Chapter 5: Block It Out (5)
Sakae went over to the design team office Monday morning, but Mutsuto wasn’t around. Someone else was sitting at Mutsuto’s usual desk, which meant that he probably wasn’t away for the moment. Sakae asked, “Where’s Oku?” and the person jumped a little and answered, “He’s not here today.”
“Was it scheduled time off?”
He should have had Mutsuto’s schedule in his head, but maybe he had it wrong.
“No, apparently he’s not feeling well. He’s been gone for two days.”
Two days ago, that was the day after they returned from Atami. Mutsuto had seemed fine on Friday, but maybe he had been exhausted. He had dragged Sakae over to Atami, but now he was down for the count himself—how useless.
“We got an email from him that said he should be back tomorrow.”
Sakae wanted to ask for graphics work for a special feature that would air this upcoming weekend, but instead of asking someone else to do it and wasting his time, he decided to come back again tomorrow. Sakae retracted his materials request documents and turned on his heel; he could feel the mood in the room clearly relax.
However, that day there was a typhoon that suddenly changed its course from the forecasted path. Its winds had grown fiercer, and it was heading directly towards the Japanese archipelago. The contents of the show immediately changed to cover the shift in the typhoon track. Sakae was sent to Kochi as the live broadcast director and didn’t get back for three days, and when he did get back, another typhoon was on the way, and this time he was in the studio as the live coverage communications director and broadcast director. His work changed at a hectic pace. While everyone was running around working through the chaos, the workload assigned to Sakae was without a doubt a little overboard, but Shitara said nothing about it. It was clear that he was giving Sakae more experiences so that he could have more options for the future. The special feature that he had been working on was related to an event with a fixed date, and so it had been shelved with no further progress.
As soon as he thought that their typhoon coverage had passed over them like a storm in itself, this time there was a huge uproar over the aforementioned string of suspicious deaths—it had turned into a serial murder case, and the police had arrested the widower as their prime suspect. Sakae had wanted the police to arrest her as soon as possible, but it didn’t have to be now. But the news was like this sometimes—when there was no news, there would be absolutely nothing happening (but they still had to scrape together material to broadcast), and when there was news, it came like a deluge. He spent all his time and energy interviewing people related to the case and editing videos recapping the incident, spending several nights on end at the network.
Sakae had been napping in a chair at one of the news floor editing booths where cubicles with editing equipment were lined up, when he heard a voice complain, “I want to go home. Any time now would be nice. I’ve been stuck here since the typhoons, and I’ve only gone back to get clothes. Is there any point in me paying rent?”
“Huh? Weren’t you off last week?”
“Nah, you know the incident with the bullying-related suicide in Chiba? The internal investigation at the school was pretty awful, and I had to start digging into it myself. I don’t think it’ll be settled any time soon.”
“Oh, you mean that press conference where the principal said that there was no truth that any bullying occurred? That was horrible.”
“The one who did the bullying is the son of an influential person in the area, and the family has been pretty aggressive.”
“Even though such an awful suicide note had been left?”
“The dead child’s mother has been suffering so much abuse that she had to be hospitalized. Her son had jumped out onto the train tracks, and on top of it, she’s facing all this backlash for no reason. It must be unbearable.”
“Can’t she press charges?”
“I doubt she has the energy to go through with it. The other family probably has plenty of money to spend on lawyers… It’s so hard whenever an incident involves children. Even I feel completely drained just covering it. The dead child’s name and face is out there, but the perpetrator is still anonymous, just going to school like always… Plus there are rumors that the family may send the boy to school overseas to distance themselves from the incident.”
“So in the end, the one who’s the loudest and has the most money wins.”
Sakae heard the words “jumped out onto the train tracks” and thought that it had to be that day. When they returned from Atami on the Shinkansen that morning. Plenty of newspapers had arrived at his desk, but he barely had time to check what was written about the stories he was currently working on, which meant he hadn’t been able to scan through them all and hadn’t known any particulars about what had happened. Child’s suicide, by bullying—no matter how much elaboration was added to the headlines as they scrolled left to right in digital letters, he probably would have forgotten about it in no time. Just like how the viewers forgot everything that they watched. He was someone on the broadcast side who actually covered stories of his own, and they stopped mattering to him as time went on.
