Bent over the huge concrete basin that passed for a communal sink, I used a small plastic washbowl to wash my face then straightened up to inspect myself in the mirror, which was flecked here there and everywhere with little white patches of corrosion. My eyes hurt. My head spun. Which is what always happens when I look at warped things, blurry things, my eyes start to hurt and my head starts to spin, and that’s not to mention the pimples on my forehead and those bluish spots all over the place, I hate, hate, hate that this is happening. H-A-T-E. The fact that I’m breaking out like this means something untoward is definitely going on inside my body, and I hate it – such were the thoughts running through my head when the woman who occupied the caretaker’s room downstairs called out to me: ‘What’re you staring at yourself in that mirror for?’
The woman was a freaky number. What was freaky about her? Well, her appearance, her goddamn physiognomy was freaky enough, looking more or less exactly like some classic squint-eyed snaggle-toothed witch straight out of a fairy-tale, but freakier still was her behaviour, her psychological profile, by which I mean that even though she happened to be stationed in the ground-floor caretaker’s room, she was not, in fact, the caretaker, she had just wormed her way into the room and settled herself there. And yet – whether she sought it out or whether the bona fide caretaker who used to live and work in that office left it behind, god only knows – she’d taken to wearing a blue caretaker’s uniform and posting herself at the front desk in the lobby all day long, glaring at people as they came in, demanding to know who they were, shamelessly asking them their business, accepting packages on behalf of absent residents. Hell, of late she’d even taken to patrolling every floor of the building like she was a security guard or something. That’s what was really freaky.
No one who lived in the building was exactly thrilled about her behaviour. A lot of us didn’t bother to hide our suspicion that this woman did not have the legal owner’s permission to be doing any of this, and one guy even came right out and told her in no uncertain terms to give it a rest, but the woman didn’t seem to pay him any mind, just flashed him an unbecomingly coquettish smile and said, ‘Ah, well, you know,’ looking up all doe-eyed at him but clearly not taking his words to heart, since she kept right on masquerading as the caretaker like nothing had ever happened.
But humans are a peculiar breed, you take your eye off the ball for one second and the next thing you know you’re telling this woman that so-and-so might come by to see me this afternoon, will you tell her I’ll be back later?, and then on the way home you give her some of whatever food you picked up while you were out – as if she were the real caretaker after all.
As far as I can tell it’s not just me, either – it’s the same with the other residents, to the point that now the woman is pretty much universally acknowledged as the caretaker (sometimes getting tipped, even), making the rounds gossiping to residents about other residents they’d never had anything to do with before and generally claiming a monopoly on everyone’s personal business.
The worst thing you can do with someone like that is go letting your guard down – one wrong word and there’s no telling what she’ll go around saying to the other residents, who affect disinterest while secretly thinking that if they happened to find a chink in your armour, they would quite like to shove the knife in and twist. ‘That guy up on the third floor was ogling his reflection like he couldn’t take his eyes off himself. Fancies himself a real looker. As if! What a chump,’ that’s the kind of thing she’d saying to them, and then they’d all look down on me as some ridiculous narcissist. And when people look down on you, they see that as license to do whatever they want, so sometime when I was out they’d break the chain on my door and take all my stuff, or punch me right in the guts as we passed each other in the hall, or steal my lunch or whatever. When that kind of stuff happens you’ve got no choice but to square your shoulders and fight, though there’s frankly no way you’re going to get off without a scratch when the odds are stacked against you like that. And so I responded carefully and cautiously.
‘I’m not staring at anything. I was just thinking how long my beard is getting.’
‘Then why not shave?’
‘Yeah, thanks a bunch. Like there’s any hope of finding a razor blade these days!’
‘Tell me about it. The other day, Mr Fatagi up on the second floor asked me to get him one, right, so I went all the way to the shop. I told him they wouldn’t have any. I knew there was no way they would have any. But he says they definitely will, Mr Fatagi does. So I went to see, and sure enough they didn’t. So I come back and I tell him they don’t have any, right, and what happens? He punches me! Just the other day, that was.’ Then the crazy old girl started grinning. Now she mentioned it, I could see a bluish patch around her eye. Best not to engage, I thought instinctively.
‘Well, yup, that’s the way it goes. See you,’ I said, about to leave, when the woman got all flustered and said,
‘But you know, you can find pretty much anything, if you look in the right place.’ She was probably just saying whatever popped into her head, just to keep the conversation going. But, razor blades, really? Not a fucking chance.
‘Yeah? And where would that be?’
‘The Avatar Market.’
‘Avatar Market? What the hell is that?’
‘It’s a market. It’s new.’
‘And where is it?’
‘Near the avatar, obviously.’
‘Isn’t that kind of far?’
‘I’ve heard they have everything you could want, though. Literally everything,’ she said, taking an egg out of her bag and sucking on it before continuing, ‘Go to Avatar Market, right, and they’ll have anything you could ever wish for.’
It’s not like I believed the woman.
