Mika Ninagawa’s “Helter Skelter” – 2013 Japan Cuts Film Review

After a five-year hiatus, controversial Japanese actress Erika Sawajiri returns to a lead role that perhaps reflects her own personal troubles with fame in director Mika Ninagawa’s “Helter Skelter.” Based on a popular manga written by Kyoko Okazaki (who co-wrote the script for this adaptation), the film is gorgeously shot in rich colors and manic scenes that flash by as quickly as those in a J-pop music video. However, its two-hour run time was ironically a bit too long for a movie ruminating on a pop idol’s brief moment of celebrity status.

Lilico (Sawajiri), the beauty-of-the-moment worshiped by her fans, knows how to turn on her smile and bat her long eyelashes at the flash of a camera. Actually, make that dozens of cameras at her daily plethora of photo shoots and interviews. She feeds on the attention she attracts, hiding her dark side only for her devoted assistant Michiko Hada (Shinobu Tirajima), whom she literally spits in the face of when something displeases her.

When a rival model begins to steal Lilico’s popularity, the pressure of staying beautiful and relevant starts to weigh on her, and the cruelty of her actions escalates even as she literally rots from the inside out as a result of the multiple plastic surgery procedures she has undergone. When a scandal threatens to end her career, she resorts to one last act to keep the public eye fixated on her forever.

Sawajiri’s portrayal of Lilico is over the top but appropriate in this extreme dramatization of the price of celebrity. Not only is she physically beautiful in the doe-eyed, overly-girlish way that Japanese culture seeks in its entertainment icons, but her ability to embody the inner rage of her character while still having a smile on her face for the paparazzi is noteworthy as well. The vanity that oozes from her eyes as she gazes at herself in the mirror in one scene is downright frightening. It will be interesting to see what her next movie role will be, now that she is back in the media spotlight.

Also worth noting is the usage of colors in the film. Reminiscent of the role that different colors played in the French film “Amelie,” “Helter Skelter” utilizes rich hues to the same effect. Red is undeniably Lilico’s color, saturating her baroque playground of an apartment and showing up in a gothic, romantic way in the crimson feathers floating downward against a white backdrop in one of her final public appearances. Many scenes were also gluttonously stuffed with detail, making the film an overblown feast for the eyes.

The New York Asian Film Festival co-presented “Helter Skelter” with the Japan Society at its annual Japan Cuts: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema.