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Manga: Helter Skelter (1995-1996)
Author: Okazaki Kyoko
Genre: Horror, Psychological
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
It’s not a surprise that Inio Asano (the acclaimed creator of works like “Oyasumi Punpun”) cited Okazaki Kyoko as a heavy influence. For those unfamiliar with either Okazaki or Asano, both are revolutionaries within the medium. Their hard-hitting realism driven by “a need for truth” regardless of how bitter and laced with an explorative psychological power, has shook and captivated the world with every frame. Both are truly masters of portraying various facets of the human condition and the world that shapes it. From that familiar cut comes Okazaki’s short but powerfully evocative piece titled ”Helter Skelter”.
The manga follows a high-fashion model named Liliko who is something of a Frankensteinian creation; the “final” product of repeated surgical transplants, stitched together by artificial fluff. Nothing about her is real. The world she lives in is artificial so why shouldn’t she be? What could possibly be wrong with being a legitimate product demanded by one’s environment? Okazaki answers these questions in the most literal, grotesque way possible while revealing something essential. Through Liliko’s descent into a sure form of madness, where she is mentally and physically falling apart, Okazaki speaks certain realities about her condition (and *perhaps* ours). Being at the rise of Japan’s fashion/modeling scene, Liliko flourishes as a top candidate but in order to please her position and her fans, she must struggle voraciously. She must eradicate herself on the inside and outside, and in the process, lose the little bit of identity she so dearly tries to hold on to. In effect, the story is one about inevitable self-destruction; it’s so heavily apparent, it seems almost fatalistic.
“Helter Skelter” isn’t really about showing a demanding and spiritually-exhausting industry, but about the horrors of losing face (literally) at superficial whim, while emphasizing the need to retain individualistic spirit, especially of one’s true self. Identity is eternally important and key here. Japanese creators and artists of all kind have struggled with this topic as a product of their ever-changing collective society and are constantly attempting to resign to individualism and self-expression, and this is the primary undercurrent of ”Helter Skelter”. Liliko is both a visual and physical lie, and her face isn’t hers, but of the many that find themselves faced with the kind of internal erosion Liliko does. It is a huge understatement and a disservice to this manga to reduce it to some generic commentary about how horrible the fashion industry is or whatever. It is so much more. It’s one of the most brutally honest pieces I’ve read within the medium that is able to combine so many intense themes into one heart-wrenching narrative. And this shines brilliantly through the story’s main character Liliko.
It seems that Okazaki must be some sort of human-istic genius that she’s able to create such a contrasting, and unfounded character like Liliko who is both a woman of shame (and artifice) and a symbol of empowerment, as diluted and wrong as the latter may seem – she is, undoubtedly. Her perpetual acts of self-destruction are probably the only things real about her and the only times she experiences real joy (even if they seem illusive to us). The graphic, cold sexual acts, the remarkable lust for attention, the revolting deeds brought on by jealousy all make her seem incredibly villainous from the eyes of society, and for moments, to the reader. Yet, something real continues to beat under all that vindictiveness that keeps Liliko in the heart of the reader’s sympathy. Perhaps, it is the sharp fatalism, or perhaps something more. A woman like her can never be destined for happiness; it is impossible, but through her decadence, her vile nature, and her trapped personality that everyone around her tries so hard to destroy, a woman exists that fights viciously – even if subconsciously and in vain – to live for herself; the way she wants.
And nothing accentuates the impact of this narrative more than the art.
Okazaki’s art in “Helter Skelter” is spot-on. It’s sketched with little regard for beauty – each line portraying the inner distress of the work’s essence. It’s messy at points, overtly simplistic, and wildly raw – and that’s precisely why it works. That which is beautiful is often deceptive, and there is no deception in Okazaki’s art. Those wishing to revel in decorous, sparkling art will not find it here, and it’s actually a little silly to read criticisms demanding that. The entire point of this work is to avoid that. Okazaki aimed to focus on the ugly side of “beautiful”, to present the concept as an insanely real phenomenon that is destructive, revolting, and evocative. Her art achieves just that. There is absolutely no merit in beautifying that which is not and was never supposed to be. Her art remained true to the intentions and ambitions of her work and I found it absolutely fitting considering the subject matter and tone of this work.
A last point of interest that must be addressed relates to one of the genres that this manga falls under: Horror. Think back on what the horror genre entails. As a general rule, it must invoke some degree of fear. Now most horror works focus on monsters, the supernatural, or various external entities that gridlock the characters of the story, and by extension, the consumer into an impasse blocked by some scary or fear-inducing phenomenon. Most successful horror is able to do that because it forces the viewer to speculate the possibility of it translating into reality or at least by producing a shock-value effect that just genuinely disturbs the mind. Now, “Helter Skelter” isn’t standard horror, but it is very appropriately placed into horror for the very fact that it induces a kind of visceral fear that may be guising itself as discomfort or disgust, but it is fear nonetheless. Imagine: when the monster moves inside your head, into the very cranium of your being, and unleashes its destruction from within, the psychological toll and weight it brings can be nothing but devastating. Consider it a possession of sorts, but not by a supernatural entity or some biblical demon, but one that has long existed within you. That is why Liliko is terrifying. That is why “Helter Skelter” is terrifying. It is real and you can feel it in your bones.
This is truly a fantastic work. I stumbled upon it on whim and was introduced to a world of chaos, which was morbid and real. Okazaki deserves all the acclaim she gets, and really leaves no room for surprise that one of the greatest mangaka of our generation has cited her as a sole point of influence. For being a short in length, only nine-chapters, what this narrative manages to bring forth is nothing short of amazing. Overall, “Helter Skelter” is a disturbingly eclectic manga suited for those who yearn for mature works not just geared towards “women-issues”, but ones that paint grander sentiments about society, identity, and the duality that exists between both