51st Japan Record Awards Pits Big Bang Against Scandal

51st Japan Record Awards announced – Tokyograph.

I’d personally like to see G Dragon’s ass kicked by a bunch of schoolgirls – but alas, they’re only dueling it out for Best New Artist. That said, there’s interesting choices in both the Best Song Category – Exile, Girl Next Door, Ikimono-Gakari, among others – as well as Best Album – Hirahara Ayaka, Greeeen, Superfly. And what’s this about a Special Award for AKB48 and Aki-P?

Studying Abroad

I let Haruka take me out for soba because I knew she wouldn’t stop pestering. She’d seen me scowling in the mirror before rehearsal and I should have guessed I wouldn’t get out of there alone; she was more perceptive of my moods than my own mother. She was my senpai, and I was a nice girl, so avoiding the subject was out of the question. She paid for me, found us a booth way in the corner, and thanked the counter girl grandly. The shop was close to the studio, and paparazzi never found it very rewarding to buzz around the place. Our actions in this part of town were repetitive and boring, for the most part.

Of course, tonight the conversation was bound to be out of the ordinary.

“I think my period is late.”

I had mumbled it into my food, so it took Haruka a moment to digest what I’d said. She stared at my darkly, not speaking at first. She was pretty and sexy enough to be gravure, but when she acted like this all I could see was a stern big sister. “Yumi-chan, what do you mean?”

“It’s probably nothing. It’s just bugging me,” I shrugged one shoulder and avoided her eyes as well as I could. “Stop it, stop staring like that.”

“You need to be sure it’s nothing. This isn’t anything to be casual about. I didn’t even know you had a boyfriend.”

“I don’t.” I was mumbling again.

Haruka quietly ate a little, using the noodles as protracted ellipses. Her silence compelled me to speak. She probably knew it would.

“I think it might be Toshito. I mean, I know it is. If it’s anybody. You know.” I hadn’t wanted to say it too loud, because I wanted to pretend I’d said something else if she got upset. Toshito was her friend, and I knew how protective she was of our male group members in the first place.

“You’ve had sex with Toshito?” she asked, not at all angry like I had imagined. It was like being quizzed by a teacher, actually.

I nodded, not wanting to give it the gravitas of words, not even to say ‘yes, only once’ or something else incriminating like that. The fact was the fact, the simple glaring fact that was keeping me awake at night for three days now. I didn’t have a period yet. Sex was the last thing on my mind, and in fact when I thought of it even then I got a little bit sick and my throat clenched up.

Now Haruka knew. At least she could keep a secret. At least I hoped she could. She seemed like the type, very noble and kind-hearted. The mother in her just wanted to protect me, I knew, but the big sister wanted to lay into me for having been so careless. Above all, the idol that made the third face of Eve wanted to tell me just what I’d potentially done by fancying myself a regular girl in the first place.

Staring at my bowl, I pushed my noodles around.

“I’ll see what I can do to help,” she finally said. I hated hearing that sort of disappointment in her tone.

* * *

Because her sister was already a model living in Tokyo, Haruka lived in her apartment most of the year. The place was untidy, small, and smelled like twenty different perfumes clashing at once, but it was well-lit and very respectable despite. I told my parents I was going there to play video games after Haruka’s photoshoot. I had my DS in my hands when she opened the door, but she was already pushing a pregnancy test at me. Embarrassed, surprised, and feeling like a complete child, I just kept my head down and nodded while she explained what I had to do. If I didn’t want to talk, she said, that was fine, but she wouldn’t let me leave until I did it.

Haruka was 18. Her sister was 23. Chinatsu was even taller than her sister, but had a smaller waist and nice firm thighs, the kind I’d never been able to build. She looked very regal sitting on the couch in her robe, smoking a cigarette daintily and telling me it was nothing to worry about. She was being more of a help than Haruka, who told her I should be more worried than that. “They’re no big deal,” Chinatsu said, waving a hand at me and then blandly remarking that we were on TV.

Not us, exactly, I corrected her with a chuckle, nearly forgetting the little kit in my hand. It was hard to separate ourselves from other members of COLOR, though. Yasuo was on Music Station tonight, talking about the new single from his solo album. I’d promised him to watch, and felt a little guilty for having forgotten. As usual, just as it always was in the group, I faded into the background while Haruka and Chinatsu bantered.

“This reminds me, I need to marry him.” Chinatsu said, leaning forward to watch.

“You and every other girl in Tokyo.” Haruka sounded a little sullen, and I knew why. Of course she’d been in love with Yasuo; everyone was. Even most boys who met him. He was the ace of the group for a reason, and Anno-san had made it particularly clear when he’d brought the second generation together. Toshito had been first generation, and after meeting Yasuo for the first time he’d summed it up nicely: “They have him now. They’ll never remember us.”

I’d only been in the group for two years. The shelf life of an idol in COLOR was still untested, but for five years there had been no quitters. The third generation would be chosen this summer. If I was forced to graduate, I’d ruin everything for them. The even number of boys and girls. Anno-san’s plans for future concerts. The illusions of any little girl who wanted to meet me or be like me. I still swore there weren’t any, because I was the plain, unremarkable one. My voice wasn’t even that great. I only just kept up in the dances. My boobs hadn’t filled out and I was stick-thin at 16. Haruka was the only older girl, and she told me I just had to wait it out. I’d blossom with age, she said, and the fans who stuck around would love me more for it. She was already an old idol at her age, talking about the ins and outs of the business like she owned it. But I believed her, and I had just agreed to wait happily for my day.

What now? I excused myself quietly to the bathroom and sat on the edge of the tub. If I was pregnant, well…

They’ll never remember me now.

