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the Song of Mars

Whenever the song comes within earshot how shall I describe this emotion? It is the wildly popular song “Mars,” overflowing the frenzied streets to beat against windowpanes, and rush in to my ears as I sit in the room alone at twilight.

Gods are asleep beneath the heavens
And all of wisdom holds its tongue.
Arise, Mars, and boldly–

The storm of voices stinking of smoke turns to blackest soot, blowing against house corners, blasting trees throughout the city, asphyxiating chickens and dogs, the wounds of the age splitting wide open but if I keep on writing like this, will I ever arrive at the beginning of my novel? Actually I have been trying to write a novel these past few days, surreptitiously squirming about on my broken chair, and yet all my pen has managed to produce have been lines of bungling words of this kind, mere dregs of a pitiful, childish outburst. Amidst the oppressive season fraudulently substituted by the bellowing of “Mars,” is such a wretched dodge all I can muster? Derided by the chorusing voices outside the window, I flush with anger and tearing sheets of writing paper one by one with irritated fingertips, cast them into the air; then, my feelings as disordered as before, I trample them underfoot along with the scattered shreds. Why, to begin with, have I become so earnest about worldly events? Is it not imperative that a pen writing a novel be severed from every worldly emotion and concomitant turmoil? I spring up, face the song resounding through the distant streets, and shout, NO! Then, grinding my teeth to clamp down on the resurgent swell of emotion, I once more snatch up a pen, expel everything from my mind, and turn, with maniacal resolve, to the novel.

Last night I wrote this far–truly ashamed to have written so pathetically little, and unable to endure staying on in a room where I could not compose a single literary sentence, I impulsively went out for a walk about town, drank a little saké, and stepped into a movie theater I find ideal for napping. Dissolving into a darkness complete but for a light beamed at the screen, I settled into a gap unconsciously relinquished by people clustered in mutual indifference, and had just dozed off puppetlike, when the sudden sound of an explosion startled me awake. I blinked up at the screen where a gigantic warship was thrusting its long gun barrels over the sunlit water: the guns seeming just to have fired, their smug muzzles coolly trailed soft wisps of whitest smoke which slenderly rose and dissipated. For an instant, the smoke impressed me as very tranquil, like puffs from the pipe of an old man basking in the sunshine, but I realized with a start it was precisely in such feigned innocence the bombardment’s ghastliness resided. The scene changed to a village by the waterside lined with willows and semidemolished farmhouses in front of which a troop of smiling young men stood around an older man seated on a chair, his ample beard swaying with laughter as he thrust both arms before him to press his sinewy hands over the small heads of two children whose nationality decidedly differed from that of the men. It certainly seemed a peaceable sight. And yet, the faces of the two children, surrounded by the native landscape and the aliens’ laughter, remained absolutely expressionless. In trapped silence, they were shrieking a categorical NO! Ah, faced with their NO! how feeble mine sounds. Unable to write even a line of the novel which now if ever ought to be written, camouflaging my impotence with saké and slovenly dozing covered with shame, breaking into sweat, I furtively peeled away from the seat, tucked in my tail (if I had one), and extricated myself from the thicket of human legs

In the twilit room of the apartment house back of Ginza I am once more holding the pen while the ever louder street chorus of “Mars” pounds against my ears. No longer in a frenzy, I am striving to move the resisting penpoint to pinpoint my sanity. Suddenly the doorknob behind me rattles. As I turn, the door bangs open, a young woman storms in to fling herself onto a wallside bed, and convulsed with irrepressible screams, bursts into a fountain of tears

Instantly, though the world of the novel is yet unborn, the room’s atmosphere is transformed. Let me divert the pen awhile, and start from the facts.

 

2

Gazing at the yellow suit trembling lightly over the shoulders of the young woman who has burst into tears, I helplessly inquire, “What happened, Obi?”

My cousins Fuyuko and Obiko lost both parents in quick succession some years ago, after which Fuyuko, the elder, married a photographer named Aioi Sanji employed by a certain newspaper and settled down with him in Kamata, while the younger Obiko, presently a student at a certain girls’ school, receiving an allowance from her elder brother who heads the main family and operates a fishery in a certain town of Kanagawa Prefecture, is renting a single room in the same apartment house as I; but despite the brother’s intention to thus place her under my supervision, Obiko happily exploits my most unsuitably laissez-faire temper, and appearing to delight in the headiness of the location, goes out in the morning not to return till late at night, or packs her room with uproarious friends sparing no thought for the neighbors–yet that same Obiko who ordinarily gambols beyond the reach of my solicitude is suddenly lying across my bed in a deluge of tears. The name Obiko, given her by her late father who was fond of composing songs, was originally read as Tarashiko, until as some point the girl took to pronouncing it Obiko or Obi and signing herself Obi, not using Roman letters but an ideogram evidently taken from the name of a river, the source of her pet name: “What happened, Obi, why are you crying?”

