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from the March 2011 issue

The Last Picture Show

I’d just come up to Tokyo from a Kyushu port town that had a U.S. military base and was living with some friends in a crummy little apartment in a wooden building north of Inokashira Park. These friends had formed a blues band back home and hoped to find success in the big city. I played drums but wasn’t really passionate about carrying on with a blues band from the hinterlands of Kyushu. My main priority had been to get away from my parents, and they’d agreed to send me off to Tokyo with an allowance if I’d attend a preparatory school there. The other guys worked as busboys or waiters while they waited for their big break. I wasn’t working and lived with them mainly because doing so was easier than trying to find a room on my own.

Their plan was to work nights, rehearse during the day, attend big concerts in order to mingle with the right people, and audition for record companies and production agencies whenever possible. On the overnight train from our hometown to Tokyo, they’d pledged that within six months they’d make it to the stage at the Hibiya Park Concert Series as a Japanese-language blues band. Including me, there were five members, from a variety of backgrounds. Nakano, the bass player and leader, had a salaryman father who’d just retired; the guitarist, Yamaguchi, was the son of an importer-exporter and a piano teacher; Shimada, on organ, was the only child of a filling-station owner, and Kato, the vocalist, had been raised by a single mom. Economic circumstances differed too, of course—Nakano and Kato had more or less run away from home without so much as a futon or a bowl and spoon between them, while Shimada’s parents sent a package of food and clothing and a registered envelope full of cash almost every week, and Yamaguchi owned a state-of-the-art stereo system with an open-reel tape deck.

But all four of them got jobs as busboys and waiters: Kato and Shimada at discos in Roppongi, Yamaguchi at a live-music club in Shinjuku, and Nakano at a cabaret in Ginza. Their plan to work nights and rehearse in the daytime proved unfeasible. The places they worked at were all open from about six in the evening to eleven at night, but busboys and waiters had to get there two or three hours early and stay until well after closing time, cleaning up and washing dishes and so on. Nakano, who worked in Ginza, had to leave the apartment at two in the afternoon and would stagger home at about two in the morning, having caught the last train. There were cabarets nearby—right there in Kichijoji, even—but Nakano believed that only in Ginza could you establish connections in the blues music field. God only knows where he’d got an idea like that, which now sounds like a complete joke.

Shimada had the only mike and amp, and everyone but me had brought their instruments from Kyushu. Drums take up a lot of space, and mine had been secondhand in the first place and slowly disintegrating, so I’d promised to get a part-time job and buy a new set with the money I made. I didn’t really want to play in a blues band anymore, though. I had brought my sticks, and joined in the practice sessions by drumming on the tatami mats, but the whole thing was beginning to feel more and more hopeless. Waiters and busboys got about one day off every two weeks, and it was a different day at each place. My roomies would get back in the wee hours and eat the instant ramen I prepared for them, and then, exhausted from the unaccustomed labor, they’d crawl into their futons and fall asleep without exchanging more than a few words. The only time we could all get together to practice was the short stretch from late morning to early afternoon, but even then we could rarely coax our single amp into accommodating the guitars and organ and vocals all at once. The one time we did get a fairly big noise going, on the Spencer Davis Group’s "Gimme Some Lovin’," the guy living upstairs burst into our apartment and screamed at us. He was a young yakuza with oddly sharp, bladelike features. Nakano and Shimada were hard-core hoodlums, infamous even among students at other high schools back home, but they had no answer for a genuine Tokyo yakuza bellowing in their faces.

When a month had passed and there’d been no progress with the blues band, a cloud of powerless frustration began to form. Soon it became focused on me: Yazaki, when the hell you gonna get a job and buy some drums? I’d tell them I was trying to decide whether to continue with the band or go to college. The band was the reason everyone was pooling their money to rent the apartment, so I knew if I quit I’d have to leave. A relative of Shimada’s had found the place, but it wasn’t cheap, in spite of being only two small rooms and a smaller kitchen, with a non-flushing toilet and no bath, and nearly a twenty-minute walk from Kichijoji Station, but it was cheaper than living alone. I was in no position to hit my parents up for moving expenses again, and having just emerged from eighteen years in the sticks I had no idea how to go about finding a room of my own anyway.

I wasn’t attending school and I wasn’t looking for a job. Most days I’d wander through the used-book stores in Kanda, picking up old novels or poetry collections, then hang out for hours in jazz or rock-’n’-roll coffee houses.

By the time two months had passed, a storm was brewing, and one night Nakano and I nearly got into a fistfight when he said he’d found an opening for a waiter and I refused to apply for it. Yamaguchi stepped in and said, “Nakano’s right, Yazaki hasn’t kept his word, but there’s no sense in fighting, we didn’t come up to Tokyo just to fight,” and actual blows were averted, but there was no place in that room for me just then. Everyone’s eyes showed me the door.

