For a thesis project, I translated a Japanese novel into English this last semester. I chose Risa Wataya’s Keritai Senaka, or “The Back I Want to Kick”, co-winner of the 2003 Akutagawa Prize. What follows is the opening few pages.
Loneliness rings. It’s a shear, echoing bell that reverberates out from constricted chests. It really hits home. I tear up handouts with my fingers to drown it out when it surrounds me. Long and thin. Long and thin. The sound of tearing paper covers up the sound of loneliness. It also allows me to appear truly apathetic. “Is it chloroplast? Brazilian elodea? Haha!” is their current stance. Oh yes, you all seem to be having so much fun looking at your germs (sarcastic laugh), I’ll just try to contain myself a little while longer. But I am already a high school student. Yes, I see you glancing at me, but I’m still tearing up my handouts. Apathetic, that’s my current stance.
I piled a mountain of long and thin paper strips on the black experiment table so it looked like a plate of sōmen noodles. It’s either a heap of ripped up paper, or a conglomeration of all the time I’ve spent alone.
No matter how much time goes by, my turn at the microscope will never come. The same group of girls cheerfully laugh as they take turns peering into it. Each time they laugh and switch, a fine dust whirls up and catches the sunlight from the window, sparkling beautifully. I’m also able to see the microscope clearly with the sun like this. Before, the sun was flickering and bouncing off of the microscope’s reflector, burning my eyes. I wish I could pull the blackout curtain all the way shut and pitch this whole science classroom into complete darkness.
Today’s an experiment day, so politely make a group of 5 people and sit accordingly. The teacher calmly said these few words, and an extraordinary tension ran through the science classroom. “Politely make a group.” I don’t think you understand, no one just “politely” makes a group with the people sitting around them. They already have people in mind. In that instant, they’re making delicate calculations –stick together with your five closest friends. If you don’t have five, use one or two leftover scrubs to round it out. They’re seeking out said friends, eyes swimming until they catch on with their comrades’ own gaze, and compiling the groups. I understand the weaving of these threads, and that eventually, I’ll be one of the few forced to raise our hands. At this point in June, it’s been only 2 months since I started High School. Would someone already be able to draw a correlation diagram of the relationships between every person in class? I definitely could, even though I myself would be way off the page. My last ray of hope, Kinuyo, was also abandoning me. “Who hasn’t found a group yet?” I heard those words and raised my hand, that miserable, pitiful hand. I should have given my answer verbally. I could have been something like a ghost, standing there with my hand above my head, silent, while everyone’s bulging eyes stared straight at me. Another leftover was raising a menial hand in the same hopeless manner. With these salutes, it was evident that the only people in this entire class who had yet to make any friends were me and this boy, Ninagawa.
The 3 girls who were forced to admit me and Ninagawa to their group allocated a pair of luxurious leftover wooden chairs to us. But they weren’t allocated, the chairs just had to be ours. The leftover people get the leftover chairs. It’s only natural, of course. It’s not persecution, but a fact of life. We fit them perfectly, they fit us perfectly, it’s inevitable. The black coating on parts of the legs and back of the chair was peeling off here and there, completely showing portions of wood, and some of the orange cushion had been eaten by insects. After comparing them to the pipe chairs the rest of the class was using, they’d be forgotten as antiques. With just a little movement, the chairs’ legs would creak with a crispy sound just like the moment you bite into a potato chip. So I only quietly turned my head to the side to view the one other leftover person using the same kind of chair I was.
He was killing time reading a magazine on his knee so the teacher couldn’t see it. No, wait, he’s not reading, that’s just a pose. A gloomy expression, vacant eyes not looking anywhere, just staring earnestly at the same page. Every time our classmates laugh cheerfully, or our teacher encourages everyone to work together in their groups to sketch the bacteria, we grow older, bit by bit. So we’re staring at magazines, tearing up handouts, killing our time with this and that, frantically fending off this sudden aging.
However, this boy is strange in some way. I don’t know what the problem is, but sitting and staring at him sent an earth-shatteringly uncomfortable feeling through me, like crunching down on the gritty clam sand that hasn’t dissolved all the way in the miso soup. I just don’t get it, and it’s bugging me. I wonder what could be off about him?
Oh, I’ve got it. The magazine, that’s what’s weird. A female model on the cover, raising an eyebrow and gazing at me, with the headline “Go! With Casual Summer Accessories!”–wait a sec, isn’t that a women’s fashion magazine? He’s reading the kind of magazine a stylish office lady reads for fun! Unashamedly spreading it out right in the middle of class!
Well, that does it. He wins.
In comparison to a boy who’s willing to voluntarily open a women’s fashion magazine while in class, my printout ripping goes beyond safe. I’m just an ordinary human shredding machine, doing nothing but tearing up unneeded printouts. I hope he realizes just how creepy everyone in the class would think he is if they found out.