I rise, switch on the light in the darkening room, and to distract the still prostrate Obiko, suggest, “Shall I give you some eau de Cologne?” But Obiko, summarily spurning my jocular tone, tosses her head and murmurs, “Without any reason, with no reason to die at all, is it possible for people just suddenly to die?” The heat of the words constricts her throat with tears, and she whispers, “My sister died.” “Who, Fuyuko?” “My sister” “Died how? Why didn’t you say so right away?” “I was trying to believe she must be alive, she must be alive. But it’s no use. She can’t be. She’s dead.” Watching Obiko stare off into space, tears already evaporating from her pale wilted cheeks, I crush between my fingers a cigarette I have picked up: “What is this about? Say it clearly.” “I’m frightened.” “Of what?” “Saying it clearly; no, being unable to say it clearly but it must be true.” Biting her lip, she endeavors to tear the mist inside her head with words: “It’s a big mistake to think people do not die without a reason. People who die couldn’t care less about a reason. It’s only the living who can’t feel safe without making up some kind of reason. The reality of sister’s death terrified me, because if it is real, what’ll I do?” “When did it happen?” “Just now I went to Kamata, but the door was tightly closed though it was almost time for preparing supper, so I went round to the back and that door too was locked from the inside. Thinking they’d both gone somewhere, I was standing about absentmindedly till I heard clattering footsteps behind me: Young miss!–Sister’s maid was looking ready to cry in the late sunlight–Young miss, where has madam gone? It seems the girl returned from an errand to find the door shut, inquired in two or three likely places but learning nothing, started pacing about holding a package of beef, waiting for sister or husband to appear. Did sister seem all right, I asked. Yes, not about to go out, but feeling fine lately, in fact talking about taking a trip with master this Saturday Well, then she must have just stepped out awhile, yet I wonder I drew near the glass door of the kitchen again, pushed my nose against a narrow crack to peek in, and inhaled a foul smell–”

Jerking away, Obiko spun on her heel and, sure it was gas, pressed her back against the door to stop the smell from escaping. “Really, there’s nothing to worry about, so I’ll go back. I’m in a hurry and had no special reason for coming. Give her my best when she returns. I’ll visit again before long.” Tossing off such oddly cheerful words, Obiko left the bewildered girl and ran desperately for about a block, but why flee like this? If she had sensed her sister fatally immobilized within a cloud of gas, how could she, a relative, run away? Did the abrupt collision with death’s shadow so dreadfully stun her? No, not that, she simply could not conceive what could possibly impel Fuyuko to die. Happily married to Aioi Sanji, a gentle man blessed with inherited property; both husband and wife utterly unlikely to indulge in secret love affairs: even supposing the monotony of an overly tranquil life had sapped her vitality, Fuyuko was not so impudent as to die just to advertise the fact; besides her childlessness and respiratory weakness should already have added sufficient spice to a peaceful marriage–it was unthinkable Fuyuko would be extravagant enough to die aiming for more; and no matter how happy she was, no one except characters in a romance died from an excess of happiness. And yet, there had been the smell of gas But was it really gas? What smell had tricked her into this agonizing? All at once, vividly recalling the spring onion skins seen scattered in front of the glass door a moment ago, Obiko clutched at the color of green stalks inundating her eyes–Why, it was the smell of onions!–yet even as she was trying to reassure herself, the unmistakable smell of gas still adhering to her nostrils dealt a deathblow to her dodging the very instant a night-black something thundered by before her eyes causing her to gasp: she was at the Kamata crossing and a freight train was rushing through the station

Obiko unsteadily boarded a trolley, got off at Y_rakuch_ and sat on a platform bench hesitating briefly whether she ought to turn back, but oppressed by the weight of her paralyzed spirit, arrived in a daze at the apartment house. Listening to her story, I swallow the bitterness coating my parched mouth: “Sure.” “What?” “I’m sure she’s dead. The reason no, it doesn’t matter. Your words are telling me the same thing the smell of gas told you. It isn’t a hunch; I feel it is because it’s so. She must be dead.”

We find ourselves sitting at opposite ends of the bed. An insect is crawling along the wall. Obiko’s deep, hollow voice seems to be trailing the insect. “Why must sister die?–with all my might I’ve only been thinking of reasons she shouldn’t die. Not once did I put myself in her place to think of some shock or misstep that might have forced her into it.” “And yet, when you smelled the gas, what kept you from smashing through the glass door and trying to save her?” Suddenly falling prostrate across my lap, Obiko digs her nails into my thigh and, her body heaving, breaks into sobs. “Oh, wicked, cursed Obiko! Had I done it soon, there would surely have been time, she would surely have been saved. It was my duty to save my sister by any means. I, I”–Obiko chokes on her sobs–“I don’t know why, I don’t know why I ran away.”

