Recommended listening: Sigur Rós – “Dauðalagið”
As the sun set, the streets of Gujō were alive with the sights, sounds and aromas of the local Obon festival, in which the town took great pride. As was to be expected, electronic lanterns lit the fronts of virtually every home in town. Traditional dancers performed in reverence of family members both recently and long since passed. Tens of thousands of tourists crowded the pavement to relish in the week-long engagement. Many cities around Japan held an Obon festival every year, but Gujō’s in particular – often referred to as Gujō Odori – was sometimes said to outshine them all, its performers excelling in both the talent and the duration of their dances, occasionally drawing nationwide attention. The food vendors were hard at work. The savory smells of teriyaki beef and chicken reached Daisuke Kinoshita’s nose from one side of the street; other traditional foods followed. And everywhere, hiding behind the sizzle of the meat as it hit the scalding grills, and behind the buzz of the voices, he heard the rivers flow.
Gujō was surrounded by three rivers: Yoshida, Nagara and Kodara, which formed a natural moat around the town and around Gujō Hachiman Castle. Gujō was sometimes called “Water City” and, like its annual Obon festival, its clean freshwater supply helped earn the town its reputation. The water in Gujō was the second point of local pride and it had been a major component of the local economy since time immemorial. Besides the obvious benefits of refreshment, cooking and cleaning that the rivers’ high-quality water supplied, Gujō was noted for being the source of one of its rivers, the Nagara River, which boasted a thousand-year history of cormorant fishing. Since the 11th century, locals leashed cormorant birds on long ropes and allowed them to fly out and catch fish, at which time the fishermen would gently reel the birds back in and retrieve the fish from them. While once a major industry, cormorant fishing was now a tourist attraction all along the Nagara River, which ran through the Gifu prefecture.
The third and final component that formed Gujō’s reputation, which Daisuke never quite understood, was fake food. The town was known for its top-tier food replica workshops. The largest was Sample Village Iwasaki, and visitors marveled at the replicas’ likenesses to their real counterparts. However, perhaps since Daisuke had spent his life walking past the workshops, he failed to be impressed by them. Even Sample Kobo, which invited visitors inside so they could watch the artists build the replicas, seemed unexciting. He had heard of wax museums, which lured tourists in with incredibly realistic statues of famous people, and they, too, were lost on him.
It was twilight on Mukae-bon, the first day of the annual Obon festival honoring deceased ancestors. Everything for which the town was known – the festival itself, the fresh water, the food replica workshops and their products – stood out proudly and vivaciously. Local businesses were sure to earn record sales this week, in accordance with every other city putting on a similar festival all across the nation of Japan. And Daisuke Kinoshita was looking at a girl.
He had just rounded a corner to a pedestrian-only road on the left when he realized she was standing on the larger street that he was departing. She had been the last person he had seen and the last person his brain recognized after his legs had already committed to turning the corner. He spun around awkwardly and doubled back, stopping just short of re-entering the larger street, and slyly leaned around the corner to take another quick look and make sure she was really there.
In Daisuke’s opinion, Emiko Takahashi looked as beautiful as a girl could look. She had high cheekbones and long, straight, chest-length brown hair with bangs; she was tall and slender. She also had large, deep brown eyes and a lovely smile. Emiko exuded confidence and grace without seeming arrogant or snobbish; she was sociable and seemed close with her friends but Daisuke had never seen her act cliquey or disdainful towards another student. He knew that some more judgmental boys their age would find fault in her nose, which, they would say, was a bit too large for her face, but Daisuke found it endearing. He decided that instead of walking down the small road he had turned to, he would continue down the larger street and walk past her and her friends, who were all watching a troupe of dancers on a stage that was far ahead of Daisuke and on the right side of the street.
If only I could think of something cool to say, he thought. Maybe something that would stand out so it would come to mind again in a few days. But what?
“Hey. You there. It’s creepy to stare at girls, you know.”
