’s there to be sexy, but Liliko is not just the idol/model/actress, she’s the idealization of a sex symbol. It’s stated, “Just look at her face and body parts one by one. Like…” and the character throws out a dozen comparisons to other models and actresses.The nudity is sort of grotesque, too. Okazaki’s drawings make it seem less sexual and more an act to be embarrassed over doing, and many of Liliko’s actions are embarrassing. They’re clearly sexual in nature, but most of the time, nothing of significance is shown, or it’s off-panel. The direction could be a lot like a horror monster movie, where you don’t show the monster (in this metaphor, the sex) until it really means something to see it.

The message of the comic, though, is ultimately that everything is ephemeral. Liliko literally paid millions, perhaps billions, of yen on her surgery to get maybe a few years in the spotlight. Her body is the result of artificial tampering and medicine to make her into, as they say several times, a mannequin.

The artwork only exemplifies this ephemeral feel. It’s very much a comic style; I mean it doesn’t try to imitate the manga/anime style typical of that era or even now. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever looked at and I’m at a loss at how to describe it. It is perhaps best to say that my feelings on reading it are very cerebral. It’s as if Okazaki is using these very simplistic character designs and backgrounds to convey how a reader would imagine the comic looking. It’s more surreal than real, which really fits the comic. Everything, from personalities to bodies, is fake. It’s more a dream than reality.

Helter Skelter is very much a commentary on our culture that values looks and these fleeting moments of beauty over actual substance. This is most contrasted with Liliko, her sister, and the manager, Hada. Liliko is the transformed, the sister is transforming, and Hada is static (physically, she’s rather a dynamic character). Liliko values her beauty over all else and will cry over her plastic surgery breaking down, but not nearly as much over her husband-to-be getting a new wife. Liliko’s sister is seen being transformed by her sister, and perhaps going down the same path of misery that Liliko did. It’s rather tragic that the sister character has this sibling love and adoration that makes her want to be like Liliko, ignoring the blatant flaws in her character and only seeing the beauty. She’s very much a representation of the tabloid culture that surrounds celebrities. Hada, however, serves as the audience surrogate who’s disgusted with everything, but finds herself inexplicably tied together into everything. She remains looking the same, but changes drastically throughout the series in terms of her character. Liliko, until the very end, is very vain. But Hada is relatively distant at the beginning to Liliko; this is just a job that she has to do. But as time goes on, Hada warms up to Liliko, which eventually leads to a lesbian relationship where Liliko demands that Hada go down on her. She is perhaps the most dynamic in the series and is the sun in a group of bright stars, as far as I’m concerned.

Helter Skelter delves into topics that I oft not see in manga, but I’m woefully unexposed to a great majority of manga out there. But Okazaki’s works, as I understand them, are some of the greats in terms of shojo/josei manga out there. As someone who has an interest in cultural anthropology, I thought it was a great read in the annals of manga history. And as someone who craves reading new things, I found it absolutely compelling.

Helter Skelter was published by Vertical just a few months ago and it’s readily available at Amazon, Right Stuf, and other online retailers. I’m not sure about your bricks-and-mortar stores, but I can’t imagine it not being there. No matter where you get it from, though, it’ll be shrink-wrapped.

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Resident of Japan since 1989, creator of "The Crazing Spider-Hag"

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