Obiko pulls away from me, buries her brow in her hands, and remains slumped forward. The insect on the wall is no longer visible. Punctured by streetlights, night is closing in against the window while I shiver inside the unheated room. Obiko abruptly turns her head away, runs her fingers forcefully through her hair, and crisply declares: “Obiko will no longer think about it. Actually, Obiko used up all of this month’s money, and was going to Fuyuko to borrow some. Going to a dead person to borrow money–how shabby and wretched When I think that such wretchedness may be the reason I ran away from the glass door, that I abandoned Fuyuko only because of it, it horrifies me so much my legs shake. But I’m all right now. Obiko will have nothing to do with a person who chooses to die. At a time like this, when so many people who do not want to die are daily dying far away, to die of one’s own free will I’m by no means blaming Fuyuko. I don’t know why she died, whether it’s good or bad she died. I won’t think about it. She’s dead, and nothing else matters. That’s it–for Obi, the subject is closed.” So saying, Obiko extracts a compact from her handbag, pats her face, and briskly shades her eyebrows with a Max Factor pencil

A sound of trucks grows audible in the street below, hailed with a surge of cheers and the rustling of countless little flags cleaving the night breeze.

Arise, Mars, and boldly–

Ah, it started again Springing away from me sprawling on the bed, Obiko rushes up to the window, flings up the sash, takes a deep breath facing the street, and raising high her right arm merges her voice with the seething cheers.

Hurrah!

I clap my hands over my ears. Why? Is the grief hidden in Obiko’s shout too piercing? Am I recoiling from the heroic exclamations out of mourning for Fuyuko? Or is simple concern for my sanity urging me to shut out the insufferable song?

3

“You will think it a strange story. A very strange story. But I had grown so used to it, I did not think it strange. No, that isn’t it. I say it is strange now, but at the time I thought nothing much of it. Anyway, call it mischief or joking, Fuyuko was indeed fond of it. In the end it led to something which can never be undone. I was grossly negligent it’s unforgivable. Regretting it deeply, I would like to apologize to Fuyuko before you all.”

The telegram bearing the no longer surprising news of Fuyuko’s sudden death having arrived the following day, Obiko and I set out for the house in Kamata where, flanked by a dozen or more family members drawn up for the wake, Aioi Sanji spoke the above words seated on his heels before Fuyuko’s casket, placed both hands on the straw mat, and respectfully bowed. The previous night, returning home late from a company gathering, Sanji found the door locked and the house saturated with gas; by the time he discovered Fuyuko lying down in a back room, she had asphyxiated. The maid, convinced Fuyuko was out, had been wearily awaiting Sanji’s return in a neighbor’s kitchen: the smell of gas never drifted across the adjacent gardens, nor did anyone in the neighborhood acquainted with the harmonious Aioi household notice anything amiss. Incidentally, Sanji’s so-called “strange story” runs as follows.

Aioi Sanji and Fuyuko married about four years ago. Third son of a prosperous family from Tochigi Prefecture, Sanji was a graduate of a certain private university in Tokyo and a second lieutenant in the reserves, who having grown fascinated with photography during school days and developing into a fine professional, was offered his present job as a newspaper photographer. Unfamiliar with life’s hardships, sufficiently enamored of photographs to have installed a darkroom at home, Sanji’s only other pastime was billiards: rarely drinking, innately incapable of uttering a single joke before a casually met woman, he was as devoted to coddling Fuyuko as a hen doting on its young. Inside the nest fragrant with straw, lived Fuyuko reading books daily, whenever free from cheerfully cooking. The books–limited to translated plays–she devoured indiscriminately, learning the plots and lines by heart, though surprisingly ignorant of any other genre. On holidays, she and Sanji took little trips, went to the movies, and made especially sure never to miss a New Drama performance, so that before long Sanji too came to count translated plays among his interests.

On a rainy Sunday about a year back, sitting in a rattan chair on the veranda and reading a volume of a certain collected edition, Fuyuko suddenly turned to Sanji fiddling with film nearby, and asked, “What do you suppose this means: ‘Act deaf if you like, but go too far and you may forfeit your life’?” “Eh?” “‘Act deaf if you like'” “I don’t know when you ask me out of the blue. I suppose it means just what it says.” “But–” “But if that’s what it says, it’s probably just what it means.” “Well, just what does it mean?” “I don’t know. I’m not much of an academic.” Saying so yet wondering whatever she might have in mind, he awaited her next words, but Fuyuko held her tongue, so Sanji put away the film and lightly called, “Fuyuko.” Silence. Fuyuko sat motionless in the rattan chair without so much as a glance in his direction. “Fuyuko–hey, what’s the matter?” Sanji rose and clapped a hand over her shoulder: “What is wrong?” Fuyuko thrust her fingers into her ears and pouted, but her eyes kept smiling. They were astonishingly beautiful eyes. “Oh, I see, Fuyuko: you’ve grown deaf, haven’t you?” Sanji wrapped his arms around her neck, stroked her hair, and gently kissed her pouting lips. Nothing else of significance happened that day.

