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Mika Ninagawa

We meet the photographer turned filmmaker delving into the savage heart of Tokyo's teen-idol industry

Famous for her instantly recognisable photographs of pop princesses, flowers and goldfish in euphoric Technicolor, Mika Ninagawa first became renowned in the 90s as part of the “girl photography” movement in Japan. Today her work is exhibited across the globe. The daughter of acclaimed theatre-director Yukio Ninagawa, she made her film debut with Sakuran (2007), a live-action manga adaptation staring rebellious model and singer Anna Tsuchiya as an oiran (the courtesan predecessor of geisha), with a soundtrack of electro and J-pop.

Her new film, Helter Skelter, another manga adaptation, is a trippy, effervescent ride through the dark side of Tokyo’s teen-idol culture that exposes the ruthless machinations behind its perfectly packaged stars. It marks the comeback after five years of model, actress and singer Erika Sawajiri following various “scandals”, including a disastrous marriage and some controversial comments attacking her industry. Sawajiri plays Ririko, a starlet perfected head-to-toe by a shady cosmetic surgery clinic, who has a manager who expects her to throw up her lunch and offer sexual favours in exchange for magazine covers. Faced with losing her crown to a younger rival in a viciously competitive world, Ririko begins losing her grip on reality. Shot in feverish bright colours and featuring a raging performance from Sawajiri, Ninagawa’s film was a huge hit in Japan when it was released this year.

It took you many years to secure the rights to Helter Skelter – why was it so important to you?
Mika Ninagawa: I’m a big fan of Kyoko Okazaki, the manga artist who created it. She’s very good at expressing women’s real emotion, and this one reveals their strengths and weaknesses. So I thought I had to direct it – I didn’t want to give it to anyone else, especially not a male director! The story is about a star who has had full-body cosmetic surgery – that’s how much she wants to be beautiful. I think this obsession is something that only women understand. It’s not just about wanting to be beautiful for men – it’s more than that, an obsession that we all have. Also, I was born and grew up in Tokyo and this story shows the real Tokyo, unlike many films. And I’m involved in the fashion industry and work with a lot of celebrities, so I have the world’s best view of beautiful women. When I read the story for the first time, I felt a synchronicity immediately with the main character, Ririko.

Was Erika Sawajiri always your Ririko?
Mika Ninagawa: She was the only one. Firstly, because the character had full-body cosmetic surgery, so the actress had to be super-beautiful like Erika. The other thing is, the film has lots of sex scenes and the actress has to be naked. But in Japan, a lot of actresses want to keep their clothes on – they’re thinking about doing commercials and all that. Erika is a real actress, and she’s willing to do anything it takes to play the character. Also, Erika is perceived in the Japanese media and by the people as a ‘scandalous’ woman, like Ririko in the film, so I thought it would be interesting to match that.

It’s Erika’s first acting role after a long break. She has spoken candidly about her industry – that it’s suffocating, too controlling of its stars’ opinions and behaviour. Was she making a personal statement by returning with this film?
Mika Ninagawa: Yes, I think so. So in that sense, the fact that she took the role itself was a big event. It was a way of her expressing her feelings and the reason why she had to take a break for a few years, which was to do with something that shouldn’t be part of an actress’s career – media reports and all that. I was quite angry about that aspect of how she was treated. Although the public loves to hear the gossip and scandalous lies about her, I felt there was something wrong about it, and that’s what I wanted to express through this film.

Helter Skelter depicts an extremely ruthless world. Is it an accurate portrayal?
Mika Ninagawa: This kind of thing happens often. The thing is, I know the film shows the reality, but it’s only understood within the fashion industry, the people involved in being beautiful. They told me Helter Skelter was like a documentary. But the film industry didn’t understand it – they were like, ‘Is this really plausible? Could this actually happen?’ But when the actresses and models saw it, they felt like it was mirroring their lives. When they came out of the cinema, they were exhausted – they couldn’t take it!

You have a cameo in the film as a photographer...
Mika Ninagawa: Yes, you saw it! When I was shooting the Vogue girls, the film crew shot us shooting them. My plan was to have the real and the fictional story crossing over – what I shot that day was used in TV commercials and posters in real life.

As a photographer, what do you want to capture when you shoot these women?
Mika Ninagawa: In Japan and East Asian culture, women are expected to follow this romanticised image created by men, whether it’s films, TV or pictures. I thought, if I can take pictures of these women, I could show more of the reality rather than what is expected – I can make a bond with them, and show more complexity.

Do you get different reactions to Helter Skelter outside of Japan?
Mika Ninagawa: Releasing it in China, we faced censorship problems, and only then did I realise, ‘Ohhhhh!’ I completely forgot this film was a bit controversial. To me, it was just the reality of the fashion industry. I didn’t think about these problematic points.

And inside Japan, what has been the reaction?
Mika Ninagawa: I was worried about the controversial subject and also because the Japanese market is quite small, and Erika had been on a break for a few years. At the moment in Japan, there are only like, family films about how amazing families are, which is a bit different to Helter Skelter! The content is quite challenging and there’s nudity and the story has a strong message. But it’s been a great success, a big hit in Japan. Real high-school girls who I captured in the film went to see it and liked it, understood my message. On Twitter, a lot of the female audience wrote to me saying they were happy to be born a girl. One girl wrote, ‘I feel very encouraged to live as a woman after watching this film,’ and that’s actually what I wanted to show, although it’s not an obvious message said clearly in the film.

How does Tokyo inspire your work? What’s unique about the city?
Mika Ninagawa: Tokyo is very insular. It’s a bit like growing up in the Galápagos Islands. It has its own unique aesthetic – it’s shown in kawaii, an idea of cuteness not seen anywhere else in the world. But people living in Tokyo think it’s totally normal – they don’t realise how unique it is. So in that sense they’re quite innocent, and I like that.

Your father is a famous Japanese theatre director. How much has his work influenced you?
Mika Ninagawa: I grew up going to my father’s productions. He’d put on ten a year, so many. When I was taking photos, I didn’t think there was much influence from my father, but as soon as I started filming, I realised my work was actually very similar to his style. His musical cues and sound, the overall structure of the story... Actually, not many directors inspire me. It was my father’s stage productions and then anime: Akira, Gundam.

Growing up in this creative environment, what inspired you to pick up a camera rather than anything else?
Mika Ninagawa: Even when I was five, I wanted to do something to express myself. I tried acting, because my mother was an actress, and painting. But with photography, it was beyond reason... it was it! It felt as natural as breathing. I could show my emotions straightforwardly, directly. If I saw something very beautiful, I could just shoot it. If I saw a very handsome man, I could shoot him. It’s the most direct way of expressing myself, and I don’t think other forms of art can do that.

You’ve worked with many iconic female stars in Japan. What draws you to them?
Mika Ninagawa: Maybe it is a Japanese thing – I love actresses who aren’t following their society’s expectations and who are a bit naughty in that sense. Erika Sawajiri, Anna Tsuchiya... actresses who have their own opinions and are misunderstood, who have personality and their own problems. When I work with them, I receive power and we exchange ideas and I gain more energy. I think I’ll keep working with powerful women. Some people say I’m a tamer of wild animals!

You went to an all-girl school, so you’ve had experience of wild animals...
Mika Ninagawa: When women are just with women, we’re more relaxed, and we reveal our dark sides... We’re a bit different when men are not around. (laughs)

Photography by Devin Blair

This interview was taken from the December Issue of Dazed & Confused