Daisuke spun around guiltily in order to identify the deep voice that had addressed him from behind. Several people walked along the pedestrian-only road on which he’d stopped, but none of them seemed to pay him any mind. Then, through them and across the small road, he saw a boy his own age who wore a sneer that matched the chastising voice. The boy had bleached blonde hair and he wore it spiky; a cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth. His head was leaned back, causing him to look at everyone – and especially at Daisuke – down his nose. He sat on a windowsill with his back against the window, one foot tucked up under his rear end so that knee reached the boy’s chest, the other leg dangling freely down towards the ground. He wore a dark grey tank top and a necklace made of a chain-link dog collar with a padlock where a pendant would go. His pants were red plaid and his shoes were old, dirty checkered loafers with holes in them. As Daisuke took the boy in, his expression changed from guilt to contempt. The other boy looked like trouble, but Daisuke mustered what courage he could and shot an impolite reply right back at him.
“Don’t talk about my behavior when you’re dressed like that for Gujō Odori.”
Immediately, the boy stood up and started for Daisuke, which was made easier by a gap in foot traffic at the corner. Daisuke heard the soles of the boy’s worn shoes scuff the pavement as he advanced towards him. Reflexively, Daisuke stepped back but simultaneously straightened up. The boy took his cigarette from between his lips with his first two fingers and flicked it out of view without looking. Then their faces were inches apart. Daisuke realized he was several inches shorter than the other boy, but he could smell the tobacco wafting at him from his face.
“What did you say to me?”
Daisuke stammered and did his best to repeat himself.
“I said you’re one to talk, given how you present yourself for Gujō Odori.”
The boy sized Daisuke up with his eyes. After a long and serious silence between them, the boy’s face suddenly brightened and he let out a deep, hearty laugh.
“Ha! Oh, I really underestimated you, Mr. Voyeur,” he said.
Daisuke struggled to make sense of the situation. Mr. Voyeur?
The boy straightened up and pointed a finger at Daisuke’s face. Daisuke couldn’t decide if he was being rude or playful.
“You surprised me!” he said, his body moving about with excitement. “I thought you were going to apologize or run away when I teased you, but you put me in my place! You’ve got guts standing up for yourself, Mr. Voyeur.” Suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks and turned to Daisuke again. “Or were you just standing up for the Obon festival?”
“’Standing up for the festival?’”
The boy growled. “Just respecting tradition because someone told you to when you were little? Following every order grown-ups gave you? Your type makes me sick!”
Daisuke backpedaled, fearing a physical confrontation. “In any case, you shouldn’t be teasing someone you’ve just met.”
The boy laughed again. He got angry and happy so fast, Daisuke thought. Is he that kind of person…?
“That’s what I want to hear, Mr. Voyeur!” the boy said. He eased his posture and peeked out to get a better look at Emiko and her friends.
“Please don’t call me that. My name is Kinoshita.”
“Kinoshita?” the boy asked curiously, turning back to him.
Daisuke nodded curtly. “Daisuke Kinoshita.” He bowed slightly.
“Very well, Voyeur Kinoshita!” the boy said with another loud, obnoxious laugh. “And I am Ryu.” Ryu turned back to looking at the girls.
Daisuke waited for Ryu’s last name, but he didn’t volunteer it. Daisuke decided to ask about it. “Ryu…?”
“No need for formalities, Kinoshita.”
But you refer to me by my family name, Daisuke thought. He found Ryu to be exhausting.
“So which of these girls are you in love with, Kinoshita?” Ryu asked. Daisuke thought he was speaking too loudly.
“I-In love?” he asked quietly.
“Is it the girl with the round face?”
“No,” Daisuke said dismissively.
“No,” Ryu echoed. “How about the short heavy one?”
“That’s not polite.”
“Or is it the tall girl with the big nose?”
“Stop talking about them like that!”
Ryu once again turned around to Daisuke in mock amazement. “Ohhhhhh,” he said. “It’s the tall girl, then?”
Daisuke crossed his arms and looked away. “That’s none of your business.”
“Well, she’ll never be an idol with that nose,” Ryu said.
“I said stop!”
“She’s too tall, also.”
There’s no stopping this jerk, Daisuke thought. While looking off in the distance, he saw the still-smoking cigarette butt Ryu had tossed aside. He was determined to change the subject.
“Are you 20?”
Daisuke nodded towards the glowing end of the cigarette on the floor. “Are you 20? You look younger.”
Ryu made a high-pitched, cooing kind of sigh and rolled his eyes before fishing his pack of cigarettes from his back pants pocket. “Do you have a light, Kinoshita?”
