From the Series: Decameron Relived
On the evening of the fire, Koichi went to attend a community meeting a few blocks away from the old tobacco shop. “It was consumed in minutes,” the neighbors confirmed to journalists the next morning. “The old house had been standing empty for a long time, so no one was hurt—thank goodness.” The tobacco shop had been in one of the akiya, or old empty houses, that were scattered throughout the neighborhood. The piles of old magazines and cardboard on the floor had apparently caught fire, and it was not long before the wooden beams went up in flames.
From the cool space of his brightly lit kitchen, Koichi had not felt too keen to venture out into the August heat. He stubbed out a cigarette and checked the address he had pinned to the fridge door. The meeting was in a temple nearby, so no need to cycle, he thought. It was one of those “community building” meetings organized by volunteers, but also featured a free film screening. He had not noted down the title of the film, but knew it was something about living alone. Maybe something like Lone Old Man? Koichi half-smiled to himself as he recalled what he had thought when he saw the poster: well, isn’t this just right?
The late afternoon was hot and humid and the insides of Koichi’s slip-on leather sandals felt sticky. It’s going to rain, he thought to himself, as he walked up a large avenue, looking at the sky turning dark purple and grey. He passed an old man cleaning litter in front of a shop. He was patiently using long tweezers to pick up the cigarette butts stuck in the metal storm drain grid. A recorded high-pitched voice beckoned to passers-by to enter, but Koichi paid no attention to the loud music and garish signs, and sped up in order to catch the lights at the crossing, before slipping into the smaller streets.
Koichi looked around, trying to find the concealed entrance. In the dim light, the walls around the houses seemed dull. A large grey cat perched on top of one of the walls, under the branch of an azalea bush. Something about its eyes made Koichi feel uneasy, but he didn’t have the time to dwell on this, because one of the organizers of the event spotted him and greeted him courteously, pointing toward the entrance across the pebbled parking behind some neatly trimmed trees. Other people were arriving, too, and an older lady stopped to exchange greetings and news with a younger couple.
Koichi crossed the parking lot and stopped at the entrance to remove his sandals, stepping onto the raised wooden platform. The hall, set behind two sets of sliding doors, was quiet, and very cool. He spotted Mr. Uchida and nodded in his direction. Several groups of people were already there waiting for the meeting and film screening to begin. By and by a young woman, one of the organizers, greeted everyone and invited the head priest of the temple to say a few words of welcome. It was a little unusual to hold a film screening in a temple, but the space was comfortable. The main hall, with all the sacred objects and sculptures was adjacent, and the space they were in was wide and empty, just a few rows of chairs on tatami mats. The low hum of the air conditioner seemed oddly appropriate in the hushed space of the hall.
The film was indeed about a lone old man, and not much happened, minutes passed as the main character went about with his daily tasks. And yet, somehow, it was not dull, and by the end Koichi felt like he got to know the old man fairly well. The organizers now offered everyone cold barley tea and water. They found some apple juice and snacks for a little boy in the back row who had accompanied his father. When everyone settled back with their drinks, a quiet young woman in a caramel colored dress opened the discussion. She asked everyone to form groups of five with those sitting nearby, and to start with a round of introductions, before proceeding to talk about the film and about living alone in the neighborhood. She invited everyone to think, “What is the difference between alone and lonely?”
Koichi got up, and moved his chair closer to two women, one middle-aged with short brown hair and the other silver-haired, maybe her mother. A young man in glasses approached slowly, bowing politely, and moved his chair closer. The shuffling around them was beginning to die down just as the fifth member of their group joined, an older man with a broad face and sun-tinted skin. His smile was familiar, and as they all introduced themselves in turn, Koichi realized it was Shunsuke. They laughed as they realized they had hardly seen each other since school, apart from an occasional brief encounter in the street many years ago. They had first met in kindergarten, which in fact was right next door to the temple they were sitting in now, still running.
“Hey sister!” exclaimed Shunsuke, addressing the young woman in the caramel-colored dress who was now circling the hall, checking how everyone was getting on. “Ozawa san here and I went to the kindergarten right here, more than sixty-five years ago! We were in the same gumi. And now in the same group again, after this many years!” Koichi laughed. The conversation moved on to the others in the group. The hall was now filled with cheerful conversations, only occasionally interrupted by the young woman to ask groups to report briefly to others on the main gist of their conversations. Armed with more questions and suggestions, the groups resumed their discussions.
As the conversations were slowly winding down, and people began getting ready to leave, Shunsuke leaned in toward Koichi. “We used to play in that park next to the shrine when we were in school, remember?” he asked, his eyes narrowing as he smiled broadly.
“Always climbing those trees, that was fun,” replied Koichi.
“Remember that day Kaku brought a box and we caught a cicada? He gave it to the cat to play,” Shunsuke reminisced.
“Whatever happened with Kaku? Have you seen him lately?” In fact, no one had seen Kaku lately. Since they had graduated from middle school, their paths had never crossed.
“I heard he worked in his parents’ shop,” said Shunsuke. “Didn’t they own that tobacco shop?”
