Shizuka Nishino, a young Japanese artist, is starving herself in a grotty Harlem apartment. When you've got love, who needs food?
But her brother's girlfriend, an American ex-artist currently teaching English in Japan, thinks she knows the score. Her quest to save Shizuka's life brings the conflict between the two women to a head, and reveals the true cost of throwing away your dreams.
“Let me get this straight,” said my boyfriend. “You think my sister’s lying to us.”
In Japanese it was “telling lies,” which sounded worse to me somehow than the English. But I stuck to my analysis. “I think she’s crying out for help.”
“Even though she says everything’s going fine?”
I said, “Well, can you really imagine her saying, ‘By the way, Mom and Dad, I can’t cope any more and I’m coming home’? Especially if…” I paused long enough to make the point that I was respecting the family’s feelings by naming no names. “Especially if her personal life isn’t going well.”
“Yeah, well, that would be a blessing.” Taka could be very cynical. “It can’t last much longer,” he said with conviction.
“I don’t think it can, either. But supposing it ends, or it has ended, would that be an improvement? She’s so vulnerable.” I used the English word because there was no satisfactory Japanese equivalent. I added, “Maybe that’s what she’s trying to tell us, but no one understands her.”
If Taka had objected again, I would have concluded that he really thought I was talking nonsense, but he said nothing. We walked up Kagurazaka, through clouds of smoke and around floods of water from the kitchen doors of izakayas. We’d just come from dinner at his parents’ house. The Kagurazaka neighborhood has been called the Montmartre of Tokyo, and the comparison is ironically valid: in both places the avant-garde has moved on and left its reputation to glam up a maze of twisty little streets that barely made it out of the nineteenth century. Mr and Mrs Nishino lived in a cul-de-sac overgrown with magnolias and bougainvillea. He was an Executive Director; she taught kimono-wearing classes and took calligraphy classes. They both worried about Shizuka, the younger of their two children, in much the same way, it seemed to me, as the Japanese government worried about North Korea. Unpredictable, ungrateful, almost an enemy but impossible to write off: that was Shizuka. She lived in New York, where I used to live myself. It wasn’t a startling coincidence. What artistically inclined girl doesn’t want to live in New York? But Shizuka seemed to be more intent on living out the drama than I’d ever been. She painted pictures full of gore and deformities.
And now she was starving.
“She’s got a strong mind. She knows what she wants,” said Taka. “And she’s never had trouble making herself understood before.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But has she ever been in love before?”
I glanced sideways in time to see him frown. He wasn’t admitting that it qualified as love, and I knew why. I instinctively felt the same way, for all that I was supposed to be the open-minded one. Yet I also felt that nothing short of love could have reduced Shizuka to the thing in the photos we’d seen tonight. She certainly was not short of money.