It was about two in the morning. The rock café I frequented was closed, and since my allowance hadn’t arrived I was all but broke. It was June, the air was warm and moist, and Inokashira Park was blurry with a gray sort of mist. Emotionally I felt like shit, and the wet, heavy air stuck to my skin in a nasty way. Having nowhere else to go I walked down a deserted footpath through the trees to the pond. Couples were making out on secluded benches beneath the trees, and as I stumbled along I could hear the flapping of wings and the strangled cries of water birds down below. Their nasal screeches reminded me of Van Morrison wailing the blues, and I started wondering why I and the others had ever aspired to play music like that in the first place.

Performing in a bar full of American GIs and sailors, many of them black, in a port town on the western edge of Kyushu, it was easy to think of the blues as somehow being the shining pinnacle of all music. John Lennon and Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan had all sprung out of the blues, the blues spoke to people all over the world, the true roots of rock and soul were in the blues, and when we got to Tokyo, we believed, all this would be made even clearer. But in fact we hadn’t heard live blues even once since coming to the city. At rock cafés they’d play a blues record only rarely, and on the street or the plaza in front of the west entrance to Shinjuku Station people performed nothing but nauseating, treacly anti-war folk songs. The blues was nowhere to be found in Tokyo. Listening to records from Shimada’s and Yamaguchi’s amazing collections at low volume in our shit apartment just wasn’t the same as listening to them back in our old navy-base port town. That’s how I felt, and I suspect the other four felt more or less the same. At discos and live-music clubs and cabarets you could hear only Filipino cover bands or pop vocal groups or cheesy enka singers. Kato at one point proposed we go back home, but Nakano’s argument—that you can’t tell anything after only two months—won out, the consensus seeming to be that to go home before we’d accomplished anything at all would be too pathetic.

I reached the pond, and as I walked along the path around it, I figured things were probably just going to get worse. I had to move out or buy drums, but either way it was going to take money, and I’d just decided to look for a job the next day when by the glow of a streetlamp my eyes met those of the yakuza who lived in the apartment upstairs. He was standing off the path, next to some big round bushes, and as I tried to pass by with my head lowered he stopped me, saying, Hey you, wait up. A large blue plastic trash bag was on the ground beside him, and he was wearing work gloves, a baggy black shirt, and gaudy checked trousers that clung to his skinny hips.

“C’mere a minute.”

I was preparing to be punched out as I sidled slowly over to him, quickly deciding that if it got vicious I’d probably be better off putting up some resistance.

“It’s me,” he said. “I live upstairs from you, you know me, right?” I nodded. “What’s your name?”

The yakuza’s face was dripping with sweat. He looked to be in his late twenties, and had a face that would have gone well with a switchblade—narrow eyebrows, slanted eyes, hollow cheeks, thin nose, small mouth. I told him my name.

“Oh yeah? I’m Tatsumi, you wanna gimme a hand here? We can work something out.” He pointed at the shrubs. Hydrangeas. “I’ll give you three hundred yen. No, five hundred.”

For doing what, I asked, and Tatsumi the yakuza said, For picking leaves.

“The new leaves are best, pick ’em and put ’em in this plastic bag.”

I did as he told me. But I wondered what he was going to use hydrangea leaves for.

“I dry ’em and sell ’em,” he said proudly. “Dry ’em, crush ’em, roll ’em and sell ’em—they smell and taste exactly like marijuana. You know what that is, right, a delinquent like you?”

It felt funny being called a delinquent by a yakuza. I had tried marijuana a number of times back in our port town. GIs would smoke it like regular cigarettes at bars that catered to foreigners, so I had no real sense of it being something bad. Nakano and the others were always complaining that there was no weed in Tokyo. Naturally you could get any drug you wanted if you knew where to look, but the amount available in proportion to the population was nowhere near what it had been back home.

“I thought this up myself. The great thing about this idea is that it’s got nothing to do with the Hemp Law, and nobody knows it’s hydrangea leaves, but even if they did, it’s not like they could go to the cops and complain, right?”

Picking hydrangea leaves in Inokashira Park in the middle of the night somehow seemed a worse crime than smoking real pot in my hometown. It was harder labor than I expected, too. All I had to do was choose tender new leaves, pluck them off, and stick them in the bag, but it called for a lot of crouching and twisting that was rough on the lower back, and the night was so warm and humid that soon I was covered with sweat. We’d nearly filled the first bag when we heard a bicycle approaching. Tatsumi leaped to hide behind the bushes, so I did the same. It turned out to be not a policeman but a boy delivering milk. As we got back to work, I pointed out that it wasn’t as if we were doing anything illegal. Looking like a man tormented by some unspeakable memory, Tatsumi furrowed his brow and muttered:

“Cops never give you the benefit of the doubt.”

