FEAR & LOATHING @ YUBARI INTERNATIONAL FANTASTIC FILM FESTIVAL: Prologue, Leaving Madame Butterfly
Before I begin this story, I should probably say upfront, I'm an asshole. I've only come to this realization fairly recently. I don't wish to be an asshole. In fact, I've always believed that I had spent my life making great strides in being a good person, a good person who's good to others. I've always made conscious and deliberate efforts to be friendly, accepting, cordial, and gracious. I've always taken pride in my genuine sincerity towards my passions and feelings for others. I've always worked hard to make friends, and I value those friendships that I do have.
But I'm paranoid, I'm overly emotional, I'm delusional, I'm manic, I'm crazy, and I have a violent, unyielding temper. I'm probably more dangerous than I know and I suspect that fact is something that everyone except me has always been aware of. Throughout my life, I have allowed my self-loathing insecurities to dilute and taint my perception. I've fooled myself into believing that I was some hapless nerd who's simply a shit magnet for bad luck. I've always been that pissed off kid who thought the whole world was against him only for being weird and different.
But the truth is that I scare people. I never wanted to scare anyone, but I did and I still do. And having ostracized and alienated myself from the majority of my peers, I've grown angrier and angrier. I'm a bad person, I've done bad things, and I'm about to do more. I'm about to make some unforgivable mistakes because I'm a crazy irrational asshole. You should know this now. You should know that bad things will happen in this story, ugly things, shocking things, things that will make you uncomfortable, things that may offend you. So if you think that may be a problem already, well, you should just stop reading here.
CHAPTER 1: DECEMBER 2004. DON'T SAY SAYONARA, I WANNA SEE YA TOMORRAH!
We sit in my car enveloped in a silence so thick I could cut it with the buck knife that I keep in my back pocket. The 94 Pontiac Grand Am's ratty heating system isn't powerful enough to keep up with the February cold of a Philadelphia winter. We shake and shiver while watching the snow fall around us.
I kill the wipers and let the snow lay on the windshield, whiting out the world around us so that we're alone, cut off from the universe moving forward beyond my car.
My soon to be ex fiancé is beside me in the passenger side bucket seat. She's turned on the water works. Tears are streaming from her eyes, but I can't bring myself to look at her. Her flight back home, over 3000 miles away, has been delayed for at least three hours but in weather like this, it could be canceled altogether until tomorrow.
We're already parked in the unloading zone at the airport.
There's nothing to say. She's already outstayed her visa and is going home to Japan to look for work. I already know that we'll never see each other again although I can't bring myself to say it out loud.
She's already begged me to promise her that I'll wait for her to figure things out, that I'll stay true to her for the next two years.
"Just give me two years, Gregchan. Please, just two years. I promise I will make you proud with what I do. I promise we will be together again. Now you promise me."
I lie and say, "I promise I'll wait for you, Yumi."
I met Yumi while studying abroad two years ago. As you can probably already guess, I went to Japan, and I did what every asshole white male does when he goes to Japan, I fell in love with one of the natives, and thus ruined the rest of my life.
It was a Hollywood romance through and through but I'll save the details for a time when they're a bit more relevant.
The short version of the story goes something like this. I got a respectable stipend from my university to produce a documentary that never happened due to the usual reasons that claim many a documentary's development cycle, mainly, everything going to shit. Indebted to my school for the money I had already received for travel and accommodations, I worked as an industrial videographer producing promotional videos for the school's study abroad program. Like any other nerdy film geek, I fell in love with the country, got myself shacked up with an amazing woman, and refused to leave. I was eventually deported (unofficially) after getting caught with an expired visa.
The woman who took my heart followed me back to the States but didn't find it to her liking. I personally blame Philadelphia for that. I honestly believe that she would have been happier had her introduction to America wasn't this shithole excuse for a city. She fell into a deep depression and we started to fight a lot. After only six months, she decided that she needed to go home and get herself back together again.
I was hurt and angry. I had no hopeful illusions that things would work out like they do in the movies. She had no desire to live in the U.S. and I had no means to find gainful employment in Japan. We were young, too young to adequately handle such a complicated situation, but neither of us was ready to part. The relationship hadn't come to a natural end yet.
We had wasted our last night together arguing over meaningless and irrelevant things.
After a half hour of sitting in the car without speaking a word, I get out and unload her luggage from the trunk and rush her along, giving her an impersonal hug. I want this to be over already. I lie again and tell her that I'll see her soon before watching her walk through the security check in.
