Chapter 6: Yes, No, or Maybe Half? (6)
The next day, the manager of the announcer department pulled Kei aside and said, “Kunieda, come with me.”
The manager led him to a conference room, not a break room or a reception space, and Kei had a bad feeling about what the manager wanted him for. It had to be something that couldn’t be said in front of others. But he didn’t have the faintest idea what it could be.
“Oh, good morning. Thanks for coming to dinner with me last night.” Shitara sat in the middle of the room, and Kei’s suspicions grew even deeper.
“Thank you very much for inviting me. It was a wonderful dinner.”
Shitara wasn’t alone; he was accompanied by the Programming Director, the News Director, and the General Manager. What were all of these high-level executives doing gathered here?
When Kei sat down, Shitara was the first to break the ice.
“There has been some unfortunate news. Oh, it’s nothing that you’ve done, Kunieda-kun, so don’t worry on that front.”
Then why the closed-door meeting? When Kei looked at his manager sitting next to him, the manager said with a difficult expression on his face, “Asou has been hospitalized.”
“He was diagnosed with early-stage gastric cancer. Fortunately, it doesn’t pose any danger to his life at this stage, but he will be taking some extended time off for his medical treatment.”
Kei could not believe the sudden and unexpected news. While he didn’t work with Asou in any capacity, they would chat if they ran into each other in the announcer department. He had looked completely healthy.
Should he say, Oh, that’s terrible? But that sounded too distant from a colleague, even though they didn’t know each other very well. How about, I hope he can pull through? No, that wasn’t quite right. I wish him a full and speedy recovery? But wasn’t like he was here for Kei to say it directly to him…
Before Kei could come up with an appropriate response to say, Shitara continued to talk. “In light of the situation, I would like to request that you transfer to The News and become our pinch hitter.”
“I thought about it a lot, and although I didn’t have much time to think through everything carefully, I can’t think of anyone else I would like to have on the show become his stand-in. Even your names, Keiichi and Kei, are similar.”
“Of course, we will arrange for a veteran to support you during the transition,” the News Director said.
“…Please give me a moment.”
Fuck, were they in their right minds? Kei really wanted to check if they were sane. He wrote out in his head, Calm down, to himself in Japanese calligraphy, several times, until he could open his mouth and say, “But I’m on the evening news team right now.”
“We’ll transfer you over at the end of March,” Shitara responded matter-of-factly. “I would like to transfer you out now, but we have the transition process to consider. Oh, but you don’t have to worry about the assignment with Tsuzuki-kun anymore. We’ll send someone else in your place. With only a month until our premiere, we have a lot of work we need to do and lots of arrangements we need to make.”
How reckless can you be, old man? You want me to be the main host on the nightly news? No way, no how, not in a million years! You’re asking for the impossible.
Kei looked to the other people around the room in hopes for a rescue boat, but everyone stayed silent, knitting their brows with their arms crossed. Apparently, they felt that they had no better options than the one that Shitara had proposed.
“But why would you select me? I have never hosted an entire show on my own before. Surely there is someone who is a better fit than me.”
Kei attempted a mild counterargument, but he couldn’t offer a single name when Shitara asked, “Who would that be, for example?” Shitara appeared especially creepy given the current circumstances, the only person in the room with a bright smile plastered on his face. “There is no one at the network who can replace Asou Keiichi. They all lack something, whether it is his knowledge, skill, or charisma. But it’s no use lamenting the lack of depth in our reserves, that’s why I’ve decided to place all my bets on your potential.”
Kei wasn’t going to be deceived so easily.
“Will I be transferred back to the evening news once Asou-san finishes his treatment and makes a full recovery?”
The News Director frowned and said, “We don’t know yet.” It was clear from the atmosphere in the room that the decision was only left “undecided” for now because the truth would be too hard for Kei to hear.
“Let’s focus on the things we need to do for the coming month rather than on what’ll happen afterwards. This afternoon we’ll be announcing to the public the news of Asou’s diagnosis. That means you’ll need to be ready to step up to the plate, Kunieda. We expect there to be extensive coverage in the morning papers tomorrow, especially the sports and news ones. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, but let me re-emphasize the need to be especially careful with what you say to the media.”