But I figured going to see the avatar wasn’t such a bad idea. I’d always had a thing for avatars. AH – VAH – TARRR – it’s got a hell of a ring to it. I’d like to become an avatar after I die, if I can. Most likely that isn’t gonna happen, though. And so, I figured I might as well at least go see one. Which is to say that, despite being so into avatars, all I’d really done about it was swish the word around in my mouth, hadn’t even made a single pilgrimage. Quite possibly it was exactly this half-arsed attitude of mine that kept me bumming around in this shithole, and I figured that visiting the avatar’s shrine might just help me move into a better flat, not to mention that if the old lady was telling the truth, I could maybe get my hands on some razor blades, a towel, even some leeks, all of which couldn’t be had for love nor money at the local supermarkets and convenience stores of late because they were always out of stock, or if they had a sturdy padlock, I mean it would depend on the price, but I sure wouldn’t mind buying one just in case. I shoved a pint of whisky and some tissues into a courier bag and headed out.
I went up the subway stairs. It was a clear day. There was nothing much to see. On the far side of the six-lane road was a shop selling personal seals, an opticians, a dry cleaners and a DoCoMo shop and what with the silver railing on this side of the pavement and the banners lined up outside, the whole parade had something of a majestic appearance. Except that all the stores had their shutters down and were very clearly not open for business, and it struck me that the old girl must’ve been lying after all. Talking out of her arse, just like always. Having a grand old time mixing people up with her unique brand of bullshit. Well, however grand a time she was having now, she was going to get what was coming to her, no question, and then we would see if she could just keep on sitting there in that caretaker’s office like she was the goddamn caretaker. Not bloody likely.
I figured they must have closed the road, because there wasn’t a car to be seen on any of its six lanes. Instead it was dotted with makeshift huts. A shantytown, smoke rising from the cooking fires. She didn’t seem to realise how close she was to joining them, that short-sighted biddy – if she got ousted from the caretaker’s office, where else would she go? Well, she could go die for all I cared. Cursing her thus, I set off walking and soon came upon a middle-aged woman in a red dress, leaning against the silver railing, apparently waiting for someone. I made my approach in the hopes of asking the way to the avatar, but it soon became clear that I wasn’t going to get anywhere with her. Was she was rehearsing for a play or something? I had no way of telling, but she was coming out with things like, ‘That’s right! And you know, that’s not all,’ and, ‘The thing is, that’s absolutely right,’ to no one in particular, opening her eyes wide and pouting her craggy lips and carrying on with great animation just as if there was someone there beside her. She had a pastry in her hand, but she was so wrapped up in her imaginary conversation that she’d forgotten all about it. Is she going to eat it or what? I wondered as I passed her, and after I’d gone about ten metres I turned around, wondering if she’d tucked into it yet, only to see a huge guy in a knitted cap stride up and smack her right in the face. The woman spun around like a top and went down. The man leaned over, picked up the pastry the woman had dropped, and polished it off in three bites.
Guess they’re married, I thought, given how casual and quiet the man’s sudden act of violence had been. No matter how much of a physical advantage you have, when you punch a perfect stranger you put some spirit into it, maybe throw in an angry yell or a jeer or something. Despite this man’s superior physical strength, he wasn’t doing a lick of work, not a lick of labour, was instead having this woman stage a whole performance and just skimming a cut. Which gets me to thinking, wasn’t that exactly the social structure those people who blew themselves up at the broadcasting centre the other day were protesting? Leaving aside the question of whether the married couples on TV lately are a reflection of this reality, or whether everyone sees this shit on TV and convinces themselves this is how married couples behave, there seem to be only two ways wives get depicted: Wife One is the Mother Teresa type, self-sacrificing to a fault, who pawns all her worldly belongings to bring in some money when her husband has none, entertaining her husband’s clients and treating them to all the bounties of land and sea while contenting herself with a dinner of steamed millet in the dim light of the earthen kitchen. Her husband and his guests sleep on tatami, while she beds down on the dirt floor and makes do with a blanket of straw before getting up at five to make breakfast and shine the clients’ shoes. And when they take their leave, she hands them each a fat wad of pocket money to help improve her husband’s reputation. When battles with his professional rivals find her husband at his wits’ end, she steels him with an optimistic word before sending him back into the fray, or occasionally simply crushes his foes all on her own. She never lets slip a single word of complaint, never pleads to be taken to Disneyland or to other countries, but merely devotes herself body and soul to her husband’s advancement in the world, to his pleasure as if it were her own, in return for which her husband says once a week, ‘Sorry to be such a burden.’
Then there’s Wife Two, who has so little going on upstairs that her state transcends innocence and maketh one think, be the woman a simpleton? and when her husband comes home she snuggles up to him like a child, but the husband doesn’t scold her for this, he just chuckles amiably like someone whose dog has run out to greet him, saying, ‘There’s a good girl!’ as he pets her lovingly. This pleases the wife even more, and she snuggles up even closer. When she breaks a teacup or spills something across his important documents, she doesn’t even apologise, just giggles, yet this doesn’t upset her husband either. She depends upon her husband so completely that if he died she would have no choice other than to die too, except that luckily he’s had the foresight to take out a life insurance policy, so even that eventuality is of no concern and they can live out their lives amid peals of merry laughter.
Now, neither of these Wives exist in reality, of course, and are rather some kind of fantastical illusion born out of the screenwriters’ wild imaginings or preconceptions about what women must be like, but this illusion then affects reality, at which point we end up with people like this guy, punching his wife and stealing her pastry.
