Floating World

Institute History

  • 1996 January Screenwriters Lab


Olivia Osaka, the young narrator of THE FLOATING WORLD, loves the open road. The year is 1953, eight years after her family's release from a WW II Japanese American internment camp. Traveling with her mother, stepfather, grandmother, and two younger brothers, Olivia has come to feel secure in the cocoon-like intimacy of the automobile. In her mind, "We were stable traveling through an unstable world while my stepfather looked for work."

But her sense of security ends abruptly. One day in a motel in the Arizona desert, she peeks through the window, and across a hot, windswept, parking lot sees her beautiful mother, Mariko, talking to a handsome, successful-looking, mysterious man. It is Jack Kitano, her biological father. The sight of him thrills and horrifies her. It is the first time she has ever seen him and the last time she will see or hear from him for seven years. She senses that her mother is still in love with Jack, and is filled with enormous guilt, wondering if she was the reason Jack abandoned her mother. Olivia becomes obsessed with trying to unravel the mystery of her mother's affair with Jack, her mother's loveless marriage to her stepfather, Charlie-O, and her own part in this triangle.

Life on the road loses some of its charm. Olivia realizes that for her parents, being
on the move is partly a way of giving vent to their unhappy marriage. While her parents suffer in silence, Olivia's grandmother, the magical, humorous, cigar-smoking Obasan, becomes her ally. The eccentric old woman's cryptic life lessons and colorful stories entertain Olivia and she provides an anchor for the young girl. But the hopelessness—and endlessness—of the road causes Obasan to become increasingly bizarre, cruel, and neurotic. Her estrangement from her granddaughter culminates in a poignant, eerie scene in which Olivia refuses to get help as Obasan dies on a cold, tiled bathroom floor. The guilt Olivia suffers manifests itself in surreal encounters with Obasan's ghost in the years to come.

Overwhelmed with the pressures of family life, Olivia vents her frustrations by shoplifting and obsessively writing letters to Jack, her biological father—letters she puts away and doesn't send. Craving stability she is relieved when Charlie-0 lands a real job in Arkansas and the family is finally able to settle down.

But Arkansas proves every bit as unstable as being on the road. Olivia's stepfather turns to gambling for solace and entertainment, her mother turns to other men. Olivia decides to take a job at a hatchery thinking the extra money will ease the tensions at home. There she meets Tan, a boy as handsome and as driven, competent and as in control of life as she imagines her biological father to be. In a dusty, old abandoned school bus in a junkyard near the hatchery, their passion transports them miles and years away from all their problems. Olivia falls in love.
Just when it seems that Olivia is finally forging a life independently of her family, Charlie-0 suffers a mental breakdown. His Japanese-American co¬workers coldly fire him and Olivia and Tan are caught in the middle. Tan must choose between his livelihood and his loyalty to his girlfriend's father. Distraught, he sides with his livelihood. Olivia must side with Charlie-O. She breaks up with Tan although her heart is shattered.

Bereft, she tells Charlie-0 that she hates him and finally sends all the letters she has stored up over the years to her biological father Jack. To her surprise, she receives a reply from him. Jack's health is failing him, and he asks Olivia to help him with his vending machine route in the Southwest just until he can sell it. Olivia agrees to do it simply to spend time with him and find out who he is.

For the first time in her life, Olivia is on her own. She says good by to her family in Arkansas and boards the Greyhound bus for Arizona. There she finally meets the man she's fantasized about all her life—a man who, disappointingly, turns out to be nothing like what she had imagined. It is in her last encounter with him that she is able to assess the true nature of her feelings for her mother, Charlie-O, and her grandmother—and is finally relieved from her sense of guilt at being born into a world she perceived did not want her.


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