Chapter 1: Yes, No, or Maybe Half? (1)
A 1% viewership figure amounted to approximately 408,000 viewers—an equivalent of 180,000 households. For a television program averaging 12% viewership, this totaled to nearly 4.9 million viewers, just within the Kantou region alone. On a nationwide level, the numbers were even higher. In any case, the number of people who watched Kunieda Kei smiling on TV at this moment, could pack the entire Tokyo Dome shoulder to shoulder with no room to maneuver. While true viewership figures weren’t easy to pin down, this approximation was good enough to get a feel for the sense of scale.
“That’s our show for today. Join us tomorrow on Evening File.”
The nearly two-hour show closed with its regular sign-off line and a nod and slight bow facing Camera 2.
The entire studio rallied together, calling out, “Good work, everyone!”
Kei maintained his smile through the rising post-wrap chatter. An AD1 rushed to his side in a fluster. “Kunieda-san, I’m so sorry! I accidentally lost a page of the script from the flash news segment…”
The AD bowed deeply in apology. Kei quickly reassured him, “It’s ok. It didn’t affect the broadcast. I was a little surprised though, did it show in my voice at all?”
“No, you sounded absolutely normal!”
The floor manager paled at this piece of information and asked, “What? We were missing part of the script?”
The AD explained, “Yes, um, after the read-through, I was asked to prepare the studio while Kunieda-san was getting his makeup touched up. I think I dropped a page when I was running, and I didn’t realize it until we were about to start the segment…”
“Make sure you double-check things, stupid!”
“I’m so sorry.”
Kei restrained his smile to a wry one and intervened. “It’s really ok. I was able to deal with it. We’ll just have to be more careful next time.”
The floor manager asked, “Kunieda-kun, how did you get through the segment without the full script?”
“I remembered the missing part from the read-through.”
“You’re kidding me! Are you some kind of genius?”
“You’re exaggerating. It was only a single page, and it didn’t contain that many lines.”
Scripts were formatted in large font with ample line spacing for ease of reading. Each page contained maybe 100 characters at best.
“Even so, you had four stories to get through for the segment. You’re seriously amazing.”
“I was just lucky.”
Kei acted as humble as possible as he thought to himself, Fucking idiots, all of them.
Seriously, he called himself the floor manager? He hadn’t realized that there was a piece of the script missing? Didn’t it occur to him that there was something wrong when the AD started frantically searching for something before the segment? He was the stupid one, and he went around yelling at others for being stupid? Could they ever get through a day without scrambling? God, the camera assistant was as slow as molasses. The AD too, what was he doing, giving out cues standing somewhere so hard to read? The damn studio was full of fucking idiots.
Not a single hint of Kei’s internal cursing was betrayed to his colleagues. Behind his high-performance smile more efficient than any airtight container, he gently thanked everyone for their work, powering through his goodbyes, then prepared to leave the studio. That was when a director chased after him, calling, “Kunieda!”
Dammit, what the hell does he want? Kei thought to himself bitterly.
“Yes, did you need me for something?” Kei graciously turned around, and the director handed him a stack of papers stapled together.
“These are the scripts and reference materials for tomorrow’s on-location shoot. Sorry that I’m just getting them to you now.”
Seriously? This damn director always hands materials over the day of or the day before. You’re not the only one who’s busy, dumbass.
Kei asked, “This is for the animation artist assignment, I presume?”
“Yup, he’s creating a new opening animation for The News… But I’m not sure why we were put in charge of covering this assignment though.”
“I suppose they want all hands on deck for the new update of their show.”
“I wish the evening side could get even half of their budget. …By the way, we’ll be leaving here at 10 and planning to get back by 2. Will you be okay for the broadcast?”
“Yes, that’s fine.”
“I’ve met the guy a couple of times during location scouting. He’s pretty nice, doesn’t put on airs.”
“Oh, I’m glad to hear that.”
Considering you’re the source, I don’t believe that for a second.
