Project 2

Creation of stories all around Japan

I was supposed to leave the next day, but I still hadn't decided anything about the company I was supposed to go work for. What would be the point of trying to force my way into a place I really had no connection to? On the other hand, I really had no desire to be unemployed. I was disappointed in my own inability to read the situation, but for now I was clinging to that company. The path of least risk would be to hold on to this job while I look for another one.

Not only had I not been able to come to a clear conclusion about my job situation, I had not been able to drink all of the Corona. I had no idea what the woman and her daughter next door were clinging to. I had only the vaguest image in my head. The whole thing was half-cooked, and it was rushing past. I came to the realization that this may be what my ex-wife was always nagging me about: things passed me by, and I was simply okay with that. What should I let go of? What should I cling to? Was someone coming from across the sea? How long should I wait for them? Maybe it was up to me to be the one to give up on that idea. My ex-wife might not have been willing to give up on her fertility treatments, but at least our different ideas could have fought it out in the open.

"You lot just don't know how to be patient."

At some point my ex-wife had taken to calling me "you lot." Always at the end of an argument, when she had made up her mind. Every time she said it, I had thought a lot about what it might mean, but even now I had never been able to come to a really conclusive conclusion.

The intercom sounded, and I returned to the present. I stared at the monitor in disbelief. There was the puppet, glaring into the camera.

"What's up?" I asked, but I received no answer. Had the puppet come here on its own? No way! I went to the front door, and opened it, and there stood the girl, a few steps away from the intercom, holding the puppet. She had two outdoor lights that she had probably brought with her from her own house, and she had set them on the

ground. She had had a female puppet before, but now she had one with a samurai hairstyle that signified it was male.

Presenting – Banshu Sarayashiki, the Aoyama-kan scene

She chanted this in a slow tempo, like a Buddhist prayer, as she started to make the masked puppet move. I could not tear my eyes away, though I couldn't tell you why. I didn't know what else to do. I felt like this was the start of something that might last a long time. I went back into the house, grabbed the cooler, and put all the rest of the Corona into it. When I came back, she was just standing there, holding the puppet, but the play had stopped. In front of her was another female, about the same height. It took me a strangely long time to realize it was her mother.

With the cooler on my shoulder, I grabbed a folding chair from the entryway, and approached the two, who were facing each other. "Good evening," I said, but all I got in response was a glance from the mother's eyes. I gestured that she should take a seat in the chair, and she did.

I took a Corona from the cooler, and an opener from my pocket, and I opened the bottle. It was something I had been doing my whole time here.

"Would you like one?"

Her expression was neutral, hard for me to tell if it was a yes or a no. Well, if she didn't want it, I could always drink it myself, so I opened another one and offered it to her. She took it, and chugged it down. Only the puppet was wearing a mask. Unlike Tokyo, where I had come from, where the pandemic was raging, the number of infections on Awaji was small. Still, it was strange that I even worried about it.

I asked the mother what the daughter was up to, but she did not answer me.

Perhaps my question had been too vague. I thought about asking again, in a different way, but I could see her lips were pursed, and she was looking intently at her daughter in the light. There was no point in asking. She was gulping down the Corona. The girl held a puppet in each hand, and sometimes she switched them, as she spoke the lines. Somehow, she was acting out the joruri play, all by herself. There were three characters in the play, so three puppets were needed. All had masks covering their mouths and jaws.

The mom had quickly finished her first bottle of beer. She looked longingly in my direction, so I grabbed two more bottles from the cooler, one for her and one for me. I opened them and handed her one. She took it and guzzled that down too.

The show went on. The girl spoke in a clear voice, but perhaps because it was something I was not accustomed to, it was hard for me to understand. What had I gotten myself wrapped up in? As I asked myself this, I found myself chuckling. I emptied my bottle, and opened another. I was feeling a little buzzed.

I let the booze talk: "I see you often in the daytime, looking out at the sea."

What had I been doing since I got here? Nothing but watching Netflix, reading books, and drinking Corona, things I could just as easily do anywhere. My only activity specific to here had been gossiping with my friend about this woman. --- Madame Butterfly is truly waiting, I'm sure. Her house was some guy's second home, and the girl was their lovechild, and they were living there to stay out of sight. Every so often, every few months or so, he would come to see them. Over time, though, his visits grew less frequent. These days, he barely came once a year. I'm sure she was waiting for a man to come to her from the sea. Madame Butterfly, is she a beauty?

My friend, who was now a voice in my head, was asking. To answer him, I took another look at her.

It was dark, but she was looking at her daughter, and her lips were moving. Selfishly deciding nothing needed to be said, I spaced out and failed to hear her. "Mm," I responded quietly. She took another swig of beer, and still looking at her daughter, said,

"You lot are always looking for simple explanations."

You lot?

"It's okay. I get it. So here's your simple explanation. What she is acting out is the play, Banshu Sarayashiki. It is based on a legend from Himeji. In Tokyo, they changed the name to Bancho Sarayashiki, and the plot is a little different, but the main points are the same. A valuable plate is missing, and a maid is suspected, so she gets killed, and thrown down a well. There are similar stories from all over Japan. It seems to appeal to people's imaginations."