I get back into my car and sit there a while longer. I find a pack of cigarettes lying on the back seat. I imagine that a friend must have forgotten them there some time ago. I'd never smoked a cigarette before. I'd always liked to celebrate achievements with a fine cigar and decide that I'd probably enjoy one of these too. My hands are shaking as I grab the crumpled pack of Camels. It may sound hyperbolic, but I'm pretty sure I'm in shock. I loved this woman, more than words could ever articulate. And for incomprehensible reasons, I just discarded her like an old Christmas card. I think about my plans for later tonight. I'll be meeting some friends for some beers, just like any other regular night. I tell myself that everything is fine. As soon as I'm comfortably sitting back in my stool at my favorite watering hole with my close buddies later, I'll feel whole again. But this isn't just some unfortunate speed bump in my life; this isn't just some college fling that I'll quickly move on from. This is probably going to fuck me up for a long time. I light the Camel and add a new vice to my life.
Really, who the fuck starts smoking at 22?
I must have smoked half a pack when I hear someone knocking at my passenger side window. I figure it must be airport security telling me that I need to move out of the unloading zone but I can't see through the coating of snow on the glass. I reach over to open the door and Yumi immediately throws herself back into the car with me.
She's crying hysterically. She wraps her arms around me and pulls me in to kiss her. She locks her lips on mine with a passion few people ever experience in the real world. It's like that moment at the end of every shitty romantic movie. But this isn't a shitty romantic movie. There is no happily ever after here. My lips are unresponsive and my hands are still shaking. It's over. This final embrace is our relationship's swan song.
I want to tell her that I love her but my heart is racing so hard that I'm having difficulty breathing, let alone speak. I put my hand on her shoulder and nod my head. When she looks at me, I see the defeat in her eyes. I've already written my Dear Jane letter which I'll mail out next week. Her silent departure tells me that she's already expecting it. She closes the door and I drive off watching her motionless silhouette in my rear view mirror until she fades to white, disappearing in the snow.
By the time I hit the highway, this moment has already become nothing more than a memory, a memory that will haunt me for the next decade.
CHAPTER 2: FEBRUARY 2003: EVERY OTAKU'S FANTASY
The morning sun's glare penetrates my eyelids, telling my brain that it's time to wake up. It must be just after dawn and I'm getting up from a deep slumber feeling rejuvenated.
I've always had extreme difficulty waking up any time before noon. I've always abused the snooze button on all of my alarms like an addict who can't put the pipe down. I've always had to set my alarms an hour earlier than what's needed so that I can fall back asleep a few more times, tricking myself into believing that I got to sleep in although it never actually works.
I've always had insomnia, even before I found myself with a dependency for the sauce, before I took to spending my nights regularly closing out the bar. Even during my straight edged days, my head rarely hit a pillow before 3am.
But the last three months, I've slept like the dead but woke like an iMac.
When I turn to my side, I know why.
Yumi's arm is around me although she's still asleep. I watch her breathing for a while. I still don't understand how I've been able to win her heart. She's wearing a Yukata, a more casual form of Kimono that resembles a robe.
I can't help but think of an awful, degrading, and absolutely disgusting comment some random asshole Australian once told me at a Roponggi bar a few months back.
"When you take your Japanese girlfriend to bed while she's wearing a kimono, it's like unwrapping the greatest Christmas present you ever got."
At the time, I had immediately decided that this was a guy I'd rather not waste any more time drinking with, and excused myself from the gross club catering to Westerners with yellow fever where I met him.
But in this moment, I think he had a point, as crude and poorly stated as it was.
Yumi and I have been traveling across Japan for the last six weeks and are currently staying at her Grandmother's somewhere in Chiba.
It's important to note that her grandmother is a caretaker of a Shinto shrine in Chiba, the mountains of Chiba. I'm staying at a shrine in the mountains of Japan with the most beautiful and amazing woman I've ever met.
I already know that this will ruin me if the relationship doesn't last. Nothing will ever be as magical, or special, or memorable as this. When I go home, it will be drunken one night stands and bar pickups, extraneous internet dating with self entitled, arrogant, art school students, short term relationships with boring people working boring jobs with boring complaints on all of life's petty boring problems.
I will probably never wake up in shrine in the mountains of Japan with a woman who loves me ever again.
I'll be that pathetic and annoying loser at the bar who wistfully and begrudgingly bothers friends and strangers with stories about his time abroad in college and the Japanese woman whom he left behind there. Those friends and strangers will roll their eyes at me and judge me, and my only response will be ordering another drink.
