CONTENT WARNING for NSFW screenshots, fatphobia, misogyny. SPOILERS for the entirety of the Helter Skelter manga.
Okazaki Kyoko is famous for slipping unflinching honesty into her manga, often within a seemingly carefree urban Japanese lifestyle. Her characters are bold yet lonely, her plots realistic yet poignant. Helter Skelter, first published in 2003, is no exception. It has garnered lots of public attention, was made into a movie and won 2004’s Grand Winner of the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize. Okazaki’s rough but raw art and the protagonist’s compelling tragedy draw you in.
The manga tells the horrendous tale of fashion model Liliko. Beautiful and always on top of the rankings, Liliko is initially introduced as a typical diva who takes advantage of others and seems utterly shallow. But while she is cruel, petty, and even dangerous to those around her, she’s also a product of her society.
Preyed on as an insecure fat teenager, Liliko was promised the chance to be reborn as beautiful. She undergoes various cosmetic surgeries in order to achieve the utmost perfection until allegedly only her skeleton is part of her original body. The surgeries are painful and only temporarily successful, resulting in a vicious cycle. As the story goes on, the reader learns about both Liliko the monster and Liliko the pawn of the beauty-industrial complex.
Helter Skelter invites us to think on the terrors of the beauty standards that have deeply rooted themselves in society for ages. Bodies are at the forefront of this story. Liliko is initially the ideal: she has big breasts, a slim waist, slender limbs, and overall the “perfect” body. Okazaki is on-point in portraying what most people would nod their heads at when it comes to beauty. She’s everything young women are taught to idealize.
Nudity is also commonplace, drawn in a way meant to normalize it. Bodies are drawn with proportionate anatomy (breasts are shaped like breasts, hips exist, and pubic hair isn’t uncensored) and shown for a reason. While Liliko frequently poses for photos in revealing outfits, the moments the readers see her naked are when she’s vulnerable.
These scenes draw Liliko’s body not at a close-up but at a distance, with minimal detail in order to emphasize her emotional state over her physical assets. When Liliko is drawn in detail, it’s for the cameras, where she is neatly done-up and performing. When she’s naked, there is very little of her sketched in. Her body, the “ideal” body, is something created for advertising.
We are often fed the myth that attractive people have no problems and looking good is the solution to everything. Beauty product industries use this as their marketing strategy. Just glance at a commercial aimed at young women, and it isn’t uncommon to see a teenage girl’s life changing drastically after using the advertised product. An ugly duckling into an elegant swan.
This is not, however, how it goes in real life, and Helter Skelter depicts that with brutal honesty. Liliko was fed the lie that being beautiful would make her happy, and that the money she earned would be sent back to her mother and beloved little sister.
Not only are neither of these things true, but following Liliko’s supposed “death” (proposed as a more suitable option to becoming old, ugly, and forgotten), an agent arrives to prey on her young sister, who others often remark looks “just like Liliko did.” Thus, the cycle continues. While promising happiness, the industry seeks out another young woman to profit off of; and when it’s done with her, it moves on to the next without remorse.
Throughout the manga, the series also depicts Liliko’s young fans on a few occasions. They are young women who look up to her—watching her shows diligently, styling their hair like hers, and wearing products she advertised. They don’t just admire her; they want to be her. Though they haven’t been completely reconstructed the way Liliko has, they’re still being fed the same messages and spreading a lesser version of the toxic behavior the main characters go through.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel happy or confident about your physical appearance. But when we start doing so for the satisfaction of other people, that can be dangerous. At every possible opportunity, Okazaki lays bare Liliko’s struggle. Those who suffer with the mirror frequently feel a sense of extreme fear in losing their image. It is certainly terrifying to think that if you were to lose your good looks, those around you would leave. You’d become useless, as people would have no need of you anymore. You’d become a flaw in society.
Liliko is already a terror throughout the story, but the discovery of a tiny bruise on her forehead sends her into a fit. A single blemish means her surgeries aren’t taking, which means she’ll have to take time off work, which means a greater chance that people will forget about her. It seems trivial on the surface, but for her it’s the end of the world. These fears make her lash out at her assistant Hada, who both hates and loves Liliko and feels powerless against not just her but what she represents. The depiction of Liliko’s abusive traits are accurate and painful.
When Kozue, a blossoming debut model, enters the picture, the now almost-decaying Liliko is driven into a panic. During these scenes of Liliko ranting about her rival (who doesn’t seem to care but is noted as being “unable to do anything else,” and is thus trapped in her own way), Liliko is drawn in a more exaggerated, grotesque style. She becomes a shivering monster rather than a person, aware that those who sought to profit from her had fed her lies instead of promises.
The thing is, nobody ever tries to help Liliko. “Mama,” her manager, is only interested in how she can make money from Liliko’s body. Hada, who might have once been Liliko’s ally, is filled with justified resentment because of Liliko’s abuse and the uneven nature of their professional and sometimes sexual relationship—and eventually becomes the one who leaks a scandal to the press.
Both an unwitting pawn on one side and the architect of her own destruction on the other, Liliko reflects the end result of living in an industry that forces women to compete with rather than rely on one another. In the end, it destroys them all.
The beauty industry aggressively markets to millions of girls and AFAB people worldwide. Helter Skelter slices open the hidden meaning of what that industry is selling and what the cost looks like. The word “worthless” comes up again and again to drive home how society conflates beauty with moral value, and the series depicts in detail just how harmful that can be.
Okazaki turns societal pressures into a hyper-realistic horror story, showing how beauty and body standards are themselves monstrous forces. People often say there’s a price to looking beautiful. Helter Skelter says it’s far more expensive than you thought.