“I understand,” Kei replied; it was almost robotic.
“Also, I’ll need you to clear your schedule tomorrow. This is none of your fault, but we need to make our rounds and offer our apologies.” Shitara pressed his hands together shamelessly. “Sorry, you have to come along.”
“Who will we be visiting?”
“The headquarters of each of the political parties. I don’t think they’ll actually meet with us, but it’ll give us an alibi, just in case. We gotta do things properly after all.”
“Do things properly?”
“Oh, I haven’t told you yet. We’re going to have a special panel planned for our premiere. It’ll be a lively, spirited discussion with each of the leaders of the ruling and opposition parties. Kunieda-kun, have you ever seen the Prime Minister in person before? No? Well, lucky you.”
Kei was dismissed before he could fully digest the orders that had been handed down to him. He walked past his colleagues through the hallways and greeted them normally with his usual grace. Then he found an empty studio, locked himself in the private restroom, and engaged the flushing sound function1 on the toilet, yelling, “Fuck!!” as he furiously kicked the restroom wall.
Damn them all to hell! No matter how nicely they dress up their words, at the end of the day, I’m gonna be left with the short end of the stick!
It was like he had invested all of his time and effort to be considerate to his neighbors, living a nice and quiet life in his comfortable, humble, little home; then he was suddenly evicted and ordered to be the damn housekeeper at a beautiful but ridiculously expensive luxury penthouse. This was what their orders essentially meant. And Kei would be homeless once the original owner of the penthouse returned.
His pick was probably the result after scrutinizing all the announcers who would be able to handle the job for a couple of months, who was always on their best behavior, who wouldn’t make trouble and was at age where even if they were to fail, they would be able to bounce back again after some time. If he recalled correctly, the idiom shooting the white-feathered arrow meant singling someone out to be the sacrifice. It was an apt expression for the circumstances.
Should he distance himself from the Asou Keiichi fans before he takes over as the main host? Or should he leverage the news and get a slight ratings boost? But what about the second and third nights, and the nights after that? If he wasn’t able to meet the network’s expectations, he would be labeled an “under-performer.” And if he was able to raise the numbers, he was just a temporary stopgap. There was absolutely no merit in it for him. If he was the ambitious type, maybe, but Kei had no desire to become the next face of the network. It would be a pain in the ass. He was happy with his above-average popularity at his above-average job.
It was extremely unreasonable. But Kei had no power to refuse orders from his superiors. As a mere employee under the network’s orders, he could only nod his head and accept his fate. If he had insisted, for the rest of his career, what laid ahead for him was a future of warming his seat at his desk everyday. Announcers were expendable. Every year, fresh, new blood filled with limitless potential replenished the network’s pipeline, and the executives from above could change out an announcer as easily as a Lego block.
I wanna go home, Kei thought as he repeatedly pressed the flushing sound button. He wanted to go home, tear off his suit, and roll around in his sweats, screaming and cursing and pulling his hair until he got everything out of his system. And once he exhausted himself and started to feel hungry, he wanted to go buy his favorite beef rice bowl, and then—
Kei recalled Shitara’s words: You don’t have to worry about the assignment with Tsuzuki-kun anymore. Was that so? That was a relief. Now he had nothing more to do with him. That was a single piece of good news, right? Now he never had to think about him again. Why did he kiss him anyway? It baffled him. Tsuzuki didn’t even call. If Tsuzuki had apologized a hundred times and promised to never do it again, Kei would have considered forgiving him.
Apologize, dammit. Say something.
“…Ugh, fuck them all…”
Not a single soul could hear the low whispers interwoven into the artificial sounds of flushing water.
“Good job, everyone!”
After finishing the broadcast, the lights in the studio dimmed, and the sound of somber organ music played through the speakers. The producer walked in carrying a gigantic flower bouquet in his arms. What ridiculousness were they planning? Kei wanted to vomit inside, but under the staff’s urging, he walked to the center of the studio.
