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‘Heruta Sukeruta (Helter Skelter)’

A beautiful but flawed film, much like its subject matter

by Mark Schilling

One of the signs of aging is that the sort of loud music you loved as a teenager now bores and irritates you, if it doesn’t drive you out of the room entirely. Movies can be the same way: Try as I may to channel my inner 15-year-old in the screening room, I sometimes mentally push the volume control to the left.

My main difficulty with Mika Ninagawa’s “Heruta Sukeruta (Helter Skelter),” though, is not just the over-amping of the eclectic soundtrack. Composer Koji Ueno’s slashing, thrusting avant-garde sounds, in fact, are more interesting (and given the film’s subject and style, more appropriate) than the usual tinkling piano score or saccharine J-pop.

It’s rather the sensory pounding that this dark satire on the local beauty and fame business delivers on every level, from the visual and aural to the narrative. This is of course Ninagawa’s trademark as a fashion and art photographer: She rarely uses a pale pink when a full-blooded red will do.

But what looks glam on the gallery wall begins to wear in the course of this two-hour-plus film, based on Kyoko Okazaki’s award-winning manga. Think Lady Gaga making a full-length feature in the same rhythm, style and pace, minute for minute, as one of her insanely busy (if wickedly entertaining) music videos. I’m already reaching for the aspirin bottle.

Ninagawa did something similar in her 2007 debut feature “Sakuran,”set in the rarified world of Edo-Period concubines. But the splashy flower arrangements and flashy kimonos were a refreshing change from tired jidai geki (period drama) visual cliches, even if they were total fictions for the film’s era. The film’s flamboyant old-is-new stylistics also connected its era to ours.

In “Helter Skelter,” though, we are squarely in the ever spotlit modern world of LiLiCo (Erika Sawajiri), a model and tarento (TV celeb) in her mid-twenties whose flawless doll-like features and curvy figure are in high demand. When she is not playing the pixy or vamp for the flashing cameras, in a dazzling array of frocks, she is tyrannizing those around her, beginning with her devoted and besotted manager (Shinobu Terajima), who admires a beauty that can never be hers, despite the overbearing narcissism of its possessor.

Or perhaps it can? For LiLiCo’s secret, known only to her understanding gay stylist (Hirofumi Arai) and brassy talent agency boss (Kaori Momoi), is that nearly everything about her is art rather than nature, beginning with the face, boobs and other vital parts supplied by a pricey, ethics-free plastic surgery clinic.

What happens from this point recalls such classics of decline-and-fall as “Citizen Kane” and “All About Eve” in size of ambition, if not brilliance of execution. Ninagawa has the grandiosity of Welles and the cynicism of Mankiewicz, minus their redeeming storytelling gifts. Instead, she pounds away from beginning to merciful end.

Exiled from the screen for nearly five years for the sin of dissing one of her own films at a ritualistic butai aisatsu (stage greeting), Sawajiri implicitly understands LiLiCo’s gut-wrenching descent from show business heaven. Also, as though to thumb her nose at the local media, which long cast her as the industry’s “bad girl,” she plays the LiLiCo the slut and diva to the self-parodying hilt. It is, as they say, the role she was born for.

What she can’t do is make her mostly monstrous character more than fleetingly human. There is no “Rosebud” scene that gives us a glimpse of LiLiCo’s younger, more vulnerable self. There’s also a lack of lines that make her sound smart and likable (such as Bette Davis’s “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” in “Eve”), rather than defiantly egotistic — or piteously despairing.

As a razor-sharp dissection of what has been called the beauty trap — the crazy-making pressures on young women to maintain impossible standards of physical perfection — “Helter Skelter” has its value, however. Instead of drawing a PC contrast between innocent victims and evil exploiters, the film implicates everyone, from teenage fans excitedly chewing over scraps of gossip to LiLiCo opting for more dubious treatments when her surgeries start to go horribly wrong.

Also, the supporting cast is filled with folks who have starred in other films and give precisely pointed character performances in this one — including Kiko Mizuhara as LiLiCo’s jaded younger rival (think an un-worshipful Eve) and Nao Omori as the dour detective who investigates the clinic — and comments philosophically on the action and actors. “LiLiCo wa heruta sukeruta” (LiLiCo is helter skelter), he intones at one point.

And it’s true also of this film, at least to my still throbbing middle-aged head.