Translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton

 

The woman dies.

She dies to provide a plot twist. She dies to develop the narrative. She dies for cathartic effect. She dies because no one could think of what else to do with her. Dies because there weren’t any better story ideas around. Dies because her death was the very best idea that anyone could come up with.

‘I’ve got it! Let’s kill her off!’                                        

‘Yes! Her death will solve everything!’

‘Okay! Let’s hit the pub!’

And so, the woman dies. The woman dies so the man can be sad about it. The woman dies so the man can suffer. She dies to give him a destiny. Dies so he can fall to the dark side. Dies so he can lament her death. As he stands there, brimming with grief, brimming with life, the woman lies there in silence. The woman dies for him. We watch it happen. We read about it happening. We come to know it well.

 

The woman gets married.

She gets married to move the story to the next stage. She gets married so that things can wind down to a nice finish. Not sure how to end it? Never fear! A wedding scene will always do the trick. Everyone loves a good wedding. There’s really no better ending.

And so the woman gets married. She gets married because they never really figured out how to develop her character. She gets married because she is no longer needed. She gets married because they couldn’t be bothered to write a separate plot line for her anymore. And come on, what’s so bad about that? She’s married, for Christ’s sake! She must be happy.

 

The woman gets pregnant.

She gets pregnant to give them material for more drama. She gets pregnant so as to produce another character. When things are getting a bit stuck plot-wise, she gets pregnant to move the action forward. She gets pregnant to draw the story out. We are amazed at how her body suddenly swells up like that, how enormous her stomach becomes.

‘Is this some kind of weird joke?’

‘What is she, some kind of human balloon?’

‘What the hell is this?’

We whisper these kinds of things to one another as we watch. 

As far as we can work out, all this is the doing of a mysterious white fluid. It seems unbelievable that a mere fluid could have such incredible potency (in fact, even now we still struggle to get our heads around this). It looks indistinguishable from any other cloudy white liquid.

There are those among us who already know that said white fluid is actually made by our own bodies, and whenever we visit Indian restaurants and they serve us a free lassi, it makes us feel pretty uncomfortable. Those of us who can’t quite bring ourselves to touch our lassi on these occasions are given the eye by our parents, as if we were acting oddly. We stare at our mothers, gulping down their generous servings of white fluid, with abject fear in our eyes.

‘Why aren’t you drinking yours? It’s really good!’

From where we’re standing, though, it’s the mothers who are the odd ones. I mean, just imagine what they had to do to create us! The whole thing is unthinkably gross. And there’s no getting out of it – you’re either in the body-swelling boat or in the white-fluid-producing boat. It’s one or the other. We begin to realize that we’re going to have to live out our lives fully aware of our own biological grossness.

 

The woman miscarries.

She miscarries to test the strength of the relationship. She miscarries because it’s no fun when happiness is granted too easily. She miscarries because, otherwise, they can’t make the film last two hours. Miscarries because the plot needs a bit of oomph. Her stomach suddenly deflates because they need to fill out the story somewhere else. We stare at it happening, shoveling popcorn into our mouths. We slurp down our Cokes and fail to understand what is taking place before our eyes. We can still barely get our heads round how the woman managed to manufacture a baby inside her stomach in the first place, but the idea that the manufacturing process could somehow fail midway is really too much for us to digest. Why is the woman crying like that? Why is she having such a hard time with this? Our heads are filled with question marks. As we watch her break down and bawl, our mouths hang open. We don’t get it, and yet we still absorb the lesson: miscarriage is something that makes women cry, a lot.

The woman miscarries. She miscarries so the happy ending will be more moving. She miscarries to lend a touch of tragedy to an already sad ending. Miscarries so that she, or the man, can get over the miscarriage. Miscarries in order that she (or he) can grow as a person. Miscarries so that she (or he) can move on. Miscarries so that we can see her (or his) face as she (or he) finally moves free of what’s holding her (or him) back. Miscarries so that she (or he) can fall into a state of despair. Miscarries so that she (or he) can still dream of a brighter future, despite it all.

 

The woman is raped.

She is raped so that the man can be angry about it. She is raped to spark his vengeful spirit. She is raped so the man can look to the sky and howl in agony. She is raped so the man can have a car chase. Raped to bring about real action. Raped so the bad guy can be slowly but surely hunted down. Raped to put the man in the mood to blow up the enemy’s hideout. Raped to make him feel like annihilating the enemy. Even we realize that this is a terrible thing to happen. We swallow nervously.