I held the bottom of my chair with both hands so I could eke over to him like a snail, butt glued to my seat. After taking a peek at the magazine I knew without a doubt that I was right: it was a magazine used by women of the fashionable persuasion. Models draped in camisoles and other summer pieces striking magnificent poses. It doesn’t matter if he realizes I’m right next to him or not, he hasn’t stirred from his same hunched over position. It’s like he’s just an empty shell.
“Interesting? That magazine?”
Ninagawa raised his face, which startled me. His bangs are far too long, like someone poured an entire bottle of soy sauce on his head. Alert, shining pupils were peeking out from behind the pitch black hair. His mouth hung half open below his concealed eyes, and I could see lines of pointy, decayed teeth in it. Ninagawa didn’t say anything and looked down again, this time narrowing his shoulders so he could avoid interacting with me while he once again feasted his eyes all over the magazine. It appears I have been ignored. Even though I migrated my seat all the over here and was being scorned, I couldn’t retreat now. So I just casually looked at the magazine from over his shoulder. As I did, the smiling face on the page brought a memory back to me.
This person, I know her. The model on this page, wearing a slender pair of jeans and stretching comfortably, I met her when I was in Middle School. It’s a pretty rare occurrence to have met a famous model in this town, so after I met her, I bought a magazine published with her picture in it expressly to point at the smiling face and brag to my classmates. In the picture, just like when I met her, her index finger was placed next to her smile.
“That model, I met her at the Mujirushi in front of the station.”
All of a sudden, Ninagawa turned in my direction, his chair letting out a light, pretzel smashing sound.
“Must be someone else.”
“There’s no way. I remember those half-Japanese features well.”
Despite the pronounced look of her tall, sharp nose, she had ordinary Japanese one fold eyelids, making that face uniquely unforgettable.
“In my home city, there’s this huge, old, western style city hall building, right? She said she was coming to the town to take pictures there for some magazine.”
Ninagawa breathed a deep sigh as if he was ejaculating his entire soul. Then he grabs hold of his bangs with one hand in an effort to appear greatly perplexed. Perhaps I’d said something rude?
“Ninagawa, Hasegawa, stop screwing around.” The teacher, making his rounds on the group, had dropped in right next to us.
“There will be a problem on the test asking you to draw a germ, so make sure you adjust the microscope scale so you can see all the details perfectly. There’s also a magnification of a prokaryote on page 23 of the textbook you can look at.”
The teacher left, and Ninagawa promptly stuffed the magazine he had been concealing under the desk into his bag. Then, instead, he took out the textbook, opened to page 23, and started to fiercely draw red lines under sentences. He’s dying the page red, the first sentence, second sentence, third sentence. There are a lot of pivotal passages on page 23, apparently.
Overwhelmed, I muttered “so red,” and the lines began drastically slanting. Ninagawa’s hand is shaking. Round red stains from the intense pressure on the pen nib spread slowly on the textbook. Perhaps my amount of meddling has become too much for him. The stains already look just like blood.
I evacuated the area quickly, walking away still holding my seat, struggling with both the strange actions of Ninagawa and this peculiar sense of camaraderie I was feeling.
I returned to my seat, and the mountain of paper strips on the desk had disappeared, the floor scattered with white instead. A breeze must have blown in from the window and swept the paper scraps away. I immediately crouched and began picking them up, but the strips floated away from me effortlessly on another breeze from the window, scented with the stinking seashore aroma of the science classroom fish tank. Now I’m hopping up and down like a frog to collect runaway paper scraps, and I’ve destroyed my apathetic character, which I already hated anyway. Am I just an absolute failure at everything?
I finally gathered up all the paper and put it on my desk. To prevent another wind blowing incident, I quickly pressed my face to the top of the desk and embraced the paper mountain with my arms, like a mother bird protecting her nest. The paper edges are itchy on my face. I press an ear to the desk which smells of chemicals and close my eyes. The sounds of pencil led painstakingly drawing pictures of elodea cells on paper resound from the desk directly into my eardrum, along with the clicking of microscopes shifting, talking voices, and cheerful laughter. But within me there was only paper strips and silence. Even though we’re using the same table, there’s so some kind of difference between here and the other side of it. However, if it’s still the case that the other side is nothing but the laughter of the people over there, I know I would suffocate.
I woke up to bell indicating the end of school. I open my eyes and can’t see in front of me, white objects hanging over my field of vision. Seems I had fallen asleep in my paper scrap nest, the strips clinging to my forehead. With one blink, the paper touching my eyelashes soundlessly fell off, soaked in forehead grease.
There, right in front of me, was a pair of eyes. Ninagawa, with the same face-on-table expression as I had, was looking at me with hollow pupils.