Spoilers for Helter Skelter and Pink.
Content Warning: Discussion of anti-sex work sentiment, misogyny, fatphobia; NSFW images.
A master at writing realistic and fleshed-out women, Okazaki Kyoko knows perfectly how to craft a story of escalating emotions. Okazaki’s best known works, Helter Skelter and Pink tell the stories of two very different women. Constantly, in pop culture, we see women being used as an accessory, a love interest, a mother, but in Okazaki’s world, women take the main stage and prove that a female-led manga can be just as impactful as stories focused around men. These two stories explore both the “beauty” and the “beast” contained within their heroines.
Helter Skelter is the story of fading model-actress Liliko, who is desperately addicted to the limelight. She is willing to do whatever she must to keep her lover, her lifestyle, her career and, most importantly, her body. As she involves her assistant and her assistant’s boyfriend into her illusion, it quickly becomes apparent what kind of person Liliko is when the camera is not focused on her.
Pink focuses on a young office worker named Yumi who moonlights as a call girl in order to feed her rare pet pink crocodile. While living her carefree life, Yumi meets the young man that her step-mother is having an affair with. The two, along with Yumi’s younger sister, explore the simple pleasures of life and learn what it’s like to live as young adults in the city.
The Role of Sex Work
In Pink, Yumi uses sex work as a way to earn an extra income. In 2020, the internet is rife with freelance sex work, including subscriber-exclusive lewd cosplay on Patreon and OnlyFan. Many of us know somebody who’s working this side hustle, and thus think nothing of it. Sex work is becoming a more normalized means of income; but in 1989, when Pink was first published, this was much more scandalous, and Yumi keeps this part of her life a secret. Only her soon-to-be boyfriend Haruo and her younger sister Keiko know about this side of her. It’s Yumi against the world.
Okazaki highlights Yumi’s tenacity and drive to take care of herself and those who depend on her. Despite her laissez-faire attitude towards most things outside of herself and her pet Croc, Yumi’s depth is quickly established.
Her willingness to take on a job that is usually seen as risky and dirty proves her dedication to her pet, and shows Okazaki’s understanding of what women are capable of without having to label Yumi a “strong female protagonist.” She normalizes sex work in Pink by showing that it has ups and downs, just like any job. She’s tied up and abandoned in the hotel room, gets her money stolen, and is verbally assaulted throughout the manga. On the flipside, this job gets her fast cash, affords her a lifestyle where she can buy the trendiest clothes and, most importantly, money to feed Croc. Yumi takes the job in stride and treats it as a fact of life.
Liliko tries to hide that she engages in sex work. She refuses to acknowledge this part of her life and looks down on people who treat sex work casually. To Liliko, sex work is about survival rather than pocket change.
Though it isn’t explicitly shown, just knowing that Liliko specialized in fat fetishists is enough to get the picture of how she must have been treated, especially given the fatphobic sentiments of every character the manga introduces. However, Liliko mentions that sex work was the first time she had ever been treated as desirable and “wanted”. While many may be uncomfortable with the idea of being sexually alluring to men only because of their weight, Liliko feels the rush and gratification of finally being adored. She sees it as a silver lining to the dark clouds.
As readers, we’re forced to examine if either attitude towards this profession is the right opinion to have. Her work gives no “correct” way to view sex work; however, Okazaki convinces her readers to share the same sentiment as the main characters by making these characters’ emotions visceral and lifelike. She does not shy away from the horrors that sex workers face, and makes a convincing argument that the actions that these characters took was a necessity rather than a choice.
Though these women have very different attitudes towards the field, sex work is not inherently evil or sinful but rather a job like any other, with risks and benefits that will be different based on individual circumstances. Unlike many mangaka who write their protagonists to see the world as “good” and “evil,” Okazaki blends these feelings making the black and white a grey. It’s natural for a person to feel both positive and negative feelings about their job; it shows reflection, understanding, and consideration towards the world around them and themself.
A Beast in the City
Throughout both manga, animals symbolize what the protagonists are capable of. In Pink, Yumi keeps a rare docile crocodile named Croc. He’s a wild animal, capable of turning dangerous at any second if unhappy or threatened, and definitely is not allowed in her apartment building. Yumi, meanwhile, is a “rare” kind of woman: she’s beautiful, self-assured, self-sufficient, and chooses who to depend on. Like Croc, when Yumi does not get what she wants, she’s willing to bite and tease to get her point across. Even their mannerisms are similar.