Occasionally thereafter, especially when she was in a good mood, Fuyuko mimicked various disabilities. Sometimes she grew mute, sometimes blind. Sanji never failed to play happily opposite her. One evening he returned home to find Fuyuko limping. Thinking she had really hurt herself, Sanji nearly rushed out to call the doctor. In the end, however, he merely had to play the part of a miracle worker for her to recover. One morning Sanji discovered Fuyuko lying rigidly in bed, holding her breath. “Fuyuko is dead.” “Fuyuko is foolish.” “I am thinking of acting out a suicide.” “And what if you really die?” ” No sense in that. To really die would be quite stupid. Pistols and poisons are not for me. By the time you think it’s all over, it really is all over, and to have something really happen is no fun at all. By contrast, what is poised between real and unreal I can quickly will a stop to when it starts to veer toward the real”

“Had I at such times sensed anything morbid, troubled, or ominous about Fuyuko, I could never have been so careless. But Fuyuko at such times was very beautiful, lovable, and brimming with health. True, when she first came to live with me she seemed to be suffering from a slight respiratory weakness, but lately she showed no sign of anything abnormal. With her body perfectly fit, I felt at ease. No matter how outlandish her behavior, my mind was quite at rest. Last night too the house was completely tidied up, not a hint of disorder; Fuyuko, dressed and carefully made up like an actress, lay with eyes peacefully closed, very beautiful and lovable. I could not believe she was dead. I don’t think she herself believes it.”

The assembly silently waited for Sanji to go on. But saying nothing more, Sanji quietly slipped away from the casket into a corner, placed his hands on his knees, and closed his mouth so firmly it might be wondered who had been speaking up till now. Others in attendance seemed eager to say something next, but apparently puzzled over how to put it, kept their silence.

“Well,” one of the present ventured by and by. “That such a thing should come to pass. I don’t quite understand it. Whatever moved her to implant into life’s magnitude the tiny shell of a separate life of make-believe?”

As if by prearranged signal, all began to take turns expressing their thoughts on the subject.

“I’m convinced she was unable to live unless certain conditions were met. It was her wish to warm herself in a chair of otherworldly shadows, built for her body only. She clung to this wish despite having been presented with a chair of abundantly warm reality. What extravagance of taste! And yet, if her personality was so constituted to make such taste inevitable, there is nothing an outsider can say. I doubt it would even be slanderous to say she was totally divorced from life.”

“Love of danger is what it is, or rather love of playing with danger. Real life being free of danger, she came to look for it in reckless pretense. Loving recklessness too much, she finally grew oblivious of the danger.”

“Not only did she create the circumstances in which to live, she strove to be free of their control and instead to tamper with them at will. If by chance the circumstances proved too powerful, she was bound to lose. She might think of it only as a setback. But there was no margin for error. One bad move ended the game.”

“At first, Fuyuko was merely playing. She drew a silhouette of danger which she erased whenever she wished to be rid of it. It depended on her mood. But little by little, the silhouette came to life, starting to show a reluctance to withdraw simply because she wanted it to. She had to exert energy to put a stop to the game. It was a question of will. In the end, the will committed a truly unfortunate error, bringing her to an irrevocable pass. It is like the case of a healthy man who proclaims he would bravely kill himself should he ever become paralyzed. But by the time he is paralyzed, the will to kill himself has faded away. When it occurred to Fuyuko to turn off the gas, the gas had already taken effect. Or rather, because the gas had taken effect, the mental brake urging her to turn it off had stopped working. That instant she crossed life’s boundary. Neglecting to take into account her old respiratory weakness may have helped seal her fate.”

“Placed into a certain situation, individual will and emotions may be rendered powerless. Even if those affected should desire to break free, they might well find themselves unable to. A popular song sweeping through the streets is a case in point. Within the swirl of its popularity, everyone is strung together. Take the one which is all the rage these days, that Song of Mars–”

No sooner were the words “Song of Mars” flung out, than the assembly exploded. A dozen or more pairs of eyes grew bloodshot, spit flew about, voices crashed against each other as all burst into talk at once, heedless of each other.

