MR3 stands for Manga Roundtable 3. We did one on Manga: What Is the Point?, another on YKK by Ashinano. Now it’s our third and we’re doing Helter Skelter by Okazaki. Bill did a free translation of the title and came up with his own freehand version of the title, namely “Blistered Fingers,” which I like better. But since I find the work a bit alien and baffling, I’m going to keep things simple and stick with the original title. It’s a clue and I need clues.

I admire Helter Skelter a lot. As lines on paper, it’s exceptional. As words, well, maybe not so much. But the comic’s layout, drawing, and use of black and white are beyond admirable. All right, not the faces, and good caricature would have been useful for this work. There’s still a lot to look at.

Bill and I talked a bit about how trite I find the book’s theme (look at that hot girl! her values are terrible!). The thing is, I’m willing to buy the theme because it comes with the package. That’s how much I like everything else about the book. I see Helter Skelter as an example of high-style assault, of art that uses velocity, technical skill, and shock to impose itself on the audience. You have to be very good to pull it off, and Okazaki does. I think that even though I read the book, naturally, in translation. The words chosen were not her own, and her high-design pages had to function after having a fleet of prominent design elements — I mean the calligraphy — ripped out and replaced by little piles of English words.

Okay, about Helter Skelter as an exercise in style and shock. In Comments to his post, Bill made this point:

The title’s just “Helter Skelter” transliterated in the phonetic characters used for foreign words. It’s the same as the song.

So Okazaki didn’t use some Japanese word similar in meaning to “helter skelter.” She meant the song title. I would guess she wanted her book to have the same feel as the song; it’s not so much that the Beatles song states some theme or connects to some event that she wants to reference. She’s just telling us that reading her comic will be like experiencing the Beatles song. So, if that is the idea, she’s making a bold claim.

I imagine the comic as being a sensation when it came out. This is all guesswork, but Okazaki appears to have been popular and to have been very distinctive, maybe out of step with most other manga artists aiming at the same audience. I take her audience to have been teenage girls, since Helter Skelter was serialized in a teen-girl magazine 20s-chick magazine. [my thanks to Xavier for the correction. I’ll note here that Bill says the magazine in question has a fashion bent] According to Helter Skelter, and most other sources, teen girls young women who care a lot about celebrities and fashion tend to be on the lookout for sensational new events and personalities to get excited about.

Helter Skelter may have been meant to hit them like a bomb, the way the song hits listeners. The sex scenes (in a kids magazine? no! but those scenes are still, what is the word, a bit nasty), the carving up of bodies, the characters’ default bitchiness and cruelty, the wild surrealism (Bill references it as “the half-flaming, half-tiger rug when the 60s take over”), the way the plot veers at the end … and all this was for kids [no! girls in their 20s].

Another shocker, for the audience in question, would be the theme. Here I’m taking Bill’s word. From the ’70s on we’ve heard a lot about the hellishness of messing with your body so you can look like a model. Bill says the case is a bit different in Japan and that Okazaki’s theme in Helter Skelter was something new for her readers.

The sell-your-soul/vanity-vs-natural theme is all thru Helter Skelter, over and over. Subtle it ain’t, and I don’t see Okazaki adding anything to the idea; if you’ve read a few magazine articles in your life, you’ve probably come across what she has to say. In a way, Helter Skelter is like the world’s most badass Ugly Betty episode.

Still, being the world’s most badass anything isn’t easy. Okazaki did it thru using powerful skills in subtly aggressive, unnerving ways. Which means that now I’m going to talk about her artwork. Or I will tomorrow … hope you tune in.

Update: Noah’s take is here

Update 2: Noah and I agree about the story’s triteness, anyway. A Helter Skelter haiku:

Look at that hot girl.
Her values are terrible.
Keep looking at her!

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