Chapter 16: Center of the World (3)
The announcer department get-together was for under 30s only, and so at least there weren’t annoying old men coming over to bother Kei and make small talk.
“—Yeah, so I heard that she nuzzled up to the producer, saying, ‘Oh, I want to be in it too.’”
“Whoa, you’re kidding.”
“Didn’t someone from her year just get engaged to a pro baseball player? Maybe she’s feeling desperate to do something about her situation.”
“Oh, like something to completely change her fortune around? She’s been complaining about only getting radio jobs, so it’s pretty clear she thinks it’s beneath her.”
Whatever, it didn’t change that this little get-together was still worthless. They just gossiped about other co-workers, spread intel about which directors to watch out for, whether for sexual harassment or plain abuse of power, and criticized each other’s mistakes—Kei had no interest in any of it, but he still attended every other function out of work obligations.
“What? If that’s what it takes to get a regular spot on a show, then I should do it too. I wanna be on The News~”
The woman leaned up against Tatsuki, and he declared, “Nope, nothing I can do~,” as he pushed her head away in a surprisingly cool manner. “You gotta ask Shitara-san or Asou-san about it. Not me.”
“Don’t you think there aren’t enough women on the show?”
“But we have a lady do the weather.”
“She only appears briefly at the end of the show!”
Asou was the major force for why there wasn’t a regular woman announcer on the show. His reason was simple: he only used people who were up for the job and he couldn’t do anything about it if the current bench at the network was too terrible to use. Apparently, he didn’t need someone to sit on the set and look pretty.
“They said if we wanted a pretty picture, we should get a cat for the studio. Kinda like Station Master Tama, we’d have a kitty producer!”1
The woman, unhappy at the implication that she was lower than a cat, countered, “Do you guys really have the time to horse around like that? Newsment is a fun and entertaining show. I think they got over 15% this week? Just watching them makes me feel like they’re really energized.”
“But I would say that our ratings haven’t been dropping terribly either,” Kei interjected mildly as he thought to himself, Shut up and leave us alone.
“They’ve been taking shares from each of the networks for the most part, but there’s no telling where everyone will stand 6 months to a year from now.”
“I heard that despite their good ratings, the atmosphere has been pretty tense in the studio,” someone said, jumping into the conversation.
“What? Tell us, tell us! Are the presenters being obnoxious or what?”
“No, it’s behind the scenes stuff. Their producer came up through the entertainment side of the TV industry, and you can see how casual the show is from watching it, but apparently he doesn’t get along with the news staff. The news side would rather not have the news turn into a variety show, but with the ratings going up, it seems like they can’t say anything about it.”
“Oh, yeah, I know what you mean. The news people at Jipangu are always weirdly stuck-up.”
“It seems like the news side has never really gotten along with the entertainment side since the network started. The news side doesn’t pull in the ratings, so they get badmouthed for squandering the budget on interviews to satisfy their own egos. Anyway, both sides had to come together to compromise on this show, but now it’s like the variety side has made its counterattack after being looked down on for so long?”
And then a voice spoke up from behind Kei’s back. “Oh? Is that how it is?”
When everyone turned around, the face of someone they had recently been watching on TV was standing by the screen that was partitioning off the semi-private room.
“Hey, it’s Kizaki Ryou!”
Tatsuki was the first to react.
Kizaki smiled calmly, an exact replica of his smile shown on TV. He met Kei’s eyes and put on an apologetic expression. “Please pardon my rudeness, but we were drinking on the other side of the partition and just happened to hear people mentioning Newsment and we overheard your conversation. …I believe you are all from Asashi TV? We just happen to have the staff that you’ve been talking about here. Would you mind if we joined you?”
“Oh, that’d be great~ How many people do you have? A total of 6? How about we ask them to push our tables together? Excuse me~!”
After Tatsuki had called for the wait staff, he asked, “Does that sound okay to everyone?”
You got the order backwards, stupid.
Ahhh, this thing has taken a turn for the worse.
However, Kei kept his thoughts to himself and kindly extended the welcome to Kizaki. “Please do join us.”
“Thank you very much. I’ll go call everyone over.”