I didn't know what to say, so I kept my mouth shut. But I grew impatient with myself, and felt like I had to say something.

"'You lot?'" I mumbled.

"Simple explanations. This kid, she has a bit of a problem, mentally, and she almost never goes out," the mother said, as if she hadn't heard my question at all. "This kind of puppet play is the only way she gets this animated. Once we realized that, the teacher at school lent her the puppets. Nobody can figure out, though, why the puppets have to be wearing those Abe masks."

The mother spoke very differently from her daughter, but something about her one sided attitude was very similar to the girl, who was acting out her puppet joruri without paying the slightest attention to my reaction. Was she even seeing me? Did she care what I thought? I stayed focused on the girl in the spotlight, and her puppet theater. The female puppet with the traditional Japanese hairstyle had changed her costume, and was now wearing a white undergarment instead of the purple kimono. The male puppet was lying face up, with the female hovering above him saying,


The girl was shaking the puppets, whose mouths were both still covered by Abe masks. The government had distributed these tiny little masks to everyone, but for me it was the first time to see someone wearing one who was not a model trying to show off on Instagram how small her face was. These masks were small for people, but on these puppets they were huge.

The mom had polished off her second bottle. She shot me a look indicating she was still thirsty, so I pulled out a third bottle and handed it to her. Feeling somehow that I had to keep up with her, I drained the half a bottle I had in my hand and opened another. Now there were fewer than 10 left.

"Simple explanations," she said again, after swallowing the Corona.

"It's true this is not my house, but no one can ever make me leave. I know you lot's weaknesses."

'You lot,' again. I thought of my ex-wife. The woman's face was not flushed, but she must be pretty drunk by now. She kept talking about "simple explanations," but I really didn't find what she was saying was all that easy to understand. With every bottle of beer she finished off, her eyes seemed to be demanding something different, and I obeyed. I was even drinking at her pace. All this time, she continued her "simple explanation," until finally we had vanquished all the Corona.

"Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. There's only nine plates. One is missing."

Whether that was the real end of the play, or whether the girl had simply decided to stop there, she picked up the three puppets and started toward me. When she got really close, I followed her gaze, and noticed that her mom was passed out, drunk. No matter what I said to the girl, she didn't answer me. In the end, the girl picked up the puppets, and I picked up her mom, and carried her back to their house. I don't really know if that was the right thing for me to do, but it was the best I could think of at the time. As I wondered whether I should call an ambulance, or tuck her into bed, the girl was gesturing for me to leave.

The mom may have been drunk, but her breathing was calm and regular, and even if she was not in her bed I wasn't worried about her catching cold. The mismatch between this lack of concern and the spreading pandemic out in the world brought a faint smile to my lips as I went back to my own place.

2 / 3

Next page

Project Participating Authors

  • Hyogo Takahiro Ueda

    Takahiro Ueda

    Born in 1979 in Hyōgo prefecture, graduated from the School of Low of Waseda University. Winner of the 45th Shincho New-comer Award with Sun (Taiyō) in 2013. My Lover (Watashi no Koibito) won the 28th Mishima Yukio Prize in 2015. Elected as one of the Best Young Japanese Novelists by Magazine GRANTA in 2016. Tower and Gravity (Tō to Jyūryoku) won the Geijutsu Sensho Shinjin Award in 2018. Other work: Friends from Foreign Land (Ikyō no Yūjin) (All published by Shinchosha). His latest work Nimrod published by Kodansha won the 160th Akutagawa Ryunosuke Prize in January 2019.

    You Lot

    A quiet beach resort area on Awaji Island, whiling away some time between jobs. An evening encounter with the mother and daughter from next door. The young girl acts out a Kabuki ghost story with her little doll, and the mom offers “simple explanations.” Wooo…

  • Fukushima Ao Omae

    Ao Omae

    Ao Omae was born 1992 in Hyogo Prefecture. Hailed in Japan as a rising star of gender-conscious literature since the 2020 publication of Nuigurumi to shaberu hito wa yasashii (People who talk to stuffed animals are nice), he debuted in 2016 with a short story that was eventually included in the 2018 collection Kaitengusa (Tumbleweed). In 2019, he released a collection of flash fiction called Watashi to wani to imōto no heya (A room for a crocodile, my sister, and me), and his 2017 digital-only collection is Nokemonodomono.

    The Old-Woman Skin

    I always hated being called pretty. In the process of moving from her hometown of Mishima, Fukushima Prefecture, to Tokyo, Kyoko stops at Tsuchiyu Onsen where she is given an "old-woman's skin." When she puts on the skin and transforms into an elderly woman to probe the feelings of the guy she likes...

  • Hokkaido Yuta Takano

    Yuta Takano

    Born & currently living in Hokkaido. Novelist & the winner of the 16th "Bocchan Literary Award" in 2020 for "Hagama."

    A Sunlit Table

    Since Chiyuki failed to eat the last breakfast her mother made for her, she has had trouble eating anything. She has managed to get by, helped by the food she eats as a bear in her dreams, but as the first anniversary of her mother's death approaches, her eating disorder worsens. Then she happens to cross paths with a classmate...