J-movie Review: Helter Skelter

Saturday, March 23, 2013

It's actually been a while since I've watched a Japanese movie, or at least, one that left any kind of impression on me. Helter Skelter, however, had been in my watch-list ever since I saw the trailer. For one, it was the comeback of Erika Sawajiri after a 6-year hiatus, AND in a role which couldn't be more different from her role as Aya in my sentimental J-drama favourite One Litre Of Tears. So I was curious. Then I was absolutely mesmerized by the dramatic, yet gorgeous visuals seen in the trailer. Another big plus in my book. And lastly, I was intrigued because differently from my usual taste in J-movies Helter Skelter isn't a cutesy romance flick. In fact, there is nothing cute about it at all.

 Plot summary: 

Ririko/LiLiCo (Erika Sawajiri) is a Japanese star, a model and an actress, who is seen as an representation of ultimate beauty. But unbeknowst to the wider public, Ririko's beauty is achieved through numerous painful plastic surgeries and procedures, which have started to take a toll on her body and health. At the same time as she realizes that she may lose her looks, Ririko's popularity becomes overshadowed with the appearance of young new model Kozue Yoshikawa (Kiko Mizuhara), Ririko's rival in the industry. Jealous and mentally unstable Ririko then falls into a downward spiral during which none of the people close to her are left untouched.

[NOTE: Mostly spoiler free review. The few spoilers I have included have been separated from the rest of the text and can only be seen if you highlight it.]

 What I liked: 

Erika Sawajiri as Ririko. I am glad that Erika didn't play it safe and chose a role like this to make her comeback after 6 years. It's kind of unbelievable to see Erika in such a movie after previously only seeing her in One Litre Of Tears. There isn't any of Aya's innocence in Erika's portrayal of Ririko and Erika really becomes Ririko, which makes me proud and a little sad at the same time. Proud because this kind of a career move shows her versatility and progress as an actress, and proves that she is capable of handling more demanding roles. But also sad, because it will probably be a little difficult to see Erika as sweet and innocent Aya again. However, I did enjoy Erika's performance in this movie and I liked that she took a risk with this role.

Ririko. I found the character of Ririko quite interesting, even though I would have liked if the movie had opened up her character even more. 
We can see right from the beginning that even though she is admired and loved by everyone, she is a very vain arrogant diva in reality. But what is interesting is that not only are the people around her bewitched by her beauty, Ririko herself is also extremely obsessed with her own looks. We can see her admiring herself just as much as her fans do: she is nearly entranced while staring at the mirror, pleased to see her flawless appearance, and she cuts out pictures of herself in magazines, putting them into albums. Beauty has became a fixed idea for Ririko.
Then there is also the way Ririko plays with people by using her looks. It is almost like a test for herself, showing that she can do anything because she is so beautiful. She tests her beauty, proving that it is such a powerful weapon that she can actually destroy things around her by using it. SPOILER. Highlight between the brackets to read the spoiler text: (For instance when she seduces her humble female assistant, and later on, also the assistant's boyfriend. It's like she tries to prove that she can make anyone fall for her, men and women alike. And it's strange, because she actually has this spell on them, making them do horrible things for her (like ordering the assistant and her boyfriend to throw acid into Ririko's lover's fiance's face)). 
But we also learn that for Ririko beauty means strength. If she has her beauty, she can do anything and live the way she wants. In a scene where she meets her younger sister Chikako (which is also one of the rare instances where we can see a tender, and perhaps a more real side of Ririko) Ririko explains that in beauty lies strength and that Chikako needs to lose weight and get her eyes fixed so she can take care of herself in the future. So when Ririko realizes that she might lose her beauty, it frightens her all the more because she is afraid that she'll lose her most powerful weapon.

The butterfly motif.
There is plenty of symbolism thrown around in the movie, but the butterfly theme is the most prevailing and frequent one. And it is also the one I found to be the most apt in describing Ririko. We see the butterfly motif all throughout the movie: as a tattoo on Ririko's ankle, as a butterfly flying around in the flowery field, as Ririko's visions, as framed figurines etc. 

As a symbol, the butterfly is known to represent beauty and rebirth, but in the movie it carries a more specific meaning. A butterfly is a beautiful creature, but it isn't "born" beautiful. After hatching from an egg, it becomes larvae, a caterpillar. Just like Ririko, who was not born as naturally beautiful, a caterpillar is also not very pretty looking. But just like a Ririko who goes through plastic surgery, a caterpillar also transforms into a beautiful butterfly. However, we know that most species butterflies don't have a very long lifespan (a week, a month in average). So when Ririko starts seeing visions of butterflies, it is as if they were to remind her that her beauty is not eternal and that it'll die away soon. Also, the more frequently she sees those visions, the faster her health declines, indicating that her time is ticking away (the clocks being another recurring motif in the movie). 