“Eh, but I’m sure you can get along with pretty much anyone, Kunieda.”
Yeah, since I’m surrounded by assholes, suckups, and clueless idiots all the time.
The director said, “I’ll see you tomorrow then. Thanks for your time.”
“Thank you, please take care.”
As Kei walked back to the announcer department where his desk sat, he stopped in front of a poster hanging in one of the hallways. It featured an unassuming bust shot of a man and the logo of The News, affixed with the tagline, Asou Keiichi’s updating the nightly news with a brand-new look! The simple design projected an air of confidence. The poster for its evening counterpart, Evening File, hung next to it, its image fresh and light, in stark contrast to the deep impression left by The News. It followed a concept of sipping tea between news and discussion, and the poster featured photos of most of the anchors and reporters, including a photo of Kei. It was shot at the beginning of the year timed to be released for the upcoming spring reorganization of the show. His smile was flawless and perfect.
No surprise here. I’m the best looking out of everyone, including the women.
“Whatcha looking at?” A female announcer two years Kei’s senior approached him.
“Oh, good evening.”
Get lost, don’t bother me.
Kei suppressed his irritation and answered, “I was looking at the new posters. I think they turned out quite well.”
“Oh, especially your photo, Kunieda-kun. They don’t call you The Prince for nothing!”
And as for you, the rumors say that you’ve been out on wild singles parties nearly every night, so much that the execs had to drop you from your morning news show. You’re almost thirty, will you be ok? Heh.
“Oh, I wasn’t look at my photo. I was looking at Asou-san’s poster. He looks great in it, very cool and confident.” Kei feigned a slight bashfulness, pretending to admire an older colleague.
“Yeah, I hear that they’re putting it up all over the train stations and inside the trains too.”
“Wow, they didn’t spare any expense for this.”
“The show is getting a brand-new look with a complete overhaul, they have to. Lately the numbers have dipped below 13%.”
It appeared that the network executives had two objectives with this overhaul of the show. The incumbent host was a highly-established TV personality in the industry who had been at the helm for a long time. Replacing him and his perky assistant for a network announcer with name recognition would cut down on costs while giving the show a new image. They even went so far to direct the evening team to help promote the new look for the show, but Kei didn’t imagine that it’d be too terribly effective.
“But Kunieda-kun, I can see you hosting your own show one day.”
“Please, I’m not quite cut out for such a position.”
This was not lip service. The extreme stress levels for such a prominent position didn’t seem to be worth it. Kei liked his current job as a news announcer and co-host on the evening news. Although sometimes he felt the need to feed his pride and vanity like anyone else, as long as he showed up to work, it didn’t matter if he appeared on TV or fiddled with his phone at his desk while on-call. He was paid a regular salary as a full-time announcer at a network—very different from a TV personality who was retained on contract. Viewers praised him for his good looks and his smooth on-air delivery that belied his age and experience, even holding his own in comedic pieces for recorded segments. The disconnect with his elegant appearance played to his charm, enchanting everyone with the social graces and bearing of a handsome prince. He would do everything in his power to protect this image.
“By the way, Kunieda-kun…” The tone in the colleague’s voice switched to one that was about to lay on the flattery.
“Yes?” Kei replied, keeping his internal guard up.
“I’m planning to go out for drinks with a friend of mine. Would you care to join us? She would really like to meet you.”
Kei anticipated something like this, but it was still a pain in the ass. This woman was past her prime, and yet she wanted to chase a younger colleague she thought was rising in the ranks?
“I’m sorry,” Kei said, choosing a mix of embarrassment and regret from the multitude of masks he had prepared to handle difficult situations, “but back in my hometown in Shizuoka…”
“Oh, so you already have a girlfriend.”
“It’s not quite like that…”
He threw in a little shyness as a bonus. It wasn’t like he was lying. She just ran off with her own assumptions.
“Hey, don’t worry about it.”
“Sorry. Um, please don’t tell anyone about this. I’ve been keeping it a secret.”