“As everyone knows, this was Kuneida’s last show on Evening File. He’ll be moving to the nightly news as the sole host of the show. It will be a tough job, but we wish him the best of luck. Thank you for your hard work for the past two years!”
Why would you give a single man flowers? Do you think I’d have a vase at home? What a pain in the ass. Get me a damn gift card if you want to do something nice for me.
Kei accepted the flower bouquet with a smile and faced the AD holding up a digital camera. They were going to post photos on the show’s website. After everyone was released, the masses of idiots continued to swarm around begging for a picture or a handshake.
“I promise to watch you on the nightly news!”
Do you have the box that records your viewing habits installed on your TV at home?
“Thank you. I enjoyed working together with everyone.”
“I know that you’ll make the show a big success, Kunieda-san!”
What the hell do you even know about me?
“I will do my best.”
The loud applause hurt Kei’s ears. Even after leaving the studio, the manager of his department went up to him and patted his back, saying, “With spring coming, you’ll be the new face of the nightly news.”
Don’t touch me. You’ll get your greasy fingerprints on my suit.
“The nightly news staff were saying good things about you. That you’re really eager to learn. Looks like everyone’s happy to join your ship; it should be smooth sailing.”
Even though you’ll toss the captain over when it starts sinking.
“But you look like you’ve lost weight. How about we get some dinner together and get some meat on your bones?”
“Thank you for the kind invitation, but I have a meeting for the nightly news soon.”
“Oh, so in-demand now! You must be busy. Good luck with everything.”
Ugh, shut up.
Kei somehow felt better after he imagined stuffing the manager’s mouth full of flowers. He headed towards the conference room and saw Shitara walking towards him.
“Darn it, I wanted to watch your last on-air taping for the evening news. Looks like I didn’t make it.”
“We just finished.”
“That’s too bad for me. But the flowers really suit you.”
“Thank you very much.”
“Speaking of flowers, when we went to the hospital for location scouting the other day, they had a sign that said no flowers were allowed. I wonder if it’s becoming more common?”
“It may very well be. Will we be doing a report at a hospital?”
“Yeah, with Asou’s recent diagnosis, it’d be a good opportunity to start a series to talk about cancer. We can follow his fight against his own cancer and report on things like receiving the diagnosis, the latest treatment options, patients who are suffering without hospital access, late-stage and end-of-life care…” Shitara counted off the items on his fingers like he was listing his vacation itinerary. “Anything we do on cancer will bring in the ratings. Probably due to recent announcements in the news.”
Kei’s blood crawled with disgust at the man standing in front of him. He could calmly make a story out of a colleague’s illness without a second thought—a TV man who would sell his soul for a story through and through. There was no doubt that he would dump Kei for any kind of failure that might befall the show.
“You don’t look so good. You’re still young, but has the stress been getting to you?”
Shitara’s eyes seemed to say, Take care of yourself, Kunieda-kun, but there was no sign of laughter in them.
Kei somehow managed to catch the last train home. The hanging advertisements were filled with banners for the upcoming premiere of The News, still featuring a large bust shot of Asou Keiichi. A callout balloon with Kei’s face on it was pasted in the corner like a sticker, complete with a stupid comment bubble of him saying, Due to various circumstances, I’ll be hosting! It was humiliating. It made sense from a cost point of view, but the ridiculousness of the design had to be 100% Shitara’s doing. It wasn’t like Kei wanted his own poster, but still, to be treated this way was galling. He closed his eyes, and the scent of a floral perfume assaulted his nose, giving him a headache.
Back-to-back meetings, rehearsal, checking up on the news. Next month’s paycheck would likely be his largest in his career. He used to enjoy his nightly walks through the park, but now he was so exhausted that any moment he could spare at night, all he wanted to do was sleep.
As soon as he arrived home, he remembered that he had leftover work that he needed to finish. Without removing his necktie, he headed to the living room, threw his bouquet on the sofa, and turned on his computer. He had forgotten to post a new entry on the pointless announcer blog for the network.