You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me, I thought as I looked on, at which point the guy clocked me staring and growled unintelligibly, snarling like a rabid dog as he started walking towards me, so I began to walk away at a clip.
Observing this, he cocked his head and watched me go, taking occasional bites from another pastry, but showed no sign of following, so eventually I slackened my pace. The avenue was still as deserted as before, each and every store had its shutters down and not a one was open for business, but then where had the woman got those pastries? Had the old bag been right after all – was there indeed a market somewhere, even if there was no sign or hint of any such thing?
And yet, however deadly subdued this shopping street was, I found that wherever I looked it was overflowing with the written word. The briefest of glances yielded ‘Insane deals on mobile phones!’ ‘General Paediatric Orthodontics’, ‘Takahashi’, ‘Open 24 Hours’, ‘GUARANTEEDSAFESECURE’, ‘Grill the Government!’, ‘Gauze Dressing Gown 2200 Socks 3 pairs 1000 Backpacks 1000 yen’, ‘Trust and Welfare – New Phoenix Party’ written on slips of paper pasted to telephone poles and lowered shutters or hung outside on signboards. Yet everything the words said was a lie, the truth was there were no guarantees anymore, and no welfare either, just guys knocking down women and stealing their pastries. Nothing was open twenty-four hours because all the stores were closed, and not a one of them was selling muslin dressing gowns. All words, all phrases are lies, only this blue sky is real. And maybe this burning smell, too. The old lady might have duped me into coming this far, but from now on I’m going to live my life secure in the knowledge that it’s all a pack of lies. Here are some more lying words, right here on this poster: ‘Avatar Azalea Festival Market, Open Every Day’. Sorry, but I won’t get fooled again. Azalea Festival, my arse! You think I’m gonna fall for that inane ploy? No fucking way. Photos of azalea blossoms and a festival shrine float? As if you even see any azaleas blooming any more, you moron. And again, underneath the pictures, more lies: ‘Market open all day every day.’ You’re full of shit, there isn’t a single store open anywhere, and plus – wait a second! Is this – could this by any chance be the market the woman was talking about? Not like I believe her crap or anything, but now I think of it, I remember Mr Kuraido telling me that lately ‘bazaars’ have been trendy with the very wealthy, or at least the wealthy younger set, and that they’ve been popping up here and there in all the chichi neighbourhoods.
Yes, Mr Kuraido was saying that bazaars with little lanes and alleys are enjoying a spell of popularity, that these so-called bazaars where ‘narrow paths running in a grid are lined on both sides with little stalls about six feet wide, all under one roof, in other words just like old-time marketplaces’ are all the rage these days. The stalls, he said, include record stores, variety stores, clothing stores, cosmetics stores, massage stands, tattoo parlours, dollmakers, game stores, musical instrument stores, bondage gear stores, all kinds of things aimed at young people, plus food and drink stands selling ice cream, sandwiches, tacos, kebabs, mojiyaki, ikayaki, takoyaki, sushi, eel, tempura, Ye Olde Ramen Shoppe, barbecue, grilled offal, juice, sake, even liquor and cocktails, all of which will put it in a container for you to take home, or offer at most four or five stools around an L-shaped counter for their customers to sit on, and there are also toy shops, jewellery stores, fabric stores, paint stores, stationery stores, tobacco, cell phone stores, crockery shops, fine tea stores, fine sake stores, all cheek and jowl and supposedly numbering as many as three hundred.
And then, all the way at the back, there’s a space the size of a small park set up with tables and chairs so the customers can sit and eat the cakes and bakes they’ve bought and have a nice chat, and even further back than that is the warehouse, a bolt across its red-painted iron door and no sign or any markings of any kind so from the outside it looks like a regular old storage facility, but in fact it’s a concert hall, and at night they perform the kind of cutting-edge music that only people who are really in the know have any idea about, for which young people with keen sensibilities gather, and the marketplace is buzzing late into the night, this story that he spun for me was a hell of a grand one indeed, but the very fact that this kind of bazaar is thriving reflects our current circumstance, represents the state of our world these days, in other words, it’s not a bright, open space with a commanding view, but a cramped, dark, winding one, designed to satiate all those people who want to gawp and touch and buy and eat and possess whatever’s in front of their faces right this very moment, and guess what, it succeeds. With so many corners and crossings in the paths, there are virtually unlimited routes through the bazaar, so you never get bored, and even if you do get bored there’s the space in the back and the concert hall to head to afterwards.
It sounds like a real blast. I’d love to go hang out at a bazaar like that myself, I really would. Unfortunately, I’m struggling just to stay afloat as it is, and there’s no way I have the leeway to go somewhere like that. In this part of town you can’t even buy a single razor blade. Mr Kuraido was saying there are lots of pretty girls at these markets. I’d sure like to spend some time with a pretty girl. The woman I talk to the most is the woman down in the caretaker’s office.