I got angry for a minute, clutching the thing in its plastic wrapper tighter and tighter, clenching my teeth, stomping my feet silently on the vinyl floor. My eyes burned, but I knew I wouldn’t cry. I wasn’t a crying girl. I brushed some loose hair behind one ear and jumped an inch or two when Chinatsu knocked on the door.

“Can I get my drink?” She’d somehow managed to leave a can of coffee on the back of the toilet. I let her in to claim it, and watched her flutter by in her robe, envying her body and feeling for a moment or two like a bitter old woman. She winked at me before she left, and wrinkled her eyebrows in just enough that I knew she was rooting for me.

It calmed me down just enough that I was finally ready to go through with it.

I read through the instructions and muttered along. Two blue boxes. Two blue boxes. All that ran through my mind was two blue boxes. I just had to see two. Otherwise…I didn’t even want to think about it.

At first I couldn’t go. I tried but I was so nervous that it just wouldn’t happen. I think I made it worse. Haruka had been making me some tea, and the timing couldn’t have been better. She brought it to me and we sat on the tub again, both of us not knowing what to say. I started crying without knowing it, without meaning to. I leaned into her chest and heard her heart beating there, strong and normal. She patted my back.

“If you’re in trouble,” she said softly, “no one will tell Toshito. He shouldn’t have to know. The agency will take care of it – they’ll probably send you away to study for a few months, and a doctor will take care of it. France, probably. You have to be prepared, though. You might not want to come back to the group. Yumi-chan, this is a hard job. I think you’re meant to be a real girl in school with real chances in life. You should go and fall in love and go on dates and eat soba wherever you want to without worrying that you look like a wreck. But no matter what happens a year from now, you have to do this, right now. Don’t think about it, just do it.”

She kissed me on my hairline, and held me a little longer. I’d drained my teacup. After a few minutes of silence I told her it was okay for her to leave.

* * *

It was the worst experience of my life. More nerve-racking than the final audition for the group, and more terrifying than following the ambulance to the hospital after my dad broke his leg on the motorcycle. My heart was pounding in my throat by the time it was over, and I emerged from Haruka’s bathroom with glazed eyes. I didn’t quite know where I was walking. I knew my entire face was hot, my fingers were tingling, and I wanted to cry but couldn’t. On the inside I felt cold and dry. I had no tears. I just wanted to forget everything had even happened. I wanted to be normal as soon as possible. Haruka and Chinatsu were kind enough to wait politely while I sat down and pulled my sweater tighter around my body. Yasuo was performing, now, on the television, but no one was watching in that room.

I told them what I’d found out. Thanked them. And left. I wanted to be alone. I forgot my DS and Haruka called me when I was halfway to the train station to say she’d bring it to the studio tomorrow. We had a day off on Sunday, I said, so she could bring it then. I just didn’t need it back right now.

My parents were asleep when I got home. They’d probably expected me to stay at Haruka’s like I always did. I dodged the cat and glided into my room, feeling like a see-through girl. My bed felt almost unfamiliar, and I didn’t make eye contact with any of the faces on the posters around my bedroom. Who knows how long I stared up at the ceiling, thinking but not really thinking.

I pulled out my cell phone and the glare of the light hurt my eyes when the screen came up. I dialed a number. One ring. Two rings.

“Hello?” There was nothing sleepy or rushed about the voice on the other end. In fact, it sounded quite happy to hear from me.

“Hi, it’s me.”

“Yumi-chan? Hi, Yumi-chan!”

“Hello,” I was slowly starting to smile again, “hey, I’m feeling sort of lonely. Did you want to go to the arcade or something?”

“I think…” there was a pause, “I think I can do that. Yes. That would be fun. We haven’t done anything in a while, have we? What a surprise.”

“Yes. I just need to get my mind off some things. Oh, and Toshito?”

“Yes?”

“Please don’t write a blog about this.”

He didn’t ask why; he just laughed.

The Value of a Diva: 2008 and the avex Plateau

At first glance, 2008 seems to have been a great year for avex’s dominant three song and dance women. Koda Kumi overcame a potentially alienating gaffe and a lackluster January LP to record two number one singles. Namie Amuro came out of 2007 strong on critical acclaim, but even the most optimistic projections couldn’t foresee the record-shattering sales for her BEST FICTION collection. And you never really know what’s going on with Ayumi Hamasaki; record sales are still down for the Top Bitch of avex, but she is nothing if not an endorsement and touring machine, which is where she excelled in her 10th anniversary year. 

So what’s the problem? Nothing that hasn’t been said before. The age of superidols is over, and it was that age which gave us these stars. Perhaps it wasn’t so much a prevailing desire for superidols as it was a public willingness to bite the marketing hook that avex started baiting so expertly in the late 90’s. The world economy has changed, and the Japanese consumer base is now not so savvy as it is careful. It would seem that it is no longer as susceptible to the too-often phoned-in performances from the entertainment powers that be. In the digital age, in Japan and beyond, instant gratification has led to consumers no longer simply buying what they’re supposed to buy – that is, if they buy it at all. The public is being honest, but it’s unvertain whether avex can change for the times.

The ladies might be ready. There was a subtle but certain sincerity about Namie, Ayumi, and Kuu in 2008. Even when media coverage and marketing went the way of the juggernaut, they stayed humble in a way that didn’t seem scripted (for once). It’s as if they know their combined half-life, see the futility of competing for ultimately dismal numbers, and are finally relenting to sinking popularity. They are far more fun to watch for it. 

The numbers for BEST FICTION were certainly helped by Namie’s shockingly good 2007 release PLAY, but both Ayumi and Kuu suffered from lack of interest in their mostly uninteresting 2008 albums. Also working against them was the fact that both albums were January releases, giving it all up early and leaving nothing to hope for (since when have avex idols gone 2 for 1 in a fiscal year?). It could have been just a boring year for both ladies, but each had a dramatic ace up her sleeve. 

