Ariko, 15, lives with her father Naoki in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. One day she goes by herself to see the Manoel de Oliveira film Voyage to the Beginning of the World, and meets an unusual girl named Nada, with wild red hair and different colored eyes?one jade, one pale blue. “Nada” means “nothing.” She speaks without reserve, and for some reason seems to know a great deal about Ariko, who therefore regards her rather uncertainly for a time before finally being won over by her easy, outgoing nature.
Ariko’s Portuguese mother and Japanese father had met in Brazil when they were both newly arrived students; at the time Naoki was just 19. They had fallen in love and gotten married, but when Ariko was three her mother went home to Portugal and died there. Since his wife’s untimely death, the socially awkward Naoki has remained single and brought up their daughter on his own, cherishing his wife’s memory as he quietly toils away in his appliance repair shop.
Ariko is a pretty girl who often catches the eyes of others, but her own opinion of her looks is unfavorable, and she has never learned to socialize and make friends. Except for going to school, she is accustomed to spending most of her time at home by herself. On the one hand she feels a certain resistance to Nada’s free and uninhibited ways, but she also envies her. One day, at a dinner hosted by Nada, she meets a boy she finds attractive named Jitto, but Nada tells her he’s off limits. Ariko simply assumes this means Nada likes him, so she is stunned when Nada later tells her, “Jitto is dead. He died two years ago.” The next time she sees Jitto, Ariko tells him about her mother, and that she had had a twin sister who died shortly after birth. Jitto tells her that he was born in Portugal and his father lives in Nazareth. She likes his openness.
When the time comes for Rio’s famed Carnival, Nada invites Ariko to a party. There Ariko learns that Nada is in fact her dead twin sister, and Jitto comes to her rescue when Nada is about to lead her over to the other side?to the land of the dead. She also learns that Jitto is not dead after all. Having gained a whole new perspective on Nada and Jitto, Ariko travels with Jitto to Portugal to visit her mother’s roots. It becomes a true “voyage to the beginning” for her, and she feels for the first time that she is not alone in the world.
Meanwhile Naoki, too, has embarked on a “voyage to the beginning.” A visiting Japanese businessman named Hatano takes an interest in some toys Naoki had been fashioning out of scrap metal in his spare time. After years of limiting his use of Japanese to conversations with Ariko, Naoki purchases a computer and commences an email correspondence with Hatano, and little by little starts to emerge from his shell.