What a pain in the ass. Whatever, might as well write about my last show with the evening news. Let’s see, it is with a heavy heart that I write that tonight’s broadcast was my last show on Evening File. Thank you so much for the past two years. I learned a lot from everybody, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to work on such a wonderful show. Thank you to all of the staff and colleagues, it has been a pleasure working with you all, and I’ll continue to work harder in my next role—
A cell phone rang from within his coat pocket that he had left on the floor. It was his personal one. He thought of Tsuzuki’s face and jumped to answer it, surprised that he even had the strength left to do so.
Took you long enough, stupid. Don’t call me at such a ridiculous time of the night.
“You finally answered. I’ve only been getting your voicemail lately.”
Kei was preparing to unload a string of curse words, but the caller turned out to be his mother. He slumped down on the floor against his sofa. “I’ve been busy.”
“I figured you were. …But are you really doing okay?”
“Why?” Kei was in a bad mood, and his voice was sharp and stinging like a ball of prickly thorns.
“Can you handle the pressure of the nightly news? Plus you’re standing in for Asou-san as his pinch hitter. That’s a lot on your shoulders. I know that you’ve always been a quick and clever boy, but still… Wouldn’t it be better if they had found someone with more experience?”
“What can I do about it?” Kei spat acidically. “How about you say something to the network?”
“Can I? Excuse me, I’m Kunieda Kei’s mother, and I’m calling to say that the job is too much pressure for my son.”
“Are you stupid!?”
“Who are you calling stupid!?”
“Shut up, harpy!”
“What did you just call me? All you can do is take your anger out on me, roaring like a lion at home, but outside, you’re a meek little mouse! Let me guess, you’ve been flashing that smile of yours at people and telling them that you’re up for the challenge. Hmph, you reap what you sow.”
“It’s your fault to begin with!”
“Because I was born with this damn face! If I was born with a face like a gorilla, then I can live my life without worry like the gorilla I am! But life doesn’t work that way. I’m always being fawned over no matter what I do, so I’m obligated to make people feel like they were right to fawn over me in the first place!!”
“What the heck does that even mean!? I gave birth to such a handsome son, and you complain about it to me!? Who the heck do you think you are?”
Kei could hear his father saying, “Stop yelling, it’s so late at night,” but the words didn’t seem to reach his angered mother.
“See if I care anymore! Don’t come back even if your company discovers your black underbelly and you’re forced to quit your job!”
“Fine with me. I’m never coming back, stupid!”
“Dear! You too, Kei! Calm down—”
Kei hung up on his mother and toppled over on top of his coat exhausted.
Dammit, I used my voice too much.
He fished a throat lozenge out of his pocket and put it in his mouth. He couldn’t go on the air for the show’s premiere with a scratchy voice.
The room had descended back into silence. The only sound was the rolling of the lozenge inside Kei’s mouth. He hated its odd herbal taste, but it was the most effective out of all the ones he had tried. It had been a while since Kei had heard his father’s voice. He could imagine that right about now his father was scolding his mother for acting childishly while his mother was protesting back that Kei had started it. After hanging up from the heated argument on the phone, his mother had his father to support her. Even though they had their grievances that they would grumble about like any normal couple, they were each other’s better half—and for better and for worse, they would be there for one another. All Kei had was his empty apartment, where he was sleeping on the floor and sucking on a lozenge.
“…Ugh, no, gotta focus.”
Shocked at the miserable direction that his thoughts were heading, Kei forced himself to get up off the floor. He didn’t have time to get weak and depressed. He needed to finish up his blog post, go through his news checks, and head to bed so that he wouldn’t wake up with hideous dark circles under his eyes the next morning—that was when he saw the flower bouquet laying on his sofa. It was an arrangement of white and pale green colors: designed with Kuneida-san’s image in mind, they had said.
It doesn’t suit me at all.
He had wanted to trash the bouquet from the moment he had received it, but now for some reason, Kei couldn’t bear to see the flowers starting to wither. He deleted the draft that he had started writing, grabbed his bag, and staggered back outside.