So I soak everything in like a sponge. I already know that my overly imaginative mind will romanticize this moment into a snapshot that will warp into something both false yet more real than the reality that I perceive in the immediate present.
Yumi wakes up already smiling.
She tells me that she loves me.
CHAPTER 2: OCTOBER 2002: TOYLAND
In The Adventures of Pinocchio, the title's protagonist, a puppet who wishes to be a boy, runs away from home and is eventually lead to a place called Toyland, a place where everyone plays all day and never works.
Once there, Pinocchio first believes that he's found the perfect place to call his home. He has the best time of his still short life but there is a price to pay for getting everything you want. One morning, he wakes having somehow mysteriously been transformed into a donkey.
A close friend once described Japan to me as the Toyland for western men. You go there and are so spoiled with having anything you could possibly desire handed to you with no known consequences that it's inevitable that you'll eventually become a jackass.
This analogy has always stuck with me. It only takes a short time living in Tokyo before you see it in full effect. As far as I can tell, every American, European, Canadian, and especially those asshole Australians I've met in Japan who has spent more than a few months here is a complete asshole.
In the beginning, I was embarrassed to be white, I was embarrassed that I had a penis, I was embarrassed that I could be likened to any of the other creeps strutting around Shibuya bragging about their sexual conquests while fist pumping each other in sleazy hang outs like Gas Panic.
Although, I fear that my fate can have easily be the same.
I had already done my fair share of partying before I met Yumi. Well, I should say, before I had the courage to approach Yumi.
She was a fellow classmate at the University where I was supposed to be studying. From the first moment I saw her passing by in the hallways, I was enamored with her. She was without a doubt, the most gorgeous woman I had ever seen in person. I immediately developed a crush on her. I would get butterflies in my stomach simply from sitting near her in class. Well, that's when I was actually in attendance for class. I was a pompous little prick who wanted to experience Japan, not sit in a room and only read about it.
But I was still insecure. High school was still too fresh in my mind. I was the loser who had been stood up on prom night as a practical joke. I was the kid who was rejected by every girl I had ever bothered asking out.
The same clever friend who had referred to Tokyo as Toyland had also told me that Japanese women were training wheels for foreign losers.
Yes, that's a horrifically dehumanizing sentiment. But I've never shied away from admitting the horrifying truths that define us barbaric men.
I had spent my time in college far terrified of women still based on my high school experiences. But no effort is ever required in Japan. I never even had to approach a woman, they came to me.
I simply have to plant my ass down at any Karaoke bar and ruin any Beatles song to have someone walk over to me and ask if they could buy me a drink. If I was feeling bold enough to sing, "I wanna hold your hand," it's a surefire bet that I would be spending the night at a love hotel, possibly with multiple partners even.
After a few weeks of playing the field, I had a new found sense of confidence and was able to say hi to Yumi.
She was a communications major. She fluently spoke four languages. She was interning with CNN in Tokyo, and had worked for the Japanese embassy in Paris. She was gorgeous, brilliant, and ambitious.
I had to ask her out to dinner.
And I felt like I had won the lottery when she said yes. And when she asked me if I wanted to attend the Tokyo premiere of Kill Bill with her, I felt like the Publishers Clearing House had just cut me a check for twenty million dollars.
I had an African French model friend who was able to hook me up with VIP press credentials for the big premiere. After the film, I was even able to sneak Yumi and I into some insane after party where we shared drinks with Baz Luchmann, Sofia Coppola, and her then boyfriend at the time, Mr. Tarintino himself.
We call this Gaijin power.
For our second date, we attended a Halloween costume party in Kabuki Cho. I was dressed as Tadanabu Asano's character from Ichi the Killer while Yumi went as a Parisian beatnik. We went to a nomi hodai afterward where we both missed our last train home. So she took me to a Salsa club and taught me to tango until 5am. We finished our date at a Yoshinoya for breakfast at the break of dawn. When she kissed me with an innocent kiss farewell, I had one of the most intense erections of my entire life. It lasted the rest of the entire day and I was uncomfortable with blue balls for the rest of the week.
I knew right then that I was in love with her.
CHAPTER 4: YOSHI'S STORY
I'm in second grade and I'm the wimpy kid. I'm the kid who gets beat up every day for his lunch money. I'm the kid who sits alone reading comic books during lunch only to have some bully grab them and tear them up for fun. I'm the kid who has to run home the moment I get off of the bus or else I'll be ganged up on by three or four pieces of white trash that need a hostile release from getting knocked around by their alcoholic out of work dads at night.