“When women turn 35, their amniotic fluid goes rotten,” was the off-handed and well-meaning remark that raised a million eyebrows and dropped as many jaws. But Kuu took a public high-road after the blatantly misinformed statement on All Night Nippon. A public apology was accepted, but almost unneeded. Album sales for Kingdom were still strong, though not what had been expected, and it seemed to many that avex was just being an overly strict parent as usual. She was placed on suspension and her advertising was pulled, but the staying power of her punishment was negligible. She returned more affable and ebullient than ever. 

Ayumi, meanwhile, seemed to spend 2008 in mourning. 

There is always skepticism when an idol past her peak makes an announcement like the one Ayumi made in January of 2008. Granted, Ayumi has never been “unpopular”, but the general public is slowly but surely losing interest in her. Was the sudden announcement of her deafness just for publicity, or were the star’s heartfelt blog entries on the subject 100% honest? Either way, the situation nicely laid precedent for the melancholy of Ayumi in 2008. The most uplifting song we heard from her all year was the acclaimed album cut ‘My All’, and remakes of her 10-year-old singles as B-sides just gave empirical proof of her age (not a bad thing…but sobering). Even the long-awaited anniversary tour seemed to happen without any particular high or low. Ayumi was certainly the most obvious and least exciting example of the public losing interest in, desire for, and disposable income to throw at the avex Diva Machine. But it wasn’t all the public’s fault; even huge fans could see that avex wasn’t really trying anything new with Ayumi last year. 

Koda Kumi has always been a reliable middle child: rebellious, but consistent. She had tons of potential at the end of 2007 and only succeeded in drumming up more public interest by displaying her lack of biological knowledge. Whether the gaffe actually ended up endearing her to fans is still debatable, because her sales on post-“scandal” releases increased markedly. Maybe it’s Kuu’s childlike happiness in public, the same that keeps us giggling with her and “getting the joke” about her camp sexiness. Maybe we just wanted Kuu, who is closer to 35 than 16, to know that there is hope for her child-bearing future? The numbers and news capsules can’t tell the whole story. Koda Kumi has infinite potential as an idol, but if avex keeps forcing her to release some of the most boring ballads this side of Barry Manilow, she may have a head start on settling down outside of the idol life long before anything turns rotten. 

Namie Amuro was the wild card of 2008. The 32-year-old was a walking plot twist in the avex drama, after PLAY’s unexpected but much-deserved success. Greatest hits compilations are not often comeback-makers, but after the sixth week of BEST FICTION at number one on Oricon it was obvious that Namie was actually back, overjoying multitudes of fans. Low-key, sexy, and well-spoken as ever, Namie trounced any naysayers with every live performance, proving her staying power was not just a matter of sentimentality. Her ad campaign for Vidal Sassoon provided a fully-realized triple-A-side with – dare it be said?- artistic merit. But the digital age has done more than make the buying public more frugal. It has insulated them. Namie’s success may have been impossibly huge if the music industry landscape were the same as in 1998. It’s hard to believe that Namie would have gotten anywhere in her 2008 endeavors without the relentless advertising of avex. 

Maybe some things work for avex. The assault on the public in all forms of media, the attention to the importance of touring and TV performances, and in the end the music itself. But when the superidols are off the top singles charts, when the media exposure is plummeting in deference to bands and stars of the internet generation, when there just isn’t any excuse for the lavishness anymore, it’s time to re-evaluate. Fans will be fans no matter where the next evolution takes them. 

But avex has reached an unfortunate plateau, and the divas will only suffer more and look increasingly silly if their acts, on-stage or otherwise, remain the same. There is still the market for worship objects, and there is still room for a few over-the-top performers, but the savviest are now realizing that the connection has to be taken one of two ways: more personal or more global. Even avex has realized this, with larger-than-life star BoA’s American debut. The Ayumis and Namies are too big at this point to scale back the production until their idol lives have run their course. 

One is reminded of Seiko Matsuda, who continues to make music into this decade. Though no longer packing arenas or maintaining the up-to-the-miunute interest of the teenage set, she is still known as one of the most important idols in Japan. Seiko’s continuing strength is her longevity, but that longevity was not accompanied by throwing money at the problem. She seems genuinely happy, doing what she loves doing. 

It’s likely that Koda Kumi will continue to pack the Tokyo Dome and Namie Amuro will destroy competition on the pop charts, but when female idols grow older their commodity suffers. It’s time to make it about the music, about the personality. Ayumi Hamasaki has already made a concerted effort to make it about the show, and though her Madonna-esque concert tours are off the charts in opulence, she may be one of the few over-the-top performers Japan’s public will leave room for. What would spring in Osaka be without an Ayumi show? She has it right in that regard. 

The secret to maintaining your idol youth is to make a stake in something, even if it is only one aspect of the music industry. Namie is at her best when she’s just singing and dancing without all the frills and spectacle. She can work a crowd without any help, and her records are second to none. R&B stars have, as a matter of history, far more staying power than their pop counterparts as long as they remain in the game. If she continues to make fabulous music, Namie will not be going anywhere either.

Koda Kumi is a mess of no particular strengths and weaknesses, and maybe it’s her chaotic persona that makes her so popular. But upon examination of the 2008 evidence, it becomes clear that she excels at being a celebrity. Her interviews outdo Ayumi’s and Namie’s combined for being actually engaging, and her personality is so slightly goofy that watching her is exciting. If she can manage to do what the other two have done in making their music seem like an extension of themselves, she may be looking at a much longer shelf life. 

But beyond all of this, the lingering sceptre of avex looms. Time will tell whether waning interest will continue to wane, whether record sales will continue to drop, and whether the macro music industry in Japan and beyond needs to be completely rethought. In the meantime, the superidols need to help themselves to their futures. Here’s hoping for future years of laughing about having been worried for the ladies.

