Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly by Kyoko Okazaki
It has been a very good year for fans of josei. Viz appears to be committed to disguising a few josei titles like Happy Marriage and Midnight Secretary as mature shoujo. I’m enjoying those very much, but I’m also very happy that Vertical is releasing josei as well, with the kind of more raw and uncompromising titles that you’d expect from them.
Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly is a slap in the face for fans of titles like Paradise Kiss or Walkin Butterfly. While neither of those titles presented a totally romantic view of the fashion industry, Helter Skelter’s story of a dysfunctional model is packed with both rage and almost unrelenting ugliness. Liiko is a supermodel at the top of her game due to massive plastic surgery. She’s incredibly self-obsessed and driven to achieve even more by her surrogate mother/manager. Liiko’s beauty and charisma serves as a snare that draws the people around her into her incredibly warped world, resulting in some incredibly warped plot twists that all make sense. Hada, Liiko’s young manager finds her own personality changing as she becomes more and more subservient to her mercurial boss.
Liiko’s surgeries are starting to break down, and there’s an unsettling theme of body horror that is prevalent throughout the title, as Liiko’s facade literally begins to crack, and she becomes more and more desperate to preserve her beauty. She’s a charismatic monster, but as the story progresses and her condition worsens it is almost possible for the reader to start viewing a broken down supermodel as the embodiment of raging id, albeit an id with a really good shoe collection. Okazaki’s art is deliberately rough and skewed, showing the fashion world as anything but glamorous. Liiko has a few panels of looking polished and perfect when she’s modeling, but mostly all the characters are portrayed in a sketchbook type style, with exaggerated features and the occasional rictus-like expression that serves to underscore just how false fashion industry concerns are.
Utsubora: The Story of a Novelist by Asumiko Nakamura
This manga is an interesting mix of genres. There are elements of noir, thriller, psychodrama, and a meditation on the meaning of identity in this story about a novelist who gets caught up in plagiarism and a young woman who turns herself into a character from one of his stories. The manga opens with the body of a young girl falling from the top of a building. Shun Mizorogi, a famous author who affects traditional Japanese clothing is called to the hospital to identify the body of the girl Aki. Sitting in the hallway of the hospital is a girl who is apparently Aki’s twin. Nakamura weaves together an intriguing mystery with Mizorogi and the supporting cast, which includes his painfully naive niece, the detectives investigating Aki’s death, and Tsuji the editor who is suspicious about Mizorogi’s sudden late in life outpouring of productivity. Mizorogi tries to unravel the mystery behind the sudden appearance of Sakura Miki, and all of the mysteries surrounding the death of Aki are about to converge in a very interesting way.
Nakamura’s style is both delicate and detailed, with some panels reminding me a little bit of art nouveau. This sophisticated illustration style makes the psychosexual developments in the book even more unsettling. Utsubora has some amazingly unsympathetic characters, but it reminded me very much of classic noir works where the dark side of human nature is fully explored.
Both Helter Skelter and Utsubora are omnibus editions, and as always the production from Vertical is a treat. Both manga have the type of memorable stories and characters that will linger in the minds of readers long after they’ve finished reading. For challenging josei manga with plenty of psychological twists, you can’t go wrong with picking up both of these titles.