Chapter 7: Yes, No, or Maybe Half? (7)
Kei felt someone lightly shaking his shoulder.
“Kunieda-san, it’s 6 am.”
Kei’s blood pressure shot up in an instant, and he sat up startled and disoriented, shifting off a blanket that had somehow covered him up to his chin.
“Oh…” Kei recalled the events from last night when he saw Tsuzuki’s face in front of him. He must have fallen asleep while he was talking about himself. It was a deep and dreamless sleep for a change.
“I am very sorry to have imposed—”
“No, don’t worry about it. I was the one who left you alone. Do you want any coffee?”
“No, thank you. I should be heading home.”
“Alright, but wait here while I go grab something.” Tsuzuki headed upstairs and returned with a ceramic vase. “A friend of mine who dabbles in pottery gave me this vase. If you don’t mind, please feel free to use it.”
“Thank you very much.”
The pale sunlight slowly brightened the cityscape as Kei walked through the early morning streets carrying a giant flower vase. He didn’t know if the vase was well-made or not, but it was deep and had a thick rim. His flowers had withered some more while he was away, but after he had placed them in the vase with some water, Kei was relieved to see that they had recovered a little.
Kei knew that he had done everything in his power to prepare for tonight. He was sure that if it were anyone else in his position, they wouldn’t have put in anywhere near the amount of work that he had put into his preparations. He tried to reassure himself of this detail as he reviewed the rundown for tonight’s show. It was 9 pm. One hour until air time.
An AD called out, “The guests are at the front lobby!”
Kei started to get up, but Shitara stopped him.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Um, to receive the guests at the—”
“You don’t need to go.”
“This is where the president and everyone below him come in. They’re here for this exact reason, so you should focus on your own preparations. I’m not telling you that you need to be arrogant, but this is your show, in other words, it’s the Kunieda Kei show—you’re the host. Keep your head high and show everyone who is exactly in control.”
Kei felt like he finally understood the reason why Shitara had been farmed out to the local affiliate stations for so long. It was a hard personality for superiors to like and want to groom for future positions. Kei had no intentions to follow Shitara’s example, but Kei did respect his fearlessness.
“Kunieda-san, it’s time for hair and makeup…”
“I’ll be right there.”
The entire building had been filled with a nervous energy since morning. People had been frantically coming and going; security had been sharply increased; even the trash cans around the news floor were inspected for suspicious-looking objects. There would be very important visitors coming, and it fueled the tense atmosphere all day.
After Kei’s hair and makeup were done, he went into the studio and found the president of the network and all the upper-level executives already gathered and waiting. The technical staff were whispering quietly to one another.
“I don’t think we’ve seen so many all-stars in one place since the lighting ceremony for the new building.”
“Our lives are on the line in more ways than one, huh? If we really mess up, we could get our broadcasting license revoked.”
“That’s not funny.”
Kei squinted at the brightness of the lights. Was the studio always this bright? There was nowhere to run. …But then again, escape routes never existed for him in the first place. This was “The Kunieda Kei Show” and anything that happened, he had to handle on his own.
Once he sat in the host’s seat and the clock struck 10 pm, whether he laughed or he cried, for one full hour, he had to sit there with no one to relieve him. Suddenly the black camera cables coiled around the floor looked like they were slithering snakes, and Kei broke out in to goosebumps. It had never bothered him before today.
There were eight cameras including a crane-mounted one, double the number of cameras for the evening news—eight sets of eyes capturing him and sending his image through all of Japan until it reached millions, tens of millions of eyes on the other side. He could panic, bite his tongue, and disgrace himself on national TV, but there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Kei felt a bead of sweat roll down his forehead.
Don’t think about useless things. Don’t think about failing. I’ll be okay. The opening takes 15 seconds, the camera tilts up from the set and on to me, and then I greet the viewers. Good evening… Good evening, then what? Uh, what do I say next?
In the corner of the studio was a long worktable where he had left his copy of the rundown. Kei had tried and failed to reach it.
“Is everything okay?”
“Can I trouble you to…?”
