Chapter 4: Open It Up (4)
When Sakae arrived home after parting ways with Mutsuto, he loaded up the episode of My Document that he had recorded but missed. It was about support services in the Netherlands for people who sought death with dignity. It went into the differences between the legislative systems in Japan, interviewed a few patients and their families, and followed the process up until the patients’ very last moments. The show was quiet and solemn, and although it was serious, it wasn’t painful to watch. Once again, Sakae was impressed by the decisions and choices that were to put into the production of the show to create such a well-crafted episode. The captions and narration were kept to a bare minimum, and the shots of sunsets and townscapes from a foreign country left a strong impression of the piece in between each of the scenes even if they weren’t an indispensable part of the story. It could have easily been overdone, and Sakae almost ranted, Go make a damn arthouse film if you want to indulge in your ego, but it was careful not to cross that very fine line. Although it was a heavy and serious topic, the show didn’t push the viewers to question what was right or wrong, nor did it urge them to give the topic more consideration. Matters of life and death were often presented in a way that was patronizing, like Listen, you’ll face this question yourself one day, so make sure you watch this and pay attention. There weren’t any parts that felt nauseating to watch even for someone as jaded as Sakae.
Fundamentally, the show was structured without a host to guide the viewers through the episode, but Miyoshi, the producer, would occasionally appear. Sometimes with his face in profile riding a train on his way to interview someone; sometimes with a quiet expression as he listened to someone talk. His restrained responses in front of the camera seemed to help highlight the emotions of the piece instead of detract from it. He wasn’t very talkative, but sometimes he would murmur: I do wonder about that or It’s difficult, isn’t it? The words were mundane, but they were effective. There was no easy conclusion, and it was hard to put into words. When there were particular points that could cause the viewers to pause and think, Miyoshi would appear, and he would share their same viewpoints—which conveyed a feeling that the creators were human too. It imparted an illusion like maybe the viewers were the interviewers here. Maybe the heavy usage of handycam footage was designed for that particular purpose in mind. It wasn’t unusual for producers to appear on camera themselves, but it was a production decision that Sakae could absolutely never do. He paused the recording to search the Internet for articles about Miyoshi, and he found an interview where Miyoshi said that it was cheaper to have him appear on the show himself.
“Because hiring outside talent incurs extra costs, and we live in a time where we can’t just work the director ragged like a dog (laughs).”
“It’s for pragmatic reasons. I do it myself because I don’t generate the extra costs of overtime pay as someone in a managerial position. If you were to convert my salary into an hourly wage, I think that it would probably surprise people. I also use announcers at our network for the narration work instead of actors or other voice talent. I mean, that’s how you get them to improve their skills and to grow. I don’t need them to have any name value, as long as they deliver the script with sincerity. I keep the costs down in these areas so that I can focus on the core of the show—the interviews—with as little limitations as possible. Although my body is screaming at me from all the connecting flights that I need to catch on the budget airlines that I use…”
Well, he has a somewhat decent voice and face for television though, so he can pull it off, Sakae thought. The stories could cover anything—one episode could document unexplored lands on the other side of the world and the next could follow a workshop that made sex dolls. Apparently it was treated as an irregular TV special because the quality of the show would drop if it were to air at a fixed schedule. There was no doubt that the network would push to make the show a regular series to capitalize on the ratings, but Sakae guessed that Miyoshi probably had quite a bit of influence to be able to push back against the pressure and assert his vision for the show. In other words, his existence on the show was so indispensable that it would fall apart if he were to declare that he would quit.
If Miyoshi had the brashness to stick to his guns like that, Sakae wondered how he got along with Shitara. He sobered up a little after taking a bath, and now that he was all refreshed, he rummaged through the fridge for more alcohol that he could pour into his system again. That was when he heard the sound of the apartment door unlock.
“I’m the one who lives here.”
Shitara ignored him and came into the kitchen. He declared, “I’m taking some,” as he pulled out some water from the fridge and poured it into two glasses.
“Here, this is for you.”
“Uh, I don’t want any.”
“What, you’re drinking again? You should probably stop for now.”
I can make my own decisions.
Sakae ignored the glass and selected a can of beer from the fridge. He pulled open the tab and drank it right there.
Shitara gave a light shrug of his shoulders at the deliberate show of defiance and left one of the glasses on the counter. He noticed the TV screen that was paused in the living room and asked, “Were you watching My Document?” and sat himself down on the sofa.
“I really liked this episode. They always do a great job, but this was really good.”
Shitara pressed the play button without asking, so Sakae returned to the sofa.
“Didn’t you already watch it?”
“What’s wrong with watching it again?”
There was a young man who suffered from a disease that couldn’t be cured by modern medicine. He had chosen to die rather than to suffer through the pain and agony, and he was spending the night of his last moments to say his goodbyes. Friends and family had gathered at the facility to chat and share memories. He would be given an IV with a lethal drug infusion as the method of death. His favorite songs played in the background of the room as the young man left his final words: “I had a good life. Goodbye.” The final shot was a close-up of a needle sinking into a thin arm, and the screen slid into black from the top and the bottom like eyelids closing. A date in white text appeared—the date of the man’s death. And in the next scene, Miyoshi stood in front of a gravestone with an inscription on it.