“Listen, this is an absolute secret: know how many nails it takes to make a pair of infantryman’s shoes?” “In the large, it was a loss for the nation. Just imagine if Caruso had been lost in Ethiopia.” “When you’re fired off by a catapult, your back gets tightly glued to the wall behind you, but the moment you take off with a bang, it feels like your brains and guts are stuck to the wall, and only the outside of your body flies forward. No, I’ve never been on it myself, I got a cousin in the navy.” “Answer right away: how many times do five sen go into fifty billion yen?” ” I wish I knew why the firm won’t send me to look into that stone Buddha.” “There’s no map, you see–no good map. So the strategy can’t be mapped out.” “The concept of safeguarding the culture–”

Just then an indescribable shriek rent the air, coming from a corner. As it froze the pit of everyone’s stomach, the surging tumult deflated with a hiss to be blankly swallowed up by the straw mats. Four or five seconds elapsed before it grew clear the shriek had emanated from Sanji.

“Aah,” with a groan, Sanji toppled forward. “It was all my fault.” Whisking away the consternated, incredulous voices fluttering down onto his head, he abruptly sat up and returned to the correct posture: “My love was lacking.” “Eh?” “Listening to you talk just now, frankly I began to detest you. You are simply getting a thrill out of Fuyuko’s death and its cause. To you, Fuyuko’s death and my pain are nothing but topics for a lively conversation. And yet, I too I too used to get a thrill from poor Fuyuko’s playacting. If one’s life were perfectly fulfilling, who would ever pretend to be deaf? There had to be a gap somewhere in our marriage, one I could not fill, and whose existence I never even noticed. Ah, poor Fuyuko My love was lacking.”

A sparkling tear coursed quietly down his pallid cheek. Yet his features remained composed, and his posture erect. No one having seen this Sanji before, the assembly grew spellbound, less by his words than by his despondent tone and bearing, until everyone’s breathing solidified like wax and the slightest murmur was stamped out. “Ah”–a sharp, low sigh cleaved the air. Obiko slid over from her seat and sank against Sanji’s shoulder. “You mustn’t say that, Sanji. Such words are not to be spoken. When you say such words aloud, they break. Take better care of them. Obiko is hurting so much Ah, my poor sister.” Drawing away from Sanji who remained fixedly facing front, Obiko collapsed before the casket. The offering of flowers faintly trembled, dropping two or three chrysanthemum petals onto the scriptures stand. “Please be quiet, Obiko,” a voice said. “Hush up.” Obiko spun in the direction of the voice, and spat out fiercely, “What right have you to say anything? Go on and enjoy yourselves talking about the Song of Mars. Don’t bother giving a thought to what it means. If it’s a song you like so much, sing it in earnest! Come on, all of you, let’s hear a chorus of the Song of Mars–”

All this time I was leaning inertly against a pillar, not uttering a word. The commotion grazed my ears and dissolved. I was pursuing through midair the image of Fuyuko’s face seen for the last time a moment ago: a carefully made up, beautiful face, just as Sanji had described it. Especially the crimson of her lips, bathed with an eerie glow

A door slid softly open at the opposite end of the room, and someone thrust his face in, summoning Sanji with his eyes. The face wore a very grave expression. Silently rising, Sanji lowered his head and soundlessly stepped out. His exit left the others dumbfounded, hardly aware why they were gathered.

Reappearing promptly, Sanji paused at the threshold. He stood tall, attired in a crested kimono of fine silk, while a small slip of paper, a flimsy red strip of rough, low-quality paper, quivered between the fingers of his right hand. It was the fateful slip of paper by which at present the young men of this country are rounded up without distinction to be sucked up into the chorus of the Song of Mars and driven to faraway fields reeking of gunpowder smoke. Drawing all eyes to itself, this insensate scrap of paper electrified the assembly on the spot. Sanji’s voice sounded most matter-of-fact as he addressed his tremulous hearers.

“The order has come. I thought it might, so I was prepared. Now that Fuyuko is gone I have no regrets. It saddens me I will not be able to hold proper memorial services but that too cannot be helped. Tomorrow, without delay, we will cremate and bury her. Of course I have a five-day deferment. By the morning of the fifth day, I am to report to Utsunomiya. I hope to have my father come to dispose of this house.”

Everyone seemed suddenly to be struggling to compose some sort of spoken response. But faced with the colorlessness of Sanji’s stolid utterance, everyone clamped his teeth over his own garish phrases so that for some time no one said anything.

4

Directly after the wake I attended Fuyuko’s funeral conducted quietly at the S_jiji temple in Tsurumi, and when that was over, leaving Obiko at the house in Kamata to sort out Fuyuko’s belongings, I returned alone to my room back of Ginza, to be gotten out bed the following morning, namely at crack of dawn today, by a ringing telephone.