“Really? Hmm, what should I do?”
“Please don’t tell anyone!”
“Alright, alright. Let’s go out normally for drinks sometime then.”
Any sense of disappointment that would cause her to begrudge Kei for his rejection was easily overwritten with the sense of superiority that she was in on a little secret. She probably wouldn’t outright disclose the secret, but she would probably dangle enough information in front of the other women to let them get the hint. And hopefully he wouldn’t have to deal with them either. He could imagine it going something like this: Oh, Kunieda-kun? He told me— Oh, well, I’m not entirely sure. He told me not to tell anyone, I’m sorry.
Kei left work at around 8 pm. On his way out, he of course cheerfully called out a “Good night!” to the guard. In order to protect his perfectly crafted image, his strategy required a ground-up approach. It was only when he arrived home and locked his front door, did his private time begin.
Exhausted, Kei released a deep sigh that he would never dare show to the outside world. He scrubbed his face and peered into the mirror in front of him—the fake smile disappeared without a trace, leaving only a gloomy reflection staring back at him. Running his fingers through his hair to free it from all of the product, he loosened his necktie, tossed his clothing behind the sofa, and pulled on his favorite sweatshirt and sweatpants. His mother had bought them for him from the second floor of a supermarket a long time ago. He was about to rub a hole in the elbows any day now, but it didn’t matter, he was going to wear a coat over it anyway. It wasn’t his nice Aquascutum coat that he normally wore, but a cheap, off-brand duffle coat that pilled like no tomorrow. He had gotten it through mail order.
Anything that was deemed inappropriate for “Announcer Kunieda Kei,” such as instant foods or copies of his favorite manga, he acquired through the Internet.
Continuing with his transformation, Kei put on a pair of black, thick-framed glasses with non-prescription lenses, covered his face with a medical facemask (which by the way was necessary to protect his throat too), stuffed a synthetic leather wallet that had seen better days into his pocket, and tossed on a pair of beat-up tennis shoes. He was ready to step outside again, completely anonymous to the world. He could finally relax. This wasn’t his set of “one-mile wear” used for running errands around his neighborhood—he’d be happy to wear this out to Shinjuku, Shibuya, or Roppongi if he had plans there. It was easier to be treated like a shabby nobody than to have people recognize him on the street.
It became Kei’s nightly routine to enjoy a half-hour walk through the park while in his disguise. He didn’t have to worry about people going up to him or posting sightings about him on Twitter. And he didn’t want to deal with messages from the show’s website going, I saw you walking around (fill-in-the-blank) yesterday! But I couldn’t say hello because I was too nervous!
It was truly a strange profession being a network TV announcer. They went on TV, so they were sometimes treated like a minor celebrity, but ultimately they were merely salaried employees at a business. He would still be paid even if he wasn’t very popular. Conversely, no matter how big his following were to get, there was no bucking the curve for a promotion or raise (which was why many announcers eventually became free agents).
The biggest difference between a TV announcer and TV personality was that an announcer didn’t have an assistant or manager who could be the fall guy for whenever something went wrong. Setting aside the question of any criminal acts, TV announcers had no recourse if there was any sign that they had violated any kind of social standard or public moral code. It would be the end of their careers. And even if they were allowed to appear on TV again, the stain would follow them forever. Even the tactic of self-deprecation and turning themselves into a joke would be received coldly unless the person was a considerable veteran of the business. Still, he had to admit that on the surface he basically had to look good and read the news for his job, he could understand why it was necessary to avoid incurring the wrath of the viewers who only saw the surface.
However, Kei wanted the freedom to loiter at convenience stores and stand around reading trashy magazines. He wanted to buy prepared dishes from the department store food halls and order a mere 100g2 of a dish if he felt like it. He wanted to grumble back at rude taxi drivers and not hold back his feelings. If he had to perpetually wear the mask of the perfect TV announcer and restrain himself at all times, he would suffocate.