A nearby AD handed the copy of the rundown to Kei. There was a slight tremble to Kei’s hands when he received it. He hadn’t been nervous his first time on live TV, but right now, he had to calm down and memorize the rundown again.
Good evening, tonight we bring you a brand-new version of The News. For our premiere show, we have invited Japan’s most eminent political leaders for a very special panel discussion. After the commercial break, wewillheartheirthoughtsandopinionsonvarioustopicsthat… He could read the words, but they weren’t sticking inside his head. The nightmare that had haunted him in his dreams felt like it had materialized before his very eyes—sitting under the bright studio lights, frozen in shock at the complete loss of his words.
“Excuse me, it’s about time to mic up.”
The sound person approached him with a pin mic. Kei didn’t want this. He backed away a few steps.
“Um, is there—”
“Oh… I’m sorry, would it be possible to go to the restroom one last time?”
“Please go ahead.”
The moment Kei exited the studio and stepped out into the empty hallway, his smile disappeared. He stiffly went up one floor to a private restroom and locked himself inside, his entire body overtaken with fear as he trembled. He was scared. He couldn’t do it.
What if he left a letter of resignation and ran away, living abroad until the dust settled?
Couldn’t his appendix rupture right about now? Maybe get hurt in an attack by an assailant who had sneaked into the building? How about a fire that wasn’t serious enough to cause casualties?
Time ticked by as Kei looked for ways to run away from reality. It was 9:40 pm. He had to get back to the studio before the staff started panicking, but his feet refused to move. At a loss for what to do, he glared at the time display on his cell phone until the screen went dark, then he frantically switched it back on again. As he repeated the set of motions, off and on, off and on; one minute, then two minutes ticked by.
What should he do?
It would be a dead end no matter what he did, so maybe it would be best to not return to the studio at all? But if he stayed here, someone would eventually find him, and it was nearly impossible to sneak out of the building. But still… As Kei hesitated some more, his screen went black again.
But simultaneously, the cell phone vibrated and the incoming call light flashed red.
Kei shouted out in surprise. His eyes landed on the caller’s phone number, making him freeze up, but he decided to answer, figuring that he was already in dire straits at the moment, it didn’t matter anymore what might or might not happen. But somewhere deep inside his heart, he was probably waiting for this call. It was why he had slipped this personal cell phone into his pocket before work, despite having left it at home all of the other times.
“What do you want?”
“Nothing, just wondering how you’ve been.” Tsuzuki’s voice sounded like their last encounter had been wiped clear from his memory. “My project’s finally wrapped up, and now I have some free time. Oh right, it’s gonna air soon, so make sure you catch it on TV.”
Kei wanted to yell at Tsuzuki. Did Tsuzuki even know how Kei was feeling right now? How could he act like nothing had happened? But Kei only had the strength to voice a weak, little plea.
“Sure,” Tsuzuki replied, his tone light and breezy, “I’ll help you. Where are you right now?”
Kei didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer. Not even under the circumstances.
In response to Kei’s silence, Tsuzuki finally showed some exasperation. “Not again,” he sighed. “You’re always like this. You wall yourself off, never telling me what’s wrong.”
That’s because… That’s because I… I want you to understand me. In the entire world, you’re the only one I want to understand me. But at the same time, you’re the only one I don’t want to find out about my lies.
I wonder which “me” thinks of you so deeply that you’re all that I think about.
“Well, it’s fine,” Tsuzuki said. “Listen, the person that I like once told me that whenever they’re feeling uneasy, they have a little routine that they do that helps ground them.”
“So why don’t you try something like that too? Anyway, I gotta go. Remember to catch our work on TV.”
The person you like?
Blood rushed up to Kei’s head, angry at Tsuzuki for making no sense and hanging up on him while Kei was clearly suffering, but then he suddenly remembered something, and he rushed out of the restroom. Running through the halls, down the stairs, and back into the studio, he felt the piercing stares of everyone in the room boring into him, but he ignored them all.
“Kunieda! Where the hell have you been all this time!?”
Kei ignored the News Director and his reprimand.
“Let’s cut him some slack. TV presenters have a lot on their plate to think about.”
While Shitara tried to pacify the angry VIPs in the studio, Kei walked to the corner worktable and started on his routine. He opened the accent dictionary that he had left there and examined the very first page.
