One summer day when I was nine, I climbed into a hair stylist’s chair and asked them to cut my hair to my ears. Until that point, I’d always had a head of long hair tumbling over my shoulder, useful for coquettish tossing when I imagined myself as Snow White or Cinderella. I had never worn short hair, had never wanted it; I’d always thrived on girliness that fed into my obsession with imitating what I perceived to be the ultra-feminine Disney princess archetype. But that summer, sitting in a chair too tall for me, I asked the friendly lady with the scissors to take it all. After a moment of thought, I told her, “Short—like a princess raised by wolves.”
I was referencing San, from Hayao Miyazaki’s Mononoke-hime or Princess Mononoke . In the film, San is a human girl left as a sacrifice to the gods of the mountain by her human parents, raised by the very god to whom she was sacrificed—Moro, a wolf-like Inu gami —and convinced, as a result, that she too is a wolf. When the viewer meets San for the first time, her small face is pressed to an open wound in her wolf-mother’s flesh. She turns her head toward the viewer, momentarily breaking the fourth wall, her face smeared in bright red. She spits a jet of blackening blood and rubs her fist along the edge of her chin, as if to wipe the stain of blood from her face. The utter humanness of this gesture, paired with her clear physical intimacy with the wolf-god, immediately casts her identity into conflict—a theme to be played over and over throughout the movie. Is San a wolf? Is she a girl? Is she neither, or both, or something in between?
Later in the film, as tensions between humans and gods come to a head, San inadvertently thrusts her small frame into the path of a lumbering boar-god that is consumed with a ropey, steaming, literal manifestation of rage. As she clings to the charging boar, pleading for it to let go of its anger, the tentacular curse begins to root itself in her human skin. She tries to push it off but ultimately fails, disappearing into the hide of the increasingly unrecognizable boar-god, her fragile human figure swallowed by this stark conflict between animal gods and mortal humans—as if the conflict of her own identity has overwhelmed her physicality. Though San is later saved, Miyazaki never supplies an answer as to what she is. She refuses to return to humanity, staying in the woods. It is never clear where her body belongs, or what she is—human or god.
I left the salon with a shapeless bob ending jaggedly just below my ears, just like San’s. Later, when I was teased by a classmate that I looked like a boy, I turned around and bit his arm, drawing a thin line of salty blood.
When I was seven, my family moved from Nagoya, Japan to Chicago, though we often returned to spend summers in Japan. The summer I got my hair cut short was two years into my family’s residence in the States. Still reeling from our trans-Pacific upheaval, I was happy to return to what once was home, yet had found Japan suddenly tinged with a steely alienness. And that summer, it was not just home that seemed alien to me. My body was beginning to lack familiarity, too, and a slow, cold realization was dawning.
Born significantly underweight, I had always been a long, spindly child. A bundle of elbows and knees, I was constantly tripping, hitting my head, ambling about like a colt learning to walk. I was, by American standards, painfully thin. By Japanese standards I looked identical to my peers. I knew this because of our annual school trip to the bathhouse, where we would all gather around the steaming tub, our bodies present and accountable, held in front of all—all of us with our skin thinning at the ribs, each vertebrae visibly poking out of our backs. It didn’t matter that I had an American father, or that we spoke a hodgepodge English-Japanese pidgin at home; standing at the bathhouse with my peers, I retained a steadfast assurance in my place among the other children, my bodily equality.
When we moved to the US, I learned that people came in an array of different shapes and sizes. Skin variations of color stretched from peach to taupe to ebony. In the musty basement of a country-side church, I learned I was “yellow,” as the children’s choir director scolded me for wearing a green shirt, apparently unacceptable for my coloring. The children in my first-grade class also inhabited a catalogue of different bodies, or so I suspected—I could never be sure, since we never took trips to bathhouses. Despite my confusion, I ate American food and adapted to this new American life with new American bodies.