“I’ve brought incense with me from Japan, but… I wonder if it will startle someone who isn’t familiar with the scent. They could wonder if something is burning. But well, it’s only the living who would wonder about these things.”
The camera captured a full shot of the vast cemetery. The end credits rolled over a backdrop that showed rows of gravestones all very similar to one another. It did not reveal whether Miyoshi had lit the incense or not. The sun slowly setting in the distance looked like a small fireball, and the pale lingering clouds looked like wisps of smoke.
“Ahh, that was a great episode.” Shitara stretched his arms over his head as he sat on the sofa. “Did you have a good talk with Oku-sama today?”
“And what about you?”
“Yeah, honestly speaking, I was a little stunned to be set up like that without much of a choice, but we were able to catch up on a lot of different things, so in the end, I’m glad that it happened.”
“So you have normal friends too.”
“Yeah, a few,” was the response to the very direct comment. “I mean, isn’t it lonely without friends?”
It was because Shitara could spout things like that so calmly that Sakae couldn’t trust his words.
“He was there during the time I covered stories at the Metropolitan Police. I brought my Super Nintendo to the press corp offices, and we got ourselves hooked on Dragon Quest 3. I wonder if it’s still there. Did you see it when you were there, Sakae?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Hmm, maybe someone had thrown it away. Our jobs as reporters didn’t really excite us, and when we procrastinated so much that we had no stories, we teamed up together and tailed some newspaper reporters~”
“Don’t you have any stories that are less horrible about you two?”
“Hmmm… We were both pretty bad at getting photos of people involved in the stories. Well, more like we hated it.”
“Hnnn, but you look like you’d be good at wheedling things out of people.”
“Are you insulting me in the form of a compliment?”
Nowadays it was rarer for people not to be on social media, and obtaining photos for a story wasn’t the challenge that it used to be. As a result, the news media took videos and images of people looking happy and carefree and plastered them to the public with their social media credits, which made it hard to imagine that the person had killed someone or was a victim who was killed. It was the same for a blurry photo from a graduation album—Sakae didn’t understand the necessity of including such a thing, but it was a basic and essential part of making a news story. It was one thing if all the networks did the same thing, but it would be a blunder if one network got something that they didn’t, and in the worse case scenario, they were the only ones who didn’t get the information but everyone else did.
“Well, it’s not a huge deal to lower your head and ask the family for a picture, but what I hated the most was being ordered to dredge up more dirt to go with the photos.”
Basically, they would borrow a graduation album to root through the entire thing so that no other network could get a leg up on them. It was a ridiculous old trick.
“That’s why I never did it no matter how much I got yelled at for it. It wasn’t because of my conscience or my pride; I just simply hated it. Miyoshi seemed to have felt the same way.”
When Sakae first met Shitara, Shitara was already the producer for the evening news. It was quite a rapid rise to obtain such a position in his thirties, and Sakae had some vague notion in his head that Shitara’s climb to the top had been easy and flawless from the start of his career—and that when push came to shove, he was prepared to make the decision to jump down from it by himself if he needed to.
“We were both terrible reporters, and we were always telling each other that we should quit, but the things that we speak most fondly about now are the stories from that time. I wonder why’s that?”
“Probably ‘cause you’ve gotten damn old.”
“Can’t you put it in a nicer way? …Anyway, fortunately I was moved from the reporting unit to the program production unit. And Miyoshi, he was really good at making videos even back then, and he quickly made a mark for himself working on special featured reports and hardline television specials. It feels like My Document is a culmination of all the work that he has done. It doesn’t do anything especially groundbreaking, but it goes to show that when a seasoned and skilled professional puts a serious effort into making a good show, that the ratings will follow. It’s an inspiring story for these times when people are increasingly moving away from TV.”
“You’re really singing his praises.”
“Huh? Could it be that you’re feeling jealous?”
That fishy smile of his grew bigger and bigger, and it aggravated Sakae to the bottom of his heart.
“That train of thought is from a whole different dimension. How in the hell did you reach that conclusion?”
“I mean, don’t I normally tend to praise other people?”
“I feel like it’s different this time.”
“Huh? Then maybe it really is jealousy talking~”
“Fuck off. Why the hell are you leaning on me? You’re heavy.”
“Maybe I drank too much and I’m feeling lightheaded.”
Contrary to his insults, the weight of the body leaning—well, more like pressing down on him—made him feel relieved. Sakae then realized that they hadn’t done it in a while. The TV was still on, and the background noise didn’t really bother him. In fact, he preferred to have sex when they could catch a small break in between their busy lives for it instead of planning and arranging things beforehand just for the occasion. It felt more comfortable to him this way. Sakae thought that Shitara probably felt the same way, but sometimes he would suddenly drag Sakae over to an expensive hotel, and Sakae could never be too sure about him.