The dictionary was written from left to right,1 and on the bottom right corner of the page was a pencil drawing of Kei’s likeness. The strokes were simple and light, but it bore a striking resemblance to him. After all this time, he was actually impressed with Tsuzuki’s skills. It was probably drawn when he had fallen asleep on Tsuzuki’s couch. There was no other time that it could have happened. He flipped to the next page and found the same drawing. Same for the page after, and the page after that. He pressed down on the edge of the pages with his thumb and flipped through the rest of the book quickly. The drawings had looked the same to him, but now he saw that there were slight differences on each page. The charming smile slowly faded until it was replaced with a sullen-looking expression, which was then accessorized with the addition of black thick-rimmed glasses and a medical facemask, and hair that gradually became ruffled and messy.
“…Huh,” Kei whispered quietly to himself, “so he knew.”
How did he find out? When? Why didn’t he say anything?
Blood should be draining out of his face right now, but the drawing of himself had such a heartwarming touch to it that Kei couldn’t help but want to smile.
“Um, I need to put on your mic…”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Please go ahead.”
How dare he doodle on my work materials. I’m gonna go complain at him after the show’s over.
Even if the show ended in a spectacular failure and he had to escape abroad to hide from everyone, Tsuzuki was the only one Kei wanted to go see.
“One minute until air time. Please stand by!”
A chorus of Standing by! echoed through the studio. Kei closed his dictionary, leaving it on the worktable, and stepped onto the set under the bright studio lights.
Shitara called after him, “You don’t have to tell yourself to do a good job, alright?”
“Please do not jest,” Kei retorted, “Tell me to do a good job, because it is what I’ve done my entire career.”
Kei imagined that he could feel the man behind him finally smile.
“Damn straight! Now go out there and show everyone how it’s done.”
Kei sat down in the host’s chair. There was an empty table on the left side of the set reserved for tonight’s special guests. He took a deep breath and told himself, This is my show. It didn’t matter if he had the Prime Minister or a President on.
On this set, I’m the host of the show—the MC, the Master of Ceremonies!
It was 9:59 pm and 50 seconds.
“10 seconds until air time, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5—”
The remaining seconds were counted off silently using hand signs. It was 10 pm on the dot. Kei leaned slightly forward in his chair to watch the on-air monitors that were placed out of view from the cameras. Between the clusters of skyscrapers, there were masses of people milling through the streets, shot from a bird’s-eye-view perspective. They were the figures that Tsuzuki had made. A large teardrop rolled down the alien’s cheek as it watched its distant ancestors from the past.
And then a hand rested on its shoulder.
In the initial storyboards that Kei had seen, the alien was all alone. The two aliens nodded to each other, and their spaceship flew away to disappear into the night sky. Then the logo of The News appeared on screen. Kei wondered how Tsuzuki would respond if Kei asked him why he had added another alien to the story. He would probably say, I don’t know. Because there was no reason except that he had wanted to.
Ahh, I hate to admit it, but I want to see him so badly right now.
Kei faced the camera and smiled into it. From the bust shot that he could see transmitted on the monitor, it was the most brilliant smile ever witnessed this century, if he were to say so himself.
“…That wraps up our discussion on the employment conditions facing Japan. For our next topic…”
Kei thought to himself that perhaps this was a dream. Somehow everything felt light and fuzzy, like it wasn’t reality.
“We will discuss measures that attempt to address the country’s declining birth rates. Please take a look at the following clip.”
While the clip was playing, Kei devised his strategy for moderating the discussion. First, he would lead with the Cabinet minister with experience on the subject. The guest who argued over the child-care allowance would be unable to hold himself back from speaking, so that would easily fill up 2 minutes. After that, he would ask a leading question to a calmer personality type… The issue of long wait lists was a good point of discussion, he should allow a woman to speak at length about it. …And then the clip ended. Kei carefully managed the guests at the table, manipulating them like building blocks to steer the discussion through each of the topics—he matched some up into groups, split others up, or even created something new to throw into the mix as needed.