And music. I used to listen to music myself, once upon a time. I was knowledgeable enough. Not now though. Now it’s all beyond my reach. When I listen to the stuff they play on the radio these days, I have no clue what’s good and what’s not. Even if I managed to scrape together the money to go to the concert hall at the market, there’s no way I’d get it, by which I mean that the kind of music they’re performing at the concert hall is doubtless far more avant-garde than what’s on the radio, even, and someone like me wouldn’t even be able to comprehend it. I guess it might be beautiful and all that, even if I don’t get it, but still it pisses me off. I mean, just listen to it! What’s the deal? What’s so damn good about it? And all the customs, the particular look that goes along with music these days, that whole deal with strutting around in medieval straw hats and leather samurai pants and naff old granny sandals, it’s hideous, if all that shit was annihilated right this second it wouldn’t be too soon, I think to myself, and at the root, at the very foundation of that thought is my envy of all those kids going around enjoying themselves in this world that I can’t even comprehend, the fact that while this person I allegedly am struggles through endless grey days, my sensitivities and my goddamn sensations so thoroughly blunted that if I listen to new music I don’t get it at all, these bright young things are living it up in perfect ignorance of my travails, that’s what pisses me off, and my awareness of this drives me ever further into misery and desperation. If only I could just be pissed off without having to be aware of it. But as it is, I can’t even bring myself to be pissed off anymore. An idiot man-child with blunted sensibilities, curdled into a ball of jealousy and hate.
I was walking along, feeling sorry for myself, when up ahead on the left the avatar’s forest came into view. Nothing I’d like better than to get this whole shrine visit thing over with as fast as possible and take myself home. It was just making me feel worse. I strode in the direction of the avatar. A sad, fake sort of stride.
And here, too, there is music. Wait, is somebody fucking chanting? Moving closer to the avatar I began to hear snatches of sound. As I approached the precincts of the shrine, the music got louder, and once I reached the ceremonial path, its stone walls lined with innumerable blue curtains, I began to hear it quite clearly.
Through the gate in the walls and around the bend was a crimson bridge, and at its foot a band was playing. Two men were playing harmonicas, while another sat pounding on a crash cymbal and a snare drum that was wedged between his legs. Two women sat on either side of the drummer, legs straight out in front of them, beating time on tambourines. They all looked to be around their late fifties or early sixties, but I figured that the layer of dust covering their clothes and instruments might’ve been making them appear older than they were.
The nostalgic melody had a kind of martial feel to it, but it wasn’t rousing in any way, just sad and forlorn. The drummer, who was wearing a cap and what looked like work clothes, was beating out a monotonous rhythm, bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam. For the most part, drummers get into what they’re playing no matter how unvaried the rhythm, moving their upper bodies back and forth like apes or what have you, but the torso of this guy stayed rigid as a teddy bear, his expression utterly impassive, and, as though he’d taken upon himself the role of some dutiful apprentice, not a sliver of syncopation entered his playing, his wrists moving only to keep the beat and nothing more. Even when he played a fill during the break in the melody, babababa ksssh, his eyes looked like coin slots in a vending machine.
Compared to him, the two other dudes in the band were getting into the groove a bit more. They hadn’t gone for the work-clothes-apprentice look like the drummer, and were instead sporting more of a playboy look, their polo-shirts tucked into checked stovepipe trousers fastened with leather belts, topped off with wooden sandals. Standing on either side of the drummer, the guy on the right played rhythm on the low end, while the guy on the left was carrying the melody, and also unlike the drummer, they were both subtly bopping up and down and side to side in time to the music, although by any normal standards their vibe was still pretty lacklustre.
Worst of all were the two women, though, one wearing a bright red sweatshirt and the other a yellow hoodie that both looked like they’d been found by the side of the road, neither of them focusing on the music at all, but staring off at god knows what or resting their chins in their hands like they were just listening. From time to time, they’d seem to remember what they were doing and give the tambourine a token slap, or clap out some rhythm they’d just dreamed up. But old coin-slot eyes behind the drums and the two harmonica players didn’t seem bothered by their listless attitude at all, just kept on plugging away regardless. Back in the day you used to get a lot of wounded veterans busking on street corners, and the melody and rhythm reminded me a lot of the stuff they used to play. That overwhelming sense of defeat that ran through it all.
But this group was decisively different from the wounded war vets in a number of ways, the first being that they didn’t have a hat or anything to drop donations into. In other words, unlike the wounded vets, they weren’t playing for money. In fact, they’d arranged themselves in a circle, as if to indicate that they weren’t even playing for an audience, but exclusively for their own benefit.
Defeat, defeat, defeat, defeat, droned this melody that entered my ears, ransacked my brain, and lodged itself in my chest, leaving me unable to move a muscle. And yet I couldn’t give them money, couldn’t be an audience for this. If I wanted to listen to the music, I would have to be defeated just like them, I would need to change into some clothes I’d found on the street and join their circle. Just like these women, I’d have to savour the awkwardness of being in the band despite not actually performing any music. I hated the thought of it. But the melody just kept getting lodged deeper in my chest.
