High price of the most gorgeous show in town

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Note to self: Never be a young woman in Japan. It’s just too harrowing.

Obviously, it’s too late now for some of us. But, at least for the last two and a half decades, successive generations of young Japanese women have had the manga of Kyoko Okazaki to turn to for solace, solidarity and entertainment.

A prolific and prophetic artist who altered the world of women’s manga as well as the way the Japanese media depicts women, Okazaki is estimated to have filled about 100,000 pages with her words and drawings. During a career that spanned some 15 years between the early 1980s and 1996, Okazaki drew the violence and turmoil swirling around and beneath the skirts (mini and otherwise) of Japanese females, while defiantly turning away from Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture. Nor did she insult her characters by portraying them as adorable, malleable creatures that are the general staple of women in manga.

Okazaki was the punk-rock hipsterette of the manga world, and the women she drew were smart, opinionated, brutal sex kittens. They often resorted to crude violence, wallowed in Japan’s bubble-fueled consumer culture and ultimately treated men like worms. (One of Okazaki’s pet obsessions is Charles Manson and she has written about Manson and, to a lesser extent, Ted Bundy in her essays. Murder — serial and otherwise — is a recurring theme in her manga.)

In 1996, at the age of 33, Okazaki was taking a walk with her husband in the Shimokitazawa area of Tokyo when she was involved in a hit-and-run accident. At the time, she had just completed what was later described as her masterpiece, “Helter Skelter,” whose title was both an ode to the Beatles number that inspired Manson and a comment about the state of the Japanese fashion and entertainment world. Reports at the time described her as being in a deep coma, unlikely to recover much less be able to hold a pen again. In 2003, her family gave permission for “Helter Skelter” to be published in book form. The edition sold more than a million copies and put her name back on the map.

Okazaki, however, had disappeared completely from the public eye. Her fans were unsure whether she was still alive and rumors arose, some saying that she had been dead for some time or that she had been seen in Nice, in the south of France, or Los Angeles, fully recovered and laughing in the sun. Then in 2010, Okazaki appeared at pop-rock musician Kenji Ozawa’s concert in a wheelchair, causing the singer to weep on stage and thank her for coming. To date, that was the first and last time she appeared in public since the accident. There were reports however, that she is still inactive and her life — apart from the revelation that she is now divorced — remains under wraps.

On July 14, the first film adapted from an Okazaki work will hit theaters. Fittingly, it is “Helter Skelter,” the story of supermodel LiLiCo who rises to stardom with her amazing looks (perfected through multiple plastic surgeries) only to topple down the ladder riddled with surgical side effects. Photographer and second-time filmmaker Mika Ninagawa waited seven years for the project to be greenlighted, and she tells The Japan Times that the process was “the longest time I’ve waited for anything in my entire life.”

“But I felt I had to do this, if only because I am a woman and an artist, and if this material wound up in the wrong hands, well … one shudders to think what could happen,” Ninagawa says.

During this waiting period, Ninagawa kept her eye on Erika Sawajiri for the lead role of the delectable LiLiCo.

“I wanted someone exceptionally beautiful, but also with depth and personality. But really, the beauty part came first,” she says. “No one could match Erika’s bewitching charm. There’s an otherworldly factor to it.”

The fact that Sawajiri is the enfant terrible of the Japanese entertainment world, whose escapades range from open criticism of the media to a marriage and quick split with celebrity digital artist Tsuyoshi Takashiro, added fodder to the fire. Says Ninagawa: “No one else seemed even close to filling the role of LiLiCo.”

Ninagawa should know, as she has built a career as a photographer on capturing Japanese women at their most beautiful and often most vulnerable moments. Her 2006 directorial debut, “Sakuran,” an Edo Period drama about a concubine, featured model-turned-actress Anna Tsuchiya, whom Ninagawa had been photographing since Tsuchiya was still in her early teens.

Also, as the daughter of art and theater director Yukio Ninagawa, she says, “Growing up, I was always surrounded by people with a burning desire to make something beautiful. So beauty means a lot to me, especially physical beauty.”

To Ninagawa, LiLiCo’s rapid, surgery-assisted rise to supermodel stardom — and then her devastating fall from grace — spoke volumes.

“There is this model friend of mine who never, ever eats carbs, or much of anything else. That’s what it takes, really. A woman with ambitions to get into the media will make that effort and keep doing it for years,” she says. “On the other side of the lens, though, are those that consume these women’s images. Just that: consume. And between the consumer and the consumed, there is a rift so wide they may as well be in different galaxies.”

Ninagawa is in an ambiguous position since she’s active on both sides of the camera. Her wedding in 2004 was turned into a photo book (she was divorced in 2007), and slivers of her flamboyant, art-infused, personal life are reflected in the movie. As a film director, she brings her insight and experience of having worked with the most sought-after models and actresses throughout her career — but when she’s on the set, she leaves the photography to the cinematographer and concentrates on building a rapport with her cast and staff. Ninagawa has been described as an intimate and personal type of filmmaker; she makes sure the ambience in each shot matches her specifications, crafting every scene to reflect her particular philosophy.

Sawajiri, who signed on for the role because “there is a deep bond of trust between me and the director,” tells The Japan Times that the experience was unlike any other film set she had been on.

“Mika-san’s favorite phrase is ‘swoon.’ We do a scene, and she’s like, ‘I’m swooning, I’m in a trance.’ And that whole mood is contagious, and it’s like everyone else on the set is swooning … over the makeup, the clothes, the acting, the decor … everything!” Sawajiri says.

Indeed, the set of “Helter Skelter” was crammed to the gills with things gorgeous and decorative when The Japan Times paid a visit back in February when the shooting was in full swing. LiLiCo’s resplendent condo, for instance, is furnished courtesy of Ninagawa’s private furniture and household goods: the antique chandelier and wooden ponies that adorn LiLiCo’s bedroom, the leopard-print toilet that LiLiCo uses to throw up in any food she has (accidentally or unwittingly) ingested, the splendid collection of false eyelashes found on LiLiCo’s dresser. They represent a very particular style and frame of mind.

“Imagine how hard a woman must work to get to this position,” Ninagawa says. “Imagine how hard she still has to work to be able to stay.”

“Helter Skelter” seems fueled by a quiet rage, simmering just beneath the surface of the story.

“I guess that’s because there’s rage in me as well,” Ninagawa says. “As a photographer, I’m always in the middle of this dilemma about wanting the best expression, the most beautiful shot, but on the other hand, I know what these models and actresses are going through, how lonely it is to be on the other side of the lens, ruthlessly reflected and then manufactured for mass consumption.” LiLiCo’s great sadness and permanent state of desperation comes from this loneliness, and, as Ninagawa portrays her, she’s addicted to it.

Sawajiri said that any role she plays affects her deeply — but that “this time, I really became LiLiCo.” Interestingly, like LiLiCo, she seemed to withdraw from the media once the movie was completed, and has now gone into a hiatus from acting. Perhaps she saw something in the landscape that somehow hurt or disturbed her.

“When I was playing LiLiCo, I just felt what she felt, and knew exactly what was going through her mind,” says Sawajiri. “And it was disconcerting, because once I became her, it took such a long time to come back.”

The theatrical posters feature the slogan: “I’ll show you the best show there is.” And there’s Sawajiri in a red corset and black lace tights, looking seductive, defiant and infinitely sad.

“There’s a price to pay for being in the show,” Ninagawa says, “and my bet is that it’s a whole lot higher than any ticket to see that show.”

Click here for Mark Schilling’s review of “Helter Skelter.”