“This is how I would summarize everyone’s opinions on the topic…”
First a single shot of the center of the table from Camera 4, then an insert of a crane-mounted shot from Camera 8, then footage from the last elections for the lower house, after about 15 seconds, it would return to the studio cameras again.
Kei understood very clearly the need to coordinate the camera work with the flow of the discussion and the importance of selecting the best shot to broadcast on air. While he was speaking, it was like he was at the control room himself, switching in and out between all the feeds. Was this what an out-of-body experience felt like? It felt like everything was connected by an invisible thread and Kei was manipulating everything from the center of the studio.
When he responded to a guest, the words flowed smoothly. He didn’t have to try very hard for all the facts and figures to come to him—he could rattle off public opinion poll results, the current makeup of the National Diet held by each party, various campaign promises…
This must be a dream.
Because I’ve never had so much fun on the job before. I never knew that I could enjoy it this much.
It was 10:23 pm.
The show was progressing smoothly: there was a good back-and-forth, and the arguments were heated. So far there were no big mistakes. The only thing that was worrying Kei at the moment was the need to go to commercial break soon. No matter how stirred up the discussion became, it was an ironclad rule in commercial broadcasting to strictly observe the break schedule set for the show, and there was no getting around it. The next break was a long one, topping out at 2 ½ minutes, and if Kei broke into the discussion at the wrong moment, it could disrupt the flow of the discussion when it resumed and cause viewers to switch away from the show. The break was already pushed back by 3 minutes, and it was reaching the limit where it couldn’t be pushed back any further. Kei needed to somehow open up an opportunity to squeeze in this break, and because no one else had noticed the cues, the floor manager was growing visibly agitated.
I have to force my way in, I suppose.
“Apologies for the interruption, but we need to go to break.”
That should have been the cue to go to commercial. However—
“I’m in the middle of an important point here!!”
Redirecting his heated emotional energy towards Kei was the leader of a very small minority party. But because of his long career in politics, this elderly man was known to be strong-willed and difficult to manage. During meetings for the show, Kei was warned to be very careful when dealing with him.
“This discussion about the tax hike concerns the entire country! People who don’t have anything meaningful to contribute should stay in the background and keep quiet!”
Don’t have anything meaningful to contribute, you say? Who do you think you’re talking to? Heh.
Kei took a deep breath, carefully hiding his movements from the cameras. “I agree that this is an important topic of discussion; however, I found that your arguments were fairly weak on actual substance.”
The guests at the table snickered, appearing to further infuriate the old man.
“Ha! You only say that because you don’t know any better!”
“Is that so? However, when I step away from this set, I am a mere civilian like everyone else. On election day, I go to the polls to vote. And so I am in the position tonight to represent a large portion of the electorate—to listen to everyone’s opinions at the table. So I would like to ask: is this the type of attitude that a political party should have—shutting down and dismissing an opinion that you don’t like by ridiculing the person for not knowing any better?”
“That’s not what I said!”
“Alright, then may I ask for a better explanation for your argument? Before the elections, your party had posted a manifesto explaining why the public had no choice but to support the tax hike. Then after bleeding a large number of seats, you’ve now taken a 180-degree turn in your position. To me, it looks like you saw the headwinds for implementing a tax hike and scrambled to stop the bleeding.”
“You dare to show such insolence!?”
A charged and nervous energy filled the studio. Some of the staff looked uneasy, as if they were wondering if everything would be okay. To be honest, Kei was also a little scared. He had just wanted to go to break quickly, but somehow the situation had spun out of his control.
However, Kei was as equally excited as he was scared, feeling the rush of adrenaline in his veins.
The old man has really livened up in his anger. There’s a spirit in his expression. This is what the viewers want to see. Get in closer, cameras.
“Please lay out the specific reasons for why you believe a tax hike is unnecessary given the state of the budget. Even with the cuts to public utilities and government personnel budgets, it seems all too optimistic to expect that the cuts will compensate for such a large deficit. Let us examine the budget being proposed for the next fiscal year—”
“I’m not going to sit here to be attacked! I’m leaving!” The elderly man knocked over his chair as he stood up.