I'm in second grade when I meet Yoshi. He's Japanese. He's been in America only for few months. He doesn't really speak English yet and he's the only minority in our elementary school building. Yoshi is a target just like me. Yoshi is alone just like me. Yoshi also reads comics by himself during lunch just like me.
His comics are in black and white and the dialogue is written in Hiragana, but he's alone reading comics nonetheless. We start to trade our funny books. Even though I can't understand his, I like the pictures.
I'm in second grade when Yoshi and I become best friends.
Yoshi learns English and I start to learn some Japanese. By middle school, I'm a full blown Japan-o-phile before I even know what that is or what it means.
By high school, I start to realize that there's something seriously wrong with Yoshi's home life.
Yoshi's mother is beautiful and she doesn't speak a single word of English but she's married to an obese, emotionally abusive white man who doesn't speak a single word of Japanese.
Yoshi's white step father disappears for long periods of time. None of us know where, but supposedly, it's for work.
Yoshi falls into a deep depression by senior year. He has a 4.0 but decides to forgo college. He yearns to return to Japan and find his biological father.
By college, Yoshi is able to track down the father he can barely remember who's named Yodai, and suddenly, his life story becomes a lot more epic that just being the awkward geeky Asian kid stuck living in the suburbs of Philly.
Yoshi learns that his father was originally from Okinawa, an island most famous for housing America's biggest military base in Japan. But for anyone with any familiarity with Japan, they know that Okinawa is almost something of an entirely separate country. The islanders look different from mainlanders, their dialect is different, their entire culture is different, and they are looked down upon by the mainlanders. There is an entire history of oppression against Okinawans by mainland Japan.
Yoshi's father left his home to pursue more financially lucrative opportunities in Yokohama. Somehow, he found himself wrapped up with the Yakuza, and over time, had worked his way up to being a prominent Oyabun's second hand man.
Being a prominent yakuza member, Yodai found himself a beautiful woman to marry who gave birth to his son, Yoshi.
During the early 90's, Yodai's gang was embroiled in a violent turf battle with another. After bearing witness to untold violence, the falsely glamorous life of being a Yakuza's wife suddenly became a lot less glamorous for Yoshi's mother. When she discovered that she was pregnant with a second son, her maternal instincts took over, and she decided to flee the country in fear of her children's safety.
She wed a well do to American business man through an agency specializing in cross cultural marriage arrangements in an attempt to seek refuge.
By the early 2000's, Yodai had left the gang life behind and became a sushi chef for a prominent restaurant located in a Hilton just outside of Yokohama.
Yoshi had also confirmed a long time suspicion that his American step father had another family elsewhere in the States. His long business trips were a cover. He was really going back to his true home with a white woman and three kids.
I can't imagine what it must have been like living in that house, knowing that your mother is a stay in sex toy for some fat American shit head. The things he must have heard through the walls at night. No wonder he turned into such a strange, misanthropic person.
Yoshi became an entirely different person for me. His story had become something exceptional.
He told me that he planned on leaving the States to be with his father, to get back in touch with his roots. I asked him if I could follow him to document it, and he agreed.
So I got a stipend to study abroad contingent on my plans to film a documentary on Yoshi's journey. But he fell seriously ill and was unable to leave America.
Meanwhile, I had already been paid and was already enrolled in classes in Tokyo.
Years later, Yoshi did finally return to live with his father. We remained in contact for a while until he disappeared one day shortly after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
I had become close with Yoshi's family in Japan during my stay there, and even they are perplexed with his whereabouts. He wasn't staying in or around any of the areas that had been hit hard by the natural disaster, but he did vanish only days afterward.
I've been trying to get a hold of him since, hoping that he'll reach back out to me again from wherever he is, but so far, he could be dead for all I know.
Although, I do have his father's name and the address for his restaurant and have been planning on meeting him if I ever did return to Japan.
CHAPTER 5: THE HORRIBLE YESTERDAYS SINCE AND MY HORRIBLE PLANS FOR TOMORROW
Just how bad was I devastated by Yumi? Well, I wrote a feature film inspired by her; I directed a fictional narrative short and autobiographical short documentary which nearly took top prize with an IFC Film contest that were both about her. I created an entire collection of artwork of her which was booked for two separate solo art gallery exhibits.
I continuously interviewed for shitty English teaching jobs in between film gigs so I could return to Japan and see her again.
But it never happened. And she generally ignored all of my letters and gifts that I had sent over the years.