They put things on the air and threw them away. Or maybe they made them with the full intention to throw them away—normally he was never conscious of the futility of this aspect of his job. Because this was what his job entailed. Whether it was good news or bad news, they were all equal, just simply his work. They had nothing to do with Sakae personally after all. But as exhausted as he was at this late hour, that hollow feeling stayed with him and muddled his sleep for the rest of the night.
His work was finally back to normal the following week, and that day Sakae was working as the broadcast director. He had a technical meeting with the staff in the studio, and 30 minutes before the broadcast, he entered the production control room and was surprised to see Mutsuto there.
“Hey, it’s been a while. How’ve you been?”
“What the hell are you doing here?”
Mutsuto normally worked on the computer in the Design team office. There was no need for him to be present for the broadcast.
“I’m an operator today.”
Mutsuto pointed to a computer in the room. It was the seat for the character generator (CG) operator who would add or change text and graphics based on the progress of the show. The regular operator did come from Mutsuto’s parent company, but their job responsibilities should have been different.
“Isn’t it better to have more marketable skills? Don’t worry, I’ve had training on it already, before you got here. Today’s my first day doing it on my own.”
He joked with a smile, “I look forward to working with you,” but it looked thinner than usual. Maybe it had been pretty serious when he didn’t feel well, and that was why he was switched to an operator today instead of the demanding design team… However, Sakae didn’t have the personality where he could ask Mutsuto if he was all right. Plus, he had a show to direct soon, and so he swallowed his worries and retorted, “Don’t screw it up, contractor.”
“Fine, we’re through now as of today.”
But the brightness of his smile and the tone of his voice hadn’t changed.
“Today on Day’s Edge, we have lots of stories to bring you this evening. First up, we have the news that…”
The 5 pm broadcast had started. The long two-hour block passed by in an instant for someone who worked behind the scenes. A piece that wasn’t ready yet, awkwardness with the flow, typos, data verification, broadcast compliance—Sakae had to run through and overcome all the hurdles that came his way one after another. Without breaking his form, without losing his breath, without upsetting his rhythm.
“Camera 3, stand by with a long shot. Starting with the shot from 1… All right, 3.”
“Weather Cam R5, Yokohama. Sponsor credits, get it ready.”
“We’re 1 minute behind. Wrap it up. End the comment.”
Sakae gave detailed instructions while the live broadcast progressed—a 3-minute video, a 2-minute comment, a 5-second title card, a 2½-minute commercial… As the instructions went on, the clock hands moved forward like magic, and after 6:30, they started an extended special segment. After that, he could see the flash news segment consisting of a series of short news stories, the celebrity news segment, and the ending in sight.
“After the clip, we step out with 2. From a long shot of the table, zoom to the monitor.”
The camera moved according to Sakae’s instructions, and the technical director at the video switcher chose the feeds to broadcast on the air. The topic for the day was “the neverending issue of bullying.” The segment was under 10 minutes long, and they couldn’t present ideas like drastic strategies to combat the problem, and so they had settled for introducing the state of bullying in the country and posing the question for discussion. After the intro video aired, they would get comments from each of the commentators which included education experts and former Board of Education members while the control room inserted relevant clips to accompany the comments and displayed graphics of various statistics and data related to bullying on the large monitor on the set. The production control room had a bank of monitors lined up like a Rubik’s cube that displayed the footage from all 4 cameras in the studio, as well as the captions and graphics currently on-screen, and the captions and graphics and close-up photos of newspaper articles coming up next. Sakae always had to be checking if the captions matched the comments that were being said, and if the up-coming captions would be relevant.
“Display the next captions. And queue up the… No, I don’t need it. I want the first caption back up.”
“Got it,” answered the CG operator who sat diagonally behind him. Sakae hadn’t looked at Mutsuto the entire broadcast, but he of course had heard his voice, and Mutsuto hadn’t made any mistakes yet. It wasn’t a hard job; once he got used to his nerves, as long as he clicked on Sakae’s signal, the captions would appear directly on the broadcast feed. It was common for new operators to make mistakes like displaying the queued items too fast or putting up the wrong items, but as long as Mutsuto listened to his voice, he would be able to complete the job safely.