He headed down the street, through the small park, and turned right at the corner convenience store. Taking the crosswalk through the large intersection and turning left when he saw a drugstore, Kei arrived within the vicinity of the two-story house with a shutter covering the first floor. He didn’t have any place to go, so why did Kei end up coming here?
The windows on the second floor were dark. Was he sleeping? Was he home? Was he downstairs working? Kei knew that he shouldn’t be here, but he didn’t want to go home, and he couldn’t think of anywhere else he could go.
While Kei stood there like a statue, he heard a high-pitched screeching coming from behind him. When he turned around, he realized that it was the sound of the brakes slowing down the bicycle that Tsuzuki was riding.
He looks surprised. I need to say something. Something that will smooth over the situation like always.
However, the automatic Kunieda Kei mode refused to engage, and he could only utter a single, nonsensical phrase. “A flower vase.”
“A flower vase?”
“I was given a flower bouquet. Today was my last show on the evening news. But I didn’t have a vase at home, and the flowers were starting to wither. So I was thinking of buying a flower vase…” Kei realized that Tsuzuki looked increasingly confused at his incoherent rambling. He quickly backtracked and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, please disregard everything that I just said. Umm, I wanted to apologize for the sudden staff change for the project. I would have liked to personally help with the transition, but I was unable to due to circumstances at the network.”
That should be okay. But was it still too weird to be standing in front of his house in the middle of the night?
Tsuzuki stared at Kei for a moment. “Why don’t you come inside?” he suggested. “It’s cold, and you came out without wearing a coat.”
It had been several weeks since Kei had stepped inside Tsuzuki’s house. Nothing had changed, except for maybe the completed set that Tsuzuki had been working on.
Resting in the chasm of towering buildings was an intersection painted with white crosswalk patterns, depicting a mass of pedestrian traffic bustling through the streets.
Kei commented, “I imagine that you’re done with both the filming and the editing.”
“Yeah, all that’s left are a few fixes here and there on the computer after I get Shitara-san to take a look at it.”
“I see. …Congratulations. Or is it too early to say so yet?”
“I should be congratulating you.”
“You received a big promotion to host a show. That’s amazing. But also kinda weird that someone I know is on the same news show that’s been running since I was a kid.”
“Oh, thank you.”
So you’re bringing up this subject like all the others.
But Kei had no energy to get fired up inside of his head; he just let it go.
“Have you been busy?” Tsuzuki asked.
“Yes, quite so.”
What’s with this hollow chitchat? Did I really wander over here for this?
“I’m sure you were chosen for the job because everyone believed you could handle it.”
What would an amateur like you know? Reading the news and hosting a show are completely different beasts. Not only do I need to comprehend all the topics on the show, I need to manage the timing of the segments, read the atmosphere of the room, and manage the flow of the conversation—I can’t be too controlling and I can’t be too passive. I need to make thoughtful and relevant comments when there’s the opportunity to do so, but I also need to encourage all the guests to contribute their thoughts equally. Can you imagine doing all this on live TV? And for my first show, I’ll be hosting a panel discussion with the leaders of the ruling and opposition parties. Every single one of them believes they deserve all the airtime to themselves, and I’m supposed to moderate the conversation? You’re asking for the impossible.
As Kei rattled off all of his counterarguments inside his head, he replied to Tsuzuki with a great deal of grace, “That’s very kind of you. I am honored to have so many people say such encouraging things.”
You’re amazing. Good for you. I know you can handle it, Kunieda. You’re gonna bring in the ratings for sure. Kei had put on his perfect and capable front for so long that everyone simply believed that he could not fail. Kei didn’t have a single person he could confide his true feelings to. He was riddled with anxiety and fear, and the pressure and expectations were threatening to crush him.
It chased him inside his dreams too; he would feel his head going blank in the middle of a broadcast, unable to say a word to the camera. He could only focus on the seconds counting down; five seconds of dead air and he would be saddled with a broadcast mistake.
He had to hurry and say something. 5, 4, 3, 2— And then Kei would wake up shaken from his dream.