“Sorry to be calling all of a sudden,” said a voice belonging to one of the relatives present at the wake, “but you know the inn at Nagaoka, yes, Izu Nagaoka, it seems to be Sanji’s favorite? Sanji went there last night. Just now I got the word, only that he is in Nagaoka, nothing else. The problem is, it appears Obiko is with him Yes, they’ll probably come back soon, so maybe there’s nothing to it, but if they hadn’t gone there would’ve been even less to it. Really, what a time to be enjoying a leisurely holiday. Right on the heels of that horrendous happening–even if there’s nothing to it, it shocks me, I can tell you. First of all there’s the matter of Utsunomiya Yes, surely not I hope not, but if by some chance he’s not on time, there’ll be hell to pay. So what do you think, if you’ve got time to spare, would you go see how it stands? You will? Good. In any case, none of us here can possibly leave work. I appreciate it. We’re all worrying about it, you see.”

And so I found myself riding this morning’s outbound train on the T_kaid_ line. Considering it utterly pointless to speculate in the dark, hence determined to put off any thought regarding Sanji and Obiko–if thinking about them was warranted–until after arrival, I for the moment replaced the nuisance of this coerced journey by the capriciously conceived pleasure of travel. In fact, I thought it fairly delightful to have the wind whistling along the train windows sweep away the furrows imprinted into my brow by the air current of my dimly lit room. Unfortunately, my self-indulgent plan was swiftly smashed to bits at the Tokyo station platform. There, swordless men in khaki uniforms with faces slick as barbers’ sprinted busily about among fluttering little flags, jumbling with throngs of other passengers, the entire multitude immersed in bursts f applause. The train whistle blew to cries of “Hurrah!” In the same instant, ah, once again the Song of Mars

Arise, Mars, and boldly–

From my compartment, too, voices rose to join the chorus. Total strangers sang in unison, those who abstained staring awkwardly at the floor. As the train gathered speed, the song gave way to stray chatter springing up here and there, sharing a common theme with the wagging of tongues which threw that wake into disarray. Everywhere the subject seemed prearranged–it is a wonder they never tire of rehashing it. Even this train carriage was crammed full of the season ruling the streets, and no sooner did the wind blowing in through the windows chance to lighten the air, than it was made dense again by choruses of the Song of Mars waiting in readiness at each station platform. About to asphyxiate in my corner seat, I extricated from my valise two or three books I had brought along. A small, archaically bound volume slipped out from among them and fell into my lap. It was a book of comic poetry sandwiched unawares between the rest. I put back those I had planned to read, and with a three-gill bottle purchased at Yokohama for a companion, opened the promising slender volume. Master Groggy was replying to Master Copperveins in a doggerel patterned after old-style Chinese verse: “Penned by you at vernal close, / Fifth of fourth placed in my hands. / Humbly read by truly yours. / What flourishing elegance” Ah, what flourishing elegance What an age it was that saw the birth of these redoubtable connoisseurs’ spirits, who concealed their very best, scattered blossoms with secondary talent, and were able impudently to disport amidst the worldly dust! The writers’ true colors lingered invisibly among the blossoms. Such remote blossoms by now. What flourishing elegance More and more, my links with the novel have grown distant. Another bottle, bought at Atami, rapidly emptied. In the season prevailing within this carriage, joining voices to the Song of Mars was decidedly a badge of sanity. Was my own sanity madness, then? The sunlight streaming in through the windows became suddenly intense, setting sprays of saliva to sparkle against particles of dust. The khaki shimmered. Someone’s gaiters dropped from the overhead baggage net. Across from me, a child was unsheathing his midget military sword. And yet, ah, what flourishing elegance A touch of lunacy had beyond doubt stolen over me.

The train stopped. With a jolt, I saw it was Mishima station. I hastily jumped off. From the station a car swiftly drove me off to Nagaoka.

At the entrance of the inn I guessed to be the one, I soon learned the news of Sanji and Obiko. They arrived very late last night, awoke comparatively early this morning, appeared busy and cheerful, and were already gone, but asked before leaving that the boathouse at Mito be called, evidently wishing to hire a boat for a trip to Shizuura. “I would say they are still at sea. As soon as they disembark they plan to travel on, so a car will be sent for them to Mito at four. If you should go to the boathouse and wait, you will surely be able to meet them.” A glance at the watch showed it was nearly three. I strolled out of the inn, boarded a bus which runs through the town, and went to Mito.

Directly below the embankment to the right of the coastal road where I alighted, transparently clear wavelets sloshed against a narrow beach cut into the rocks, beyond which a glassy sea glittering in the sunlight stretched away toward a slender promontory thickly covered with brilliant foliage, while a pleasure boat exhaling smoke steamed across the tranquil inlet under the impeccably azure sky. To the left stood a tight row of houses, and near it a teahouse loftily displaying a sign painted to say “Steamer Terminal”–presumably the boathouse. Though a corner of its earth-floored interior contained two or three glass cases of caramels and cheap sweets along with a rectangular table and benches, there was no sign of life nor any response when I called out, but a young matron suddenly emerging from the rear tersely answered my query saying the boat should be returning soon, stopped by the entrance to chat with a passerby, slipped away to the rear once more, brought out an aluminum teapot and teacup and placing them on the tabletop nimbly vanished again, this time seemingly for good. As I sat on the bench absently smoking, I noticed I had been conscious of something for quite a while, yet irritated by an inability to identify something extremely simple, I remained perplexed as to what it was. A few moments passed before I realized the something was autumn. Ah, the season. Surely the season enveloping me now was not that of the Song of Mars I rose, took a pair of binoculars from the valise atop the bench, stepped out to descend the embankment in front, and stood on the beach.