In Miyazaki’s Academy Award-winning Sen to Chihiro no Kami Kakushi ( Spirited Away ), there is a scene in which the protagonist Chihiro realizes, with creeping dread, that she is in a different world—a world of spirits. She hurtles through streets that once seemed innocuous, now full of shadowy forms. A ghost gestures to her from a window, waving her toward what was once an empty building. She slumps down on a river bank in despair as she watches a boat pull into a harbor: gods in fantastical forms, man-sized chickens and floating approximations of Noh masks, waver on the deck as they wait to cross the gangplank onto land. Gasping, Chihiro brings her hands to her eyes only to discover they are translucent. She is disappearing. She is trapped in a land of gods and ghosts, and now her physical self is vanishing.
Eventually, she is saved by being given a small seed to eat, told that unless she eats something of the spirit world, she will disappear entirely. Chihiro appears hesitant, staring at the red kernel in front of her as if a cognizant Persephone, and finally takes the seed, forcing herself to swallow. Slowly, her body reappears, solidifying. And yet, now she, like San, exists in ambiguous in-between: Does she now exist as a spirit in a realm of spirits? Or is her body still that of a human girl?
That summer, I frequented bathhouses similar to those in Spirited Away with my mother and sister. One day I stood under a showerhead, rinsing my body of dirt and grime before entering the bath, and noticed that the arc of my stomach was jutting softly from my sternum. I had never seen my stomach before, not from this vantage point, with my chin tucked and hair wet. I had always been concave, a pocket of negative space ballooning between my ribcage and hips. To see my stomach take up space was new and strange. As I stared, water ran into my eyes and questions churned in my head: What was I becoming? Was I becoming an American? Was I not Japanese anymore? Had I ever been Japanese?
A steady, fluttering shame took root in my chest, and I was reminded of the ambiguous existence Chihiro entered into when eating the food of the spirit world. By eating the food of a foreign land, I had lost the ability to recognize my own body.
My body continued to change in other ways, for other reasons. With the onset of puberty, my hips folded outward, flaring at thighs webbed with stretch marks, tapering into my waist. My arms rounded, but my shoulders stayed small and sloping.
A mixed-race body moving through homogenous spaces often inspires attempts at conversations of classification. Whether through the form of a sudden, uneasy speechlessness followed by a mumbled comment, or an incessant stream of questions, this body of mine often seems to inspire the same disquietude in others that I experience within myself. In a crowded Tokyo mall, I once found myself the subject of a Japanese man’s gaze. When I moved to avoid him, climbing the stairs to the next floor, he positioned himself silently beside me, all the while staring at my face, my posture, my hands, my body. Only when I turned to exit did he open his mouth to mumble, “Jyun-japa?” (“Pure Japanese?”). He lifted his eyes to mine and I felt myself overcome by a blanketing silence.
Last week, in a cab home from Boston’s airport, the white woman behind the wheel began playing an all-too-familiar game: “So let me guess—Native American? Mexican? If those are wrong, I’d say maybe Romanian.” I was tired, jet-lagged, and emotionally drained from a farewell with my family, but still she insisted on trying to guess my ethnicity. When I finally told her, she said, “I knew you must be mixed with white. All the good ones are.”
As the questions about what I am and what I represent emerge, I often find myself silenced, unable to give a concise answer. Some mornings, I wake up and feel resigned to mutely inhabit a stranger’s skin—like Sophie Hatter of Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle , who literally wakes one morning in a much older body. Sophie offends a witch and is changed from a young woman into a crone. Instead of falling into despair, Sophie packs her bags and leaves home. She treks up a craggy hill, bemoaning her newly creaking bones, and stops at the door of a moving castle (in truth more of a mobile junk heap) belonging to the supposedly fearsome magician, Howl, infamous for eating the hearts of young, beautiful girls. She supposes now that she is old and ugly, Howl does not pose much of a danger to her, and barges in.