What do I do if he seriously transfers here? Sakae thought. He would be in a huge bind if he could no longer request materials from Mutsuto. But he also knew that it was his own problem and not Mutsuto’s. Wait, but it wasn’t like the decision had been made. His slackened concentration was suddenly jerked into focus like a loose string yanked from both ends.
“This is the official number of bullying cases according to a survey from the Ministry of Education, but the specifics of each of the cases can vary in the degrees of physical and emotional trauma…”
Don’t think about unnecessary things right now. Look, it’s almost time for the next graphic.
“Camera, zoom on the monitor. Graphic, change it.”
A new graphic was displayed at Sakae’s signal, switching from the number of bullying cases to a concrete example on the monitor. However, it only flashed for a second, and a new graphic had appeared.
The production control room froze to a standstill. And the studio too. What displayed prominently on the on-air monitor was a photo of a child. It was blurry like it had been blown up from a graduation class photo. The boy was in a stand-collar uniform, and his face was expressionless. The caption had the words, Perpetrator of Bullying-Related Suicide in Chiba, and listed the name of the junior high school, class year, class number, and what appeared to be his full name.
What is this? Who is this? This has to be an incident. One that needs a trouble filler.
It should have only been a few seconds that Sakae’s mental faculties had ceased functioning. He took the fastest option to deal with the problem, which was to hit the CUT button and force the show into commercial.
As soon as Sakae had seen that the screen had switched, he sent his chair flying as he got to his feet. It crashed into the rack of video servers in the cramped room and made a loud racket, but Sakae ignored it and grabbed Mutsuto by his shirt. It couldn’t have been an operation error. That graphic shouldn’t have been there in the first place. There was only one possibility that he could think of—Mutsuto had made it, sneaked it onto the computer beforehand where people couldn’t see it, and put it on the broadcast. Why would he do that? Was that photograph and information even real? If they were real, how did he know about it? Mutsuto staggered but to avoid bumping into the staff member sitting next to him, he clutched his chair and stood up. Sakae was gripping the collar of Mutsuto’s T-shirt so hard that his blood vessels were bulging from the back of his hand, but he felt nothing of his own strength. On the contrary, his body felt less and less steady as his legs seemed to waver. He fixed Mutsuto with a glare, and somehow he maintained his balance.
“Bastard… What the hell did you think you were doing?”
Everything was inexplicable, and that was the only question that he could ask. There was no answer. Sakae saw an empty smile of a stranger, more distant than the one from the unfamiliar child in the photograph. All colors of emotion had disappeared from his eyes, and Sakae didn’t know if they even recognized him. The usual lively gaze that he had known was nowhere to be found.
Who the hell are you? Why are you smiling?
If he were told that Mutsuto had been hypnotized or brainwashed, he might have believed it.
“Sakae, stop it.”
Shitara had been in the studio up until the commercial, and his sharp command rang out over the deathly still control room.
“Save the interrogation and blame for later. The presenters are alarmed and distressed. We need to regroup during the commercial. We will open with a single bust shot on the host. He’ll apologize, say that an unrelated graphic was accidentally aired, and throw it to the flash news. We have some extra time to fill, so the studio can have a light discussion about the last story. We’ll also extend the celebrity news segment. —Oku.”
This was the first time that Sakae ever heard Shitara address Mutsuto without an honorific. It seemed like Mutsuto’s shoulders slightly shook when he heard it.
“You will need to leave the control room for now. I will talk to you later. Can someone cover his spot? We just have a little more to go, so I’m counting on everyone here.”
Mutsuto gently loosened Sakae’s grip from his shirt. Even if they hadn’t been in this super air-conditioned control room designed to protect the equipment, Mutsuto’s hands felt as cold as ice, and he left the room without a word. Everyone followed him with their eyes, but no one uttered a sound. The time keeper announced meekly, “One minute remaining until commercials end.” Everyone was probably thinking: What will happen to us after this?
One minute later, the host apologized with a stiff expression on his face, and they awkwardly completed the subsequent segments to end the show, but a heavy atmosphere persisted through the studio. No one knew the details, but everyone recognized that a terrible broadcast incident, one that had been premeditated, had happened on the show. When all the staff members had gathered in the studio, Shitara first issued a formal apology to everyone present.
