What do Simone Biles, Liu Xiang, Mahina Maeda, the Hinotori Nippon Japanese Volleyball team, Ayaka Takahashi, Misaki Matsutomo and Kasumi Ishikawa have in common? They’re not only stand-out athletes, but they also belong to a league of bright young women who have triumphed against all odds to achieve great success on their own terms.
And yet, despite being world record breakers, star athletes and role models to millions, they are a constant subject of public scrutiny and demeaning attacks both in and out of the sporting arena. Why? Because of the unrealistic expectations, enduring beauty standards, and unwritten rules of how a woman should look, feel, think, or behave. They face multiple societal pressures—as we do—on a highly magnified scale, perpetuated by online bullies, those around them, and sometimes, even themselves. And we all know how it feels to be our own harshest critic. Undoubtedly, such negativity can take a toxic toll, forcing anyone to have to work even harder to face and defeat their inner demons that spawn uncontrollably.
This is what SK-II STUDIO’s ‘VS’ Series is all about: Fighting one’s kaijus—Japanese for monsters—to break boundaries, #CHANGEDESTINY and emerge victorious. You can catch the films in the link below or in the virtual cineplex at SK-II’s first-ever virtual city, SK-II CITY, where you’ll be transported to the middle of a bustling urban intersection inspired by the streets of Tokyo.
Challenging the status quo
For almost 50 years, skincare brand SK-II has been committed to inspiring women to pursue their own destiny and definitions of beauty, and it has done so with time-honoured skincare formulations and compelling storytelling as a catalyst for real-world impact. Through this six-part anthology series, SK-II STUDIO addresses some of the most prevailing, real-life kaijus that women face daily, as exemplified by the turbulent-turned-triumphant journeys of these female athletes. And each live action-animation film is set in their own unique cinematic universe, brought to life by world-renowned filmmakers, animators and musicians.
In this article, we take a deeper look into VS Obsession, which sheds light on the toxicity of social media’s obsession with image, and VS Rules where it speaks about the unwritten beauty rules that society imposes on women.
VS Obsessions: Drowning out social media’s obsession with image
When Chinese swimmer Liu Xiang broke the women’s 50-metre backstroke world record in 2018, she was swept up onto a pedestal, celebrated as the “swimming goddess”. She went viral on social media, deservingly so, but it didn’t take long before conversations around the name “Liu Xiang” split between admiration for her sporting prowess versus an unhealthy obsession with how she looked. Her physique, her choice of outfit and even her hair became hot topics of scrutiny—cyberbullying and objectification that not only distracted from her noteworthy achievements but took a toll on her mentally and emotionally.
Created by production house and Academy Award nominee Platige Image (the team behind Fish Nights on Netflix), VS Obsessions sees Liu Xiang plunging into a “social world” split into three depths—Selfie Shallows, Social Open Seas and Big Media Depths. Social World is inhabited by digital fish, swimming hearts and comments-covered blue whales that engulf her whole. The comments start off congratulating her for her win before paying more attention to her appearance—a disappointing turn that shines a light on the toxicity of social media’s obsession with a woman’s image, and in a way, a woman’s worth. She responds by diving even deeper into the Big Media Depths, a realm of reflective isolation, where she decides to swim against the current and focus on what matters—her performance in the pool. ”I appreciate the attention, but I am a swimmer first”, she proclaims before she’s seen pushing off into a backstroke race against a flaming tentacled monster, swimming to the beat of a hip-hop track by singer-rapper-songwriter, Lexie Liu.
Such toxic, modern-day beauty standards are, unfortunately, very commonplace—and often self-inflicted. On social media, people judge and get judged based on their follower count and how visually appealing their feed is—80 percent (or more) of social media users filter or edit their photos before posting, putting out enhanced, often unrealistic representations of themselves, and their lives. This creates a vicious cycle of likes and dislikes in a highly airbrushed environment.
But we can all draw inspiration from Liu Xiang’s battle against the social media tide and her determination to be acknowledged and celebrated for her achievements instead of superficial things like her looks or social followers. Not only does this leave us with a strong reminder that we are not the only ones who face such unrealistic societal pressures, but a reflection on ourselves that we can be the ones to kickstart a culture of celebrating the more important things in life.
VS Rules: Smashing the unwritten rules of “femininity”
For Japanese surfer Mahina Maeda, her story talks about a life constrained by society’s—especially Japan’s—long and enduring vision of the ideal woman, personified as “Yamato Nadeshijo”. Unwritten rules like “a beauty must not be late”, “a beauty must not walk with heavy feet”, and “a beauty must speak softly and gracefully” create an ideal image thatmodern women have to compete with. But Maeda’s response to these expectations? Clocking some of the most impressive timings riding massive waves, gliding across oceans, and letting her surfing prowess speak louder than words.
A cinematic juxtaposition of traditional art and animation, VS Rules is brought to life by Imaginary Forces—the Emmy-winning production house behind Game of Thrones and Stranger Things—and leading Bijin-ga (generic term for the art of beautiful women) painter, Ikenaga Yasunari. Using contrasting shadow and light, this film toggles between a conservative household with rule after rule on how a woman should act, speak or behave in order to be perceived positively, versus the freedom of the ocean and its breath-taking waves.
Torn between following the rules and making her own, Maeda’s character can be seen running away from a life of limitations onto a beach, where she then chooses to ride a mammoth swell, powerfully and gracefully conquering it as she has her own path, making her own rules on beauty and beyond.
A reflection of the wave of women who dare to shatter glass ceilings to succeed, this short film also highlights the suppressive households that many women, especially in Asia, have had to grow up in over the last few decades—and how such traditional societal expectations might have influenced the lack of equal opportunity across the board. How Maeda has risen above this sea of restrictions and rules to break boundaries in the realms of beauty, sports and life as we know is a glorious reminder to always stay true to yourself, dream big and play by your own rules.
A catalyst for beautiful change
More than a beauty brand, SK-II’s mission has always been to inspire radiance and resilience from the inside out. And through this anime-esque series, it has managed to unpack the challenges and negativity women everywhere face, everyday.
VS Trolls, for one, is soundtracked by an original composition by John Legend, and sees the world’s most decorated gymnast, Simone Biles, battling a monstrous Internet troll full of hateful comments that have been trying to bring her down from the start of her career. VS Self-Doubt, chronicles table tennis player Ishikawa’s fight to overcome her greatest competitor—herself. In VS Machines, badminton duo Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo are featured as machines, slaves to society’s never-ending chase for perfection. Then there’s also VS Pressure, where the “beast” of self-doubt haunts Japanese table tennis player Kasumi Ishikawa, highlighting how internal pressures have the power to weaken even the strongest of women if not dealt with.
More importantly, SK-II STUDIO illustrates that no matter how indomitable one may seem, we are all human and can buckle under pressure, but we also have the power to confront and conquer these oppressive forces to achieve our goals and dreams—emerging victorious with the right motivations and mindset.
In support of women pursuing their own forms of greatness, SK-II has set up the #CHANGEDESTINY Fund with a US$500,000 goal. You, too, can rally behind this message and cause by watching all six episodes of the ‘VS’ Series, for which the brand will contribute $1 for every single view. Pass on these personal stories of courage and triumph and be part of the conversation that empowers women to win, against all odds.