And then the Tsunami hit on March 11th, 2011, my birthday. Although we rarely spoke since the break up, I always got a letter, or a phone call, or an email from Yumi on my birthday. Obviously, I didn't get any of those that year.
I spent my birthday in hysterics, fearing the news that many of my close friends from Japan could possibly be dead. Worst of all, that Yumi could possibly be gone. A lot of my friends lost a lot of family, and one or two close acquaintances did pass away tragically enough, but those who mattered most to me personally seemed to be fine.
I was inspired to organize a charity for Tsunami relief, and thus I co-founded and organized a week long Japanese film and music festival in Philadelphia.
I soon found myself back in contact with Yumi. We were emailing each other regularly; we were speaking to each other like old friends. She had to quit her job to take care of her ailing mother who was living on limited time but otherwise, she no longer had any plans for the future.
I was convinced I could be her shining white knight in armor once again, that I come save her after her mother passes and she's had the proper time to grieve, that I could whisk her away and give her a life full of amazing opportunities back in the states. I had always argued that she was foolish to pursue a career in Japan. Let's face it, it's a sexist nation, they're still living in the past. She will always be an office lady; she will always be the attractive woman in a short skirt serving asshole men coffee and tea.
But in America she's the Japanese woman who speaks four languages with a 4.0, every employer here is going to fight for her.
But after two months of regular correspondence, Yumi disappeared again. I later secured a V.I.P. press badge for the Tokyo International Movie Festival in October of 2011. I secured my travel and accommodations; I tracked Yumi's whereabouts through mutual friends. I organized a Halloween custom party that doubled as a college reunion. I had Yumi invited to the party unaware that I was the one who organized it, or that I would even be in attendance.
I was a stupid fucking jerk who watched too many stupid fucking films and read too many stupid fucking books. Those hopeless romantics with their grand gestures that we love so much in popular culture, they're assholes in real life.
What I had planned wasn't beautiful, it was cruel. But I've already made a disclaimer here, I'm an asshole even if my intentions may be the polar opposite. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and all that.
Someone had dropped the dime on me and gave Yumi all of the details on my scheme. I thank the god that I don't believe in that someone did. Only two weeks before my departure I received a phone call from Yumi.
"Do not come here for me unless you come here to be my friend. It is too late, Greg-San. I was a girl and you were a boy when we met. Now I am a woman and you are a man. It is time to grow up; it is time to forget me as your lover. I let you write your stories about me; I let you make your paintings of me even though it makes me uncomfortable. My mother is gone and I am with another man. He is French, his Japanese is better than yours, he was there for me, you were not. I am living with him now and we are getting married in the spring. Greg-San, come to Japan for yourself, do not come for me."
I never went to Japan.
I destroyed every photo, every letter, any and every physical piece of evidence that I had that would prove that I had ever known her. Like Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I tried to erase her completely.
But now I'm approaching my 30th birthday and for the last three months, I've been dreaming of Japan at night, I've been dreaming of her.
Every awful date with every obnoxious woman serves as a reminder of what I left behind. Every time I wake up in the morning with some American woman photographer who thinks of herself as same great artist for taking Instagram photos of urban ruin with her cell phone and has an indifferent attitude towards almost everything in life outside of The Walking Dead, I think of her.
I made a pact with myself when I was 13. if I was still alone, still not content with my life, if I hadn't found any satisfaction or success in my creative pursuits, I would simply kill myself rather than let myself fall into some booze fueled depression like so many others I know.
Now, I'm 3 weeks way from turning 30 and I fear what might happen. Will I wake up in the middle of the night on the 11th and take the loaded gun that I keep on my nightstand and turn it on myself?
I decide to make one last ditch effort. I've got my press badge and a travel stipend to attend the Yubari Fantastic Film festival in Hokkaido. But I couldn't care less about the films. I'm going for Yumi.
Oh, I know she's remarried to some little French prick. I bet he's older, I bet he's some cocky, pretentious son of a Parisian whore. I'll find a way to get him out of the equation. That's for sure.
Yes, I know that I've completely lost it.
But first, I need to find Yoshi. I'll track down his ex Yakuza father, Yodai. I've always gotten along with Yakuza. I'll win him over, and I'll see if he can help me win the woman I never stopped loving back.
I haven't had a drink since I returned from Park City. I've been on the wagon for the last three weeks, and yet, I feel my sanity slipping away even faster with my newly found sobriety.
Judge alcoholics and addicts all you want, but maybe you should humor the thought that drunks and junkies are better off high, that maybe they're even worse when they're not self medicated.
Japan, Yubari, Yumi, here I come.
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK!
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