The film was Perfect Blue by Satoshi Kon. The women’s voices were panicked yelps and warbles. They sounded insistently out of breath, as though they were on the verge of orgasm. When people cried, tears bubbled from their eyes. The inside of a girl’s bedroom was beautiful—too beautiful. I watched a scene of a moving subway and sobbed. Whether the people in the film were Japanese or not, I couldn’t tell. Their eyes shrunk and expanded. Their noses disappeared and reappeared. Their skin was cream and green and gray and pink. Not yellow at all.
I was panting by the time the credits rolled. Now that I had seen a Japanese animated film, I was certain nothing would be the same.
Previously, I had only seen Italian films.
When I looked around the theater, I noticed that everyone present was a white man. This had always been the case when I watched Italian films. Ho hum, tweedle dum. Nothing to see here! But now they stared at me as I made my way to the exit. Their smiles slid horribly around their faces. They looked, how to put it, pleased. I lay my hand against my cheek. I thought my skin was sloughing off. I thought I was going to peel apart like an orange. I thought of shouting, YES? HELLO? HOW DO YOU DO?
Instead I went home, locked the door, unlocked it, locked it again. I went to the kitchen to eat a slice of bread, but when I took it out, I felt instantly unwell. It was too soft in my hand, like a poor animal, a half-alive creeping, crawling thing. I thought of pushing it against my face like an extra absorbent tissue. I threw it in the sink and turned away.
I went to the Internet. I asked it about animated Japanese films. I watched GIFS of ramen in golden broths. GIFS of clouds scudding across blue skies. GIFS of wetly glistening omelets. Steaming coffee disturbed with a silver teaspoon. A cat on a stone wall stretching its paws. It was soothing and erotic, serene and revoltingly wonderful.
What was this? I had never heard of it. Who did this? Why? How come no one had told me about it? I had lived my entire life in ignorance.
I went back to the kitchen and took out a bottle of milk. The bottle in the film had looked better; it had featured a picture of a gentle cow. The glass had been a translucent blue I had not encountered before. As I reached for a cup, I accidentally made eye contact with the bread in the sink; it looked hopefully at me. I put the bottle of milk back and began eating from a bag of potato chips. They tasted mundane. I wished they were edamame instead.
Everything on the Internet was kawaii. KA-WA-II! I sat on the floor and wrapped myself in a comforter I dragged from the bed. I rocked back and forth, but only a couple of times. The kawaii was killing me. It was a giant pastel marshmallow suffocating my eyeballs. It wasn’t unpleasant, is the thing. I understood that everything would be different from now on. I had done something irrevocable in a medical sense. I felt a sudden intense desire to go to Japan. I looked at plane tickets; bookmarked a website; set an alert.
The Internet showed me more animated bodies. Women with invisible noses and eyes that could swallow up a whole city. Sharply drawn boys with icicle hair, others softly sketched with tender cheeks. Cherub-looking adults. Bouncing, friendly breasts. Matte skin and shiny skin. Lamp-pole legs lacking knees. Flesh-toned lips that could pop open in a perfect O, slide shut in a straight line. Violet and honey and neon green pupils. I realized I possessed a limited vocabulary for beauty.
Previously, I had styled myself after the glamorous Monica Vitti and her caramel spun hair. I had taken two semesters of Italian. I wore winged eyeliner. I was planning to study abroad in Florence and look at marble statues in winged eyeliner. How I wanted to be Monica Vitti. The anguished longing I felt, because I could not. My hair didn’t have a natural curl. And then there was my face, just—all of my face. When I walked out of theaters screening Italian films, no one looked at me. No one said, oh yes, I see the likeness now. When I tried to speak Italian, people grimaced as though I had committed an unforgivable crime. I had written many an online journal entry about it.
But how now? There were forums and fan clubs dedicated to this anime stuff? Japan was cool? People liked it? You don’t say. I decided, somewhere around 2 AM, to become obsessed with my culture. I would have to refashion my identity and the objectives I aspired to.
The thing is, I had not known that I was inherently interesting.
I started with Hello Kitty. I was mostly attracted to the post-WWII stuff. Soon I moved onto themed bento boxes. Stickers. Harajuku fashion. Maid cafes. Cats wearing bonnets knitted from their own fur. Neat, tidy packaging. Documentaries about sushi. Jiggly cheesecake. Herbivore men. Gigantic, singing pudding. At that point, I felt I had probably finished plumbing the depths of my culture.
I finished all the potato chips and began licking tiny granules of salt inside the bag. I shuddered and yanked my eyes away from the computer screen. It became clear that everything in my apartment was ugly. Cups. Plants. Chair legs. Notebooks and pens. I didn’t want any of it anymore. I wanted a toilet that could talk to me. I wanted a sponge in the shape of a peach. I wanted a pretty toothbrush and a prettier toothbrush holder. My lint-strewn carpet was a monstrosity. I would live for linoleum now. Was that what people walked on in Japanese kitchens? Why didn’t I own a cat? This seemed a great oversight on my part.
It was four-thirty in the morning. My eyes started to blur. The colors on the screen were mixing themselves of their own accord. I began to surreptitiously chew on the aluminum bag of potato chips. I was, I think the word is, spiraling. I could no longer grasp all the corners of myself. My hair, my eyes, my mouth, what were they? That? It? Over there? Something was tugging me apart. I was but a skein.
Maybe, I thought, if I just closed my eyes and squeezed hard enough, I would level up and enter another dimension. I could float in a bowl of udon with shrimp tempura and a soft-boiled egg. Walk in the rain without getting wet. Discover love in a matcha latte. Die inside a cottage in a meadow in a country where the sun never said goodnight.
I could see myself reflected in the glare of the computer screen. I did not look Japanese. I did not look like anything. Where was my sharply upturned nose? My watery, swimming, illuminated eyes? My endless limbs and celluloid hair? I opened my mouth to hear the breathy gasps of a Japanese woman speaking Japanese—nothing came out.
I felt myself quaking. My bones, the tissues and sinews that sutured me together were rearranging themselves. Their atoms yearned to become that light as air Technicolor thing that tripped across the screen. KA-WA-II!!! It wasn’t too late. I was going to connect with my culture. If other people could do it, I could do it, too.
Did I not have more of a right?
I clenched my fists, smashed my eyes shut and counted to ten. Very carefully, I considered the body’s temporal trappings. When I opened my eyes, I saw someone through side of the screen. She was rocking back and forth in a comforter, a bag of chips dangling from her mouth, her face dumb and immobile.
Goodbye, Annie! I called. My voice sounded like a child’s laugh. My laugh, like a fistful of wild flowers. I was standing on a paved road in a quaint town. There was a bakery and a cafe. A plump gray cat walked past me; I had a feeling he could talk. I lifted up my hand, pale as a slice of the moon, and admired it. The pixilation was minimal—I was impressed.
Goodbye! I called again. I couldn’t stay long. I had to go live in two-dimensions. I could move unnaturally through space and time. I was brighter and shinier, sharper and better defined.
When I walked out of movie theaters, people would say, oh yes, I see the likeness now.
Elaine Hsieh Chou was a Rona Jaffe Graduate Fellow at New York University. She is an alumna of the Tin House Summer Workshop and co-curator of The Sweet & Sour Readings in Chinatown, Manhattan. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Black Warrior Review, Guernica and Tin House Online. You can find her at www.elainehsiehchou.com