The woman is raped. The woman is raped at the earliest opportunity. The woman who was raped in the first installment is raped again in the second. She’s raped like it’s the only trick in the book. We feel a bit confused. I mean, it’s clearly an unthinkable thing, and it drives the men into a frenzy, and yet they drop it in there at the slightest provocation. Why don’t the men ever get used to their women being raped? Why do they make such a big fuss about it every time? We don’t understand. We don’t get that for a very long time, rape has been just about the only way they’ve been able to hurt and control women. That it’s the most comprehensible, most accessible method to hand.

The woman is raped. The woman is raped as a shocking plot development. We don’t understand it, and yet the violent scenes traumatize us. It’s so traumatic that even when we reach adulthood, we find ourselves replaying those scenes in our heads. Or else it’s just hinted at. The woman’s mouth is covered by the man’s hand. The woman’s body is covered by the man’s body. The woman’s face distorts in agony. Things fall. Things break. Crashing sounds. Windows shut. Doors shut. The light goes out. Cut to the next scene.

Confused, we turn to our parents.

‘What just happened, Mum?’

‘She was raped.’

When our mothers finally answer, they are strangely casual, as if they’re trying to tell us that it’s really not a big deal, but they won’t look us in the eye when they talk. It’s not like the R-word makes everything suddenly clear for us. We don’t get it. That’s precisely why we asked – because we don’t get what rape is. Yet our mothers’ averted faces tell us not to ask anything else. Okay, we think. So this is a no-big-deal kind of thing. We are satisfied with that idea. If that’s how it is, there’s no problem. That thing that happened – that was just rape. The story goes on.

 

The woman dies. She dies to make a good story. The woman is raped. She is raped to make a good story. We grow up watching it happen. We start not thinking anything of it, not feeling anything about it. Or maybe we were never that affected by it. Who knows? Anyway, now we are grown-ups, and we grown-ups are filing out of the cinema.

It was the late showing, and on a weekday too, so the cinema wasn’t all that crowded. We’d seen a badly-made detective movie, and today, once again, the woman died. She was the main guy’s wife. Heard that one before? Yep, we have, as it happens. Though we all sat there facing the screen, all of us soon found ourselves pretty bored, and our minds moved on to various other things.

Of all of us, Kimiko was watching the most avidly, and not because she especially liked it, but because she writes a film blog. In other words, she was watching it with a mission: she had to find something – anything – to write about.

Yumi and Akira, both first-year university students, were happy as long as they could kiss and touch while the film played. For these young lovebirds, who’d only just got together, that was the main reason to go to the cinema.

Kenichi, whose well-hewn physique made him easy to identify as a construction worker, was fast asleep. Even he couldn’t remember why he’d thought to see a film this late in the day. On the big screen, a man-turned-vengeful-demon was speeding underneath an elevated railroad track, causing all kinds of problems for the vehicles around him.

Hiroshi, who had a regular office job, was absent-mindedly imagining things. He was imagining what it would be like if, after the man rushed out of his flat in a righteous fury, the woman who had just died got to her feet, clothes torn and hair bedraggled, and heated up some frozen lasagna in the microwave. How she would then take it out and eat it on the sofa. The gaping holes in her chest rimmed in dark red. This was what Hiroshi always did without intending to. As he followed the story on screen, there was always one corner of his mind picturing the continuation of the scene that had just ended, as if it was a gateway to a parallel world.

Thus there was a place in Hiroshi’s head where Luke was still dragging along his dead father’s body, swathed in its black mask and long cloak. Hiroshi knew full well that the cloaked figure had by now already been cremated and everything, but inside his mental universe, that moment where Luke was desperately dragging his dead father stretched on and on eternally. Through all the labyrinthine passages of the Death Star, through the forest, through the desert, Luke continues dragging his father’s body. The flame of his life has expired, his cloak has turned white with sand, and Luke himself has reached the limits of his strength, yet still he continues to drag his father. His chest is heavy with sadness, and he has no idea where they will end up. When he imagines the two of them like that, Hiroshi starts to feel tears pricking his eyes.

He didn’t know what the dead wife, now tucking into her lasagna, would be thinking about. If only someone would phone the house, Hiroshi thought. If they did, then he knew that the wife would pick up the phone and say something. But in the absence of any such call, Hiroshi’s imaginative powers reached their limit with the lasagna. As she makes her way through her meal, her onscreen husband turned the Russian mafia hideout upside down.

