Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly

Although similar in tone and approach to her Pink (but with a stronger, less episodic storyline), Kyoko Okazaki’s Helter Skelter may be more approachable. It’s a more recent work, for one thing, and the subject matter may be more sympathetic.

Liliko is a top model, beautiful and well-built. She knows she’s in demand, so she treats those around her — so long as she’s not in public — like dirt. Her secret is that she’s a creation of plastic surgery, almost totally reconstructed, and now the work is beginning to break down. Her boss and her mother see her as product, so they’re working to keep her marketable. She’s an investment, something that needs to stay desirable to make back her costs.

She’s afraid of losing her lifestyle, since she’s gotten used to being spoiled. But she can’t sleep, which affects her skin, and she’s taking too many pills to compensate. Her plan is to find a rich man to marry, but her popularity is a two-edged sword, not something the well-off necessarily want to be associated with.

Liliko is awful, someone you love to hate, but Okazaki still makes her, in the midst of her anger and acting out, someone you want to keep reading about. Many women will identify with her rants about how much hard work, time, and money it takes to be thought pretty. The procedures she — and others — indulged in require continuing maintenance, which costs. There’s no choice, though, once you get on the merry-go-round; the techniques cause breakdowns, which require more work, but if you try to stop, the degeneration accelerates. There’s no going back to youth.

Liliko is driven to be popular, but she has no one who really knows and cares about her. She creates a twisted dependency in her assistant instead. She’s told to rest, but she doesn’t know how to be alone. She’s a media creation, a lonely star like so many others. Her fear of aging is a common one in our youth-obsessed culture, and it requires more and more soul-destroying work to avoid.

The visual medium of manga makes perfect sense for a story about being observed all the time. It’s a cautionary tale about wanting stardom, fame, and fortune, familiar in its structure but oddly unfocused in its ending (explained by a morbid editorial note that talks about the author being struck by a drunk driver in 1996 and still recovering). I’m very glad that Vertical is bringing these women-focused stories to the English market, since not many companies support such challenging material.

Sean Gaffney makes a good point about the title, reminding us that a “helter skelter” is a British term for a roundabout slide, one that makes you want to go back to the top even after reaching the bottom. Many who read these kinds of stories think “ok, that happened to her, but if it were me, it would be different. I’d be smarter/stronger/healthier about it all.” Okazaki even hints at that idea with the presence of Liliko’s younger competition, a natural beauty who keeps modeling without apparently losing her mind. Helter Skelter is a depressing, gripping look inside the kind of personality who seeks out the validation of modeling, of wanting one’s appearance affirmed by the public, at any cost. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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