As I stood there unmoving, feet frozen to the ground by the colossal dose of defeat in the music and stance of the band, the drummer seemed to notice me and cocked his head, turning his coin-slot gaze in my direction. Uh-oh, I thought. They’re on to me. They’ve discovered that I’ve filched a taste of their defeat without paying any sort of emotional price for it. There was no telling what was going to happen to me at this rate. The sense of defeat might grow bigger and bigger, for example, wounding me so deeply that I could never return to my life as it was now. To avoid this fate I need to get the hell out of here as fast as possible so I can get my visit to the avatar’s shrine over with and get back home. Then again, this whole trip was clearly a bad move to begin with, so why not forget about the shrine visit and just go home right now? But there’s some irresistible charm in this music of defeat and I know that if I succumb I’m fucked but I still can’t budge.
I’ve got to go, I have to go right this minute. Instead of drowning in the delicious beauty of defeat, I need to pretend I understand the crisp, perky stuff they play at these new-fangled markets. If I let myself sink down into this I’m never coming back up. This music is like a vengeful spirit from the past. I curse thee. I curse thee. Just see! those narrow, rectangular eyes. Forget coin slots, those things look like bullets might come flying out of them at any minute. This guy’s whole face is a pillbox.
The very second I turned to go, I heard a deep voice behind me: Uh, excuse me? That’s it, I’m screwed. It’s all over for me. Some custodian, some fucking manager for the avatar’s shrine must’ve been keeping an eye on me this whole time. Punishment would be served. What would become of me? Cursed, and no mistake. I turned around slowly, then let out a strangled shriek. It was the guy who’d knocked that lady down and stolen her pastry. Are you kidding me? With a guy this brutal, this vicious, managing the area, I’m gonna get fucked up for sure, a good punching and kicking is a given but in all likelihood there’ll be some kind of idiosyncratic torture technique thrown in the mix as well, like maybe he’ll rip out my hair with his bare hands or something, who knows? Whatever he does is bound to be painful, and I’ll probably sob like a baby. But he won’t let me off that easily, he’ll dribble some foul brine on my already blood-drenched head or smear it with something rotten, and germs will get in through the wounds and my head will putrefy, it’ll swell up like a giant blister and itch like crazy. At the unbearable pain and itching I’ll wail and scratch, owowowow, but with each scratch bits of my scalp will flake off, and I’ll end up running buck naked around the city howling, owowowow. Like a raving lunatic. And when I regain my senses I’ll find myself standing at the foot of the bridge performing a melody of defeat, a melody of past injury, and at that point I will finally be able to participate in the music for the first time. Count me out.
All these thoughts had me almost mad with fear, but I managed to open my mouth and say ‘Can I help you?’ and I’m sure if you’d listened closely you might have heard a quaver in the tail end of the question, but I was able to muster a relatively calm voice, all things considered. But so what? That was neither here nor there, as far as my interlocutor was concerned. I was definitely fucked. Annihilation awaited. As I tensed my muscles and steeled myself for my imminent demise, the man said,
‘A real problem we’ve got on our hands here.’ His voice sounded very much like that of a regular upright citizen, without so much of a hint of brutality.
‘I suppose we do, don’t we,’ I replied, deliberately vague, and watched for his reaction.
‘Yup, these guys are a real problem,’ the man said, folding his arms and glaring at the band.
‘Oh, they are?’
‘Oh, they sure are. The whole point of having this Azalea Festival is to get everyone fired up and having a good time. But no matter how hard we try to create that kind of buzz, if we’re going to be subjected to this ridiculously defeatist music, it’s hopeless. No matter how many times I tell them to stop, though, they won’t.’
By the looks of things, this man was very much not with the band. Still, I told myself, I mustn’t let my guard down. I mean, this was the kind of person who could casually knock a woman down and steal her pastry without a second thought. Here he was putting on a show of telling me what a problem they were, but I had no of way of knowing when he might snap and become violent. That said, the fact that he was acting like such a nice guy right now suited me just fine. Hopefully I could just nod along to whatever he was saying, make some superficial small talk, then head home and forget the whole thing. A faint smile crossed my lips as I thought this, at which the man grinned broadly and asked, ‘So? What brings you here?’ Oh boy, here we go. The motherfucker goes diving right into my business.
‘Well, you know, someone mentioned it to me.’
‘You see, it’s not as though I believed it or anything, but I heard there was something called the Avatar’s Market here, and they were selling razorblades and what not, so – ’ Before I could finish, the man cut in: ‘Aha, so that’s it. That’s great! I mean, that’s a shame for you. But no, I mean, that’s good news as far I’m concerned.’
‘Oh, it is?’
‘Of course it is. Young people like yourself are exactly the kind of clientele we’ve been hoping to attract.’
‘Uh huh. The organisers. Thing is, though, the festival doesn’t start until next week. You got the date wrong.’
The music stopped. At first I thought maybe we should clap and looked over at the guy, but seeing he wasn’t clapping I decided not to either. The drummer was still staring at us with those freaky eyes. Leave it out, pal. He didn’t seem at all afraid of the man, though. The strange look he was directing our way was apportioned equally between the two of us.
‘Oh. So there really are a festival and a bazaar?’
‘Of course!’ The music started up again the moment the man turned away. He knitted his brows. ‘This is the issue I have, you see, this defeated image. Mention this area to anyone, and the first thing that comes to mind is this sense of defeat, right? This music is a perfect example. But that’s just defeatism! I mean, why do we have to just accept defeat right from the start? No reason, right? We want to have a good time, same as the people in the rich neighbourhoods! We want to enjoy life too. It’s useless to decide you’re beaten from the start. Which is the whole reason we planned the festival and the market, or I should say the Carnival and the Bazaar – to get people fired up.’