Kei wasn’t about to give him an inch. Without missing a beat, he answered, “Is that so?” Then he addressed an AD off camera, “Please prepare a gift bag with a teddy bear for our guest.”
Now’s the time! Go!
Kei flashed the hand signal for “go” inside his head, impeccably timed to the on-air monitors, and the screen switched over to a soft drink commercial.
“…We’re in commercial!” an AD shouted.
Kei let out a deep breath and stood from his chair, bowing to the guests as he apologized, “I’m very sorry for the heated exchange just now.”
The politicians, who had been having a spirited debate before the exchange, all burst into laughter.
“Oh, but you were quite right in your opinion.”
“Very true. The old man is always so quick to run off the set in a huff…”
“He definitely knocked over his chair on purpose.”
“Always making such a fuss. They’re such a tiny party that they can’t get any TV time otherwise.”
Kei had expected to be battered with a storm of complaints during the commercial break; however, the old man, who had been completely red in the face, stuck out his tongue and stated unabashedly, “You better thank me when you see the ratings. I want some good sake sent to my office.”
…He set me up. So he was always one step ahead of me.
Kei didn’t want the old man to have the satisfaction, but he couldn’t help but smile for some reason. “I’ll let the producer know,” he said and sat back down in his chair.
After the final commercial break finished, there were the news headlines for the day and the sports news segments. They were handled by a separate announcer.
“And now we go to the weather forecast.”
Kei exchanged some friendly chatter with the weather forecaster who was stationed at the plaza in front of the Asahi TV building. There was the cherry blossom forecast, recommended clothing for tomorrow, the pollen allergy report… It was now 10:57 pm and 50 seconds. A cue card written with 10 seconds to go went up, and the ending theme music began to play in the studio.
“Please join us tomorrow at this same time. Good night.”
Kei smiled for one last time, and it was a wrap. He immediately broke into a light coughing fit, and an AD rushed over to hand him some water.
“I’m really sorry. I wanted to bring you some water during commercial, but Shitara-san warned me against approaching you and breaking your focus.”
Kei was able last through the broadcast, and so he didn’t particularly care. But once he took a sip, he realized that his throat was incredibly parched, and so he downed the water in the paper cup in a single gulp.
Kei realized that he had accidentally let himself slip.
He looked around the studio and found everyone staring at him in disbelief. Kei started to break out into a sweat.
Why isn’t anyone saying anything? Did I make a huge mistake without realizing anything?
Breaking through the bizarre post-wrap silence of the studio was the sound of a single person clapping. It was Shitara, bringing his hands together in large, powerful hand motions. Then slowly, people joined in the applause, from the camera operators, the ADs, the stylists, the sound engineers, the light operators, to the camera assistants. The show today wouldn’t have been possible without all of the people here. They had watched Kei promise that he would do a good job, and over the course of the hour, they had prayed desperately inside their hearts, wishing for the show’s success.
Kei bowed his head deeply as he thanked everyone to the seemingly endless standing ovation.
Shitara announced, “Alright! Let’s meet in 30 minutes in the conference room for our post-show meeting. You’re all dismissed for now.” Then he approached Kei. “That turned much better than I had expected,” Shitara said in a strangely dazed voice.
“May I ask what exactly it was that you had expected?”
“I don’t know. Anyway, the president wants to celebrate the successful premiere, and the guests have all arrived at the restaurant. Will you join them for dinner?”
“I will let the executives handle everything,” Kei replied. “We have our meeting very soon, and I would like to watch the show’s recording, as I have a long list of items that I would like to check. I will do an even better job tomorrow night.”
“I’ll be counting on you.”
The team discussed details of the show up until dawn, details that 99.9% of the viewers probably didn’t care about, such as whether to make the overlay graphics a little bluer, or whether to hold the camera for a second longer while coming out of the title screen. But like for any job, it was addressing the remaining 0.1% over and over again that allowed the work to finally take shape. Just like how Tsuzuki’s animation started from a single page of storyboard.
