My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Kyoko Okazaki’s aptly titled and subtitled Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly is a remarkable narrative. Set in a vaguely science-fictional world of high fashion, wherein supermodel celebrities are owned outright by corporations and constructed head-to-toe by plastic surgeons, the graphic novel details the delirious decline of a model named Liliko. This decline encompasses her assistant, Hada, as well as Hada’s boyfriend, both of whom the “gorgeous monster” Liliko—who is literally decaying as her surgeries wear off—seduces and abandons, together and alone. Liliko corrupts Hada into sabotaging her rivals, which draws the attention of a police investigator, a huge fan of Liliko’s who is also apparently—or perhaps just symbolically—her brother. Liliko’s relationship with her so-called mother, really her corporation-appointed minder/controller, is especially appalling. Helter Skelter was serialized in the 1990s, one of the first major works of josei manga, addressed to an adult female audience. This book marvelously exudes an air of corruption and decay; I love its wild tonal shifts, as well as its just-this-side-of-reality setting. (As with much manga, in my so-far limited experience, the emotion and especially the dialogue is often less than subtle and can take some getting used to, but the high contrast with the more lyrical moments makes the occasional crudity worthwhile, as I am coming to appreciate.) Okazaki punctuates the narrative with the choral conversations of young women, commenting, often cruelly, on the fashion personalities. There is kind of closed circle of female oppression from audience to model to model’s controllers, which perhaps differs from most western feminist narrative and drama, though to be sure there are men off-stage profiting from it all. Okazaki’s art is simple and expressive: when drawing faces and bodies, she often makes very few lines, but they are the right ones, precisely evocative of the desired emotion without being “realistic.” (A note from the editor informs readers that Okazaki was injured in a car accident that prevented her from correcting or adumbrating her art; indeed, this appears to have been her final work.) While Helter Skelter is far wilder, far more aggressive and confrontational, far less well-meant and public-spirited than the emerging global classics of the graphic novel form—I am thinking of such worthy but also NPR-ready works as Fun Home or Persepolis or Epileptic—it deserves a place among them, or perhaps ahead of them, as, in art, the most disturbing and ferociously energetic work gets ahead, because it is willing to leave a mark.