The Eye of the Living Is No Warmth (Part Two)

He stopped for a moment, unsure of what to do. Masa was nodding in the direction of the gate, but something held him back. He hesitated for another moment, then walked over and sat down next to the girl.

-Are you okay? 

She nodded slowly, not meeting his eyes. He sensed her drawing into herself, her posture stiffening, shoulders curling inward. He was intruding again, he knew, and as he watched her staring at the pavement he wished he’d followed Masa to the gate. But he was here now, and it would be too awkward to suddenly leave. He waited again, then reached out and touched her shoulder; and when she didn’t protest, he placed his arm around her. After a while she leaned against him, and he felt her tears dampening his shoulder. 

He looked over at Masa, who was still standing by the gate. Neither of them could think of anything to say, but they held each other’s eyes anyway. Eventually the girl drew away from him and took a packet of tissues from her pocket.

-Are my eyes all panda-looking? 

He looked at her. Her tears had left little trails in her makeup, and the corners of her eyes were dark.

-Uh, they’re a little black, yeah…

-Here?

She dabbed at the corner of her left eye.

-Down a little bit more. Yeah, right there…

She took out her mobile phone and inspected herself in the camera. 

-I don’t usually cry, she said.

Tatsuya said nothing.

-I’m sorry about that. Do you guys work with him or something? 

-No, we just…that was the first time we met him.

Tatsuya looked at Masa again and felt his own hesitation mirrored. Neither of them wanted to say why they were there. But Masa – as if he sensed he was being left out – came over and stood next to the girl.

-He got Ai Kago suspended from Morning Musume, he said.

-Yeah? Are you her friends?

Masa glanced at Tatsuya before answering.

-Yeah, sort of.

-Oh. Well why don’t you go up there and beat the shit out of him?

She spoke calmly, staring at them with her wide eyes. They looked at her.

-I’m serious. No, I’m not – I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m saying….

She looked about to cry again, then drew herself up and shook her head.

-He’s not a good person.

-We’re going to report him, Masa said.

-Yeah? To who?

-A bunch of forums we write for. 

-Oh. Well, good luck with that then. 

A pause.

-Anyway, I’m sorry we interrupted you, Tatsuya said. I mean, not really interrupted, but, I’m sorry we came up just then.

-No, he looked pissed off, the girl said. So I’m glad.

This seemed to decide something in her, as she began to talk at length, telling them of her recent life and the photographer’s countless deficiencies. Tatsuya and Masa weren’t used to being taken into confidence, and most of the references escaped them, but they did their best to play along: sometimes she mentioned a certain street or shop or bar, and they nodded, as if they went there often. After a while she stopped for a cigarette, then continued the story. They stood listening, nodding when she paused, a little awed at the depth of her anger. As she spoke, Tatsuya noticed a redness at the tips of her teeth. Her lipstick, he realized – at first he’d thought her mouth was bleeding.

-I feel like I just want to forget everything, she said. Forget my whole life. Hey, you want to go drinking with me?

-Uh, Tatsuya said. Well, I don’t really drink…

-That’s okay, more for me. 

He suddenly felt uncomfortable. Nothing like this had happened to him before.

-I just want to do something fun, she said. Do you guys like karaoke?

That would be another nightmare, he thought – it would be obvious that they only really knew songs meant for young girls, and then she would hate them. He could picture it already.

-Yeah, sometimes…

-Well, let’s go.

-We might as well, Masa said. It’s not like we’re going to do anything else today. 

Tatsuya felt a sudden resentment towards him. Masa would say something to offend her, he knew, because Masa had no shame. And then she would hate them. 

-Yeah, if you guys want to, he said. I can’t really sing, though…

-Neither can I, she said. Come on, we’ll go to the Shidax near Sun Road.

And she took off without waiting for an answer. They followed her out of the gate and back through Musashino-shi, walking a few paces behind her. As they stopped at the light, she turned to them.

-I’m Miyuki, by the way.

-Tatsuya.

Masa introduced himself.

-How old are you? Tatsuya asked her.

-Twenty-two. You?

-Twenty-six.

They looked at Masa.

-I’m older than that, he said. 

They asked him again but he wouldn’t tell them. Tatsuya remembered one of his internet profiles that listed him as twenty-eight, but he wouldn’t have been surprised if he was older. 

-Wow, big brothers then, I guess. You don’t look that old though.

They stopped at Lawson, where Miyuki bought two cans of Kirin, then continued on to Kichijoji. As they walked, Tatsuya looked around at the people walking past them. Usually he walked with his head down, lost in his thoughts, but now he noted every time someone looked at him. He wondered what they would think of him and Masa and Miyuki; what relationship they would assume existed between them. 

They found Shidax and booked a room for two hours. When they entered Miyuki sat down and immediately began drinking. Tatsuya sat next to the door and looked at the electronic register. He didn’t really expect to sing, but the prospect made him nervous. Of course, he knew hundreds of songs by heart, but none of them suited his voice. But then, nothing suited his voice, he thought. 

-So who’s first? Miyuki said, already halfway done with her first beer.

They said nothing.

-Okay, I’ll go.

She picked up the register and typed in a sequence of numbers. Soon the screen lit up with a dull glow as the beat started, and she began to sing. Her voice was low and resonant; it seemed to shape itself naturally around the words, spacing out the syllables, lingering at the end of each phrase. Tatsuya didn’t know the song, but he couldn’t imagine the original singer performing it better. When she finished she lit a cigarette and opened her second beer. They looked at her and clapped politely.

-Okay, next?

Tatsuya looked at the corner, then at Masa, who was staring at the register with a fixed expression. His eyes had the same dull gleam they’d had when he’d told Tatsuya his plan earlier in the day. It was an expression of sudden but decisive inspiration: whatever he was thinking of, he would do it.