This was the first time Kei had ever spent the night at the network, falling asleep on a sofa. He woke up to something large, thin, and flimsy covering his face. There was the faint smell of ink. Was it a discarded document? Did the person think it could act as a sleeping mask? If so, what a weirdo. Kei frowned, unhappy at being woken, but luckily the paper acted as screen to keep his face covered. Kei removed the piece of paper and sat up, finding a man standing in front of him. There were also a lot of people with their heads planted on the conference table sleeping.
Uh, who is this again? He looks familiar. I think he’s from the programming department? Anyway, he’s definitely more senior than me.
“Good morning,” Kei said, frantically lowering his head. “I’m sorry for my appearance.”
“No worries, you must be exhausted. Anyway, take a look.”
At the man’s suggestion, Kei finally paid attention to the contents of the document.
The man had brought over a poster of the overnight ratings for the show; they had exceeded their ratings target, achieving an average rating of 23.5% and a share of 28%.
“It’s a great figure for the premiere of a renewed show.”
“…Thank you very much.”
“The peak viewership rating reached 25%, just before entering commercial at the 24 minute 30 second mark. Right about when you said ‘teddy bear.’” The man paused. “Well, it was pretty fun to watch.” He smiled wryly and then warned, “But as a network announcer, you were on the borderline. When you get caught up in a tricky hosting situation, you can quickly run out of breath, and then you’ll end up losing viewers. It might be hard, but from now on, try to stay conscious of how you handle situations in the host’s chair so that you can remain as ‘normal’ as possible through the show.”
“Hand the numbers over to Shitara when he gets back. He should be getting back soon.”
“Do you know where he is right now?”
“At a hospital visitation.”
Shitara returned shortly after, like the man had said. He walked with a light step in his gait, like he didn’t feel the slightest bit exhausted, smiling at Kei when he saw him. “Morning,” Shitara greeted.
“Thank you for the great job yesterday,” Kei said, handing over the viewership numbers.
“Oh?” Shitara showed an almost indifferent surprise after viewing the figures, like it had been somebody else’s business.
“…Did you expect the numbers to be higher?”
“No, no, it’s a spectacular figure. Let’s go to programming and get them to kick us some money. We should go out and celebrate with the staff.”
As Shitara artlessly taped the happy results to the wall with some packing tape, Kei asked, “May I ask who you visited at the hospital this early in the morning?”
“Asou. He had insisted.” Shitara shrugged his shoulders, still working on the poster.
Kei was at a loss for words.
“He called me bright and early, demanding that I bring him a DVD of last night’s show. He had watched the broadcast, and it seems that he feels threatened by his junior colleague’s explosive energy. He said that it wasn’t bad job, but he would have handled it much better. And that he’d recover as soon as possible, because he wasn’t going to give up the hosting position. With that much stimulation, his cells must be terrified. Good medicine, don’t you think?” Shitara turned around to face Kei. “Thank you,” he said solemnly, in a tone of voice that Kei had never heard him use.
“Oh, but I didn’t do much of anything…”
“What’s with the look of surprise? Oh, did you think that I was a hyena who would sell a sick co-worker out for a story? You gotta be kidding me. Let me get this straight, Asou was the one who said that he wanted to use his cancer for the show. That he would rather put his sickness on display than be forgotten from everyone’s living room. He must have done something in his past life to become like this.”
I could never do that. I could never be that greedy. After all, I’m pretty much a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.
On top of that, I have these two extreme personalities, but it seems that Tsuzuki might be okay with it… But I won’t really know until I ask him.
When he got into a taxi in front of the building, the driver asked, “Were you the host on the news last night?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“I saw the show. It was real thrilling to watch.”
“Thank you very much.”
“Tell me, it’s all gotta be scripted, right?”
“I shall leave it up to your imagination.”
Ahhh, please shut up and drive.
Kei lashed out at the driver inside his head as usual, but curiously, it wasn’t a bad feeling to hear the comment. He got his hopes up a little while he checked his cell phone, but there was nothing from Tsuzuki. His mother had texted him to say, You did a great job, and Kei unusually texted back, a short Thanks in return.
- Books in Japan can be printed so they either open right to left or left to right. If the sentences are printed vertically, like commonly found in literature and fiction, then the book will open right to left. If the sentences are printed horizontally, which you might find in some reference and technical books, the book will open left to right.