“I am very sorry,” he said, bowing his head. “What had happened today was inexcusable, but in all honesty, I do not know the full details of the situation. I will be investigating all the parties involved in the incident, and I will share with everyone the information that can be made public. Please refrain from answering any questions from people regarding this incident. This of course includes people from both outside and inside Asahi TV. Thank you for your hard work, and I continue to count on each and every one of you here. Thank you, everyone.”
There were very few voices who answered back, “Thank you, everyone.” In the corner of the studio, there was the News Director, the Deputy Manager, the General Manager—a cadre of executives standing around with grim faces. There were even people from the Programming Department. Normally people would return to the staff room with a sense of liberation after the broadcast as they chattered about this and that, but today they filed out of the studio silently like a funeral procession. Sakae stood there motionless, and Shitara called out his name.
“Sakae, you should go home. The talks will be limited to the producer and desk class for now… You’ve had a ton of work on your plate lately. You should get some rest.”
What the hell was he saying when he was the one responsible for loading the work on his plate? There was nothing that Sakae could do even if he stayed, so he went home like he was told, but even after he changed his location, he still could only think about Mutsuto. Why? How long had he planned to carry out that kind of thing? There was a thick gray fog that shrouded the inside of his chest. Fear, concern… of what? What good would come out of learning about his circumstances and motives? It didn’t change the reality that he had caused a disaster, and that Sakae had no means as the broadcast director to protect the show from what had happened. Sakae didn’t think that the flames would blow his way. So then what need was there for him to be so worried? He had nothing to do with it. He just had to feign indifference. But yet, why couldn’t he calm down at all?
It was rare for Sakae to come home this early, and he was antsy with nothing to do. He noticed that he had run out of cigarettes, but he didn’t feel like going out to buy them, and he couldn’t concentrate at all on the materials that he had haphazardly gathered about Atami. In the end, he drank all the alcohol around the apartment that he could get his hands on, wandering in a light sleep that in no way restored him in any way. And then he heard the sound of his intercom ringing. It was too much trouble to get up, and he ignored it, but it repeated itself 2 or 3 more times like the person was convinced that he was home, and Sakae eventually ran out of patience, got up from the sofa, and checked the monitor to see who it was, and Shitara was on the screen. Sakae made no response, just pressed the button to unlock the building door, and Shitara walked in without saying anything either. A few minutes later, the intercom to his apartment door rang, and Sakae opened it without a word.
“Sorry for stopping by so late.”
Now that he mentioned it, Sakae wasn’t sure what time it was.
“What time is it?”
“How’d you know where I live?”
“I looked at the taxi dispatch records… Can I come in?”
“I’ll listen to you here,” Sakae flatly refused. “Say what you have to say.”
Shitara leaned a shoulder against the wall and crossed his arms. “…I spoke with Oku.”
Although Shitara had started to speak, he looked up and down as if he couldn’t figure out what to say next, which was highly unusual for this man. Perhaps he had finally made a decision because he heaved a single deep breath and said, “Apparently the bullied child was Oku’s younger brother.”
He continued, “Oku had gone with their father, and his brother went with their mother, and they had good contact with each other the entire time, but… Oku hadn’t known about the bullying that his brother faced.”
Mutsuto’s face flashed through his mind when he had said nonchalantly, My parents are divorced too, and it disappeared faster than the scenery that went by in the train window. When he had heard that Mutsuto wasn’t feeling well, the truth was probably that he had the wake and the funeral to attend.
“But it’s good that you made it in time.”
In the back of his mind, Sakae recalled Mutsuto’s smile against the light of summer from that day. On that bright morning at the beach, Mutsuto hadn’t made it in time. He hadn’t been in time for that moment because he had been in Sakae’s hometown for nothing more than a whim, for someone he had no connection to. He had seen the news of the train accident, thinking it had to be someone else’s affairs, and he had said, It’s going to be tough. He should have returned to another eventless day at work as he talked about coming back to Atami again and seeing the fireworks, all while he rode the Shinkansen back that morning.