Masa took the register and typed in a sequence. The title appeared onscreen and Tatsuya winced; it was ‘I WISH’ – one of his favorite songs, and a showcase for Aibon, released some five years before. It was a song that had brought him comfort more times than he could remember, and he didn’t want to hear it ruined. He had heard Masa sing before and knew that his voice was high, flat and strident. He had no subtlety, no control. And Miyuki’s presence made it even more awkward.

But even as he missed every note, he sang with complete conviction. Although he mimicked the original song’s rising and falling syllables, he sang more or less phonetically, so that the tonelessness seemed to jut out of his voice at odd angles, puncturing the melody. He overemoted constantly, but without any intrinsic feel for the lyrics; the effect was like listening to a broken machine parroting human song. The words, intended for a young girl’s voice, seemed to warp and coarsen in the air. Towards the end he stood up and danced. When the song finished Miyuki was laughing, clapping.

-Your turn, she said, turning to Tatsuya.

-I don’t really think I can follow that, he said.

-Okay, one more, Masa said. 

He took the register and typed in another sequence. When the screen lit up, Miyuki laughed again.

-‘”Renai Revolution 21″? Oh my God, no… we used to do this in junior high… we practiced the dance moves in the girls’ bathroom…

-You know it? Masa asked her.

-Of course.

He handed her the second mic.

-Let’s do it together.

As they started to sing Miyuki adjusted her voice to match Masa’s, over-projecting and then rising into a higher, girlish register. There was little resemblance to the original version, but she seemed to be enjoying herself, Tatsuya thought – during the song’s bridge, she stood up and waved her arms in a style he’d long-since memorized from the music video. As she turned and smiled, he looked at her face and felt a sudden sense of dislocation. It seemed strange to him that he should be here in this room, watching her dance, listening to her voice. He looked over at Masa, who was standing again, clapping. If he felt anything similar, he didn’t show it.

The song finished. He looked up as Miyuki spoke his name.

-You’re not going to do anything?

-No, don’t really feel like it. 

-You have to do at least one, she said.

He ended up singing a few lines of “Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake No Hana” before letting Masa take over. Miyuki went to the phone and ordered more beer, then came back as the next song started. 

They stayed in the room for another two hours, Tatsuya occasionally joining Masa on the mic. Their limited repertoire became clear, but Miyuki didn’t seem to care – she went on with a wide range of songs, some Tatsuya recognized, others he’d never heard. As she cycled through hip-hop, ballads, and foreign songs, he found himself listening more closely. Often a line or a melody struck him, and he tried to remember the title to download it later. 

Eventually the phone rang, and Masa got up to answer.

-It’s time, he said.

Miyuki put out her cigarette, moving the ashtray around from behind the three empty glasses on the table.

-So what are we doing now? she said.

Tatsuya looked at Masa.

-I think we might go back, he said. 

-What? Miyuki said. It’s still early…

She stood.

-I know. We should go to Odaiba!

-Isn’t that kind of far? Tatsuya said.

-Yeah, but it’d be worth it. Come on, we can go to Shimbashi and get the train from there.

-Seems okay to me, Masa said.

Tatsuya looked at his watch. It would be dark soon, he thought – if he went now, he would have to return home late, in the cold. There was nothing compelling him to leave, but already he felt tired. Too many unexpected things had happened, and he was beginning to miss the comfort of his room. But at the same time, he resented the thought of Masa and Miyuki going to Odaiba alone. There was no reason for him to feel this way, he knew, but he still felt a vague fear at the thought of Masa offending her. So he looked at them, nodded, and said:

-Okay, I’m coming.

-Great, Miyuki said. I want to go to Little Hong Kong. And we have to take purikura!

She was smiling now, but he sensed a kind of undertone, a forced quality to her excitement. Or maybe it was the alcohol – he couldn’t tell for sure.

It took them an hour and a half to get to Odaiba. They walked back to Kichijoji Station and caught the Chuo Line to Shibuya, then took the Yamanote Line to Shimbashi. Dusk had fallen by the time they reached the outskirts of the island. As they walked along the waterfront Tatsuya saw a distant dull green figure lit up by the fading light: the miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty. They passed close to a boat docking in the bay. Around them, couples were walking hand in hand. It was too cold to swim, but as they walked away from the waterfront they saw a dog shaking itself off.

-I haven’t been here in ages, Masa said.

They went to an arcade, where Miyuki spent two thousand yen trying to win a stuffed animal in a shooting game. After that they all crowded into a photobooth for pictures. Standing in front of the video screen they posed and pulled faces, then waited outside as the machine printed out a tiny strip of photographs. Miyuki took a pair of scissors from a nearby table and cut them into rows, three photos for each of them.

-Let’s go on the ferris wheel, she said. But we should eat first, I’m getting kind of hungry. 

-Me too, Tatsuya said.

They looked around for a while and eventually decided on a Chinese restaurant in Little Hong Kong. 

-It looks kind of expensive, Tatsuya said.

-So what? Miyuki said. If you’re really worried, I’ll pay.

Inside, they ordered corn soup and a plate of spring rolls. Tatsuya decided on roast duck; Miyuki went with fried rice. Masa said he wasn’t hungry. 

-I love this soup, Miyuki said. I get it every time I eat Chinese.

She leaned back in her seat and sipped from a glass of water. Tatsuya looked around the room, taking in the businessmen and couples seated at the tables. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been to a real restaurant. 

-So what do you guys usually do? Miyuki said.

-What do you mean? Tatsuya said.

-When you’re free, I mean.

-I don’t know, just hang out, pretty much.

-You should tell her about your philosophical treatise, Masa said.

She looked at him.

-Oh, what’s that?

-No, it’s nothing, really, Tatsuya said.

-Come on, tell me.

-It’s going to sound really stupid if I say it out loud.

She smiled.

-Come on, you’ve brought it up, you gotta tell me now.

