Koma Square — a new years’ tale by RK

by Roland Kelts

1997-99

He woke to the sound of a prerecorded voice booming from the nationalists’ minitruck rolling through their neighborhood, making the windows rattle. Shirtless on the tatami, his bare back pressed to the ribbed weave, he heard the voice as part of his dream and then part of the day, and then back into the dream again; a soundtrack threaded through two worlds.

In his dream he climbed a spiraling mountain peak, phallic and cartoonish, and he was alone and driven and perspiring. Awake he was hungover and tired and the sun shone metallic through the windows. It was 4 in the afternoon and the voice was singing in vowel-heavy Japanese about the pride of Japan, and about saving it, of course. That much he could decipher.

Kumiko was in the next room, cooking something. She banged a pan hard against the grill.

The first days of their marriage. Nothing and everything had changed. They’d lived together for almost three years now — why would this be different? But it was.

After the ceremony in Yokohama only two months ago, attended by her extendeds, cousins and uncles from as far away as Iwate, and by his twice-separated, once-divorced and now newly remarried parents shipped in for the half-week from California and sheepishly grateful (both of them seeming to find all Japanese charming and cute and guidebook polite), they came back here. The two newest newlyweds, they returned to the same place in Yoyogi they’d shared since they began dating.

First it was the smoking. No more, she’d let it be known. She’d tossed out the two packs in his desk. She found the reserve budget-brand packs in his briefcase and emptied them into the toilet. No more, not even outside the house, stooped beneath the streetlamp at the lip of the drive.

Next were the video games, a heap she’d manage to mangle and smash into three garbage bags — his entire collection since he’d moved to Japan in his early 20s, a kid with a degree and a native language to sell. She’d done away with the games on a Sunday afternoon, while he was out playing street hockey in Komazawa-koen with a group of jocular Canadians and their Japanese girlfriends. She’d encouraged him to go. “Get your shape back,” she’d said.

And last night: the booze. Two racks of wine, most of it Australian, and a small cabinet of whiskey, gin, and three brands of vodka. Each bottle smashed against the wall or floor.

When he got home at sunrise from Roppongi-clubbing the scene was awesome, beatific. Shards of glass scattered across the linoleum, the purple Burgundy stains taking on Pollock-like splendor as light filtered through the curtains. Smashed glass everywhere. Him on hands and knees for a good three hours, sweeping and dumping and inspecting new holes in the walls. She was gone — no note — and when he called her keitai not even the message service played.

He fell asleep, finally and eerily at peace, liquor-soaked walls and linoleum but his back on dry tatami.

Now he’s swaying with a modest headache. The truck circles. The prerecorded voice espouses prewar slogans as he leans against the thin wooden doorframe to the kitchen, a spent fluorescent coil flickering erratically overhead. Kumiko, not looking up, has soup on the boil.

“Beautiful day,” he says.

The “miso silence” at the table is coming on, he knows. Accusations as limpid and measured as tofu cubes. Steam rises to her face, pale as plaster, black bangs only slightly askew. He has nothing to say to her silence.

She breathes in deeply, staring away from him. “It’s not day anymore.”

He heads for Koma Square, keitai in hand. Danny, a Kiwi who left town in a minor scandal last year — two teenage students and a print-club stall — called this feeling “the vivids,” maybe hopped up but usually not, just hitting the streets as dusk comes on, stomach still churning. “Got the vivids, mate, ‘ll be arllright!”

Under the railroad tracks and over them, up from Yoyogi you cross four or five different rails en route to Shinjuku terminal. He loves this walk at night, past the rattling cars. Vertical neons on a horizon that really makes no sense, however long you’ve lived here. Tokyo’s great jumble of citiness, buildings thin and airy and literally bendable, like cardboard sets implying but not quite becoming city; less skyline than collage.

But now the chill forces him fast down the shotengai shopping streets toward Kabukicho, and even at this hour the New Year’s holiday has sucked some of the marrow from the streets. There are crowds, sure, and the fruitseller is obscene with melons. But the salaryman sizzle is gone. The touts especially look somehow chastened. New Year’s Eve is a blowout back home, cocaine interludes at 4 a.m. But here, it’s the year’s beginning that matters, the week of familial and ancestral celebration, the Yamato clan intact.

He is looking for Yuta, one of the fortunetellers on the square’s southern block amid the squatting day laborers and the swarms of kids huddled for clubbing or just hanging with skateboards and scurrilous grins. Some commotion beneath the Koma Theater marquee draws the attention of a few officers and a kind of chant begins under the eaves.

Per usual, Yuta sees him first.

“I knew you’d be coming. You’re early, but OK.”

“Of course. How did you know?”

“Stay down.”

Yuta hunkers. Seated behind a card table with the white paper lantern he can douse and fold up at a moment’s notice, a lean and tidy man with a day’s growth regardless of the day and a small beret that looks tailor-made. He doesn’t always seem to understand Lance, but this has less to do with language differences than selective hearing. Lance says a lot that Yuta means to dismiss.