After reconvening with unexpected members added to the group, everyone raised their glasses in cheers once again.
“So is it true that things have been stormy between the staff?”
Of course, it was Tatsuki who immediately brought up the subject.
“Huh? We only just met, that’s your first question? The announcers at Asahi TV sure are bold.”
“Nah, but we’re here to drink and chat, you know? This is what we do.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say it’s stormy or anything…”
Kizaki sat next to Kei drinking a glass of Oolong tea like he was enjoying himself. Side profiles shots didn’t appear on TV news very often, and as Kei casually glanced at the side of Kizaki’s face, he thought, He’s probably the same as me in terms of our physical impressions. He wouldn’t say that they looked similar, but they would be classified under the same category, and that might have been why one of them had to be dropped in the end. There was no point in hiring two announcers who imparted the same impression to the viewers.
“What is everyone here for today?” Kizaki asked, turning to face Kei.
“Oh, no special reason. It’s a regular get-together for the young announcers at the network. At the same time, it’s also nice that things have finally settled down from the new spring season. What about you?”
“Oh, it’s a little embarrassing to say… It’s a little celebration for breaking 15% in the ratings. Strictly for the inner circle.”
“I see… Why would you be embarrassed?”
“Well, we haven’t caught up to The News yet, and I didn’t want you thinking we were getting ahead of ourselves, I suppose.”
Catch up to us? You’re awfully cocky after barely airing for a month.
Kei was irritated, but he showed a little astonishment in his eyes as he said, “Oh, no, there’s no need to feel embarrassed. We were just saying how very energized you were. Oh, but I suppose you must have heard that.”
“Yes, I do apologize, but it did make me happy to hear it. I have learned so much from watching The News.”
“Then I suppose we’ll have to work even harder in response.”
Ugh, I hate this. What’s with this vomit-inducing conversation? I just wanna go home. Dammit, Minagawa, this is all your fault.
But Kei knew that even if Tatsuki hadn’t accepted the invitation, someone would have had to accept it. Even if they were all TV presenters, announcers were company employees and TV personalities were under outside, independent management—as announcers, they would have to act on the company’s behalf when it came to interacting with them.
“…Would you like anything to eat?” Kizaki offered Kei the menu, but he continued to stare at Kei’s face.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was just thinking how beautifully straight your teeth are.”
“Huh?” Kei almost dropped his smile at a terrible premonition he could feel coming.
Don’t tell me he’s interested in me too? I’m already full with the man that I have now.
“Is that so? Thank you very much. But you have nice teeth yourself, Kizaki-san—”
Ugh, what is this? It’s giving me goosebumps! Is this a girl’s night out where we compliment each other over our hair and makeup?
However, Kizaki smiled and replied, “Oh, but mine are implants.”
Kizaki parted his lips slightly and tapped on a tooth with his fingernail. They did look a little too perfect and artificial.
“I did have my teeth straightened before, but the size of my teeth were also uneven. And so I had implants placed for the top and bottom front teeth.”
Kei had negligently opened his mouth before he had prepared what he was going to say. If he said, That’s terrible, it would sound patronizing, and he didn’t know what to do.
However, Kizaki was unbothered and continued to speak. “I’ve long had dreams of becoming an announcer. But it might be a little usual given that I had to have surgery on my tongue even.”
“I had issues with my pronunciation, and so I had surgery to cut through the lingual frenulum on the underside of my tongue. There wasn’t a dramatic effect from the surgery, but it did help me psychologically and I gradually improved.”
“Did you get plastic surgery on your face too to get so handsome?”
Kei felt a modicum of respect for Tatsuki at the way he could jump into the conversation asking such a brazen question.
“If I did, I would have gotten a much better face.” Kizaki smiled wryly.
“Aww, you’re just saying that~ By the way, Kizaki-san, is it true that you could have been my senior colleague?”
Oi, why’d you have to bring that subject up? It’s gonna get messy, dammit.
Kei panicked a little inside.
“I suppose so, but let’s just say that things didn’t happen to work out. Besides, from his very first appearance, Kunieda-san has been praised for being an outstanding new talent for Asahi.”