-I’m writing this philosophical treatise…

He stopped.

-No, I don’t know…I can’t talk about it.

-Go on, she said.

He paused, then spoke very quickly.

-It’s a philosophical treatise opposing the value of human life.

The words hung in the air, heavy and lifeless. He had always hated talking about the treatise, and now wanted to kill Masa for mentioning it.

-What? So what’s it about?

-I don’t know, I just think that…I just feel like it’d be better if we’d never been born. 

She was looking at him quite seriously, he thought: nodding slowly, as if following the thread of an argument.

-But you don’t really believe that, right?

-I don’t know.

She sat up.

-You should write something with a happy ending. Have you read anything by Kaori Ekuni? I really like her.

-Well, I mean… I mean I’m not really a real writer or anything…

After that the main dishes arrived and the conversation shifted to other topics: soccer, travel, music, recent films. Tatsuya and Masa sat listening, only rarely offering their opinions. Neither of them wanted to say too much about their lives, which meant that Miyuki kept talking. Tatsuya sensed she wasn’t usually the type of person who rambled on about herself, but she seemed comfortable, certainly more than before, and so he fed her questions, asking about her family, job, plans for the future. His earlier fears proved unfounded, as Masa didn’t say or do anything out of the ordinary. Instead he sat, mostly silent, sipping his tea and chewing on a spring roll.

-I’m getting full, Miyuki said at last, pushing aside her plate. I don’t think I can finish this.

-Don’t worry about it, Tatsuya said.

-Do you guys want to do any other shopping or anything?

-Not really, Masa said.

-I just though, while we’re here…

-You can, if you want, Tatsuya said.

-Well, why don’t we go on the ferris wheel?

Neither of them objected, and after paying the bill they left the building and made their way back along the path. The top of the wheel became visible long before they reached it, the colored neon lights across its beams glittering sharply in the dark. Tatsuya remembered reading somewhere that it was the largest ferris wheel in the world. After waiting in line for fifteen minutes they paid the fare and climbed into one of the transparent glass cars. As the machine started Miyuki moved close to the side and looked out.

-Are you guys scared? she asked.

-Not really, Tatsuya said. How about you?

-No, I love anything like this. Especially roller-coasters.

-Can’t do them, Tatsuya said.

-Me either, Masa said. This is enough for me.

Tatsuya felt the car move forward and rise up gently. At first he could see the lights of the bay ahead of them, then the whole outline of the island became clear, the ring of buildings surrounded by waves, distant silver-black ripples. As the car rose higher it seemed as if it would separate from the wheel altogether and float off into the sky.

-We’re right at the top now, Masa said.

-Yeah, it’s amazing, Miyuki said. I like how pretty everything looks from up here. I mean, that must be Shimbashi somewhere over there, right? It’s so ugly when you’re there, but from here it looks like a big crystal.

They fell silent. As the car moved towards the ground again Tatsuya closed his eyes and listened to the sound of his own breathing. He felt very relaxed: the tiny car reminded him, in a way, of his room. And although Masa and Miyuki were there with him he felt no pressure to do anything. After a moment he opened his eyes and saw Miyuki leaning back in the seat next to him. Her eyelids were lowered, her mouth open a crack. She looked tired, he thought: for her, the day must have been exhausting. Afraid she would fall asleep, he tapped her arm lightly. She shifted and her leg touched his.

-Are you having a good time? she said.

-Yeah, he said. You?

-Yeah.

She spoke the last word slowly, with no particular emphasis. 

The car came to a stop, and soon the attendant was opening the door and hurrying them out. They left the Palette Town area and walked back towards the bay.

-You want to shop now? Masa asked.

-No, Miyuki said.

-Then what do you want to do?

-Drinking.

-Again?

-Yeah. 

They followed her as she inspected several bars along the waterfront. Most of them she dismissed as being too crowded, or ugly, or expensive. Eventually she decided on a small pub next to a noodle shop. There were only a few patrons: a table of businessmen, a group of foreigners, two old men by the window. They sat at the bar and Miyuki ordered a pint of Kirin.

-You guys should really drink, she said.

Tatsuya looked out the window. From here he could see the bay, and past it the long expanse of Rainbow Bridge winding out towards Tokyo. He tried to remember the last time he’d been to Odaiba – probably it had been on a school trip years ago.

He looked around. Masa was playing with his mobile phone, adjusting the volume setting. Next to him, Miyuki lifted up her beer and drank. He could hear the voices of the foreigners from the other end of the bar, laughing at a joke in English. He took a menu from behind the counter and flipped through it, scanning the names of drinks. Miyuki finished her beer and ordered another.

After an hour, Masa stood.

-Well, I’m going back, he said. My last train’s in fifteen minutes.

Tatsuya stood.

-I’ll come with you.

Miyuki got up and came over to him.

-Stay with me, she said. My last train isn’t for another hour.

Tatsuya turned to her, then looked at Masa, hoping he would say something.

-I think I’ve gotta head back, he said. I mean, it’s kind of late…

-Stay with me until the last train, Miyuki said again. Her eyelids were half-closed, and she seemed tired, or sad, or both: he couldn’t tell.

He turned to Masa again but his face was blank; there was no sign he understood his friend’s appeal. Tatsuya suddenly felt a great distance between them – he had, he realized, no idea what Masa was thinking. 

-Just stay with her, Masa said at last. It’s not that long.

Finally he seemed to sense Tatsuya’s hesitation, and stepped forward.

-I’ll send you the first draft of the report tomorrow. You can tell me if I left anything out. 

Tatsuya looked at Miyuki, who barely seemed to be listening. Instead she stared past them out the door, slowly rocking back and forth. 

-All right, he said. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, then.

Masa nodded at him and left. Tatsuya turned back to Miyuki, who was already walking back to the bar. She ordered another beer and looked across the room, through the window to the lights of the bay. He sat next to her.

