This is the third in our roundtable on Kyoko Okazaki’s classic 90s mana Helter Skelter. Bill’s appreciative opening discussion is here; Tom’s enthusiastic post is here. Which leaves me being the sole irritating voice of cantankerousness (unless Miriam, up tomorrow, also has a more skeptical take.)
I should first say that as we were working this roundtable out, Bill commented a couple of times that he’s not as familiar with the background and intellectual milieu of Okazaki and her manga as he likes to be when he writes about an artist. That kind of cracked me up…because, good lord does Bill know more what he’s talking about here (or just in general really) than I do. I’ve read some manga at this point, and I’m definitely fascinated with Japan and its history but…the state of feminism and/or the fashion industry and/or body image in Japan in the 90s? I mean, I know nothing.
Not that I’ve let that stop me before. And, having expressed all those caveats, I do have to say that even though I don’t know the world that Kyoko Okazaki is coming out of, the manga she’s written is awfully familiar. Admittedly, it’s not much like other shojo stories I’ve read — it’s not girly or sweet or frilly; there’s little interest in clothing design (kind of ironic (and probably intentionally so) for a comic about fashion); there isn’t a lot of patterning or intense detail work. Instead, Okazaki draws outlines filled with mostly white space — it looks like the inks for a color comic book, rather than the fully realized art for a black and white one. There doesn’t seem to be a ton of width variation either, though (as Bill notes) the lines are certainly mobile, especially when she renders faces. Overall the effect if of energy and expression surrounding a blank; the world she creates seems more like a mask placed atop a hollow. I can’t say her style transports me, exactly — the lack of contrast and variation ends up being a little monotonous and prevents anything from really popping…though when it does it can be striking:
That’s a creepy image; the elegant line follows the frankly sexual contour, but also frankly flat; those lips look like they crawled onto her face and died. She captures a repulsion at artifice and beauty; a sense of a gorgeous surface covering decay. So…yeah, I definitely appreciate her skill, and the care with which she has matched her visual style with her themes.
(Part of the reason her work looks so different from shojo is, a commenter notes, because it’s not shojo, but josei. See what I mean about not knowing what I’m talking about?)
Unfortunately, as I said, while the art is distinctive, the themes themselves, and how she handles them narratively, aren’t nearly as idiosyncratic. Basically, this is pretty much divasploitation (to coin a phrase), all about admiring/deploring/getting off on the personal idiosyncracies, tragedies and sexual peccadilloes of a fabulous larger-than-life female icon. It reads like Valley of the Dolls, or a Paul Verhoeven film — shocked disapprobation concealing a knowing leer, and vice versa, in a gleeful orgy of camp hypocrisy. On the one hand, the manga wants to satirize the shallow celebrity culture of beauty and fame, suggesting that the model agencies use the glands of children (an old sci-fi staple) to transform ugly girls into perfect starlets…until the treatment fades and outer decay starts to mirror inner corruption. And yet, even as it gestures at exploding the beauty myth, it revels in it; Ririko (the main character, pictured above) is in fact, fantastically attractive with an otherworldly beauty that allows her to virtually mesmerize those around her. On the strength of her mystical attractiveness, she seduces her (seemingly straight) make-up artist Hada-chan and Hada’s boyfriend both, using them for sado-masochistic thrills and eventually sending them off to toss acid on the face of a romantic rival. Ririko keeps saying that these acts of despotic eroticism are pleasureless or boring…but surely these disavowals serve only to intensify the verisimilitude of the S&M for the reader’s voyeuristic consumption. The whole thing just seems tawdry and overdetermined — the manga fashionista equivalent of an episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music.”
Bill argues that Helter Skelter’s jaded take on celebrity was unusual in Japan, and that the exposure of the corrupt underbelly of the fashion industry was at the time a feminist statement. That may well be, but…the book is very, very hard to read as a feminist statement in our cultural context. It’s true that Ririko is a powerful woman of a sort…but she’s corrupt and cruel, and moreover, her body is actually falling apart form the plastic surgery. The horror movie imagery, and Ririko’s monstrous fascination and cruelty, ties the book, in my mind at least, to horror movies like Carrie, with their not-especially-feminist anxieties about female bodies and female power.
Not that Ririko (or Carrie, for that matter) is wholly unsympathetic; her backstory is sad, and you can see why she wanted to be rich and famous. But object of pity isn’t any more liberating than object of (even admiringly pleasurable) loathing. Moreover, the moral center of the manga is a man — a police detective who is trying to shut down the evil plastic surgeon. The detective is smart and determined and he sacrifices his career to end the surgery; he is presented as admirable and clever; certainly nobody in the manga ever makes any explict case that he’s a creepy shithead. And yet, to this reader, at least, a creepy shithead is what he manifestly appears to be; he essentially stalks Ririko, muttering about their deep connection and past lives and blah-blah-blah; his efforts to shut down the clinic doom the women who need repeated treatments to keep from decaying. The book, though, as I said, seems firmly on his side; the tragedy of the abandoned, decaying women is presented as one of those things, or maybe even their fault. Certainly, the crime is never laid at his doorstep; he’s just the good patriarch, out doing his duty by saving women from themselves…or, you know, not saving them. Who really cares? He made his superiors angry at him, damn it. What more do you want from him?
If I encountered this in the U.S., in other words, I’d assume it was technically accomplished, intellectually shaky, duplicitous exploitation schlock, using “big issues” as a cover for titillating sleaze and gore, and hypocritcally sneering at the marginalized groups it fetishizes. Not as good as I Spit on Your Grave or Ms. 45, better than Beyond the Valley of the Dolls or Basic Instinct. I’m willing to accept on Bill’s say-so that in context it was a pioneering auteurish blow for feminism — but I don’t think that’s how it translates.