The man’s appearance hadn’t made any sense to me at first, but hearing him say this, it dawned on me that he was attempting to dress like the young people who strutted around these markets. Yet while his clothes and accessories were all in that style, there was something decisively off about every single item: most likely the kind of knock-offs and copies that line the shelves of shops selling gauze dressing gowns, second-rate imitation goods churned out with the same undiscriminating sensibility that drives provincial manufacturers to transform everything and anything into outlandishly shaped and flavoured sweet buns or rice crackers. The impression he gave was a bizarre one and no mistake. But clearly oblivious to all this, the man started getting more and more worked up.
‘And personally I’m especially excited that someone like you who obviously isn’t from around here came all this way. You’re exactly the kind of visitor we’re after,’ he exulted. This was a gross overestimation. It was certainly true that I didn’t live nearby, but that didn’t necessarily mean I lived in a wealthy area. As it happened, there wasn’t much difference between this neighbourhood and the one I lived in, and in fact, insofar as these folks had the avatar, the grey neighbourhood I’m from might well be even more destitute. It’s not like my clothes are particularly stylish or anything. I’m just a sad man from a sad town, not the kind of visitor anyone would be hoping for. Far from it – I’m the kind of arsehole who’s so far removed from the latest trends that I find myself literally transfixed by this music of defeat. This guy had got the wrong impression, however, and taken me for some fucking avant-garde bastard who was down with all the cool kids. What a moron! Maybe I should capitalise on his mistake and have a little fun. Feed him a pack of lies and take him for a ride. What a miserable sight that would be, some dullard from the sticks fooled by a penniless loser in the depths of defeat. Though I did need to be careful of his violent side. For all his feeble attempts to make out he was riding the hipster wave, that was the sort of man he really was underneath it all, and there was no telling when his switch might flip, so I deemed it wise not to give him any such opportunity.
‘Well then, I’ll –’ Just as I began to speak, the man started talking over me.
‘So I figured I’d take the old stall out for a test drive in advance of next week, and I’ve been getting a few things ready. Mind coming by? To have a taste, that is? You know, sample some fine tapas and a glass of red wine? It’s right over there,’ he said, pointing to the other side of the bridge. Red wine and fine food? Been a long time. Sounds good. But there’s still the question of what to do about the man’s violent streak. How is one supposed to weigh the positive of drinking wine against the negative of getting beaten up? After running the numbers over and over again in my head, it came out ever so slightly in the black. Drink wine, even if it means getting your arse kicked. Drink shochu, even if it kicks your arse. Such was my philosophy.
He had his stall set up through the great torii of the shrine and on the right, beside the pond. Thanks be to the avatar, the band’s music of defeat couldn’t be heard despite the fact that they were playing so close by. The stall, set up with the feel of a teahouse, had neither door nor window in the opening. Open-plan design.
After you! my host ushered me in. The place was dimly lit. The jumble of plastic bowls and cups in bags, coolers, frozen chicken etc. strewn about the large four-legged table did indeed have the air of a shop preparing to open.
Three women who looked like menials of some kind sat hunched over the table, sticking what appeared to be bits of animal flesh onto skewers. One was young and one was old and one was somewhere in the middle, but they all had their hair pulled back under white kerchiefs and were wearing either checked or plain aprons. All were lacking any real sense of refinement, and didn’t seem to have much going on for them. As if the man could read my thoughts, he said,
‘Sorry about the mess, I’ll have them bring tea right now. Hey Sato! Bring our guest some tea right away. You’ll have to forgive them, these ladies don’t have much going on upstairs. I’m sure the women who work in trendier spots are somewhat better,’ With this he shot me a servile smile. ‘No, you know what, let’s have some booze instead, right? That’s a much better idea! Hey, forget the tea. Bring some booze, I mean, wine, bring some wine! I said forget the fucking tea, you ninny!’ he shouted. The youngest of the women, to whom he had given this order, replied ‘Oh, pardon me,’ looking back and forth between our faces, then smiling as if she was about to cry she disappeared into the back.
‘I’m sorry they’re such a sorry lot,’ the man continued, his tone becoming increasingly abject. ‘I mean, I’m trying to educate them, but you know how it is.’ He grinned broadly. Every time the man spoke, the two older women lifted their heads and looked at first the man and then me out of upturned eyes, then, smiling as if they were about to cry, they stuck their necks out and lowered their heads. Now the man turned to them and said,
‘Stop what you’re doing and bring some food for our guest! Quickly now, I shouldn’t have to spell it out.’ He shooed the women into the right-hand recesses of the tent where reed screens on bamboo poles sectioned off what appeared to be the kitchen.
After a little while, Sato brought us some wine in clear plastic cups. She hesitated as she set them on the table, seeming not to know what one normally said in such a situation but apparently thinking that maybe this would do for now and hell I might as well try it, she forced a smile and said, ‘Here you go,’ then pressed the platter against her belly and stood there stiff as a board.
