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Tis the season to tell stories

by Thomas Dillon

The warmth of the holiday season often cooks up a nice story — a helping of good will to be served with turkey and plum pudding, osechi and omochi or whatever other delicacies might grace your international table.

And that’s what I’ve got this time — a small story.

First, some background . . .

There’s this man I’ve known for years. He operated the video shop down the block in the neighborhood where we used to live, where my children grew up.

A video shop. That says a lot right there. It’s not exactly the wave of the future.

Yet in this era of Tsutaya-like rental giants and easy Internet downloads, he refused to close up and walk away. He persevered, despite the odds and his ever-dwindling income. Despite the certainty that his shop days were numbered.

Because he loved his work. He loved the movies.

Oh the sparkle of the cinematic experience! Good vs. Evil! Tears of sorrow vs. tears of joy! And always that dot of human hope shining on in a world far too often consumed in darkness. The dot that never goes out and in the end overcomes and illuminates even the deepest of nights.

He told me once he really wasn’t in the video business at all. He was in the “hope” business. Allowing people, through the media of film, to find release and encouragement in their workaday lives.

He used to pull my boys aside and speak about the magic of film, how the stories were made, what they taught and how they linked to other stories beyond. His words must have hit home somehow, as my older son is now near his Ph.D. in cinematic studies.

Through the years, videos morphed into DVDs and loss of profits due to changing times pushed my friend’s business into smaller and smaller quarters. Until it became but a cubbyhole, a cigar-like room pinched even tighter by the many shelves he somehow wiggled in.

I managed to pop in on him once a year. Two graying romantics, no wit wiser than our younger days. And last year, last Christmas, he told me this story.

A boy entered his shop. A boy of perhaps 7. A boy with a drippy nose and raw skin chapped by the bite of winter.

This boy was unlike the other boys who pestered their way in and out of the shop. His clothes were threadbare and he appeared unwashed. More than that, he appeared unwanted. The other children shunned him.

“Japan,” the shopkeeper said, “is not the middle-class Mecca that the West often makes it. There are poor here too. And like poor anywhere what they mostly do is survive. . . . And dream.”

This boy would do his dreaming in front of the animation section. One by one, he would pick out the DVDs and gaze at the colorful covers, absorbed in what enchantment might lie therein.

But he never rented. Other children did. Always and often. Yet, this boy only looked.

The shopkeeper came to the conclusion that the boy had no money. Or perhaps had no DVD player.

The boy appeared nearly every day, sometimes for minutes, sometimes for much longer. He was a quiet child. With shiny eyes.

The shopkeeper watched him and wondered. The businessman in him, the one with the ever-shrinking profits, knew he shouldn’t do what he was thinking.

But the other part of him, the greater part, wouldn’t listen.

“Young fellow? Want to see this DVD? Then . . . here.” He placed it in the original case.

“You have a player, right? Take it home then and watch. No fee. It’s my gift.”

The boy mumbled his thanks, clutched the film — Hayao Miyazaki’s “Tonari no Tottoro” — and burst from the store.

With the shopkeeper shouting, “Just bring it back when you’re done.”

Of course, he never saw the boy again.

“I figured he sold it. I might have done the same, if I was in need.”

Months passed. His rental business sputtered on.

And then one spring morning, in the season when families uproot and move away, he found a paper sack at the door to his shop.

Inside? “Tonari no Tottoro.” And with it an envelope of coins.

¥1 coins, ¥5 coins, ¥10 coins, a child’s lifetime savings of coins. Adding up to . . . no, not quite enough for the rental fee.

But the shopkeeper held the envelope and understood this . . .

Never had he been paid so much money in his life.

“The boy was saving up. In the end, he gave me all he had. A little boy. All he had.”

“So tell me,” he says. “How can I quit? People only need a bit of hope to keep on going. And me? Why, I’m full of hope. I’ve got an entire envelope.”

“More than enough to get me through.”

True . . . businesses vanish. People move on. Times change.

Yet hope endures. In the face of earthquakes, tsunamis, economic blight or whatever, that’s the message of 2011.

Hope endures.

Season’s greetings — and hopes for a great new year — to one and all.