Sakae persisted in drinking his beer as he was pushed down, and finally Shitara said, “It’s in the way,” and grabbed the can from him, placing it out of reach on the coffee table. It was still half full, and Sakae imagined drinking the rest of the liquid that would be warm and flat by the time that they finished. It would no longer have the sharpness that pricked his tongue, and the taste would deepen with the rise in temperature. There was no way that he wanted to drink it like that, but he wondered why it made his throat turn thirsty.
The tongue chilled with water tangled with the tongue chilled with beer. It should have made them even colder, but it raised both of their body temperatures in no time. The man who hated collecting photos from people apparently had no hesitation teasing his mouth and lips until there was no trace of bitterness left there. When the tip of his tongue traced Sakae’s lips, it rubbed the nerves at the back of his neck the wrong way, but it wasn’t unpleasant.
It was like licking at a candy that didn’t melt, and when their lips parted, the word “jealous” came out of Sakae’s mouth.
“Didn’t you say a long time ago that you were jealous of the videos that I made?”
Sakae thought that Shitara would feign innocence and go, Did I say that? But Shitara readily admitted it. He was trying to strip Sakae of his T-shirt at the same time, however.
“So you’re not jealous of your friend? Because he’s your buddy?”
Shitara directed his gaze at the ceiling like the question took him by surprise. “…I’ve never thought about it.”
“So all your glowing praise was just talk, but you don’t actually feel it.”
“Wait, wait, no. Jealousy is something that happens on its own special channel. You know how there are sometimes comedians who are pretty popular and they’re always booked on all the shows, but they have it out for the stoic younger guy who they have to share a stage with, even though there’s no comparison between their popularity or what they get paid. It’s kind of like that. That’s why Miyoshi doesn’t register on my radar. I don’t understand the reason for it, but all I think about when it comes to him is that he does good work and I look forward to what he does next.”
When Sakae brushed his finger up the curve of Shitara’s throat from his Adam’s apple to his chin, Shitara caught the finger and complained, “That tickles.” And then he brought the finger over to his mouth.
“Maybe if you were the same age as me, or if there was something different about you, then maybe I wouldn’t have felt so jealous.”
“Sounds tough to be so complicated.”
“It is.” Shitara nibbled the tip of the finger and asked, “Have you never experienced it before? Don’t you ever feel frustrated when you see other people’s work?”
“All the time. When I’m complaining about the way that they shot something or edited a clip.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
As Sakae felt the pressure of teeth on his finger, this time he gave the question some thought.
“When you go to cook something, you first decide what you want to make, what ingredients you want to use, and then you prepare the food and season it. You just make whatever you feel like eating. That’s all there is to it. And you taste things as you cook to make sure that it doesn’t go horribly wrong, but on the other hand, it doesn’t get you all excited if it tastes good. That’s what making videos is like for me. If I go out to eat and something’s really good, then I’ll save it as a reference for later maybe, but I don’t really feel any frustration over it.”
Assuming that he could follow the directions of a recipe and used some modicum of common sense, there was no point in brooding over whether people liked his food or not. The only thing that he could do was to follow his own tastes.
“But there aren’t many people with both the tastebuds and the culinary chops at such high levels though.”
“And I’m saying that the things that you or other people might say don’t factor into the process for me. It’s not like I’m doing this job because I think that I’m particularly exceptional at it.”
He just happened to get a job at the network, just happened to never quit, and somehow ended up here. That was all there was to it. There was one time when he had felt the impulse to quit, but Shitara had refused to let him do so. And so he had stayed in the world of television, all the while thinking, What right do you have to make any of my decisions for me?
Shitara lightly kissed the tip of Sakae’s finger. He looked down at Sakae and suddenly laughed.
“…You’re so unfair, Sakae.”
The slight chuckle seemed to include a hint of resignation in it. As if it said, You just don’t understand. Sakae felt as if Shitara had drawn a line between them and said that you’re over there. Just like all the other people who had distanced themselves from him. A furious anger overcame him in an instant, and Sakae shook his hand away.
You’re the one who’s unfair. When push comes to shove, you stay silent as you do as you please, and then you shamelessly play the damn victim. Of course I know how it feels to be frustrated.
When his show had ended after years of his own selfishness that had worn it down from the inside, Sakae had thought that Shitara would have never ruined the show like he did. Whenever he asked himself what he could have done to change things, the thought that came to his mind was Shitara’s easy smile. Sakae could never bring people together in the way that Shitara did—and Shitara had kept at it and refused to back down. It was different from jealousy. But it still frustrated him and made him embarrassed. Because exposing his own shame and disgrace meant betraying the jealousy that Shitara had felt for him.
It was all a contradiction. He thought that he was nothing special, but he couldn’t stand for it if Shitara were to see that same truth that he saw.
The momentary anger was soon replaced with an amazement for his own ridiculousness. Sakae covered his eyes with a hand and laughed silently.
“It’s nothing. When I’m with a damn weirdo, it makes my own mind go out of whack.”
“Is there a time when you’re not out of whack?”
“What did you say?”
“Well, you’re old enough to know better, but depending on your mood, you’ll provoke people around you or you’ll refuse to say anything to them. It happens all the time, but then out of nowhere you’ll just start laughing like you’re doing right now.”
“That’s me returning to normal.”
“That’s totally not normal.”