Now this is why I love Vertical. Publishing josei -- young women’s -- manga is not yet a common occurrence in North America and what examples of it we do have trend more towards slice-of-life stories that deal with their protagonists’ love lives in either a comedic or dramatic context. “Helter Skelter” is a suspense-bordering-on-horror story about the unraveling of an immensely popular model’s life and the people caught in the vortex of it. While the story buys itself a lot of leeway with its unique approach to the genre, it ultimately provides enough twisted thrills to overcome its flaws.
Liliko is one of the hottest models around in Japan when the story opens. Her face is everywhere promoting products and fashion, and she’s about to make her acting debut in a made-for-TV movie. Underneath it all, as we find out in short order, is a vicious, petty, self-absorbed witch who is barely keeping it all together herself thanks to drugs, and the efforts of her boss “Mama” and manager Michiko. However, she also has problems underneath on a physical level as well. Liliko’s beauty was the result of a very specialized procedure with some very dubious origins. Origins that are currently being investigated by one Prosecutor Asada who has quite an eye for this model.
If nothing else, you have to admire mangaka Kyoko Okazaki’s guts for her willingness to make her protagonist so unlikeable. We’re introduced to Liliko throwing a hissy fit at another model who gets a bigger magazine spread than she does, then immediately schmoozing up her department-store heir boyfriend, and then mocking her manager by spitting water in her face and scrawling makeup over it. It’s not hard to imagine some readers being immediately turned off by this over-the-top display and wondering why they should even continue to follow this woman’s adventures for another three hundred pages. My advice to them? Keep reading.
Okazaki’s portrait of Liliko isn’t a complete one, but what’s here is plenty fascinating. The lack of sympathy one is likely to feel towards the character on her introduction makes her downward spiral of drugs, sex (lesbian and hetero), and madness into delicious schadenfreude as the extremes of her behaviour and the incidents stemming from it become more extreme. Yet it’s also counterbalanced with the tantalizing glimpses of her past and the deep-rooted sadness of her character. Even though she’s on top of the world, Liliko has no real friends or (as one of the characters notes) even a real personality to speak of. Liliko’s life as a model was molded entirely by her Mama as a way for the woman to vicariously relive her past, her boyfriend only sleeps with her and she’s cut off from her family except for the overweight schoolgirl sister who idolizes her. This isn’t a character meant to be liked, or even fully hated, but the pity Okazaki evokes with her protagonist will keep you following her to the end.
This is in spite of the fact that the mangaka never really gets inside her protagonist’s head. We never really learn how Liliko wound up the way she did and if anything drove her beyond a generic desire for fame and fortune. The many hints that are dropped regarding her pre-fame days serve to frustrate the reader’s imagination rather than tantalize it. As much as what’s of the character on the page makes for addictive reading, it’s the kind that comes with keeping Liliko at arm’s length and marveling at her downfall from a safe distance. In short, there’s nothing there to allow us to fully empathize with the model or allow the manga’s critique of society’s materialistic standards of beauty to take root in our heart rather than our head.
To be perfectly honest, I felt that “Helter Skelter” was the kind of story dying for a final chapter that flashed back to Liliko’s arrival in Tokyo under her real name and showed us her sordid origins. With that information, we could have seen the rest of the book in a different light with a new understanding of what drove the character. The ending that we got is actually pretty good… up to a point. I won’t say much, but if you keep your “eye out” then spotting where the story should have ended won’t be hard. However, we did. not. need. that epilogue in Mexico. There’s leaving things up to the reader to puzzle out, and then there’s this rookie mistake that Okazaki should’ve known to avoid.
Liliko isn’t the only interesting character in this story. Though she gets the most face time, they all illustrate different facets of her life as well. Michiko and her boyfriend Nobuteru are introduced to us as a happy couple, and then their lives and relationship subsequently put through the wringer as the model seduces them both to use as her playthings. They could be seen as point-of-view characters for the reader to identify with, but by the end of the story theirs is more of a cautionary tale about being subsumed by a personality greater than your own. That’s not a problem with Prosecutor Asada who goes through most of things with a smile on his face as he leads the investigation into the background of the clinic and doctor who gave Liliko and others their good looks. He also provides the most pointed commentary on the main character as he remains fascinated by things like the artificial personality she displays in interviews or the unnatural way her bones her skin. Kozue, a young model who arrives on the scene to upstage Liliko, doesn’t have that problem. At 15 she’s an old pro who has been modeling for most of her life and is quite frankly bored by it yet keeps at things because she knows nothing else.
Everyone is drawn in the same loose and sketchy style that seems to dominate josei manga. (I have no idea why they all seem to look alike as its male genre counterpart, seinen manga, consists of titles in such diverse appearance as “Berserk,” “20th Century Boys,” and “Emma.” Where’s Jason Thompson to explain these things when you need him?!) It generally works really well as the volume maintains a sense of heightened reality as a result, which makes the disturbing parts stand out all the more. That’s not to say the book is gory, but there are several scenes where the “side effects” of the treatment that Liliko and others received are shown in discreet, yet skin-crawling instances. Okazaki also has a knack for putting together striking images, as you can see on the cover which is lifted directly from a scene in the story. Unfortunately, there were also a few points where I got confused as to which character was which due to her style. It didn’t happen often, but there was a stretch where I thought that Michiko and the guy who does Liliko’s makeup were the same person.
“Helter Skelter” is certainly not a book for everyone, yet it’s one that I certainly appreciated. It took a subject that I wouldn’t normally have any interest in and delivered it in a way that made me want to go back and read it again (in about a month or so -- the backlog is quite fierce at the moment). Everything they publish may not be a winner, but when the results are like this it makes me glad that Vertical is taking a chance on bringing strange manga of limited commercial potential like this to our shores.