And thus the crappy film came to an end, and we all left the cinema. We didn’t know one another, so we walked at our own pace along the street that led in the opposite direction from the station. A cold wind was blowing, the residential area was quiet, and when we turned the corner, we found the dead woman. As we rounded the bend one by one, we each came to a sudden halt like a row of dominoes, almost tripping over our own feet.

The woman was lying face up on the ground. Much of her head was hidden by shoulder-length brown hair, but we could see enough of it to place her somewhere in her forties. Underneath her body was a great pool of blood. It was too small to call a sea of blood – it was more like a small pond. Which, going by what we’d picked up from films and TV programmes, was not a good sign.

‘Call the police,’ Yumi said to nobody in particular. She was pulling out her smartphone when the woman’s hand twitched.

‘She’s still alive,’ Kenichi said, and, as if his voice had woken us from a trance, we all swarmed up to the woman, kneeling in a circle around her like vassals in a period drama. Yumi summoned an ambulance while Hiroshi called the police.

The woman looked as though she could die at any minute. Thus we learned that dying women really do look as though they are about to die. She had a death-like look on her face – an actual death-like look. It was just like what we’d seen in the film an hour ago. In fact it was as if the woman who’d just died in the film had changed her mind, and decided to die out here on the street instead.

Come to think of it, this woman was not unlike the woman in the film. They had similar hair, and they were both wearing the kind of baggy T-shirt and sweatpants people usually wear around the house. This woman had apparently popped out to the convenience store. Close beside her body was a plastic bag containing a crème caramel and a toothbrush. Was the ice-cream container lying at the base of the utility pole anything to do with her? If it was, then the forensic team might be able to calculate the time of the incident by how much ice cream had melted. Akira thought about going over and touching the lid of the container to check the texture of the ice cream inside, but he didn’t want Yuki to think him a fool, so in the end he stayed put.

The woman was looking more death-like by the second. It was hard to say what it was about her that gave that impression, but all of us there felt it. We said nothing, but we were all thinking the same thing: at this rate, the ambulance wasn’t going to make it in time.

Before he could second-guess himself, Hiroshi found himself saying, ‘Do you have any last words – anything you want to say?’

We all felt that what he’d said was a bit impolite, but we could understand what he was trying to do. Taking our cue from him, we all started speaking to her.

‘What happened to you?’

‘Do you remember the face of the person that did this?’

‘Is there  something you want to tell your family? We’ll pass on a message.’

We couldn’t stop the woman from dying, but we could memorize her final words and pass them on to her loved ones, or do something to help solve the crime. Just that thought made us feel rather excited, in spite of ourselves.

‘. . . something I want to say?’

The woman squeezed the words out, then suddenly opened her eyes very wide and stared at us. We were scared shitless. We wondered for a second if she’d become a zombie even before she actually died. Her fingers might have been trembling, but still Kimiko remembered to turn on the voice recorder of her smartphone. The last words of the deceased. The woman’s family would no doubt thank her, tears streaming down their cheeks.

The woman inhaled. Her breath made a horrible wheezing sound in her throat.

‘The thing I want to say is this.’

We all gulped.

‘I wish I’d had the opportunity to deconstruct the vagina, at least once.’

The woman said this in a single spurt, then closed her eyes again. Her hands fell to her sides, hitting the asphalt. We were totally mystified.

‘Huh? Her VA-GINA?’

‘Um, sorry, could you just repeat that? Did you say “deconstruct”?’

The woman opened her eyes a crack, and looked at us as if we were a great nuisance.

‘Um, excuse me, but were you raped?’ Yumi said, as if inspiration had suddenly hit her. Her eyes ran the length of the woman’s body. Then we all started looking at her, trying to check, but her thick gray sweatpants didn’t show any signs of disarray. As we watched the woman looking at Yumi as though she took her for an utter fool, we sensed that the pond of blood beneath her was getting bigger. This person was almost definitely going to die.

‘No! I just wanted to talk about the vagina, that’s all . . . Okay, look, it seems like I’ve still got some time left, so I’ll talk about it now.’

‘O – Okay.’

We felt pretty bowled over by her energy – the energy of this woman who could well be dead in a few minutes. Kimiko thought about turning off the voice recorder but decided to keep it on, at least for the moment. From where she was lying, stretched out on the pavement, the woman began to speak.