That was why he was dressed like a borderline creeper right now. These few precious hours to himself allowed him to finally breathe and relax. Even the freezing late January wind didn’t bother him. After finishing his walk, he generally stopped by a nearby casual izakaya3 to order takeout. Kei’s favorite was the beef rice bowl (with a soft-boiled egg on top). He exited the restaurant with his late dinner, stopped by a convenience store to pick up a beer, and returned home with a spring in his step. Plunking down onto his sofa and pulling his legs up to sit cross-legged, Kei removed the lid of his beef rice bowl. Steam unfurled in front of his face, and the egg inside wobbled, nestled among the other toppings. This was happiness right here.
“Ahhh, I’m drooling…” Kei said to himself, sounding completely different from the voice that he normally used in front of other people. He had developed his “outside” speaking voice after repeatedly recording his voice and researching how to make it sound more comfortable for people to hear.
The rice bowl was topped with lace-like fatty pieces of thinly sliced beef, sauce-covered shirataki4 noodles, and chicken livers sauteed in finely minced garlic and strings of caramelized onion. Kei broke open the soft-boiled egg and furiously mixed up the contents of the bowl. Picking up a carefully balanced ratio of rice to toppings with his chopsticks, he took a bite.
“So damn good…”
It was funny how he could eat this 3 to 4 times a week on heavy rotation and not get tired of it. He took gulps of beer in between shoveling food into his mouth, pausing to add some sesame seeds for extra flavor, and enjoyed a blissfully satisfying meal. As a side note, for lunch at work, Kei would always order the “16 Variety Rice Healthy Plate” or some nonsense like that from the cafeteria. No matter how tempted by the Chicken Nanban5 lunch special he was, he eliminated everything inside him that threatened the perfect image of “Kunieda Kei.” That was why eating at home like this felt like heaven.
Kei let out a satisfied sigh.
After cleaning up his empty beer can and plasticware, Kei made himself some coffee. Instant was good enough for him. It was a pain to do the dishes, so he used paper cups. But for his act, he had favorite beans picked out that would suit his image. And favorite tea leaves, shampoo, house furnishings. They were basically props to him, used to self-produce his image and convey the types of things that he wanted other people to know that he liked. The general public (in other words, people who didn’t appear on TV) more or less did the same thing.
Sipping on his coffee, Kei reached for the TV remote. That was when his cell phone rang—his personal one known only by his family, separate from his work phone.
“Hello, Kei? Have you been eating properly? We just got mikan oranges the other day, and I’m thinking about sending you some. Do you have anything else you want me to send?”
“Cup noodles,” Kei answered his mother’s question without any hesitation. “Make sure you include a bunch of different flavors. Also potato chips. Canned stuff like yakitori6 chicken and corned beef would be great too. Oh, and send all of my Dragon Ball manga on my bookshelf while you’re at it. I feel like reading it again.”
“I can’t fit all of that into one box! And what are you doing eating all of that instant food?”
“I eat properly when I’m outside. You know this.”
“Outside, hmm…?” His mother sighed, like she purposely picked this moment to express her disapproval. “Everyday I watch you on TV using that outside personality, and every time you smile on screen, it still gives me the chills.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be my mother?” Kei grumbled.
“But it’s true… I suppose you could say that I’m impressed with the way that you can maintain such a perfect act on the outside. If people only knew that at home you lounge around under a kotatsu7, snacking and reading manga all day… Well, you were always a proper and well-behaved child when you were in front of others. Still to this day, I get guilty whenever the neighbors say such nice things about you.”
“Mom, shut up! Don’t you dare breathe a word about me to other people! Do you want to make things difficult for me at work!?”
“Yes, yes, I know, don’t worry. But what will you do about the future? Do you have a nice girl who will marry you and accept you for who you are?”
Of course he didn’t.
All of his previous relationships were with women who he deemed to meet the necessary standards to be an “accessory” for his perfect image. They never lasted long, he soon grew tired of having his free time to relax stolen from him, and in order to prevent being cast as the bad guy, he then spent an extraordinary amount of effort to break up with the woman on amicable terms. This pattern repeated itself over and over again.