“Stay down,” Yuta repeats. “And follow me. The Chinese again. This is gonna blow big and you shouldn’t be here. Me either.”

Yuta douses and folds and makes a sharp right around the arc of the theater, Lance behind him making as stealthy as an over-tall, stoopish white guy in a bomber jacket can, until they’re both ducking down an alleyway, one of the seemingly patternless pathways of the ‘hood, replete with massage parlors and potted plants. Along the way Yuta makes jerky, bobbing gestures, halfway gun-toting noirish parody, but also his own gut-earned agility from six years of judo. The man kicks ass and has the poise that goes with it. Nearing the dimmer, dilapidated husks of Golden Gai, Yuta explains the latest: three yakuza dead in a midnight raid, Chinese gangs suspected. “Stupid asses, forgive me,” Yuta adds. “Turf wars, you know. They thought they had their own.”

“Got some godfather type?”

“Big, we say. Come on. You look ill.”

It was rare for Yuta to offer personal assessments off the record, so to speak, without the cards. Lance felt both honored and humbled and a little disoriented. He was ill, probably. They ascended one narrow flight of stairs, Lance at the rear waiting a few steps below. Yuta gesticulated softly and spoke softly and went on talking to someone for a few minutes then politely nodded and came back down. They walked on for several meters and Yuta repeated the same act, a little more expediently this time, but with small hand flourishes that began to appear desperate. No luck. He came back down, brow lowered.

“The movie bar. I can’t find it. The one with the Coppola bottle-keep, the Kurosawa cork. Remember?”

“Wasn’t that ground floor?”

Two doors down and a crouch through mottled aluminum and they’re in, past the Donat posters in a room the size of three bathtubs. Yuta unfolds himself now above a stool and Lance nestles in beside him, his shoulders twitching, and when Yuta opens the whiskey and pours two they don’t speak through the toast, just shoot it back, two quick neck-yokes and Yuta says:

“What happened with the wife?”


2000

Four million at Meiji Shrine. That was the year I walked with them, shuffled, really, over the gravel path in the shadow of cedar and pine. Four million. Something about the roundness of that figure appealed, more than four times what they get in Times Square, an entire mid-sized American city drawn to the shrine alone. The willful compliance and interdependence; the way so many in this overpopulated city would do what others would do, at the very same time. As an American I admired this; sometimes I found it almost physically repellent. But that night it drew me further, too, through a Tokyo chill that made my knees ache, Natalie beside me snuggled down into a leather jacket, gloveless.

“Did you, Lance? You called today?”

“Did you, Lance? You called today?”

“It’s on your phone, if you don’t believe me. Check your phone. My number is there. The time I called, the clothes I wore when I called, my heart-rate. They record all these things.”

We walked ahead together, her nose nudging my lower cheek. She’d come here from Paris, her family from an island in the West Indies. Natalie: her complexion dark and vaguely freckled, with vivid eyes that followed you everywhere. She was 13 years younger than I, and every time she said my name with that lilting accent I wanted to pray.

We walked forward and I kept thinking that there must be some way to hold on to this, just this night and the air around us. The accordion-folded paper fortunes fluttered from spindly branches, casting busy shadows on the gravel. What Yuta had said last year: “Just act on the simplest sensations.” Act, don’t react. Move, don’t be moved. We don’t need to learn things; we need to be reminded. The wondrous stuff of best sellers.

“What are you thinking?” Natalie said. “And why so much?” She flicked my ear, then pinched the lobe hard. She was studying dance and neuroscience, and learning Japanese, and working as a waitress in an Italian basement trattoria in Harajuku. She was a verb. She could do anything.

A prerecorded voice, prerecorded music and drumbeats played through the park around us. The floodlights shone especially bright around the shrine, where casks of sake were arrayed like fat sentinels. We finally made it as far as they’d let us, up the steps to the bell and then down again, and the interior reminded me of maple syrup mills I’d visited as a child in northern New England, soft-lit and wood-stuffy, not so much to see as to sense. The Shinto priest gestured, we tossed yen, rang the bell, clapped and prayed. Soon we were out in the cold.

“Do you wonder if those prayers are heard if you’re not Japanese?” Natalie asked.

“If you’re not Shinto, you mean?”

“If you’re not Japanese.”

“If you’re not Japanese, you’re not Shinto. And nothing is heard if you’re not

Japanese. Not in Japan, anyway.”

We were getting drunk. Natalie had a flask of sake in her left pocket, a flask of whiskey in her right.

“Notice how clean everything is?” I said.

“No.”

“People’ve been cleaning their homes, their cars, the statues. It’s renewal, not just a big party.”

“Thank you, professor . . . ah . . . asshole.”