Kei wondered if Kizaki ever thought that he should be the one in Kei’s position being praised by everybody. It scared Kei a little to imagine it. It felt nice when people were moderately envious of him, but when it came to burning jealousy, no thank you.
“Wouldn’t you have been hired if you reapplied the following year?”
“I’m not so sure.” Kizaki smiled vaguely and whispered, “I had lost all hope after that.
“It had been my dream since I was a child to become an announcer, and Asahi TV was particularly my favorite. You know how announcers can have a kind of affinity for each network? Well, for me, it was Asahi. And when I first started modeling in high school, I did it thinking that it might help me get hired.”
They were at a noisy izakaya, but for some mysterious reason Kizaki’s voice cut through the noise without necessarily raising it.
Please stop. I don’t wanna hear this depressing story from such a professional-sounding voice.
“I thought that I had passed the hiring process, but then I received the phone call telling me that I didn’t get an offer and my mind went completely blank… I didn’t have the willpower to consider the following year. It scared me too much when I thought that I might fail again.”
That was when Kizaki brightened and smoothed over the mood.
“But I love my job right now, and I was able to make it on a news program. Besides, Kunieda-san is incredibly talented, it was no wonder that the network president had taken a keen eye to him. Geniuses surely do exist.”
“Oh, no, you’re too kind…”
“Kunieda-san, how do you feel when you’re called an announcer? May I ask what feelings you have when you accept such words?”
“I gotta peeee!!” Tatsuki suddenly yelled. “Bathroom! Kunieda-san, I gotta go to the bathroom!”
“What are you doing, Minagawa-kun?”
“What’s wro~ng, Tatsuki~?”
“Are you drunk?”
“Come on, come on, I’m gonna pee myself!”
“Please calm down. Here, stand up.”
Kei wanted to smash a beer mug over Tatsuki’s head, but he briskly supported Tatsuki’s back and led him to the gentlemen’s restroom at the back of the establishment, about to open the door for him, when suddenly Tatsuki pulled Kei into the individual restroom with him and locked the door. It was a spacious facility with a large sink area, even with two men inside there was plenty of space.
“Get a hold of yourself, Senpai.”
Tatsuki was no longer feigning drunk, and he leaned against a wall crossing his arms.
“You’ve been withering under Kizaki Ryou this entire time. He’s looking at us as his rival, you know. They might have even found about today’s get-together from someone in the department and came to collect information on us. We’re playing into their hands if we get overwhelmed.”
“…Then what do you want me to do?”
“Why don’t you stop pretending to be nice and go on the attack? Flash him a smile and say, ‘Oh, I’m a genius and I got hired even though I didn’t directly apply for the position~’ Come on, let’s knock them down a few pegs with an Air K!”2
“That’s a different Kei.”
“You’re like quieter and more considerate than usual today, and it’s no fun watching you.”
“It’s not my responsibility to entertain you. Anyway, I hate these kinds of things.”
Kei was fine with horror and splatter films, but any other genres where he could realistically imagine a sense of pain gave him goosebumps.
“Stories like replacing teeth or cutting out part of a tongue… It’s like nails on a chalkboard for me.”
“Huh? But Kunieda-san, didn’t it hurt when you lost your back virginity?”
“Drop dead right now.”
“Wanna hear about the story about when I went to my grandpa’s house, got into the bathtub, scraped the faucet with my back, and turned the tub all red?”
“Quit it! And you essentially told me the entire story!”
“Speaking of which, I once dated a girl who was starting out as a gravure model, and she wanted to be thinner, so she had one of her ribs removed.”
“She probably didn’t want to have any regrets if she couldn’t achieve her dreams. Especially if that was all it took. But she never did end up getting popular. She became a receptionist at high-end luxury gym, married a rich guy, and seems pretty happy now. Kizaki is a popular TV personality now, so he should be happy too. Didn’t you say that it had nothing to do with you, Kunieda-san? I don’t understand why you’re feeling responsible for what happened to him.”
But Kei couldn’t separate himself from this matter. It had pissed Kei off when Tatsuki told him that he didn’t have the guts to become the bad guy, but Tatsuki was right about it.
“You mentioned before that you had applied with a friend. Are you still friends with the person?”
