The Body as a Product in ‘Helter Skelter’

Asmik Ace Entertainment

One guaranteed aspect of the human experience is the body. We all have organs and blood and bones encased in skin meant to allow us to move, breathe, and think (though sometimes the body decides to ignore its basic properties). What is a relatively new concept is the body transcending its original purpose. No longer is a body just a body, it’s a machine. It’s a product. We’re expected to make it run as efficiently as possible and fix it until it’s a flawless product. Any flaws in the eyes of the materialistic, capitalist society are meant to be eradicated otherwise the body is damaged goods. Those heralded as the gold standard of what is considered attractive —mostly celebrities and models— invest thousands upon thousands of dollars to maintain and extend their marketability without admitting the amount of effort they put into it. 

Helter Skelter originates from a manga by Kyoko Okazaki which was later adapted into a 2012 film of the same name by Mika Ninagawa. It follows the rapid decline of Japan’s top supermodel Liliko (Erika Sawajiri), as her completely remodeled body begins to fall apart faster and faster as newer, better competition start threatening her golden-child status. Liliko is by no means a character to be pitied, Okazaki and Ninagawa make sure their audience knows how incredibly shitty she is, but it’s hard to not feel a little sympathetic. From an extremely young age, Liliko’s body hasn’t been hers: it transferred hands first to her manager “Mom” (Kaori Momoi), then into the hands of the public. By the time we meet Liliko most of her body isn’t her own, but an amalgam of various features picked to make her the perfect distillation of femininity. She is no longer a woman, but a commodity.

Before Liliko became the top model in Japan, she was a regular preteen. She still had baby fat, as to be expected, but Mom saw potential in her bone structure. So, she was taken in and deposited at a shady hospital to get torn apart and stitched back together. Molded into an imago dei, Liliko begins her climb to the top at a stupidly young age. By the time we meet Liliko she’s been on top for a while and has reaped the benefits long enough to ignore any consequences. She’s in the middle of an affair with the son of a business mogul, and has no problem torturing her assistants because she knows this is the job opportunity of a lifetime. Her latest victim is Michiko Hada (Shinobu Terajima), who comes in right before the extensive surgeries Liliko has gone under for years upon years begin to fail once more. Her body begins to rot at an accelerated rate causing her to turn down job after job; her waning status is also moved along by fifteen-year-old breakout star Kozue Yoshikawa (Kiko Mizuhara). Kozue is the antithesis to Liliko: untouched and unedited by outside forces, and incredibly critical of the modeling industry. She doesn’t see her modeling career as the zenith of her professional life, but merely a way to get her name out before moving on. This adds insult to injury for Liliko; the world comes crashing down on her as her inevitable end smacks her head on.

Asmik Ace Entertainment

What makes Liliko routinely break isn’t just the impermanence of her surgeries, but the acute awareness that she is not even close to a whole person. Yes, she may have all the necessary features that make up a human, but she amounts to little more than a living doll. Though her public persona is close to “bimbo”, she’s acutely aware of why she’s being kept around. She suffers from derealization and pulls some incredibly reckless moves (notably dangerous drug cocktails and tormenting Michiko) to try to see if she can feel alive and in-control to little avail. Liliko is fully aware of her perpetual cycle of decay and repair and, instead of using it as a positive motivator, uses it as an excuse to torment those around her. Once her realisation of her “damaged goods” standing sinks in, she adopts a pseudo-nihilist philosophy: she wants to maintain her top spot as long as possible but because she’s aware of its impending finish, she’s fine with ruining a few lives. This results in Michiko and her boyfriend being roped into a non-consensual threesome with her multiple times, an attempted murder of her ex-boy toy’s heiress girlfriend, and a second attempted maiming on Kozue. Eventually, she gets so reckless she draws the ire of two detectives investigating the hospital she’s been getting procedures at. No matter what horrible or dangerous thing Liliko does to herself or others she still doesn’t care because not only is she privileged enough to be above the law, she’s a dead girl walking.

Helter Skelter explores the extremes of the body as a commodity and how people process the benefits and detriments of the system. Everyone around Liliko is either readily or begrudgingly accepting of her status as a commodity. Mom and her stylists —those who reap the benefits— welcome the depersonalisation while Michiko and Kozue pity her because they both see facets of her personality that have been repressed for years. Michiko especially pities Liliko because she’s seen more of Liliko’s breakdowns than anyone else. Liliko sits somewhere in the middle: she knows she’d be left to rot if Mom hadn’t harvested her, but she continuously feels ruined and disgusted in herself for selling out and setting up her body for continuous ruin. She left behind any of her autonomy and humanity when she first went under the knife. 

by Red

Red (they/them) is an English literature student based out of the swamp that is Florida. Their bread and butter is horror movies — the cheesier the better — but if someone puts on a Wes Anderson or Hayao Miyazaki movie they won’t complain. Their favourite movies are The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Dogtooth, Sorry to Bother You, and The Muppet Movie. 

You can find them on Instagram and Twitter @tapewormg0d and Letterboxd @tapewormgod.

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