By the time we’d filled two plastic bags with hydrangea leaves, the eastern sky had begun to brighten. On the way back to the apartment building, Tatsumi and I exchanged life stories. I told him I was in my second month in Tokyo, fresh out of Kyushu, that my friends were trying to make it as a blues band, and that I was thinking about looking for a job. Tatsumi, to my amazement, was only three years my senior. He told me he’d begun associating with his syndicate, which had its offices in Shinjuku, while still in middle school; that nowadays even a yakuza needs a good education; that he was living with a bar hostess who was about the same age as his mother; and that he called this woman Nee-chan—a term of endearment meaning “older sister.”

“Can’t be easy to go back to your place when your pals have all slagged on you. Nee-chan’s not around today—you wanna crash here?”

Tatsumi’s apartment had the same layout as ours, but the smaller of the two rooms was nearly filled by a huge double bed and reeked of cosmetics and perfume.

It was sometime after noon when I got up and started helping make the hydrangea joints.

Tatsumi didn’t sun-dry the leaves. “You think I can just lay ’em out on the roof?” he said and laughed. He had a strange smile, of a sort I’d never seen before. It wasn’t an embarrassed or awkward smile, and it wasn’t a cruel smile, either. It was as if the muscles in his face weren’t used to this and were trying to figure out exactly what to do. He roasted the leaves in a frying pan over a high gas flame. “You gotta get all the moisture out,” he told me, “but you don’t wanna scorch ’em. Takes a lotta experience.” Before taking the leaves off the fire, he added two or three drops of the breath-freshener Pio. “That’s the secret ingredient, the Mint to Kiss With, gives it the taste of your best imported shit,” he said with a proud snicker. I was in charge of crumbling up the dried leaves and rolling the joints. Tatsumi was impressed with my work.

“You really do know your shit,” he said.

That night I went with him to sell the product. He chose a back street in Shinjuku, between the concert hall and the park. He approached drunks, for the most part. The drunks generally just waved him off, but one couple, seeing Tatsumi stride toward them in his baggy shirt, turned and ran for their lives. We had about a thousand joints stashed in a duffle bag. They were in cellophane-wrapped bundles of ten, but we were willing to sell them individually as well, at a thousand yen each.

“Is it always so hard to sell them?” I asked.

“To tell the truth,” Tatsumi said, “I’ve never actually tried making a whole shitload like this before. I made five or six joints a couple of times and sold ’em to assholes with long hair, like you . . . So where do assholes like you hang out?”

A rock café I often went to was nearby, but I wasn’t sure I should tell Tatsumi about it. People there would gladly pay a thousand yen per doobie, but they were connoisseurs of dope, and once they found out it was fake I’d never be able to show my face there again. And since no one would buy this stuff more than once, the only sensible thing to do was go for a big sale. I was to receive twenty percent of whatever we took in, but I wasn’t happy with that and asked Tatsumi to make it forty. I told him that for forty percent I’d take him to a place that was full of hippies and introduce him around. We finally agreed to thirty-five. Now we’d need two or three real joints.

“What for?” Tatsumi asked, and I told him I wanted to sell at least four hundred sticks.

“If we sell small amounts to people and they don’t get high, they’ll tell everyone, and there goes the market. We want to sell to dealers, so we’ll need samples to suck them in with.”

Clever boy, Tatsumi said, and patted my cheek. We went to a small, sleazy disco where GIs from the base in Yokota and sailors from Greece and Turkey hung out, bought three genuine joints, then went back to my rock café to wait for the dealers to arrive. Inside, a Pink Floyd record pounded our eardrums.

“I can’t take this!” Tatsumi shouted in my ear. “Fuck this place!”

Nine o’clock in the evening was too early for the dealers to appear anyway, so we decided to kill time at a movie. The Last Picture Show was playing at an all-night theater down the street. Tatsumi balked at first, saying he didn’t like movies with foreigners in ’em, but halfway through the film he was stifling sobs.

“Never saw a movie like that before,” he said at the diner where we stopped to drink beer before returning to the rock café. “You always watch movies like that?”

Not really.

“So what did ya think of it?”

It made me realize that there are lonely people even in America.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The GIs in my hometown all act so cocky, I told him—great big guys, always smiling, always looking like they’re having fun, so I used to think all Americans were rich and happy.

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Tatsumi said. He sat with his head bowed. “But I guess there are guys who fall for way older women in America too.”

He said nothing else for a while but sat brooding over his beer.

