| Arts & Culture
Formation Jukebox What Michelle Zauner’s “Paprika” Taught Me About Making Art (and Peace With It)
What a joy it is—a singular joy, an occasion for jubilee—to allow your art’s translation through another point of view.
The main character of the anime film Paprika has a hard time determining who she really is. Metaphorically: The titular Paprika is an avatar/alter ego of Dr. Chiba, a researcher pioneering “dream therapy” that involves entering a sleeping patient’s visualization of their dream. And literally: At one point, a colleague presses his hand into Paprika’s belly and subdermally slices up the seam of her torso to reveal the “real” Dr. Chiba, slick in this open wound of a womb. In reality, Dr. Chiba is Paprika’s creator; in dreams, Paprika is Dr. Chiba’s keeper and says what she won’t, or what she hasn’t realized is true.
Without getting too deep into Paprika ’s plot, the film ends with a character standing at the center of the world, devouring its dream poison and resetting it back to a firmly “real” state. Or something like that: It’s usually self-defeating to try and translate the nuances and intricacies of animation, with its polyphony of symbols, into anything lucid. But the singer and songwriter Michelle Zauner gets as close as anyone can on the opening track of Jubilee , her third record as the band Japanese Breakfast.
“Paprika” the song might begin where Paprika the film finishes. “Lucidity came slowly / I awoke from dreams of untying a great knot,” Zauner sings over sunrise synths that slowly burble and build. A sonic wash of watercolors laps around the edges of her keen voice as, senses still blunted by grogginess, she imagines not just unraveling this knot but following its separated strings back to their mysterious sources, like an inversion of Theseus and the labyrinth. But whereas the Greek hero laid string out to chart his escape, Zauner pulls threads while wondering, “What else is here?”
What follows is a chorus that’s best expressed in full and faithful reproduction:
How’s it feel to be at the center of magic
To linger in tones and words?
I opened the floodgates and found
No water, no current, no river, no rush
How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers
To captivate every heart?
Projеcting your visions to strangers
Who feel it, who listen to linger on еvery word
I have a hard time making out lyrics in songs, but the chorus in “Paprika” was an instantly legible hair-raiser, a procession of prophetic poetry set like gems in an equally lambent instrumental. Zauner, an anime fan herself, likely recasts Paprika ’s towering finale figure as an artist in the eye of the creative cyclone. Anyone who’s ever been the recipient of rapturous applause or vividly imagined it can recognize the siren’s call of “the center of magic,” the pleasure and gravity-warping pressure of that space. The song’s production falls over itself to match the celebration sounds: The horns (and also, in Zauner’s case, the gong ) come in, the clouds clear for the sun, the boy gets the girl or the girl gets the girl or whatever. In more explicit terms, “It”—the dream, whatever it is—comes true.
In an interview about Jubilee , Zauner cuts right to the meaning of “Paprika,” saying, “I’ve always felt like I needed to experience some type of anguish in order to feel productive as an artist. ‘Paprika’ is a reminder to recognize you’re in this really enviable position of being a professional artist and to relish in that.” She knows more than most what it’s like to not just smile and wave in the spotlight but to do so with tears teetering in her eyes. Though she’s a career musician, Zauner’s also a brutal memoirist, most obviously so in her 2021 book Crying in H Mart , which covers her always-loving, often-turbulent relationship with her mother, who passed away in 2014.
Over the past couple of years, Zauner’s promoted both Crying in H Mart and Jubilee as a parade marshall, leading readers and listeners alike into the chambers of her personal life to meaningful acclaim and connection. The flurry of book-related adoration comes on top of her already-sacrosanct status as a young god of modern Asian American music ( whatever that might mean ), one of a growing handful, but still a handful , of AAPI artists who have pushed to the front of their respective cultural fields. As she herself puts it, Zauner has strangers listening, lingering on every word she writes, sings, or fires off on social media.
I’m one of them. I openly marvel at—and wonder how she shoulders the burden of—her illusory act. The sleight of hand required to deftly direct an audience’s attention toward your life, or perhaps the version of it that you’ve made public peace with and that works as an accompanying narrative to your art. All while preserving the person who says the wrong thing and makes the same mistakes twice and whose later reflections on the present will become the growth that ossifies into the foundation of their future work.
What might Zauner herself say about this cascade of attention? We already know. In “Paprika,” her response is, “Oh, it’s a rush,” delivered as a swoon. But even during her glittering jubilee, she takes a moment to step out of the shimmer: “But alone it feels like dying / All alone, I feel so much.” At the center of magic, the artist feels the past in her bones and wonders, What else is here? At the center of magic, the artist feels the past in her bones and wonders,
What else is here?
The gift of art is never limited to the art object itself, though it might start there. I can trace how Paprika the novel (written by Yasutaka Tsutsui, released in 1993) begot Paprika the film (directed by Satoshi Kon, released in 2006), which begot “Paprika” the song (written by Michelle Zauner, released in 2021), which kind of begot my own novel (written by me, released in 2022) and which certainly begot this essay. So I know that the full measure of art’s impact is necessarily something the creator can’t control and ideally shouldn’t want to. You can usually tell when someone is backseat driving the creation of their “legacy,” misinterpreting POV as a front-facing camera instead of as what exists when you exit the frame.