Booze. Wine. Man it’s been a long time. Wah haaah! I was so fucking happy but I couldn’t act too fucking happy or he’d be onto me, so I just uttered a casual, ‘Thank you,’ and knocked back the wine. It was incredibly bad. An awful fruity taste like cough medicine lingered on the tongue and stuck in the gullet and it was clear that this was wine of the lowest possible quality. But it was still booze, and it had been forever since I’d had alcohol of any kind, so I took another swallow and said, ‘Not bad.’
The man was overjoyed. ‘Sato, more wine! No wait, forget that, just bring the whole bottle,’ he shouted, and once he had it, he dumped more into our plastic cups and said in a quavering voice, ‘Alright, now you must sample a little of the food.’ Apparently unable to bear the wait, he got up and went into the back himself to bring out the plate.
‘The mixed grill, sir,’ he said in an affected tone as he set the platter on the table. The plate was piled high with roast lamb and beef and chicken. I ate the lamb. A rib. Delicious. I looked up at the man, about to say again ‘Not bad, yeah,’ when he cut in with,
‘Well? A pretty fine dish, isn’t it?’ He sniffed the air proudly. It felt a little pushy. Not to mention laughable. From what I could tell, while the man definitely had his violent side, he would also blindly and unquestioningly follow anything I said in my appointed capacity as tastemaker. I figured I could have a little fun with him. Forcing down the look of satiated happiness that was trying to make its way onto my face, I cocked my head slightly and said, ‘Mmm, I’m not entirely sure about this kind of roast,’ just to see what would happen. And, just as I expected, the man bolted up from the table like I’d given him an electric shock.
‘It’s no good?’
‘Well, I suppose ‘lacking refinement’ would be the nice way of putting it. But I fear the blunter critics among us might call it . . . provincial? Just a hunch.’
‘I’m sorry. That is to say, I had my doubts about it too. I’m so sorry. I should never have served it to you. Ah, but, have some more wine.’ He was about to pour more wine into my cup but I stopped him, and asked,
‘About that . . . Is this all you have? In the way of wine?’
‘Yes. I’m sorry. This is all we have.’
‘Ah, I see,’ I replied in a mocking tone.
‘But earlier, you said it wasn’t bad, didn’t you?’ the man wheedled.
‘I assumed it was obvious that I was just being polite. Since you clearly can’t pick up on such things, allow me be blunt: it’s disgusting.’
‘Oh. So it’s no good?’
‘Of course not. It’s totally undrinkable,’ I said, draining the cup and filling it again myself, since the man didn’t do it for me, then downing that too.
‘This is the best we can do right now,’ the man said, hanging his head.
‘Plus,’ I continued, ‘it’s hard to drink out of these flimsy plastic cups. See, just a little squeeze, and . . .’ I crumpled up the cup in my fist. It was half full, and the wine spilled over my hand and ran down my arm. ‘See? This is what you end up with. No one really wants to drink wine out of anything but a wineglass, you know.’
‘Sato!’ the man shouted, leaping up from his seat and racing back behind the partition. ‘How could you serve wine in something like this, you fucking idiot! You trying to make me look bad? Don’t we have any goddamn glasses?’ I could hear a hushed voice mumbling apologies, and some sounds, and after a few moments Sato brought me a glass atop a serving platter. It was a weird glass with a wide mouth. Even the plastic cup had been better than this. Nevertheless, Sato – whose eye was starting to turn purple where I figured the man had punched her, probably telling her even as he punched her to make sure to be pleasant to me – bowed as she set the glass down, and looking up at me, complimented me with her limited vocabulary: ‘You sure are a gourmet, aren’t you, mister,’ a forced smile flicking across her lips, which was unpleasant to look at but I had no choice, so I drank the wine out of the bizarre glass, at which point the man arrived with more food.
‘The menu is just this and the other dish,’ he said in a feeble voice. And? So what? Was this some kind of faint-hearted attempt to get me to say it was good? If it’s a woman you punch her, but with me you take this grovelling attitude? Fed up with the man’s obsequiousness, I asked rudely, ‘And? What’s it supposed to be?’ But the man’s tone as he replied was as weak and unctuous as ever: ‘It’s a hamburger curry dish, you see, using curry we’ve made specially in-house.’ He was quivering slightly as he set the plate down on the table. It was heaped with the standard combination of rice and curry, topped off with a hamburger patty and a fried egg.
‘Curry, hmm, that’s going to be a problem,’ I said as if there was no end to my vexation. ‘Most people pride themselves on their curry. That is, it’s a dish that requires putting together a harmonious blend of different spices, right?’