“Yeah, we still have a normal friendship. It wasn’t like he had his heart set on becoming an announcer, but it wouldn’t bother me if he happened to hold a grudge against me for it. Just because someone works hard at something, it doesn’t always lead to success. Go to a few singles meet-ups, and you’ll realize it soon enough. So that’s why you should come out with me, Kunieda-san! You can learn all of life’s lessons there.”
“Not a chance.”
After Tatsuki left the restroom, Kei examined himself in the mirror. He wouldn’t call himself a beautiful flower garden, but he didn’t have any complaints about his looks. As long as their standards weren’t unreasonably high, most people would likely find him attractive. He didn’t know if Kizaki was being sincere or not, but yes, Kei’s teeth were also beautifully straight.
However, they were all features that were DNA-dependent, and Kei didn’t feel like he had earned any kind of victory over Kizaki. It could be said that the winners were decided at the moment of conception, when a sperm fertilized an egg, but that was also true for everyone.
What Tatsuki had said was correct. Normal even. People don’t always get what they want in life despite how desperately they may throw their time, heart, and energy at it. If for example, someone suddenly showed up declaring that they had loved Ushio since 20 years ago, Kei wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about the person’s feelings. They could kindly get the fuck out.
But Kizaki had this look in his eyes when he asked Kei how he felt. His face and voice were gentle, but the question felt sharp like it was aimed right for Kei.
Like he was asking how did it feel to be standing so easily in this place that Kizaki had dreamed about and worked so hard at for years and years of his life to achieve. Kei had never underestimated his job, never once slacked off and rode on his reputation in lieu of putting in the hard work needed to do a good job—he had always, always put in 5 times more effort than what was normally expected. Even though it was true that his hire was partly due to a powerful person pulling the strings, surely there was no one at the network who would call it a mistake now. He didn’t want anyone looking down on him for his circumstances—not the select few who had wanted it and made it, and not the masses who had wanted it and failed. It was what he had worked so hard for and finally achieved.
However, no matter how he tried to persuade the reflection in the mirror, all the reasons in the world couldn’t shake him free from his emotions. Kei pulled out his personal cell phone and placed a call.
His mother immediately answered. “Hello?”
“What is it? Do you need me to send you something?”
“No, I don’t.”
“If it’s not an emergency, can you save it for later? They’re about to solve the mystery.”
“Mom!!” It was the sound of an only son losing out to the Saturday Night Mystery Movie.
“…I’m glad I was born with nice teeth, so thank you…” Kei was a little embarrassed, and the end of his sentence trailed off until it was barely audible. The other end of the phone became silent, and then he heard the sound of a crunch.
Why the hell is she snacking right now?
“…I see, so it was that incident that led to everything…”
“I’m listening. Are you sure you’re not in shock? Maybe you’ve eaten some strange mushrooms from somewhere, but you’re welcome. Do you want me to send you some Ohta Isan antacid tablets?”
“I didn’t eat any mushrooms.”
“But unfortunately I couldn’t do anything about that personality inside, so sorry about that.”
What’s that supposed to mean?
Kei regretted succumbing to the sudden impulse to make this phone call.
The first time that Newsment surpassed The News in the ratings was at the beginning of Golden Week. When he arrived at work and checked the viewership numbers at his desk, the ratings were 16.1% and 14.9%, respectively. They even lost on shares.
Ahhh, but yesterday’s in-depth special on single fathers was really good. I suppose that they did well with households with families.
Kei was slightly relieved. It only took a short time for the data to load on his computer, but for the past number of days, the thought that they might have lost to Newsment the previous night kept plaguing his mind as he waited for the numbers to appear. Now that D-day had arrived and the negativity was christened to the world, he could finally let it go. He recognized how obsessed he had become about the situation, even though it shouldn’t have mattered, and he became angry at himself. Newsment was all anyone could talk about in the staff room lately; even if he didn’t want to hear about them, he couldn’t help it.
“Shitara-san, their surge in ratings has been incredible. Do you have any ideas to try to fight them off?”
“Hmm, let’s see… I know! We should start a horoscope corner. Our show airs at night, so why not check your fortune for the day before it hits midnight? That’s fresh, right?”