The title. It isn't very often that I take interest in a movie's title, but I think Helter Skelter is a very fitting one. Okay, so for those who might not understand the title I'd like to explain it a bit. Helter Skelter has several different meanings. For one, in British-English it has a meaning of "in disorderly haste or confusion". "Helter Skelter" is also a song by The Beatles, which is unfortunately connected to the murders by Charles Manson's "Family", who thought of the song as an apocalyptic prophecy (Wikipedia). But the reason this movie is called Helter Skelter is because it is also a name of an amusement park ride, where you can climb up a tower and use a spiral slide to ride down. So I think this is a very apt way of describing how Ririko's life uncontrollably spirals down in a high speed.

The cinematography. Wow. This movie has some incredible visuals. You could say that almost everything about this movie is pretty, except for the story, which is quite tragic. The colours are vibrant, the camera angles are unique, helping to emphasize the dramatic scenes, and the set is amazing. The cinematography might seem a bit too much (as in too fantastical), however it is not meant to reflect reality but to accentuate both the glamour of the entertainment business and Ririko's mental instability. It is meant to be very dramatic and it really is, in a very beautiful, almost twisted, way.

 What I didn't like: 

The story being only superficial. While I did enjoy the movie, I kinda would have liked if the story had a bit more depth, maybe go a bit more into the dirty entertainment business or mabye reveal more about the characters. I think it would have made a marvellous movie if there had been a bit more meat in it. But then again, Helter Skelter is true to its title as it concentrates entirely on Ririko's downfall. And even though it doesn't go very deep in the subject of consumer culture and only scrapes the surface, the movie still captures perfectly the obsession of today's society with beauty and fame

 Overall conclusion: 

Helter Skelter is the kind of movie that might be a bit hard to watch. It's bold, dark and twisted, it is full of intense sexual themes, and it can be violent, perhaps even gory, at times. Yet it is difficult to look away, because no matter how messed up the movie actually is, it looks gorgeous. Which is kinda the point. But most importantly, Helter Skelter is the brave comeback of Erika Sawajiri, who is stunning and eyecapturing as Ririko. Overall, it is not a movie for the faint-hearted, but something unique to experiment with. Not enjoyable in the direct sense of the word, but definitely unforgettable.
Also, it is a certain pick for the fans of Mika Ninagawa's photography and her first movie Sakuran. Her skilled eye for photography has translated very well into film and cinematography.


Plot - There isn't a very deep plot to the movie. It rather just observes Ririko's crazy downward spiral. But it is intriguing in its own messed up way.

Acting - Erika Sawajiri is arresting as Ririko, though it kinda makes you wonder whether she played more or less herself, as she is known as a bit of a drama queen in real life. In any case, she definitely shines in the role.

Soundtrack - The dramatic orchestra music is very fitting.

Cinematography and editing - Gorgeous. And twisted. It really shows the ugly side of the entertainment business just as beautifully as it shows the glamour and the glitz.

 Final rating: 9       Enjoyment: 9 

 Memorable quotes: 

Ririko: "Laughing sounds a lot like screaming."
Ririko: "Tick-tock, tick-tock - it says. Telling me to hurry. The sound inside me says that something will soon be over."
Kumi Hosuda: "Well, it certainly is convenient to be pretty. But beauty is different from happiness."
Makoto Asada: "Pretty on the outside, but just like a fruit the bugs have eaten from within."
Hiroko Tada: "Those marks, they are from plastic surgery. All that's hers...are her eyeballs, her ears, her fingernails and her p*ssy. The rest is all fake.
Ririko: "I hear something. Hear that? Tick tock'...There." 
Hata: "A clock?" 
Ririko: "It's over. All over. But that's OK. I knew it'd happen. Hey...do you have a boyfriend?"
Hata: "Yes."
Ririko: "So you do..."
Hata: "You've got Mr Nanbu."
Ririko: "No. I wish."
Hata: "But everyone loves you. Lots of people. Hundreds, thousands, millions..."
Ririko: "But I've never met or talked to any of them. And what's there that they can love? If I stop being pretty...If I stop being popular? Then they'll all leave me. They'll laugh. They'll all forget me."
Ririko: "Beauty makes you strong."
Ririko: "All you had to do was try. Instead you gave up without trying and now you feel sorry for yourself. Life is what you decide it is. It's true. The one who decides is you."
Kozue: "We'll be forgotten. We're machines for the processing of desires. "Pretty! Wow! That's what I want to be!" Desire doesn't care. It just keeps on with another name and another face."
Kumi Hosuda: "Why do the gods give us youth and beauty, and then take it all away?"
Makoto Asada: "They're not the same. Youth is beautiful, but beauty isn't youth."

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  1. Very good review! I enjoyed this movie, and I love Erika Sawajiri! This movie is very unique and is definitely worth checking out! I'm pretty sure I agree with you 100%!


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