‘And, everyone says they’ve got their very own unique combination. But doesn’t that strike you as vain, for everyone to think themselves so unique? Doesn’t it seem childish to assume that everything you do is special and exceptional just because it’s you doing it? What I’m trying to say is, to cling to the notion that blending flavours in a particular way makes you somehow original strikes me as pretty vulgar. You hear it all the time, it’s the exact same thing as those guys who start bands because they’re convinced that they’re geniuses. No special training whatsoever, and what they believe they have to offer as a selling point is always some wishy-washy nonsense like ‘superior sensibility’. But that’s the fishy part, you see: with outstanding technique, it’s obvious from the first glance whether a person has it, but it doesn’t take much to convince yourself you’ve got something as vague as a ‘sensibility’. That’s not enough to fool the punters, though, so in the end these guys only end up fooling themselves, pulling the wool over their own eyes! Hah! It’s empty, utterly hollow, take off the lid and there’s nothing there. No matter how many layers you peel away, it’s nothing but skin, those onion-skinned bastards. And it’s that kind of vulgar self-conception that appears in the hearts of people who pride themselves on their curry. Ultimately people like that end up unable to escape from their own delusions of grandeur, and it all leads to their downfall, right, but sometimes before that happens those fools end up finding their way into the curry business. What’s the garnish here, green onion? Oh, it is! What a surprise. Then you’ve got the guys who write poetry or novels based only on the fact that they believe they or their experiences are special. They’re, well, they’re the worst of the lot. Though of course there are no rusticated hicks like that where I live! No curry claiming to embody something unique about its creator’s soul . . .’
I finished off my soliloquy in high spirits, but there was no response. I took a swallow and slowly looked up at the man’s face. He was clenching his fists and shaking. Fuck. I went too far. He’s going to kill me. Damned if I’ll go down without a fight, though. I looked around for anything I could use as a weapon, and saw a shamisen leaning against the wall. Not that I could do much damage with something like that, but it was better than nothing. I grabbed the shamisen and took up a fighting stance, at which the man screamed, ‘Sato!’ and dashed back behind the partition. The best thing I could do with this reprieve was run. But if I could steal something on my way out I might as well, so I dropped the shamisen and grabbed a plastic bag from the table, hurriedly stuffing plastic cups, the wine bottle, wire strippers, scissors, and a bag of meat into it, and then this high-society tastemaker hightailed it out of there. I humbly beg your pardon. As I emerged from the pavilion, I heard the man calling out. ‘Excuse me!’ There was determination in his voice. Fuck. Did I get too greedy? But when I turned around, I saw that his face wore an anxious look.
‘Are you leaving already?’ There was no sign that he was going to hit me. I figured he would say something about the bag, but he didn’t. Normally when someone tramples your soul like that, you at least retaliate by finding some small failing of theirs to criticise, try to do some small amount of damage in return, like for instance, ‘Please at least pay for the carwash’, ‘Please just take care of the travel expenses’, or maybe, ‘Please at least pay me my daily rate’, but the fact that he felt too much urgency even to arrive at something like that was apparent in the brittleness of the man’s voice. The sweet scent of plums.
‘Won’t you come and see the rehearsal?’ The man had a pained looked on his face, as if there was some immense pressure bearing down on him from above, and it was all he could do to remain standing in the face of it.
‘Rehearsal? What rehearsal?’
‘The dance. The Avatar’s Azalea Dance.’
It wasn’t just clumsy. It was degradation made flesh. Sato with her swollen eye and nose and the two other women, all wearing yukata dyed with a spider’s-web pattern and bamboo hats, went clattering along in wooden clogs with red straps, making their way haltingly up the ceremonial path to the shrine. It must have been agonising to make any progress at all like that, with their rear ends thrust out, waving both hands above their heads, extending their right legs to cross them over their left and vice-versa, and the anguish was plain on all three of their faces. The man would turn around occasionally and make excuses:
‘It’s like this today because there’s no music, but on the actual day we’ll play a song over the loudspeakers, so it’ll feel a bit livelier.’
Then he’d look back and yell, ‘Okay! Now, turn and come back this way,’ and the line of dancing girls would turn in front of the torii and make their painful way back towards us. The man was biding his time, calculating when to ask me what I thought, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get away with tearing apart this awful dance in my capacity as a false aesthete like I had the curry, and if I gave some half-hearted response like ‘Not bad, yeah,’ then I would unmistakably fall under the sway of the man’s violence just like Sato and the others. In which case I needed to repudiate the dance with every word at my disposal, but once I did that, the dance would be just an extension of the curry. Then he would just start rolling out one twisted iteration of his soul after another which he wanted to believe were shining examples of quality, and who the hell knew what they might be. The women’s bodies, for all I knew, or a potted tangerine tree. Whatever the case, I would be stuck there endlessly, talking shit for all eternity, and if I ever stopped he would beat me to death. Fuck. I’d totally fallen for the caretaker’s story, and now look at the mess I found myself in. Though being drawn in by that band’s defeat had also been a big mistake.
The women turned again. The band’s music, previously inaudible, rang out faintly from beyond the torii. The man’s mouth moved indistinctly. I tried as best I could to formulate my critique, but the music of defeat and the man’s moving mouth, not to mention the pained smiles that appeared on the dancing girls’ faces every time our eyes met, seemingly designed to win me over in the hopes that if I approved of this travesty the man would let them off the hook, weighed on me so heavily that the inside of my head felt hopelessly jumbled. The skies opened. The dancing girls got drenched. Up shot the humidity. Inside the bag, the meat steamed in the hot haze and started to rot.
Photograph © _namtaf_
This story is part of our 20 for 2020 series, featuring twenty timely and exciting new works from the Japanese published here at Granta.com. Find out more about the project here.