Yumi is content in her life because it’s safe for her and it lets her live a certain lifestyle. If she needs something, she makes do with the tools that she has and works on it until she gets the job done. Okazaki writes her as a multi-faceted woman who knows what she wants and how to get it, pushing the plot forward. Yumi’s self-centered attitude encourages her boyfriend and her stepmother’s boy toy Haruo to publish his work and reach his goals, thus giving them a new and exciting life to live.
But Yumi is not a mindless consumer or one-sided plot-motivator. Like Croc’s fleeting dream of being in the Amazon, Yumi too longs for something distant and unattainable. She aches for the time before her mother died, a part of her childhood that is no longer reachable. Still, she outlives both her artist boyfriend and the pet who depends on her. Even during Croc’s untimely death, she feels him encouraging her to live her life in the most exciting ways she can.
Now a set of crocodile-skin luggage, Croc is Yumi’s faithful companion in travel. Though her pet was kidnapped and killed, Yumi takes his passing as a sign to go on vacation without guilt. While other stories might end with Yumi’s death, a wild creature unfit to survive the city, Okazaki refuses. Her selfishness could be considered a beastly trait, but there is a certain beauty to her ability to get what she wants on her own terms.
The Lady is the Tiger
In Helter Skelter, this concept is a little more abstract. Detective Asada, who is investigating Liliko in connection to a series of suicides related to cosmetic surgeries, refers to her with the double-meaning nickname, “Tiger Lily.” Asada lets it be known that he is fascinated by Liliko’s beauty, but also knows there is a wild animal within her ready to jump out any time something goes wrong. Despite wanting everybody to find her attractive, Liliko is shocked that somebody plays into her charade when the cameras are not rolling. So used to a culture of lying and backstabbing, Liliko can barely recognize Asada playing along to beat her at her own game.
On several occasions, Okazaki illustrates Liliko being symbolically bitten at the neck by a tiger, mirroring her attitude towards people who displease her. If something is done incorrectly, or not up to her standards, especially during the end of the manga, Liliko will snap like a wild animal. Sometimes it’s verbally berating the person, other times it’s physically breaking items and shredding papers. Okazaki displays the tiger mid-mental descent to bring home the point of “going for the jugular,” and living up to the tiger half of “Tiger Lily.”
Okazaki writes Liliko as a human embodiment of a cat. She hisses to defend herself, talks a big game, and throws tantrums when something doesn’t go her way. She is sweet and kind until a switch flips, and then goes in for the attack. She creates a protective barrier around herself that Asada unfolds over time, like petals of a flower through investigation and studying, learning her mannerisms, as to not disturb a wild animal in its habitat. This beast comes out naturally and efficiently, proving Okazaki’s ability to write a woman who may not have control of her emotions, but holds her dignity in high regards.
Liliko even reinvents herself as if she’s used up one of her nine lives. Helter Skelter was never properly finished due to Okazaki’s health issues. An epilogue wraps up the story to reveal that Liliko, who vanished after tabloid exposés destroyed her career, is now living a new life in Mexico. While she is at the end of her rope in the final chapter, by the epilogue she has regained her poise and mystique, plus an eyepatch and a snake.
A woman whose career is associated with her body reinventing herself is not a new concept, but Helter Skelter takes it to the extreme. Most women whose body is a part of their career eventually become philanthropists, mentors, or influencers, but Liliko lives out a luxurious fringe fantasy, just as “exotic” as the animal she portrays. Like Yumi, Liliko’s animal side allows her to survive even when the story she’s in would normally demand her death.
Animal imagery aside, Yumi and Liliko are real women with triggers and experiences that shape them. While media often makes female characters one-note and simple, indulging in the Madonna-whore dichotomy, Okazaki’s heroines respond to the world around them like human beings. Their selfishness and willingness to indulge their inner beast is only one aspect of their complexity.
In each story, Okazaki peels back both Yumi and Liliko’s outer layers, revealing their internality and proving that there is always more to a woman than a pretty face. Both Yumi and Liliko have drive and determination that makes them succeed and live their desired lifestyle. If pushed too hard, the beast that is always lurking just under the surface of their beauty may come out.
Designed in a time to give young and fashionable women a voice, Okazaki Kyoko succeeds in making complex, poised, and memorable characters that every woman can look to for strength and resilience.