“It’s none of your business. Anyway, I’m busy. Good night.”
“Hey, wait, Kei—”
Kei abruptly ended the phone call and switched on a recording of his show from earlier in the night. He watched his segments over and over on repeat. Did all of his lines sound okay? Did any accent on the words sound strange?8 Was the speed okay? Any weird pauses? It could make viewers uncomfortable if he looked straight ahead too much, were there any moments like that? Were his responses to the other presenters appropriate? How was his posture on the wide-angle shots? How was his wardrobe today? He had a long checklist to go through. The stripes on his shirt were too thin after all because he could see it causing flickering on the screen. This was why he double-checked every item after going on air. The wardrobe lady had said that it was fine, but now he knew he shouldn’t have trusted her. Useless idiot.
After finishing his self-aircheck, this time he went around watching the other news programs at 3x speed. If there was anything particularly good or bad that he noticed, he would watch at normal speed. In order to capture all the news programs—morning, noon, evening, and night—from each of the networks, Kei had a total of four recording decks at his home. Yes, the staff room at work had everything recorded that he could access, but he liked making snide comments while he watched like, Looks terrible. Should’ve cut that, or That was shit timing going to break. He couldn’t do that front of others in the staff room. Not that he had any problems with it, but he only felt like restraining himself when he needed to, and there was no need to restrain himself any more than necessary. He especially paid attention to competing shows that shared his same time slot. Where on the charts were they competing, where were they winning or losing? Figures moved up and down all the time, so they couldn’t always get a good read on whether certain content did good or bad, but there certainly were days when the figures could be relied on, and the response was as clear as night and day.
Taking notes with a notepad in his lap, Kei’s back started to slouch over on itself like a caterpillar. Every thirty minutes he would notice his back hurting, and after a brief stretch, he would get back to watching and note taking. This was not something that he could ever show to other people.
If Kei were to say that he had a talent, it would be that he spared no effort in polishing himself when it came to how he appeared to others. When he finished his news check (it was strange to forget everything the next day, even though he had watched so much), it was nearly 2 am, but he still had the on-location materials to review. He took a quick bath, then flipped through the pages from the director.
Tsuzuki Ushio, 27 years old this year, same age as Kei. He had gained a following for his stop motion animation videos during his time in vocational school. His most popular video—a short film following the life of a baby bird from leaving his nest until death—had over 10 million views worldwide. He had won numerous awards internationally, and current major projects included working on TV commercials. …Hmph, Kei hated everyone who was around his age and yet was more successful than him. There was a DVD included in the materials package, so he put it into his player begrudgingly.
A claymation video played on screen similar to the education programs on TV that he had watched when he was young. Pieces of clay curled into a circle or stretched out like string, changing shapes and dancing on the screen, turning into blooming flowers, the setting sun, and falling rain. Sometimes the materials were origami, sometimes they were stuffed toys. The DVD contained a collection of short videos, the longest running about 5 minutes. …Damn, he was tired just watching the videos. They must have taken forever to make, move something a millimeter, take a picture, move it again a tiny bit, take a picture, repeating the process until it made a movie. Was he a monk in training or something? Kei would probably flip the set and destroy it before he could get a single second worth of a clip.
The guy was probably a gloomy nerd if he could sit around all day working on something so tedious. It was with a mean-spirited curiosity that he began to wonder how he looked like—that was when the man in question appeared on screen, looking stiff in a tuxedo. It looked like he was at a reception where he had just received one of his prestigious awards. Kei took one look at him and clicked his tongue. He hated handsome-looking men too. He would never suspect in a million years that he’d be the type to like working on such delicate, manual detail work. He was tall enough that he didn’t look out of place surrounded by foreigners, and he had good features. To sum it up, yeah, he was the type of man that women would chase after. His individual features were each pretty distinct, but curiously, they didn’t seem to clash when considered as a whole. He seemed better suited as a sculptor, chipping away at a giant statue with a hammer and chisel, than as an animation artist.