Inhabiting an alien-to-her body, Sophie begins to display a previously alien bravery: She cleans unimaginable messes, lies outright to kings, and even has the audacity to fall in love. It is never clear what part of the enchantment holds her in her elder form, but Miyazaki offers the viewers several hints. For Sophie, part of the witch’s curse stipulates that she cannot speak about the curse. Whenever she begins to try to assert the truth of her body, her mouth knits itself together, preventing an overt discussion of her conflicting existence. People around her can ask questions about who she is, where she came from, how she came to be, but she cannot answer them with the truth.
But her inability to speak about her existence is not just tied to the curse. In one scene, the magician Howl gifts Sophie a field of flowers. Gesturing to the never-ending hills of pastel pink blossoms, he turns to Sophie, who stands in front of him in the form of a young woman, as if the curse has been momentarily disarmed. Taken aback, Howl tells Sophie that she is beautiful. Immediately, Sophie denies his compliment, shrinking and folding back into her elderly enchantment. Her insecurity and internal conflict surrounding her physical existence swallow her voice. Even when the curse ceases to exist, Sophie is voiceless.
Throughout the film, Sophie’s body exists as yet another female body in flux, presenting a conundrum for the viewer: Is Sophie truly inhabiting the body of a stranger? Or is she still physically herself, somehow fast-forwarded through time? Is the spell cast on her not one of total transformation, but just a catalyst for a phenotypical manifestation of her own doubt and self-denial, a manifestation of her inability to articulate her existence?
In a March 2017 talk entitled “Miyazakiworld: Popular culture and the uses of enchantment,” Professor Susan Napier of the Tufts University Japanese Program pointed out that Miyazaki's heroines often forgo the homecomings typical of heroes in Western narratives. It is almost as if once these heroines are in flux, they lose the ability to find their way home.
San stays in the woods, but her wolf-mother is dead; she has developed kinship with humans and can no longer return to the forest as an unequivocal home where she willfully neglects the uncertainties presented by her body. We last see her with a wry smile on her face, far from the aggressive, wild girl we first met. Though Chihiro eventually wins her way out of the spirit world, we see her turn back at the end, her posture calm, measured, and mature—a far cry from the hunched, whining girl we met at the beginning of the film. The kernel she consumed changed her somehow: Perhaps she has just grown up, or perhaps she has left something of herself behind in the eerie spectral landscape—or perhaps she is a different girl entirely. Sophie, young again at the end of the movie but with her hair recently shorn, is last seen turning to kiss Howl on the deck of the moving castle. Her hair remains gray, a reminder of her time in elderly form, but her stance is confident and adoring. Self-doubt banished, she is radiant; though far from the home she originally set out from, Sophie is now at home in herself.
The films provide no neatly packaged conclusion for the continued ambiguities of their heroines’ hybrid existences—girl or wolf? girl or spirit? girl or crone? The viewer and the heroines themselves might never know, and perhaps they aren’t meant to. Perhaps, in never giving them the full-circle homecoming, Miyazaki is telling us something important about bodies in flux: There is no easy answer to be had; only the conflict, the question, and the transformation it offers. The space between the person one is and the person one is becoming is where the reckoning of self happens. It is where we write our stories, where we recognize the complexity and turmoil of moving through this world in a body flawed and pressed upon by politic and expectation. Though it may not be the home we started in, our bodies become the homes we inhabit.
Last month, I returned to Japan. After a haircut (just a trim this time), I descended the staircase into the subway, fed my green ticket into the wicket, and waited for a homebound train. A gust of wind churned through the tunnel, heralding the oncoming train. The familiar three-tone tune sounded and the doors of the train slid open. I stepped into the air-conditioned tube and heard the familiar hush that my half-foreign body in adulthood always seems to inspire—the uncomfortable sweep of glances to the floor, the shuffle of commuters to the edges of velvet-covered benches.
I walked to the suddenly clear center of one bench and sat down. I held my bag in my lap and looked straight ahead, catching my reflection in the dark subway glass. My familiar-alien eyes, my familiar-alien bones, my familiar-alien face, all looking back at me. I appraised myself: the new swing of my hair, the sudden unfurling of something like recognition, small but sure in my chest. I held my own gaze. I smiled.