-Are you still thinking about, uh…

She turned to him.

-Yeah. But, don’t worry.

She started in on her beer. He looked around. The bar had emptied out – the only other customers were the two old men by the window. Next to him, Miyuki slumped forward and rested her elbows on the counter.

-My little sister’s really weird, she said. I think she’s autistic or something. She’s in Kobe now, but…when she was little she never really talked to anyone, she’d just sit there watching TV or listening to her music. Then when she got to high school she started going out all the time and didn’t come home until early in the morning. We thought she was out with friends but I never saw her with anyone else, and when I asked her she said she just went places alone and sat there. She’d go to a mall and just sit on a bench outside for five hours. Or she’d go to a restaurant and sit down and not order anything and just stay there until someone asked her to leave. Oh, and Inokashira Park, she used to go there too. I always tried to get her to tell me about it and she just looked at me and didn’t say anything. And she’d wear the same clothes like five days in a row – she had this one red sweatshirt she wore every single day. 

As he listened to her speak he looked at the opposite window, and it was not until he turned his head that he saw she was looking at him. He looked back, saying nothing. After a pause she spoke again:

-Yeah… my sister’s weird.

She looked into his eyes, not smiling. Her expression was vaguely expectant, but what it expected he couldn’t tell. It was not an expression he had seen before. He looked away, and after a while he sensed her head lolling forward. When he turned back he saw her resting her head on the table, beneath her folded arms.

Another half hour passed in silence. 

At the sound of the bartender moving about by the register, he looked up. The men by the window were leaving. Tatsuya looked at his watch; it was close to midnight. 

-Hey. I think we have to go.

He tapped her shoulder. After a moment she stirred and sat up.

-Uh?

-It’s closing. I think your last train comes soon.

She got off the seat. He waited while she put on her coat, and then they left the bar and walked along the path, past the shops, back to the station. The waterfront was almost empty; only a few couples in winter coats and long scarfs lingered by the beach. When they got to the station she bought a ticket and he loaned her a hundred yen coin – all she had left was a thousand yen note. As they approached the gate she turned to him.

-Thanks for staying with me, she said. I had a really good time today.

Before he could say anything she took a thin silver cell phone from her coat.

-I’ll give you my number, okay? We should be friends.

Tatsuya took out his own phone, one he’d bought two years ago. It was a clunky black model from Vodaphone with no internet or camera. The only names in the address book were Masa and his family.

-Here, I’ll put it in.

She took the phone and typed in a number. For a moment they stood in silence.

-Well, I’ll see you later, she said, turning at last to the gate. Tatsuya waved as she moved towards the platform. Then he turned and went to catch his train. 

He only had to wait a few minutes. The train was almost empty; he took a seat by the door and rested against the railing. He would have to keep himself awake, he thought; if he slept and missed his stop, the taxi fare would empty his wallet. So he looked out the opposite window as the lights of Odaiba rushed by. Past the glow of the buildings, he could see the dark curve of the ferris wheel, and further out, the faint shimmer of the bay. Against the horizon Odaiba seemed like a different world, a tiny kingdom of its own; and as the train moved further away it all seemed to be fading, vanishing into the night. 

By the time he reached Shimbashi it was already early morning. He caught the local line to his station, and as he walked home he wondered whether his mother had left his dinner out for him. He’d eaten a lot at the Chinese restaurant, but that had been hours ago, and now he was hungry again. He supposed it was the hour: usually he went to sleep at eleven and woke up early.  

At home he knocked once, and receiving no response, took out his key and opened the door. Inside, the lights were out. He went to the kitchen, found a plate of pasta and ate it sitting at the table. The latest volume of the treatise was still where he’d left it in the morning. He thought about writing some more, but decided against it. He was too tired.

He opened the door to his room and looked in. He would have to clean it soon, he thought: to get to the bed he needed to navigate through a sprawl of books, papers, magazines; in one corner, close to the closet, was an enormous heap of clothes. The closet itself was close to overflowing, and it had been weeks since he’d vacuumed. Stepping over the garbage on the floor, he made it to the bed and smoothed out his pillow. Then he took out his phone and looked down at it for a while, flipping it open and closed, turning it over in his hands. 

A patch of wall close to the door caught his eye. It was lighter than the space surrounding it, and he saw that a photograph he’d taped to the wall had fallen down. He would begin there, he thought: in the morning he would retape the photograph, and then he would clean the entire room. But even as the thought entered his mind, he knew it would never happen. At the most he would clear off the top of the desk and give up when it became too much. In truth he didn’t know where to start. And the more he put it off, the more difficult it became. 

In his hand the phone’s cover was flipped up, the screen open to the main menu. He stared at it for a long time. Then he scrolled through to the address book and deleted her number from the registry.

Masa caught the last train home and stopped at McDonald’s for his dinner. He bought two cheeseburgers and a Coke and walked back to the apartment he shared with his brother. As he stepped inside he saw a note lying on the table: his brother was out. He was alone. 

He started up his computer and turned on his music. Already the last few hours were dissolving in his mind, his memories curling into vague clouds, all soon to evaporate. His attention had already turned back to the report, and while he hadn’t decided where he would post it yet, fragments of it were assembling themselves in his mind. He jotted down a brief outline, beginning with the discovery of the photographer. He had been, he thought, almost like a detective. He smiled.

He checked his e-mail, browsed the forums, and started a number of new downloads. A friend messaged him on MSN:

-Did you get the new Ayaya?

-No.

He remembered. Ayaya – Aya Matsuura – had just released a new single a few days ago. He’d meant to download it, but the scandal had distracted him.

-It’s called ‘Suna wo Kamu You ni… NAMIDA’. I can send you it, it’s pretty good.