“That one? But that’s been closed for a year or two now. I walk past it every day,” Koichi said quietly. The young woman moved again to the front of the room and thanked everyone for their participation.
Shunsuke and Koichi made their way toward the exit together. They thanked the organizers and slipped into their sandals. The air outside was still hot and humid, despite the late hour. It was more difficult to cross the dimly lit parking lot at night, but they made their way slowly, in silence. Koichi thought it was good to attend these kinds of events to run into people he knew in the neighborhood. He was pleased to see Shunsuke again. When he was younger he ran into Shunsuke occasionally, as their fathers worked as office workers in the same company. As they grew up their paths diverged, even though they both lived in the same neighborhood. But he had forgotten about their friend Kaku altogether.
It’s odd that I lost contact with Kaku like that, Koichi thought to himself. It’s as if he just disappeared suddenly. We just didn’t have that much in common, I guess. Koichi let the thought trail away in his mind.
“Do you still live in the old house?” asked Shunsuke. He was always the most talkative one of the three. “In that street which used to have the stall with shaved ice? Now it’s all new, hairdresser salons and a convenience store on the corner, right?”
“I live a bit further down the road now, in a flat. No need to keep all that space for an old man living alone.” A moment later, Koichi added, “Did you ever see Kaku after that day with the cicada?”
Shunsuke was silent for a moment, and furrowed his broad forehead. “No,” he finally replied, “actually, I think that was the last time.”
It had been a hot day in August, humid and unpleasant, much like the day of the film screening. The three boys had wandered the neighborhood after classes were over. Their feet felt sticky so they took their shoes off and ran down a dusty path toward the shrine. The pine needles felt soft underfoot. The sound of cicadas got louder as they entered the park and hid under the trees. Kaku then pulled a small box out of his backpack. Shunsuke picked up a long, fat cicada and put it in the box, and Koichi replaced the lid. They sat on the low wall behind the shrine, chatting until the sun set, then headed home. As they approached the corner, Kaku saw a cat. It was large and had big dark eyes shining against the dull grey of its fur. Kaku remembered the box in his bag, and snuck closer to the cat, opening the lid all of a sudden. He must have thought it would be fun to see it play with the bug. The cat pounced onto the cicada, but Kaku was startled. He kicked the cat hard and snatched up the box. The cat stopped moving. Hearing approaching footsteps, the three boys ran away. Koichi was feeling sick and ran all the way home. The next day, Kaku did not come to school, nor the day after that. Koichi later heard that he moved to the country, to live with his aunt and help out on her farm.
The two old men chatted a few minutes more, but then reached a crossroads. “It was good to see you again,” Shunsuke said in the end, and they parted, promising each other they would not let so much time pass again, but without exchanging details. Koichi did not cross the road, but continued down for a few dozen meters. The road was brightly lit and loud, with three lanes of traffic in each direction. A large video rental shop was still open, and for a moment Koichi considered stepping in, but then decided one film in an evening was probably enough. A cold beer would be nice, though. Maybe he could pick one up in the convenience store on the corner. He lit a cigarette and turned left. The street was quieter here, although some of the small bars and food stalls were still open, and smoke and voices spilled out onto the street. Koichi walked past some boarded up shops, and just as he was about to turn into his own street he saw a large, grey cat, perched on a low wall. It looked straight at him for a moment, then turned away and jumped off the wall, disappearing into the shadows. Koichi thought he glimpsed two tails, but his thoughts were already on his cold beer. He flicked his cigarette butt away and turned a corner.
That night the fire raged. Small flames licked the door and the floorboards, reached a pile of old books and magazines with a quiet crackle. The polyester curtain that separated the front of the old shop from the now empty back rooms of the owner seemed to have been made of ribbons of light. Forked tongues reached the beams. The empty house had come alive, warm and aglow. Did the neighbors sense the heat or the smell first? There was a commotion in the street. Koichi could hear the fire engine siren in his apartment on the ninth floor. No one was sure if it was the carelessness of a passer-by, or a gas or electrical fault.
The heavy smell of the smoke and burned wood still lingered in the morning, as Koichi ate his breakfast alone.
Many Japanese yokai, or ghost stories, feature demonic cats. Nekomata are often larger-than-usual cats with forked or double tails. Their appearance may be associated with the mistreatment of animals. Sometimes they come to animate the spirits of the deceased. Often large, they can cause objects to fly, or even throw fireballs (Yoda and Alt 2013).
This story was inspired by a news report I recall reading in a Japanese newspaper, as well as a day in the life of an old man I once met in Osaka. In a less direct way, it is an anthropological version of The Noirmoutier Triptych, a video installation by Agnes Varga (2005), in which the viewers of the central short film are able to peek into what goes on off-screen, by opening additional side panels, which thus invite them to consider what is going on “outside the frame” as it were. This story allowed me to peek a little beyond the frame of what was told to me and what I observed, as I allowed myself to imagine what else might have occurred.
Yoda, Hiroko, and Matt Alt. 2013. Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide. New York: Tuttle Publishing.