“Sorry, Mr. Ryu,” Daisuke said. “I’m only 17.”
“Me too!” Ryu said, putting an unlit cigarette in his mouth and backing away from Daisuke. “Okay, I’m off to find a lighter. From now on, I can be your friend if you want me to, ok?”
“Why would I want to be friends with you?”
Ryu flashed a rude hand gesture at him. “Die, idiot!” Before Daisuke could react, Ryu waved to him and shouted loudly enough to attract attention. “Farewell, Mr. Voyeur!”
Several people looked at Daisuke strangely. His face went red, but before he could chide Ryu for causing so much trouble, he looked back to where the troublesome boy been standing and realized he was long gone.
Such a strange person, he thought. Good riddance.
Daisuke turned back to see if Emiko and her friends were still standing in their spot, but before he saw them, he heard screaming coming from the direction of the stage that the girls had been watching. He saw fewer dancers than before, some of whom were looking downward over the edge of the stage. Without thinking, he started towards them.
Someone might have fallen, Daisuke thought. Maybe I can help if I can get through the crowds.
As Daisuke crossed the street and moved towards the stage, which was about 50 feet away, he failed to notice the first two or three people who pushed past him going the opposite direction. His attention was on how he could help anyone who had been injured. His whole life, he’d always been considered average by others and himself – average height, average weight, a taste in music and books that was far from unique, a plain face that could belong to any boy in town – but perhaps because so little was expected of Daisuke at first glance, he made a point of standing out in his behavior. He was unflinchingly courteous and respectful to strangers and adults; he tried to get along well in any conversation his friends had. He aspired to embody the sense of community, morality and virtue that culture and tradition demanded and, to his shame, he sometimes did so as a means to be recognized as such. As he politely edged his way towards whichever incident had befallen the dancers on the stage, he thought that Ryu had been right about him.
Just respecting tradition because someone told you to when you were little? he had said. Your type makes me sick! The words echoed in Daisuke’s head and made him upset. Maybe his assertion against the punk’s rude words came not from a sense of self-respect, but merely the comfort in embodying an attitude he learned from his parents – an attitude of respect to one’s elders, especially the dead. He became even more upset at himself and at Ryu as he thought about Emiko. Goodness seemed to come so naturally to her. It was as though she were born with an inherent care for others, like part of her brain had overdeveloped before birth and she simply couldn’t see the world through selfish eyes. He felt so different from her, so insufficient. He became visibly agitated. In his frustration, he finally raised his voice and demanded to be let through the crowd, who seemed to be pushing back against him more and more.
“Please, let me through!” Daisuke shouted. “Someone may need help! Get out of my way!”
His tone of voice lacked in politeness, and it carried some weight to it. His command to the crowd was moderately effective, if a little out-of-character; several people seemed to pivot themselves out of his path as he neared the dancers. Then he realized how rude he must’ve sounded to these strangers. He thought again of his confrontation with Ryu, then Emiko, then the differences between them; it was an unending cycle.
The crowd thinned as Daisuke reached the stage from the street and sidled around to its far side. As he rounded the corner of the stage to its rear, he expected to see a wounded woman in a yukata nursing a sprained ankle or a bleeding head injury. Or maybe, since many people had run from the scene, he would see someone’s grandfather with a nasty fracture on the forearm or leg. It may be bleeding or, even worse, an open fracture, he thought.
Daisuke saw the impossible.
Three formally-dressed entertainers were being forced against the vertex where the ground met the rear side of the stage. The objects holding them in place were makeshift tools – the broken leg of a street vendor booth, a cane and so on – each being held by a festival attendee. Two or three men pinned each performer down. The dancers twitched violently and eyed the crowd around them with hateful, empty eyes. Fresh, bright blood poured down their mouths onto their clothing. It stained their teeth and they screamed guttural sounds without language. Then Daisuke saw the fear in the eyes of the men pinning the dancers down. There was no possibility that they had attacked the dancers; it was clear that they acted defensively. The performers were being held in place like wild animals at the zoo. Beyond them, in an alcove between shops, several festival attendees howled in pain or cried or shouted in anger, holding bleeding wounds which they wrapped in strips of their own clothing. Back at the front of the stage – the side that faced the street – someone collided with the stage; it moved abruptly and the crazed people braced against it were jostled by the impact.