“I don’t think anyone wants to watch that.”
Kei wondered how long they could keep joking around like this.
“Kunieda, have you had lunch yet?” Asou asked, coming up to him.
“No, not yet.”
“Then how about we go to lunch together?”
A silence fell over the entire department as people heard this invitation from a man who had taken fundamentally no interest in mentoring or socializing with his junior colleagues. Of course, Kei was also stunned.
“Oh! Oh! I want to go too! Sushi, barbeque, or ramen! Sushi, barbeque, or ramen!”
And that was the voice of an idiot inviting himself along.
“We don’t need you tagging along, Tatsuki. You’re so loud that we won’t be able to talk and eat with you there.”
Kei was in complete agreement; however, it would be harder to keep the conversation going without the noisy idiot around.
Dammit, push harder, Morongawa.
“Mind if I pick the place?”
“Please go ahead.”
Asou took Kei to a tiny soba noodle shop down an alley that was a 10-minute walk from the office. It was far past the time for lunch, and there was a Closed for Preparations sign out front, but Asou ignored it and pulled the sliding door open.
“Yes, yes, welcome!”
An old lady with her back hunched over seemed to have anticipated their arrival and showed them to a table in the back of the shop. Maybe Asou was a regular here. He ordered a basic plate of chilled soba.
“Ever since I had my stomach surgery, I haven’t been able to eat much in one sitting. I’m almost constantly hungry. What will you have, Kunieda?”
“I’d like a tempura zarusoba please. …How have you been doing lately?”
“I’m still periodically visiting the hospital, but at least I’m better than before.”
They chatted about harmless subjects such as their department meetings and broadcast terminology workshops until their orders arrived.
“I heard that at Jipangu,” Asou said as split his wooden chopsticks, “they put up a poster as large as a tatami mat that says, ‘We beat The News!!’”3
“…That’s pretty incredible to hear.”
“I haven’t actually seen the poster, so they might be exaggerating, but I also heard that they specially ordered decorative origami balls for the studio to celebrate.”
“They must be happy with their performance.”
The crispy tempura paired with the matcha salt, grated daikon radish, and light dipping sauce was of course delicious, but Kei would far prefer to eat something battered with breadcrumbs, deep-fried, and smothered in mayonnaise and brown sauce. …But he kept those thoughts locked up in the basement inside his heart.
“What do you think of their show, Kunieda?”
With Asou asking this question straight to his face, Kei put himself more on guard than an interview about to go south.
“I personally enjoy it a lot,” Kei answered. “It’s always interesting to see how audiences respond to this lighter treatment of the news. The presenters are free to jump in at any time with their thoughts, and it creates an easygoing kind of atmosphere.”
Kei didn’t know if the rumors that he had heard at the get-together were true, but at least on screen he couldn’t detect any signs of discord between the staff. It might as well not exist.
“Free, huh?” Asou was eating what must be frustratingly tiny portions of his soba at a time. “There’s nothing more dangerous than having freedom on TV.”
“Take for example, if a woman who entertains men at a nightclub was suddenly killed.”
It didn’t sound like a story that would be suitable to talk about at a soba shop in the early afternoon.
“There would be people who think she had it coming to her, right? That it would be a natural consequence of taking such a high-risk job. However, we as hosts on a show would never say that on TV. The same goes for the guests who we call in to be our commentators. Even if we understand this completely, we would call her an ‘employee at a food and drink establishment’ and the men she entertains ‘companions.’ This is just standard TV protocol, correct?”
“But Newsment is different. They can make a comment like, ‘She apparently had a lot of male friends.’ But who is there to dig deeper into their comment? Especially when the commentators have never set foot onto the scene in question and would never make irresponsible remarks sourced from second-hand newspapers or internet news sites. But they can liven up the conversation, broadcast it to an audience over the TV, elicit their sympathies with a few nods and a ‘Don’t you think so?’ to bring in additional ratings, and it’s an outrage in my opinion.”
There was a powerful appeal behind the words of this man who had been in the news business for nearly 20 years. Especially since he was not the type of person to flaunt his personal pet theories to his junior colleagues. And as the face of the network, he carried additional burdens for a network announcer that further imposed a level of discretion to his words. If there was even a hint of politics or ideology in his words, no matter how much he stressed that they were his personal views, it would be taken as the network’s official stance on the matter.