Fanned by an intermittent breeze, distant fishing boats reposed in a circle. The sea at my feet fizzed like mineral water. Ripples were sweeping across it, not in order to ruffle the surface but rather to make it taut. Happening to look up at the sky to the north, I was surprised not to have seen it sooner, so great and tall did it loom, distinctly dominating the sky’s expanse: Fuji. Yet since something in me basically dislikes the shape of this mountain devoid of anything capable of challenging the intellect, its vaunted grace and beauty leave me all the more unimpressed. Mostly to banish it from my field of vision, I began to gaze at the offing through the binoculars. The line of fishing boats extended in an arc, a band of naked men at the gunwale of each vessel pulling hard at the net. What fish were they intercepting with the eyes of the thick net pending underwater from the semicircle of boats? A small craft appeared from beyond the tip of the outlying promontory. It went round behind the row of fishing boats, then broke free to head this way. Now I could see it well. Ah–Sanji and Obiko. Its speed suddenly dropped. They seemed to be letting it drift. At the prow, holding a mask to the water with his left hand, the boatman was leaning over it peering into the depth, his right hand manipulating a pole as if spearing octopus. Sanji and Obiko watched laughing. Both appeared most healthy and high-spirited. What was there to worry about? Obiko looked particularly beautiful today. Her yellow dress well matched the sunlit water Before long, the act of observing another’s flesh and its movements–severing it from the surroundings without the other’s knowledge and peeking only at a magnified section–struck me as repulsive. It contained something sinister. I lowered the binoculars. Fuji blocked out the sky. Back to the binoculars. A close-up of Sanji’s face, Obiko’ face Vexed at having no place to look, I pocketed the binoculars. The boat had begun to move again. It was gradually drawing closer. Apparently seeing me too, they stood on tiptoe waving. The prow abruptly rose as the boat accelerated, and the sound of put-puts spread over the water. The motor was on; the craft running straight toward me.

“Hello!” Sanji hopped down onto the beach. “You should have come sooner.” “How? You never told me where you were going.” “Oh, right. Who then–I see. But there’s really nothing to worry about.” “I’m not all that worried.” “I thought I’d enjoy myself good and hard these two or three days. I’m craving to do so many things, it’s quite hectic. I should’ve invited you along.” “You might be freer by yourself.” “I think it would be more frightening by myself. I’d throw myself into action only to break out in shivers, so I doubt I could do it alone. I’m glad Obi’s come with me.” Holding up her skirt, Obiko ran down a plank lowered from the gunnel. “It’s an out-and-out race. We seem to be chasing each other. Just when we’re out of breath, one or the other thinks of something that’ll make us even more breathless. Obiko suggested we go to the sea. Before we even reached Shizuura, Sanji was pressing to head for the mountains.” “No, it’s Obi who’s spurring me on.” “How far do you intend to wing?” “No plan at all. I think we’ll cross Amagi by car next. When it gets late, we’ll stop for the night wherever we are. If only there were some outrageously luxurious hotel nearby. By tomorrow night I have to be back, though. Company colleagues are giving me a farewell party. After that, Utsunomiya. That’s when I’ll meet the relatives. What do you think, would you like to come along?” “I’m no athlete. I’ll leave you to Obi.” “Obiko can’t fathom it either. Somehow I feel so wonderful. But how he scares me, this Sanji! Out at sea, he suddenly says he’s going for a swim and makes as if to jump into the chilly water. Once we’re in the car, I’m sure he’ll insist on having it drive along the edge of cliffs.” “Danger’s no longer dangerous. Whatever I do between here and Utsunomiya, I think it’ll be nothing but safe.”

Standing atop the embankment, the teahouse mistress was looking our way. A Pontiac was already parked in front of the teahouse. “Have you been to the aquarium?” asked Sanji, pointing to a small jutting island a short distance off. “Go take a look later. It doesn’t interest me now.” Sanji climbed the embankment first. The Kodak he carried whenever traveling was absent today. “No photos?” “I just noticed it myself. I seem to have forgotten all about photos.” Under the brim of his hat, the long eyebrows faintly darkened. A bag and a folded overcoat were visible through the open door of the Pontiac. Sanji got in after Obiko. “Well, good-bye now.” “So long. Stay well. And however far you go, by all means come back.” “Thank you.” The car started off. Leaning out of the window, Sanji bowed once more, while Obiko stretched her arm to wave lightly with a ripple of her fingertips. The car disappeared around the bend.