‘I’ve always found it so weird, how people make such a big deal about vaginas, you know? In the old days, of course, there was a great taboo around them, and women had to wear metal chastity belts and so on. Did you know that? Metal? Anyway, now it’s all about liberation, so people go around saying that vaginas are beautiful and stuff like that, but the point is, who really cares if they’re beautiful or ugly or what? Unless you do some crazy gymnastic moves with a mirror, you can never even really know what your own looks like. Talk about a design flaw! Seriously, though. Even if you look at your own face in the mirror every day, there’s still no telling if you really know yourself, right? If looking at your face brought true self-knowledge, then nobody would need therapy, would they? I don’t hate vaginas, and I don’t particularly love them either. I think all this stuff about vaginaphobia is just stupid. Do people really believe all that? I’m sure they just come up with these big concepts to give themselves something to say – to feel important in some way. Vaginas are just vaginas. What’s wrong with just admitting that? Don’t you think?’

How could we possibly reply? We didn’t have a clue what she was on about. Akira had still never seen a real vagina, and when he watched porn that part was always blurred out. Kenichi and Hiroshi had never properly looked at them either, just stuck in their fingers or tongues or penises as appropriate. Fingers were generally a safe bet to start off with – poke a finger or two in to begin with, and things mostly went off alright. Yumi vaguely conceptualized that part of her anatomy as a beautiful flower garden. As for Kimiko, if she had free time to think about her vagina, she’d rather put it to use watching films. And then writing up her impressions of those films on her blog.

We darted looks at one another. Isn’t this woman kind of perky for a dying person? we were all thinking. Her voice sounded a bit too full of life for someone eking out the last of their strength.

‘Aesthetically, I think they lack balance. In fact, just between us, I don’t get how anyone can say they find genitals beautiful. Penises and vaginas are weird-shaped – grotesque, in fact! I don’t get what’s wrong with just admitting that. It’s alright to have grotesque bits on your body, isn’t it? I mean, I’ve looked at various people’s penises and thought privately about how big they were, or how small, or about what weird-shaped things penises are to begin with. If those same people were looking at my vagina and thinking the same sorts of things, then so be it! We both have funny-shaped things on our bodies. There. Can’t we all just get over it?’

Won over by her fervency, we all nodded. This time we understood what she was saying a bit better.

We’d been trying to avoid thinking about that kind of stuff since we’d become adults, but there was no doubt that we did find genitals kind of gross. In fact, human bodies in general – both our own and other people’s – were brimming with all kinds of icky functions.

‘That’s it. I’ve got nothing more to say.’

The woman shut her eyes again and stopped moving entirely in a way that, after her previous bout of feverish energy, could only be described as sudden. As we stared on dumbfounded, we heard the ambulance siren approaching from behind.

In no time at all the woman was gone, carried away by the ambulance. Soon the spot was swarming with criminal investigators and members of the public wanting to know what was going on, but with its core component missing the scene felt kind of empty.

The police quizzed us about what had happened, and in unspoken agreement none of us mentioned the vagina stuff. It was clear it would do nothing to help the investigation, and we didn’t feel like we could reproduce what the woman had said correctly. Then we all left the scene, never having found out each others’ names. We must have lived near to one another, since we all went to that same cinema, but our paths never crossed again.

Back at our respective homes we all, in our own time, obtained from the internet or the TV the news that the woman, who had been stabbed by a random street slasher, was now in a coma. We also learned her name.

At home, Kenichi fell straight into a deep sleep. He had to be up early for work again the following day. He really didn’t know why he’d even gone to see the film in the first place.

Yumi and Akira slept together for the first time that night, and it was miraculously unterrifying. The moment they saw each other’s genitals, they recalled what the woman had said, and laughed. The two youngsters, who’d really only just exited puberty, had never dreamed that they’d be able to laugh at their own bodies with such warmth as they did that night. Nor did they know that to do so was a feat most adults never accomplished.

Kimiko decided to leave the recording of the woman’s voice on her phone for the time being. She didn’t think she’d ever let anybody hear it, and she doubted if even she would listen to it again, but there was part of her that liked having the data there. She named the recording, and saved it.

Hiroshi ate a bowl of instant ramen as he looked at the news on his laptop. For the first time, he felt like he’d moved past the lasagna stage.

At the end of every day that passed, we’d check the news for developments. The police were still searching for the suspect. They recovered a knife that appeared to be the weapon used on a nearby riverbank. They didn’t say whether or not it had fingerprints on it. There wasn’t any news to say that the victim had regained consciousness, but neither was there any that the woman had died.

It’s been five days now. At least she hasn’t died yet.

 

Photograph © Reyner Media

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