Most of my work from the past five years has been an attempt to unravel the knot I’ve made of my personhood—which involves being trans and Asian American, among other things—and the art that’s come out of this unraveling. It’s through writing I’ve most easily explored and divulged Big Life Changes, a reflex which has bitten me in the ass before. In my early twenties, I did my sister the favor of calling her before an essay I’d written about my abortion went live, and she said something to the effect of “I’m glad you gave me a heads-up, but did you really have to go about it this way?” Time has not made me more gracious; instead of telling people that I was trans, I wrote about it and passed them the link.
But then my novel came out this summer. Normally, given my working history as an interviewer, I am the one observing the conflict between public art and private lives. But then I crossed the line of action : I became the one deciding how to be myself for other people—not just in the semipublic digital world but also in the very public real world. When casual and professional questioners alike ask(ed) me why I wrote my novel, I pause(d): Should I drum up the similarities between me and my characters, many of whom are queer and Asian? If yes, how should I go about this? Should I put myself forward as an “important” authority of my various “identities,” like I’d seen other minoritized and racialized authors do? Should I claim the “first” of anything while decrying the histories that allow me or my writing to make that claim? Would such a performance, which has basis in things I really think and—to some extent— am , significantly change the way my art is perceived? Would it do anything besides raise a narcissistic monster, someone for whom self-congratulation is an untoppable compliment? Would any of this serve anyone but me?
I often feel like an active construction site, one in which I both sit in the excavator’s cab and chain myself to the fence in order to stop production. “Enough!” I yell, as though I can hear anything through the drone of heavy machinery; as though I, the person who has to cover their mosquito bites with bandages so they don’t scratch until they draw blood, could possibly stop myself from digging deeper into the hole of my—what? Ambition? Desire? Pride? It does matter to me that I write largely about “trans issues” and “Asian issues,” even though that kind of phrasing and framing makes me wince. I’ve already broken bedrock, so what’s another few meters? And I still have so much to say, to give, to give, to give.
But what I think I finally understand is what a joy it is—a singular joy, an occasion for jubilee—to allow your art’s translation through another point of view. To do so releases you from what you think your art is about and shows you what it actually is. Three months out from publishing, I’m already receiving fan mail and fan works about and inspired by my writing. It’s a trip to witness your art resonate like a singular whale song through the deep ocean of history. For me, the trip is intensified by the fact that I discussed this exact phenomena with Michelle herself many years ago.
Back in 2018, I interviewed Zauner for a magazine cover story. A couple of months later, I wrote a blog post that was, along with other quotidian observations, about what it felt like to report that piece and see it out there, alive in the world: “I know it meant something to a lot of people.” Even though “it” was only what I’d written around someone else’s life, people had sent me appreciative messages. At the time they wrote, “Thank you for being an Asian American woman, writing about an Asian American woman, at this level.” Although the facts of their appreciation have changed, these missives gave me a taste of what I’m experiencing now.
Isn’t this why I make art? I just want my work to touch people as much as other people’s work has touched me. The kind of touch that goes heart to heart, like when I watched Paprika for the first time and felt the world tilt into magic. Like when I listened to “Paprika” for the first time, taking the express bus across the San Francisco Bay to clock in for my day job. Hearing “Oh, it’s a rush” as the stark-white spires of the Bay Bridge clipped past and then beyond the window on which I rested my head. The tears in my eyes teetered, then fell.
Up until recently, I privately disagreed with Zauner’s insistence that “Paprika” is a jubilant song. There’s “But alone, it feels like dying,” and then the matter of the second verse: “I want my offering to woo, to calm, to clear, to solve / But the only offering that comes / It calls, it screams, there’s nothing here.” After this summer, it seems as though she preemptively scried me closely through a perfect diamond loupe.
I’m not immune to the seductive affliction common to insecure artists, the knee-jerk instinct to totally show their work—explicitly mapping out the ley lines between influences and identities—in order to prove that yes, they did in fact do the work or they are the work. But what do you (I) gain in exchange for your (my) transparency, which can—like anything—be faked? What compels me to create is that my art makes it possible for me to be more than what other people have told me I am or what I think of myself, and that makes what I create inherently joyful even, especially when I’m not.
What compels me to create is that my art makes it possible for me to be more than what other people have told me I am or what I think of myself, and that makes what I create inherently joyful even, especially when I’m not.
“There’s nothing here,” as Zauner sings it, isn’t a nihilistic read of the artist’s condition, of giving your all and getting nothing tangible back. Because I know how good art has affected me and changed my life, my offering can’t be and was never going to be for me. Sure, it’s for those who are similarly trans and Asian and music-obsessed and tenderhearted—but really, for anyone who will carry my art with them and release it into their own lives to take on yet another life. Who I “am” or what I “represent” won’t survive beyond me, but I have a shot at immortality through something that speaks better for me than I could ever speak for myself.
What Zauner so precisely articulated, what all artists who have the time and penchant for self-reflection know, is that no matter what you believe your work “is,” once it’s out there you are left with nothing to hold except the memory of making it. And that’s not only the point, that’s the goal. All it ever was, could be, or is, is in you still. So at the center of magic, you open the floodgates and accept the honor and privilege of being perceived, then leave the stage to see what else is there.