He clicked the link, and was soon listening to a morose ballad about lost love and ‘tears just like rain.’ It was not an especially distinguished song, he decided; but as he looked at the album art he found himself moved. Matsuura’s face called up a memory from some years ago, one of his favorite memories, well-tended and almost caricatured through constant replaying. He did not always think of it when he looked at her, but the angle of her face in the photograph brought back the day when he had gone to the handshake event in Shibuya.

This was a routine event, arranged for the promotion of a new album: Matsuura would appear in a record store for an hour to meet and shake hands with fans. Masa had arranged the trip days in advance, arriving early to get as close to the stage as possible. Even so, he was surprised at the turnout – although he should have expected it, he told himself. Matsuura was one of the most popular idols in Japan; he saw her face constantly on posters, signs, advertisements; she was less a person than an element of design. Her other aspects came after her, as if trailing from a distance: her voice, played constantly in malls, arcades, shopping centers; her body, framed in magazines and music specials; and then her own thoughts, serene and unknowable, like a flower folded in on itself. She was at once idol, voice and concept, a beauty existing in every dimension while still remaining whole. 

He moved forward as the line grew behind him. The floor had opened, and as Matsuura walked out amidst the clicking of camera shutters, Masa pressed ahead to the foot of the stage. At first he was surprised at her height; he had not expected to be taller than her. He was afraid he would be disappointed – that the reality of Ayaya would not match his ideal. He had been to these events before and had learned to relax his expectations. Most models, most idols, had contrived faces with fixed smiles and eyes like opaque glass. A kind of muted hysteria seemed frozen in their features as they greeted all alike: insistent children with pawing hands, bored businessmen seeking souvenirs, pock-faced fans with enormous cameras. All too often the event, intended to provide closeness, only reinforced the distance, the idol growing ever more remote, more unknowable, masked by her own practiced civility. And so it didn’t do to hope for too much: sometimes the poster was better.

The line began to move. He studied her face as the session started. Seen in the flesh, it seemed to cast off its old associations, to be born again, the face of a young girl: beautiful, but then there was nothing extraordinary about that. What made her stand out, he thought, was that standing before him she seemed utterly ordinary, and yet alive, present, and so young. 1986 – that was her birth-year. He remembered 1986. What had he been doing when she was born? Sitting in class, perhaps, staring out the window. Looking at her and thinking of the past, he fell into a kind of trance. But then the line pushed him up the stairs, and he stepped onto the stage. 

Probably Aya Matsuura had never known any real suffering; probably no one in her life had humiliated her, spat on her, told her she was ugly. Loved by millions from a young age, she would always have friends, lovers, money. There were people like that too, he thought. So there was no reason for her to be genuine, no reason for her to care apart from formality. But he saw nothing insincere in her eyes as he walked towards her. She took his hand calmly, smiled, and then turned to the side as a photograph was taken. Through it all he kept his attention focused on her smile, which was not the plastic grin he had come to expect, but a restrained smile, calm and gracious. Then it was over: he stepped down from the stage: she waved again to the crowd as the line moved forward. 

He waited a while in the store, pretending to browse, staring back at the stage. Being in the same room with her made him feel at peace – and she had acted just as an idol should, he thought. She had allowed her existence to intersect with his, briefly, and had not overplayed her persona. That was all that mattered.

The crowd moved forward and blocked the stage. He craned for a last glimpse and caught only the edge of her hand as she waved again. Satisfied, he took the stairs up to the third floor, to the toilets. Before going inside he bought an ice-cold bottle of green tea from a vending machine and drank it in long swallows. He looked through the nearest window at the sunlight pouring across the rows of buildings. It was a clear, bright day, just the start of summer. He turned and went inside, throwing the empty bottle at a bin by the opposite wall.

The stalls were all empty. He locked himself in, pulled off his pants. Then her face rose in his mind like a new moon, pale and resplendent. He moved his hand down and felt again her hand on his; and as his hand moved he thought of her smile, the row of straight white teeth merging with his memories, the thousand signs and posters only shadows of that brief flash of white; he thought of her body as he stepped away from her, the white curve of her arm fixed in space; and he thought of the last movement of her hand as she waved to the crowd, the image fading to warm darkness as his semen spattered across the toilet seat and the cold, filthy floor. 

He sat for a while, his mind calm and empty.

When he came out of the stall he saw a middle-aged businessman washing his hands, his rolled-up shirt-sleeves displaying his wrinkled wrists. As he watched the man adjusting his hair he felt an unfamiliar emotion, a kind of distancing, not really hate, more a remote contempt. He felt as if he were staring down at the man from a great height, considering his existence. And although he knew nothing of his life, he was certain that he had never felt, had never really felt or known anything. 

He left the bathroom and went to the window, looked down at the streets below. Hundreds of people were walking somewhere, for some reason, rushing to shops and trains and offices, like puppets pulled by strings. And what did any of them know of his happiness?  

At that moment he was certain no one felt as he did, that entire lives were lived below him without a single moment of love.

He walked down the stairs and every time he passed someone he felt he could see through them. An absurd self-confidence filled him. He felt he had to do something: he didn’t know what it would be, when he would do it, but something had been appointed, something he alone could do. Because of his love.

Five years later he sat in front of the computer, his pants unzipped, a half-eaten cheeseburger resting on the desk. He knew what would happen: he would write a few more paragraphs, leaving the rest for tomorrow. Then he would search online for new scanned photobooks: another Ran Monbu was due soon. He would listen to his music and fall asleep in the chair, and when he awoke the next morning he wouldn’t bother to change his clothes. He would go out for lunch at noon and browse in the stores without buying anything, would come home again to find everything the same. 

He tried to remember the feel of Ayaya’s hand, and realized he could not. The memory had become like a dream. But he smiled as he thought of that day, of the view from the open window. At that time, he had held the entire world in contempt.