Tatsumi was no drinker, and after three beers his legs were wobbly. We went back to the rock café, where the Doors were now rattling the walls, and I introduced him to a group of three dealers out of Yokosuka, telling them he was a yakuza from Okinawa who’d just arrived that day. Between them they bought nearly three hundred joints.

“Nee-chan, this is Yazaki, don’t mind the long hair, this kid’s got some brains on him.”

We’d gone back home by taxi. The lights were out in my apartment, and in Tatsumi’s the woman he called Nee-chan was back. She was sitting there in a slip, eating instant ramen. Easily old enough to be Tatsumi’s mother, or mine, she wasn’t wearing a bra and hadn’t shaved her armpits recently. She said nothing, not even to acknowledge me, but as I watched this makeup-caked woman calmly slurping her noodles with a lit cigarette in her free hand, I felt as if I understood why Tatsumi had wept at The Last Picture Show. Timothy Bottoms, living in a small town in the Midwest or wherever, chooses a lonely married woman about twice his age as his partner for sex. In the final scene he decides to leave town and starts to drive off in his pickup truck but then makes a U-turn and goes back to the woman’s place. That weary older woman was a symbol of America—an America that had lost something it once had.

“Nee-chan, look how much we made, me and him.”

Tatsumi took a roll of ten-thousand-yen bills from the pocket of his gaudy trousers and set it down in front of the woman, who’d now finished her ramen. She began counting them, wearing the same non-expression she’d worn while inhaling her noodles.

“Where have you been?” Nakano said when I walked into our apartment. “We were all worried about you.”

He was the only one still up. He was sitting in the kitchen in undershorts and a shirt, drinking Suntory’s cheapest whiskey.

“We all talked things over today,” he said. “Kato’s mother got sick again and he wants to go back home. Let’s face it, we can’t be a real band anyway, living like this. Shimada says he’s going to work as, like, a roadie for some group he knows, and Yamaguchi said he wants to go to a jazz guitar school, and me, I haven’t decided what to do yet, but I’m tired of this. Maybe it’s pathetic to give up after two months, but it is what it is, man, we could do this for a year and not get anywhere. So, anyway, three weeks from now, on Sunday, we’re going to play at a little concert in the park. How about it Yazaki? Shimada says he can borrow some drums. You’ll join in, won’t you? It might be the last time we’ll ever play together. There’s this little outdoor stage in a corner of Inokashira Park, and they put on concerts, folk music mostly, every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, and I happened to meet the guy who produces it and asked him if we could play and he said ‘Sure.’  Just like that.”

“I don’t want to,” I said. “I got hold of some money, so tomorrow I’m going to look for my own room. But I’ll definitely come watch you play.”

I found an apartment easily enough, not too far away, and I was able to move my few belongings in a taxi. It was a tiny room, just four and a half mats, but I had enough money left over to buy a stereo. My lifestyle didn’t change much: I still bought old novels and poetry collections at used-book stores and read them for hours on end in rock cafés and jazz cafés. When I ran out of money, I’d look for a hydrangea bush, make some dummy joints, and sell them in Akasaka or Roppongi. I avoided Shinjuku, but one night I bumped into the dealers from Yokosuka at an Akasaka disco. Apparently they hadn’t even realized the weed I’d sold them wasn’t real, though. It wasn’t very good stuff, is all they said.

When the big Sunday arrived, the little outdoor stage in Inokashira Park was infested with folksingers and trios of folksingers who did one deadly boring song after another. About thirty people sat around listening, and the applause ranged from restrained to non-existent. When Nakano and the others began to play, an elderly couple who’d been feeding bread to the pigeons got up and left, complaining demonstratively about the noise. And after doing only two John Mayall songs, the drumless blues quartet wound up its career. All four of them seemed to have enjoyed themselves, though, and when their abbreviated set was over they sat on the side of the stage drinking colas and laughing as the folkies sang. Nakano spotted me and waved at me to join them, but I just waved back, nodded, and left. I wanted to take a walk around the pond and was soon sitting on the bench near the hydrangea bushes Tatsumi and I had picked leaves from. The rainy season was over, and the blossoms were withering away. Looking at those fading flowers, remembering the muggy night we’d crouched there picking the leaves, I suddenly felt something like hatred for The Last Picture Show. I’d never forgive that film for making a man like Tatsumi cry.

I decided I wanted to see him and went to the old apartment building.

“Nee-chan’s here, but come on in.”

The woman was getting ready to go to work. She was wearing a red lamé dress. She’d finished plastering on all her makeup and was now painting her toenails. The air was so thick with the smell of nail polish that it was hard to breathe. Tatsumi was toasting hydrangea leaves in the frying pan. The woman glanced at me but offered no greeting. I sat there silently watching her apply the red polish.

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