“What happened?!” Daisuke heard someone shout. It took him a moment to realize the question came from his own mouth. Few people paid him any mind. Those who did were mostly dismissive. Just one man, in his 40s and holding a crazed dancer down with a standing sign from a nearby shop, answered him, probably from shock.
“They all went crazy!” he said. “They stopped performing and they jumped off the stage onto the festivalgoers. Then they started attacking them bare-handed.”
“Attacking…?” Daisuke asked. The man nodded quickly and the stage moved again.
“Just like a wild beast does. They were scratching people with their fingernails and ripping at their clothes. Mostly they’ve been biting people.”
“Like I said, they’re exactly like beasts!”
Behind the man, someone shouted “It’s like rabies!”
The man who had been speaking to Daisuke continued. “We tried to stop them and then they started attacking us.” The man gestured with his head to direct Daisuke’s attention behind them to the wounded. “These crazy people won’t stop, no matter what! Look, this one broke her wrist when she jumped and she doesn’t even seem to notice.”
Daisuke looked to the bloodied woman pinned by the man’s sign. He was right. Her hand flailed about loosely as she struggled against her restraint. Daisuke felt pity for the woman but he was also afraid he would be sick. He looked away.
“Why doesn’t she –“
“I don’t have any other answers, kid,” the man said. It seemed as though telling his story out loud brought him back to reality. “In any case, they can’t move right now. 110 was called and the riot police unit should be here soon.” He turned to the wounded again. “Did someone dial 119 for an ambulance?”
Several people responded in the affirmative. There was another bang on the stage. The man cursed and turned back to Daisuke.
“People on the street keep running into the stage,” the man said. “At this rate, it will be difficult to keep these people restrained.”
“Let me help!” Daisuke said. Before the man could say anything else, Daisuke ran around to the front of the stage and held his hands out, trying to direct foot traffic. He was unwilling to make the same mistake twice, so this time when he shouted to the crowd, he was far more controlled and respectable.
“Please be careful!” he called out. “Do not fall or hit the stage! Please walk carefully! The police are coming but this area is not safe!”
He had repeated these pleas several times before he realized that there was no reason for so many people to be running along the street panicked.
The incident is behind this stage, he thought. So why…?
Daisuke craned his neck and listened carefully. The ordinary public noise of the crowds on Mukae-bon had given way to shriller voices. Facing perpendicular to the large street he had been walking on, with his back to the front of the stage, he turned to his right and looked further down the street. There he saw people with panicked faces and wide eyes rushing about in random directions. They made a wide berth around a street vendor with a grill who seemed to be fighting with several festivalgoers at once. Suddenly the people with whom he fought shoved him backwards onto his grill and he shouted loudly in pain as smoke curled up around him. Daisuke instinctively stepped back from the sight but realized that the people attacking the street vendor were behaving the same way the man had described the crazed dancers nearby. They looked feral, clawing and tearing at the street vendor, biting him as though they were rabid dogs.
Is it an outbreak…? he thought.
Daisuke refused to accept the gravity of the situation. He turned to his left, looking back down the street in the direction he had come from initially, hoping for better news. He saw more panicked citizens running towards him, alone or in families or in groups. Occasionally someone in the street would trip and fall to the ground and several people behind them would fall on top of them. Far off in the direction Daisuke had come from, shopkeepers ushered people inside their stores and closed the doors behind them and locked them. Somebody locked a shop door with the shopkeeper still outside. He cursed and hit his hand against the door in anger but before anyone could let him in, one of the rabid people leapt on him and bit into his shoulder. Within seconds, it seemed that all the shops on the street had closed – some full of people unwilling to reopen the doors, others empty with strong iron shutters protecting their entrances. Everything was happening quickly. Everything was loud. And everything was bad.
A wave of people crashed into Daisuke and the stage behind him, pushing it several feet out of the street. Daisuke toppled backwards and fell on his back. The wind was knocked out of him. Tourists – some Japanese, some Westerners – fell on top of him, screaming and cursing in different languages. Behind Daisuke, from the direction of the incident with the performers, he heard screams of fear, screams of pain. Someone on top of Daisuke jerked their head in the direction of the screams and shouted “It’s happening here too!” just as an elbow crashed into Daisuke’s thigh.