A few minutes later I arrived at the aquarium on the small island Sanji had pointed out. Not in fact an island, it was a coast-linked lump of land bulging out into the sea, the submerged portion forming the aquarium, a craggy tip supporting a lookout platform on which I was presently standing. As it eternally does, Fuji, like a cut of stuffed silk, stayed pasted against the already feebly sunlit sky, but I turned my back on that spectacle and watched the fish swarming in the water below me. The aquarium with neither roof nor glass tanks spread under the autumn sky its flawlessly clear surface beneath which partitions divided fish into species swimming through water endlessly renewed by tides rolling in from the open sea. As there were no stagnant pools, so there were no lean fish. Shining of steel, a school of young tuna intrepidly sliced the water, brushing the bottom of the big basin a bright indigo. Sightseers called the keeper to have him toss in feed. The instant the scraps of mackerel flung high from a bucket struck the water, finned bodies flashed in a leap, and the mackerel scraps were gone. At the opposite side of the crawl, hemmed in by sightseers, stood a man wearing white trousers and an undershirt, his right hand pressing to his stomach a thick bamboo rod trailing a line from its point. A heavy-looking spindle-shaped piece of wood attached to the line’s end floated in the water as would a cork. Flipping up the rod with a ventral intake of breath, he shot out his left arm and caught the wood come dancing through the air. It was a dry run of angling for young tuna. Demonstrating the maneuver several times, the man offered the bamboo rod to the watchers who all shrank from accepting. Eventually two or three took turns trying, but their stomachs lacking firmness, the wooden tuna refused to obey. Spectators were laughing. In the enclosure, slender fish, like silver streaks–

Vacantly, I kept gazing at all that. What was so fascinating about it to make me stare at such things? Certainly the scene contained something seemingly reassuring, but not a thing that might fill a spiritual gap. The clear air, the healthy fish bursting with sheer fat, and the dumbstruck figures in a seascape formed an amiably reconciled symmetry within which the sightseers lost sight of their own shortsighted selves, forgot their comical everyday gestures, and for the present appeared content to remain in a trance. Indeed, come to think of it, there was something infinitely odd about everyone, be it Sanji, Obiko, the uniforms on the station platform, the train passengers, or I myself. The very fact that no one’s behavior was particularly eccentric, bizarre, inscrutable, or anything other than commonplace, made the strangeness of the resulting tableau all the more strange. Thrust into the season of the Song of Mars, did people’s shadows slip away from their proper places? The rays of this magic lantern grew blurred, dim and turbid, distorting the scene. Whatever was lacking to render the people lucid, distinct, strong and comely? Here again, as at the teahouse a while ago when casting about to find autumn, I seemed to be baffled before something extremely clear, remaining irritably disconcerted until that something tardily arrived, struck me to the core and forcefully expanded, whereupon a sense of stupidity at having been brought to a standstill by what was so obvious caused my face to flush with shame. Thought, ah, thought A terrific thirst seized me. With it came the presentiment of an immense thirst raging elsewhere than in my own parched throat.

I stepped down from the lookout platform. Facing the fish-filled water stood a two-storied house built in the traditional style, a portion of the downstairs floored with boards and lined with tables and chairs, giving it the appearance of a modest restaurant. Under the eaves, illustrated postcards and similar souvenirs were on sale. A walkway resembling a jetty extended to the front of it, leading up to a tank containing a dolphin. Evidently popular, it attracted quite a crowd. The dolphin was poking its head above the surface. There was a little hole covered with a lid in the pate of its smooth, flat head; this opened from time to time for it to blow off a breath. Whenever the keeper tossed in feed, it deftly dived into the water and gobbled it up. It looked like the man were drilling a military dog. Watching it, I grew revolted. I recalled the time I saw a military dog supinely baring its spotted belly while waving its paws in the air: the act exuded empty-headedness and squalor.

Turning back, I entered the restaurant and asked for a beer. A boisterous group of four or five barged in, occupied the seats at the opposite end, and launched into a noisy conversation. Ah, what will they chat about? Here too, that story again! An antiquated phonograph with a horn attached rested in a corner. The proprietor was putting on a record. Ah, what will it be? Here too, that record–“Stop it!” The shout burst from my throat. It rang malevolent. Suspicious faces swung my way. The following instant censuring eyes stabbed through me. The smugness of those backed by authority and force was bluntly manifest in that censure, chafing my nerves. Draining the remaining beer, I stalked out and set off for the gate. A murmur of voices seemed to be giving chase. I suppose someone was flinging words at my back.

Click here to read Zeljko Cipris’s essay Mocking Militarism: On ISHIKAWA JUN’s Song of Mars.

 

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