Who was this girl? We’d met in a Shibuya club soon after I divorced Kumiko. Natalie said little, but what she said was smart. Clarity is what we lose, even more than fleshly beauty or strength. After 30, we just pretend to be focused.

Kabukicho was going to hell, they’d said. First the Chinese, then the Koreans, now Southeast Asians, strutting those circuitous streets. I’d heard of a firebombing that made me unaccountably happy: The American-based college branch at which I’d taught 10 years ago — where they’d denied me my final paycheck — blown to a carbon husk by a disgruntled employee when it was empty for the summer break.

“It’s a little like suicide, falling in love with an old man.”

“Like falling in love with your father, maybe? Don’t even.”

“You insult him!” she laughed. “Like kamikaze, I think I mean. Zoom. Bang. Look out! I’m going to kill both of us!”


2001

Yuta was the only one who guessed, late one night, far too late in Roppongi, that I was Japanese, in some way.

“Your mother or father?”

“One of the two is 50-50, right?”

“You look more Spanish. Maybe Indian. Native American, you say?”

“A cipher.”

“What?”

“My mother is Japanese. And I am Japanese, too, and not at all, of course.”

Yuta and I crossing the Rainbow Bridge, working out our business plans. A terrible place to walk, full of exhaust fumes and a view that is, at best, befogged, but it’s elevated and private. Yuta believes in secrecy in Tokyo, regardless of the business or proposition.

We’re selling hentai anime porn to the West, underselling the big boys over the Internet.

And I can see us from this perspective: the way we honored each other and kept our distances and truly believed we’d make some money. Tokyo still had some gall just about one year ago, or so everyone says. Yuta hugs me when I tell him I’m divorced; when I confess to no center at all he embraces me harder, as thought this is what connects us.

“Gambatte,” he says. Fight hard. Do your best. Don’t give up.

Good luck, man.


2002

At his uncle’s home in Yokohama the food is displayed like a photo-shoot: o-sechi ryori, kani-nabe, lean fingers of sashimi, fecund ooze of mochi. O-shogatsu is ritual, a renewal so old it makes his own country’s celebrations seem facile and silly.

Lance is wide awake, a bit strung out on the night before, and the world closes in with its particular demands: sunshine. “Natalie desu,” he says, raising the hand of his catch, the young girl from Paris.

Hours later they will visit the local shrine. The crinkled fortunes heralding New Year’s wishes and longings unfurl from every branch and dangle blandly in the breeze. Drink the sweet sake that keeps you warm and sends you elsewhere.


2003

I see Kumiko now and then. I saw her on the Tozai Line, suckling her newborn at the end of the platform, and I shrugged past the businessmen and blue-jeaned girls and snuck up next to her. Then she was gone, the woman with my child, I imagined. On the Oedo Line she brushed my shoulder bearing two infants, this time so far underground I found it hard to breathe. My face was a sheen of poisons, gleaming in the fluorescence down there, a subway line so deep in the bowels of the city you have to measure the minutes to the platform like some deep-sea dive.

Natalie sends messages to my phone, brief lines of text saying the same things: Where are you? Who are you? I miss you.

Neshogatsu, Yuta once told me, is the New Year via coma, sleep and rest through five days straight. Go into dream-voice. An unconscious beginning, like our first. Begin again.

I’m looking for him back in Kabukicho, where all the lights are on but no one seems home, and the winds feel especially impatient. A woman wearing a wrestler’s mask, blue and sparkly with fat eyeholes, blocks my way and pantomimes a knee to my groin before tucking a flier into my armpit. I read the katakana and hiragana hesitantly. They will beat you to submission and sex you, it says. Or something like that.

An ambulance on the corner flashes white and red and I pause, slip back. We’re in trouble with the hentai syndicate, Yuta and me. Anything official these days scares me.

I see the body bag, too short for comfort, and imagine Yuta in there but don’t believe it. He’s smarter than all this, I reason. This was the night he’d do it, he promised: speak to the dead man. He’d find my grandfather, a poet who worked for the government during the war, and he’d channel his voice.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I can’t wait any longer.

“Who is he?” I ask in a foreigner’s overloud Japanese.

It’s not Yuta. It’s not, and the face, broken and crooked beneath the blanket, is emphatic. The paramedics push me aside and rush somewhere deep into Okubo.

“You’re American, which means you are supposed to be alone. An individual. So strong and so cool, and also so stupid.” Yuta was still drinking then, and we were sitting in the top-floor bar of the Shinagawa Prince Hotel. Mori’s monoliths blinked tirelessly through the windows.

“But you don’t understand a very simple thing: that to be human is to be dependent, to need. That is strength.”

The simplest sensations. I sit against the Koma Theater wall, waiting for Yuta. I watch the garbage blow across the square. I listen to the voices. Tonight the trains will keep running and the millions will meet at Meiji Shrine. We will begin again.