The shred of the memory made the alcohol in his empty stomach churn back up, and Sakae bolted to the toilet and vomited. He heaved several times without any resistance, flushed the toilet, and irritated, shook the hand that had been rubbing his back off of him.
“Don’t touch me. …So then what?”
“He told me not to tell you, but I think that you have the right to know. That’s why I’m telling you this. After getting back from Atami, it was only at night that he remembered that he needed to charge his cell phone. And when he did, there was a flood of voicemails from his mother— And one missed call from his brother’s cell phone before dawn in his call history.”
Sakae slowly stood up, pushed Shitara out of the way, and rinsed his mouth out at the sink. He couldn’t get the taste of the sour bitterness off of his tongue. He wiped his face with the back of his hand and looked into the mirror, and Shitara was there facing him.
“…So it’s all my fault?”
“No, it’s not.”
“So he missed his brother’s SOS call because he pointlessly went to Atami with me and his phone’s battery ran out, and his brother died? That’s why he sabotaged the show, to get back at me and the punk in one fell swoop? You gotta be kidding! I said that I didn’t want to go!”
“Sakae, calm down. Oku never said any of that, and he doesn’t think it either.”
“Then when why the hell did he do it!?”
Sakae hit his fist against the mirror where Shitara was. He had used the side of his palm, and it hadn’t caused the mirror to break.
“If he hates the damn punk who bullied his brother, if he can’t forgive him, then he should have gone over and punched the kid himself. Kill him if he has to. Don’t get me fucking involved.”
“Do you really think that?”
It was a quiet question. The surface of the mirror was still slightly shaking, but Shitara’s eyes didn’t waver in the slightest.
“Do you really think that Oku can hit or kill a child? And that you would be fine with it?”
Why the hell are you asking me that? I want to ask you some questions. Aren’t you fucking pissed? You’ve known him longer than me, right? Don’t you feel betrayed? Don’t you hate what he’s done? You’re going to see all the blowback, shouldn’t you be infuriated first? All the shit will fall on your shoulders; mine’s a drop in a bucket compared to yours. How can you stay so damn calm?
“Maybe what Oku did is more malicious than hitting or killing someone. The network can never officially admit that the boy in the photo is the perpetrator; they can only say that they mistakenly aired a completely unrelated photo, no matter how transparent of an excuse it is—they have to stick to that talking point. But people have already screenshotted and circulated the images on the Internet, and it will be dug up every time there’s a similar incident in the future… That’s the way that he chose to handle this. But can we say definitively that we wouldn’t do the same thing if we were in his shoes? If someone precious to us had been crushed and driven to death, and we were given the means and the chance to expose the perpetrator to the public, can any of us assert that we would never do it?”
“What are you trying to say?”
Sakae turned around. The flesh and blood Shitara of course had the same calm expression on his face as the mirror.
“That there’s no helping it? To forgive him? Because glass is something that breaks? Because we can never know what awful things people can commit?”
“That’s not what I’m saying. Oku did something absolutely wrong here, there’s no denying that. No matter what his circumstances, we can’t accept the way that he did things. As a Producer, I would never let him work on my show again. However, I really liked Oku, and I still do… So Sakae, don’t blame him.”
“You gotta be fucking kidding me,” Sakae snapped back. “I’m so fucking pissed, if I saw his face right now, I’d beat him to fucking death.”
“Did you come here this late at night to tell me that shit? Get out.”
Sakae placed his hands on the cold tile of the sink behind him and glared at Shitara. He hated that calmness of his.
That was really cruel of Oku, how could he do something so awful?— Yes, he wanted to hear Shitara blame Mutsuto. It didn’t make him feel better about it or the opposite; Sakae just wanted Shitara to show him all the undigested resentment and exhaustion that was in him. But Shitara was a producer to the end—and only a producer. If Sakae were asked, did he want Shitara to vilify Mutsuto together with him? Then no, that wasn’t what he wanted either. So what had made him so emotionally anguished about this? He hadn’t lost anything. Nothing had changed. The only thing that was gone was a single person who had nothing to do with him from the beginning, that was all. So why then?
—–Translated by daydrop. Please read on the original site at daydrop.nowaki.net.