After a six year break between features, Japanese photographer cum director Mika Ninagawa returns with her second film “Helter Skelter” which takes a critical look at celebrity idolization and how a fading star reacts when they are no longer in the spotlight. However within the narrative she tackles a number of other issues as well and this is actually the film’s ultimate weakness.
Lilico is the current “It” girl. She has everything; looks, money and the adulation of millions of screaming fans. While it looks on the outside she has the world in the palm of her hand, in reality Lilico is actually a very sad young girl because the life she leads is actually a very vacant and shallow one, and is one that leaves her with few friends and minimal (real) human contact. However the drug that is fame means that she forces herself to continue and be everything that her fans want her to be which is perfect. She is on the cover of every magazine and her look is what every Japanese girl dreams of. That look, however, is secretly the result of extensive full body plastic surgery which suddenly is on the verge of being found out after a number of other clients from the exclusive surgery she attends die suddenly and bloodily causing the police force to investigate the matter. Not only does Lilico have to deal with that, but she must also come to terms with her dwindling fame as new girl Kozue enters the scene and starts to steal the spotlight from her. Lilico turns to drugs and alcohol, as she begins her downward spiral towards an inescapable hell, causing her to do some truly reprehensible things to other people in an attempt to stay famous.
Unlike almost any other country on the planet, the “idol” phenomenon in Japan is just crazy. Young teenagers are taken off the streets and made into instant stars, but their shelf-life is incredibly short before someone new takes their place and they are ultimately discarded. It is easy to see these people thinking their fame is going to last forever and because of that start to act a different way, as if they are more important than they really are, and the devastation that would occur when the fleeting adulation is no longer present is obvious. As I mentioned above, director Mika Ninagawa was previously a fashion photographer so I am sure that this is a world that she knows extremely well as she would have come into contact with many “Lilico’s” during her photography days. This is the part of “Helter Skelter” that she gets spot on, the rise and ultimate fall of an idol, and personally I would have preferred her to focus on just this for the film because the other issues she also attacks, although valid and worthy of looking at, ultimately take away from the main focus of the film.
Ninagawa very smartly cast Erika Sawajiri in the role of “Lilico” who gives an amazing performance in the role. It is such a brave performance because the things that happen to Lilico often mirror things that similarly happened to Sawajiri about five years previous. Sawajiri was a big star in Japan, a very popular actress and model but she lost it all after a disastrous appearance at a film festival back in 2007 while promoting her then new film “Closed Note”. It was obvious she wanted to be anywhere than where she was and she handled her interviews and appearances with disdain and was very unprofessional. It turned into a massive scandal in Japan as her fans and peers turned their backs on her, and as a result Sawajiri left the business until her return with this very film “Helter Skelter”. Obviously living through a similar situation, Sawajiri must have understood the character of Lilico, and while some critics have stated it is just art imitating life, the reason why it is such a brave performance is because she is opening up herself and becoming transparent about everything she went through herself. She also performs her first nude scenes, which are all tastefully done, but caused a sensational in Japan.
In fact, the strongest aspect of “Helter Skelter” (besides the visual element) is the acting. Everyone puts in a strong performance, from Shinobu Terajima who plays Hada, Lilico’s long suffering and regularly abused personal assistant (and is probably the only person in the world who sees Lilico as the unhappy girl she really is), Kaori Momoi who plays Tada, the woman who found and “created” Lilico (which creepily we find out later in the film, in the image of her teenage self) and Kiko Mizuhara who plays the up and coming Kozue (and was fantastic in the small but pivotal role of “Midori” in “Norwegian Wood”). Even the two prosecutors (whose names I am unsure of) are magnificent although their importance in this film is dubious at best.
The start of “Helter Skelter” (which is based on a manga incidentally) is especially strong when the main focus is on Lilico and her stardom and her gradual decline. The film hits its peak during a scene when Lilico goes out to the country to visit her sister where she comes to realize just how far removed she is from herself (and her sister) and that she is no longer recognizes the girl she has become. However it also gives an indication that she is probably unable to go back to who she once was as she gives her sister some horrifying (and quite sad) advice. From this moment though, the film starts to spiral out of control a little as it begins to lose focus, as the police investigation starts to come more prominent and a lot of Lilico’s reactions to situations start to border on the ridiculous as she starts to pick off her rivals one by one. While I like the idea of the investigation into the plastic surgery clinic, as it gives a chance to comment on just how far girls are willing to go to alter their body for fame (and perfection), unfortunately this story thread isn’t given the proper time it deserves and as a result works against the film. While I appreciate that Mika Ninagawa obviously had a lot to say on the subject of fame and what girls are willing to do to achieve it, I just feel that she has spread herself too thin by attacking as much as she had and the film would have been much stronger if she focused on just Lilico. Sadly, by the end of the film, it has almost fallen completely apart and it is hard to relate to which is a shame because what comes before it, is very strong indeed.
Coming from a photographic background, you would assume that Ninagawa would have a strong visual sense, and you would be right. “Helter Skelter” is an absolute feast for the eyes with so much going on in every frame. It is filled with bright colours throughout and the whole film looks like an advertisement for the genius that is pop-art. However you can have too much of a good thing, and I think that sometimes because so much is going on in the frame all the time, it does become a little tiring and again works against the film. Do not get me wrong, there are some stunning images in the film; I particularly liked the scenes in Lilico’s red bathroom, but at the end of the day, your eyes just don’t know where to focus because there is just so much to look at. When you look at the trailer for “Helter Skelter”, I am sure that you would be blown away by the visual style presented, but when you are watching that same style for over two hours, it gets a little too much. It is true that sometimes less is more, and I would say (even though I hate saying it) that “Helter Skelter” is over produced. The only scenes that do not have this bold bright style are those set in the police station.
The other problem with the film is that it just does not know when to end. It is far too long and has more endings than “The Return Of The King”. Each time you think the film is over, another ending is tacked on until we get to a very bizarre ending involving Kozue entering a club that I just did not understand at all. One of the endings also has a very sad moment with Lilico’s sister where we see that she took her sister’s dubious advice after all, indicating that things will never change while beauty and the appearance of perfection is celebrated the way it is today.
Overall, there is so much good in “Helter Skelter”, particularly in the first half of the film, that I urge people to give it at least one viewing. The main story about the rise and fall of a celebrity idol is a powerful one, but once the film starts looking at other side stories, the film does suffer until it ultimately becomes a bit of a mess at the end. Due to the strong visual style of the film, it is always entertaining (even as it goes off the rails) to watch, and it contains a strong return to the screen after a five year absence from Erika Sawajiri with her stunning performance as Lilico, and “Helter Skelter” is worth seeing just for her.