However, at this beautiful reception hall, there was no trace of pride or glory at capturing this once in a lifetime honor, the man stood there straining his neck back and forth, appearing bored as he gracelessly gripped a gold trophy. Maybe his bow tie was too tight.
“Congratulations on your win tonight!”
The man gave a curt nod and a brief acknowledgment of the interviewer despite having a microphone pointed at him.
“Could you please tell us how you’re feeling?”
“Uh, I’m not too good at these things. I just want to go home, eat dinner, and sleep.”
“Um, well, could you tell us a little about the trophy? Like how important it is to you?”
“My grandma likes shiny things. I think she’ll be happy.”
Kei couldn’t help but mutter out loud, “What the hell is this guy?”
This weird, eccentric character of his didn’t seem to be an act. He was at a prestigious awards reception, but he just really wanted to go home and didn’t seem to care about his trophy. Kei was always putting on an act, therefore, he was particularly sensitive to any kind of act put on by other people. Couldn’t he have smiled a little? Feigned modesty? Talked awkwardly about how happy he was or how grateful he was to the people supporting him? That was the Japanese thing to do, right?
The interviewer was just doing his job. Fair or not, the world operated on a transactional level. Couldn’t he have just thrown the interviewer a bone? Kei really wanted to grab the guy by the collar and give him a piece of his mind. These depressing, lone wolf types who made their living in highly-skilled, specialized fields were the worst to handle. They were loose cannons who liked to ignore all the careful planning needed to produce good TV.
Kei got depressed at the thought that he would be meeting this man in the morning, but it was for work, so he had to buck up and bear it. He wanted some more information on him to work with, so he turned on his computer and pulled up Wikipedia. There was no way to tell if all of the information was verified or not, but it was better than nothing. Under the subheading for Personal life, he read the line: Came out as bisexual. Geh. Kei unconsciously made a face. What should he do if the guy ended up liking him? He’d have to avoid being left alone in a room with the guy.
It wasn’t any of Kei’s business what other people’s sexual orientations were, but he didn’t understand the reasoning for making it public. He could see how it could negatively affect regular salaried workers, but maybe it allowed creative types more freedom to explore and create?
Ah, he was getting irritated. Kei turned off his computer and prepared to go to bed. He put on a different kind of facemask this time, one used to moisturize his skin, changed into a set of sweats that he used for sleeping, and headed to bed. His bedroom was equipped with a humidifier, which was set at a constant 60% humidity to help keep his skin healthy and glowing. He got his 4.5 hours worth of sleep allotted for the weeknight. When he woke up in the morning to the sound of his alarm, he took a spoonful of honey, spent 30 minutes doing vocal exercises, then read the morning paper and had breakfast. Today he had instant miso soup and rice topped with cheese slices and bonito flakes, seasoned with soy sauce as he liked. Most of the time he would get bored with his meal halfway through, and he would add kimchi to his rice, but with his on-location assignment today, he decided against adding such a pungent topping.
After spending this precious private time in which he did as he pleased, he got ready to transform back into the “Kunieda Kei” that everyone knew. Carefully coordinated clothing, impeccably styled hair, finished with a beautiful necktie—he looked himself over in the mirror and gave himself a nod. Now to get through the day once more as the perfect and charming TV announcer.
- AD – Assistant director
- 100g – Equivalent to approx. 3.5 oz (or less than 1/4 lbs).
- Izakaya – Japanese-style pub where small plates are usually shared.
- Shirataki – Noodles made out of konjac yams.
- Chicken Nanban – Deep-fried chicken with tartar sauce.
- Yakitori – Grilled chicken skewers.
- Kotatsu – Low, wooden table covered with a quilt with a built-in space heater underneath.
- The accent here refers to the way syllables of a word are stressed or unstressed (e.g. COF-fee vs. cof-FEE).