Quickly and violently, the tourists scrambled to their feet. Daisuke fought to escape from under them. Just as the person lying on him began to get up, Daisuke heard a wordless, feral scream near his head. He knew that sound. One of the crazed dancers had gotten free and was crawling towards him under the stage. He renewed his efforts and wiggled free, casting a quick and furtive glance back under the stage. It was the woman with the broken wrist. She eyed him with a sickening hatred, with some kind of need to harm him. And for the first time, he processed that this really was happening all over the street – maybe all over Gujō.
“Quit staring, kid; run!”
The voice came from behind the broken wrist dancer. It was the man who had been holding her in place. He lay on the ground, clutching his throat. The hand at his throat was covered in blood, which dripped amply to the concrete; his other hand held the woman back by the ankle.
“Are you hurt?!” Daisuke asked. He knew it was a stupid question as soon as he asked it.
“Go!” the man said. “Go now!”
There was such force in his voice, Daisuke could only obey his command. He rose quickly to his feet and the man’s voice echoed in his mind.
Go. Now. Quit staring.
“’Quit staring?’” Daisuke repeated. A dozen thoughts collided in his brain at once.
Quit staring – that punk said that too. Ryu. The small road from earlier. Gotta get off the street; too many people. The small road led west. Where in town am I? How far is home? Too far; what else am I near? What’s to the northwest from here? What’s out of the way of all this?
Even as he made a beeline for the small road, Daisuke spun around looking for Emiko. He couldn’t see her or her friends anywhere. He arrived back at the corner from which he had looked at her and retrieved his cell phone from his pocket. He leaned against a small kiosk that housed street maps and pamphlets for the local tourism board. He dialed the number of his best friend and the call went straight to voicemail.
“Asahi-kun! It’s Daisuke. I’m heading to Shizen-En-Mae; something is happening in downtown Gujō. Forgive me for intruding!”
Daisuke pushed himself off of the travel kiosk and ran along the small pedestrian road to the west. Moonlight was his guide. In the distance, Daisuke saw the T-intersection where the road ended at the Nagara River, where he would have to turn right and travel north to the neighborhood of Shizen-En-Mae. As he neared the intersection and prepared to head north, he saw people frantically crossing the street in front of him.
Then that means…
Without hesitation, Daisuke made a wide right turn at the intersection so he could run north along the Nagara River towards Asahi’s house. He had already been knocked over by pedestrians at the performance stage and he had seen people trampling one another, so he figured he was safest around fewer panicking people. In addition, wherever the attackers were, they seemed to be traveling on foot, so they would be slowed by the river whether they came at Daisuke from across it or chased him into it. He simply had to hope he was a better runner than they were, in their condition.
As he rounded the corner to begin his riverside journey to Asahi’s, he heard a voice from behind the overpass.
“Hey! Mr. Voyeur!”
Daisuke stopped and whirled around to see Ryu hiding behind a concrete embankment.
Not this guy…
“Ryu? What are you doing?” Daisuke hissed.
“Hiding, idiot!” Ryu said. “I went to the convenience store and gave someone money to buy me a lighter. The jerk cost me an extra ¥500. I was just coming back when…”
Daisuke nodded. He was urgent to get on his way.
“Listen, Kinoshita,” Ryu said.
Ryu looked around. “Where are you going? Are you just running away from the city? Or do you have a place to hide? You’d better not lie to me if you do! If you let me die out here, I’ll haunt your ass for sure!”
I don’t want this guy tagging along, Daisuke thought. He could slow me down. But if I just let him fend for himself out here…
“Kinoshita? What’s up, man?”
Voting Time!!! Should Daisuke let Ryu accompany him to Asahi’s house (tell the truth) or play dumb about where he’s going (lie)? Your decision will have major repercussions and a lasting impact on the story!
Edit (7/14): Polls have closed and voting has ended. By a final count of 19 to four, Daisuke will tell Ryu the truth, allowing Ryu to accompany Daisuke to Asahi’s house. Keep reading to see how this decision affects the book – ch. 2 is expected late July.