There was no one he could talk to, to joke about the dream with. He had gotten along with everybody, but his relationships were all superficial. Always smiling, always kind, never angry or critical. It was tiring trying to talk to people about the honest truth, and it was tiring listening to it. At this moment, Kei truly felt the bitter sharpness of his mother’s words—you reap what you sow.
If, just if, Kei were to confess that he was frightened out of his mind from the pressure right now, how would Tsuzuki react exactly? Strangely enough, Kei discovered that he had stumbled upon a tiny ray of hope, all the while he was crumbling inside from his own situation. His mask was so fake, it had been stuck on for so long, but with everything as it was, wouldn’t he be able to pull off the mask now?
Come on, say it. Just say it. Tell him about “Owari” too. Nothing matters anymore. Maybe I can finally move forward after I get this off my chest.
He could hear his heart telling him, Say it. Say it. This could be his last chance to confess. He wanted to be forgiven. He would apologize from the bottom of his heart, and he wanted Tsuzuki to forgive him. Even if it was impossible, at least he wanted Tsuzuki to understand that he was human too, that he had fears like everyone else. If not, then he didn’t know how he would hold himself together.
He did say that he wanted to understand me more. Though it wasn’t to “Kunieda-san.”
“Um, excuse me…”
“Sorry.” Tsuzuki raised his hand at the same time that Kei started to speak. “I’m in a rush right now with things that I need to fix by morning. Do you mind if I get to work? You can stay here as long as you need to, Kunieda-san.”
Kei should have bid him farewell at that moment, but it took him some time to recover from the feeling that he was brushed off on purpose. Tsuzuki had scurried to his desk to do his work, and Kei lost his opportunity to excuse himself.
Kei was familiar with this profile of Tsuzuki’s face as he sat at his desk—Tsuzuki was completely focused on his work right now, and he never heard a single word that “Owari” said when he got like this. Before he would always treat “Kunieda-san” kindly, but now that they no longer worked together, did he no longer feel the need to bother being friendly with him?
What the hell. You didn’t know that I was “Kunieda-san” and yet you kissed me. It’s all your fault in the first place that I started acting so strange. Do you know that? Of course, you don’t.
With nothing else to do, Kei sat down on the sofa, the cheap, faux leather squeaking as his body sank into the cushioning. It made him miss his time here terribly. Since Tsuzuki wasn’t paying attention to him, maybe it didn’t matter. Kei dropped his usual reservations, placing his head down on the sofa like he had done so often on his previous visits, and started to talk.
“When I was first hired into Asahi TV, a woman who was hired along with me, invited me to a gathering for all of the prospective announcers at the network.”
There was no reaction, just as Kei had expected. He didn’t particularly mind and continued to talk.
“When I arrived at the venue, everyone stared at me like I was rare animal species they had never seen before. The typical path of an aspiring TV announcer, from the major networks down to the local cable stations, is to travel around the country, almost like a caravan, moving from station to station gaining experience. There are even people who set their hearts on a particular network, turning down other potential offers, trying to get in year after year. I was the only one who never had that experience, and so I was treated like an outsider.”
People had scoffed, clearly jealous, saying, Special talent? Hmph, what’s so special about getting an offer from Asahi? I’m here, aren’t I? Kei had also heard rumors that he was actually the secret love child of a famous celebrity or that he was the son of big name sponsor. It had irritated him. Kei had worked hard to get to where he was; he didn’t come from a privileged family where he could leverage the family name or their riches.
“I had never taken any broadcasting courses. I didn’t have any semi-pro experience in the TV or radio industry. I had no relevant, major achievements that I could point to on my resume. It is a career that calls for several thousands times worth of struggle and effort to break through the competition. You could call my hiring ‘a flash of inspiration’ from the powers that be, but in short, it amounts to nothing more but ‘a stroke of luck.’ It would be a lie to say that I never regretted my decision to take this career path. But I cannot turn back now. I don’t want to lose to the people who knew that they had always wanted to be announcers. I don’t want to fail and have them say that I only got to where I was because of favoritism. I have always worked so hard, so desperately, because I…”