In other words, no one could truly operate freely in this business, and it was The News, not Newsment, that was safe and in the clear.
“—Well, I suppose you can also call it the ramblings of a sore loser.” Asou reached for his cup of tea and laughed.
“Are you also worried about the ratings, Asou-san?”
“Not really. We’re doing what we need to do for our show, and if they want to replace me, they’re free to do so.”
They were the words of someone who knew very well that there was no one who could replace him.
Kei asked, “Asou-san, why did you decide to become an announcer?”
“If you’re asking me that question, it must mean that you hadn’t planned to become one in the first place. —Well, I do know how you were hired though, since the president consulted me about it. I said that he should hire you if he felt that you would make a good announcer, even if it happened to be a gut feeling. And if you were a failure, there would always be new applicants the following year.”
It was the tone of someone who believed deeply that those without the skills would be tossed as a matter of nature running its course. He couldn’t even feel a hint of cruelty in Asou’s voice.
“But you were asking about me. It’s been so long that I’ve forgotten, but I love this job. What about you?”
“I think that it is a job well-worth doing.”
“That’s the response of an honors student.”
Kei didn’t know why, but for some reason when he looked into Asou’s eyes, he felt like he was standing in front of the dull, black reflection of a camera lens. It made him think that the only thing that could pass through to reach Asou was the truth of whatever was captured.
“I wasn’t criticizing your answer. If we make my previous example a little cruder, no matter how beautiful the woman, men would probably get sick of sleeping with her if they did it 5 times a week. But I’ll never get sick of going on the air. Every time before a broadcast, I’ll wonder to myself how the show will go that night, and it’ll excite me so much I could shake from it. I don’t recall ever once standing on set feeling like I was going through the motions, and even right now, I can’t wait for tonight’s show to start.”
The two camera lenses sparkled brightly as if they were under the bright studio lights. Kei finally understood what it was about Asou that attracted the public’s attention. It wasn’t his appearance or his voice; it wasn’t his skills as a commentator or a listener; it was this strange love for what he did that seemed to never wear down. And it seemed like Asou was asking Kei: Why are you here?
“…It seems like a distance that’s far too large for me to reach.”
“There’s no need for you to aim to be like me. You have your own way of thinking and doing things. It’s just that your manners can so impeccable that I think it couldn’t hurt to explode like you did on the premiere sometimes.”
“That was just an unexpected tailwind that I had caught in the moment…”
His own way of doing things. Did it really exist? If there was a fixed goal that he could aim for, he could work at achieving it, but it wouldn’t be any different from doing a job that someone assigned to him.
“Shall we go?” Asou took the check and got out of his chair.
When Asou finished settling the check and exited the shop, Kei bowed to him and said, “Thank you very much for lunch.”
“If you ever need someone to talk to, you can ask me anytime.”
“Thank you very much.”
“—Though I say that, I can pretty much guess you’ll never come and ask. I wanted to act like a bit of a mentor, I suppose.” Asou turned his back to Kei as he easily dismissed his offer. “You’re not the type to easily open up to others.”
“Oh, but that’s…”
“Almost a sure bet, right? I don’t know if it’s your pride, if you’re just stubborn, or if you’re just too scared to speak up, but at the very least, you don’t ever ask people for their help. Well, it’s not like I’m the type of person with the patience to listen to other people’s problems, so I’m glad that you’ve been easy to work with. With you and Tatsuki both, we’ve had some nice, young talent.”
Did you ever come to ask me for help? Kei thought to himself. That time when you suddenly collapsed and everything was thrown at me.
Kei had asked Ushio to help him, and he did. Ushio had said that Kei did everything by himself, but it wasn’t true.
However, his worries wouldn’t disappear with the end of the broadcast like it did on the night of the premiere. He shouldn’t worry about the show’s ratings; he shouldn’t worry about his rival, but Kei had wound himself inside his thoughts until he was trapped and could no longer move. No matter what anyone said to him, he couldn’t escape that piercing stare that haunted him.