Oh dear god. Well, at least they tried?
“There’s a sound inside me. Tick tock, tick tock,’ it says. Telling me to hurry. The sound inside me that says something will soon be over.”
I really tried to like this film. Honestly. I came into it with hopes that this twisted tale of a beauty icon (Lilico, played by Erika Sawajiri) whose plastic surgery begins to give her career and life-ruining necrosis could be a great mirror on our society. When it became clear it had no intention of doing such a thing, I figured it could at least be a brutal Ichi the Killer style nightmare. But no, it disappointed me on every level and then some. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of films I’ve not liked, and there hundreds of movies that are objectively worse than Helter Skelter on many levels. But this one, well, it really sucked.
That said, the movie’s title is incredibly fitting. It’s supposed to reflect the main character Lilico’s descent into madness as her physical condition deteriorates. Or maybe it’s about the people around her, such as her assistant Michiko (Shinobu Terajima), and her boyfriend (Gou Ayano) whose lives are ruined because of Lilico’s actions. The problem is, instead of representing the downward spiral of the characters’ increasingly out-of-control actions, the titular Helter Skelter is best when describing the direction the plot is going as well as your tolerance for abhorrent, painful cinema.
This film has two major flaws: the characters, and the message. Ignoring the first one for the moment, we see that Helter Skelter has something to say about beauty standards within the idol industry and for the public, both in general and more specifically to Japan. It’s a good idea and executed correctly could have given us something worthy of Perfect Blue or something by Darren Aronofsky. But this has as much to say as a child trying to write an essay in a foreign language. It’s incoherent and painful to sit through in a way that’s only possible when you know there could have been something good there, if only the filmmakers hadn’t fucked up so royally. It’s the film equivalent of I have no mouth and I must scream and this film is begging to scream, but seems completely incapable of doing so.
Problem the second is how it deals with everyone in it, all of which are played excellently by a cast who should be recognised for their efforts. But with the exception of young, new model Kozue (Kiko Mizuhara), every character is detestable in a way that’s only possible with a tonne of effort. And this is crazy because it sets up Michiko as the relatable, downtrodden protagonist but – oh wait, now she’s a shitty human as well. And maybe you could make the argument that the psychological toll of working for Lilico has affected Michiko in one way or another, but then the film is just asking you to do the work for it. It treats its characters terribly and as a result becomes as misogynistic as the society it’s trying to criticise. I don’t think I’ve seen a film that hates people as much as this one.
Helter Skelter should have thrown caution to the wind and gone full Takashi Miike because then if it was going to be bad, it could have gone out being intense and frightening and left a legacy of being completely fucked up the same way the Guinea Pig movies are. Instead it just sort of shrugs and isn’t willing to commit to any particular tone. It’s sort of psychological, kind of thrilling, funny in strange places and bafflingly philosophical whenever these two random, pointless detectives decide to wax lyrical out of the blue. Nothing in this film comes together, and the result is something that’s too bad to be experimental but too professionally beautiful to be considered a student film. And it’s a repetitive, infuriating mess.
But hey, it’s at least fun to look at. On top of the amazing cinematography – director Mika Ninagawa primarily works as a still photographer and it really shows – there are plenty of weird and wacky visuals. Hell, there’s even a David Lynch-inspired dwarf during a mental breakdown scene (that admittedly comes off as hilarious rather than disturbing). The sets are strange, and vividly colourful, but this only serves to make everything less relatable. Everything looks like it’s out of a Terry Gilliam film, so there’s too much of a detachment to reality for us to really give a shit. Still, the screenshots for this review will look nice.
The music is crazy in a good way (except when it’s just sort of there during non-tense moments, drowning out the dialogue), and the surreality of the beautiful environments could have been a boon, but like the worst efforts of Baz Luhrmann Helter Skelter is all style, choosing to replace substance with the storytelling equivalent of a kerb stomp. And it suffers massively because of this. Helter Skelter is a film that starts out promisingly enough, but then rapidly nosedives into uncharted territory where it actively dares you to hate it. Maybe the manga it was based off was great – hell, it probably was – but this is not the film to represent it. With the exception of the truly dreadful Attack on Titan, this might be one of the worst manga adaptations I’ve ever seen.
Verdict: Mika Ninagawa’s movie about beauty standards in Japan somehow manages to be pretty on the outside, and ugly all the way through.
Overall entertainment: 4/10 (purely for set design)
Likeable characters: 1/100
Production design: 8/10
Opening Sex-a-palooza: There to keep the audience interested, I guess
Thesis: None. But it really, really wants to have one.
Helter Skelter (2012)
Also known as: ヘルタースケルター (Herutā Sukerutā)
Director: Mika Ninagawa
Writers: Kyoko Okazaki (manga), Arisa Kaneko (screenplay)
Erika Sawajiri – Liliko
Nao Omori – Makoto Asada
Shinobu Terajima – Michiko Hada
Go Ayano – Shinichi Okumura
Kiko Mizuhara – Kozue Yoshikawa
Hirofumi Arai – Kinji Sawanabe
Anne Suzuki – Kumi Hosuda
Susumu Terajima – Keita Tsukahara
Kaori Momoi – Hiroko Tada
Show Aikawa – Mikio Hamaguchi
Mieko Harada – Hisako Wachi
Yosuke Kubozuka – Takao Nanbu