Wednesday, October 05, 2005

"Tony Takitani" by Haruki Murakami (1)

This is the first part of my translation of Haruki Murakami's short story "Tony Takitani," which has been made into a film by Jun Ichikawa. To my pleasant surprise, it made its way to Chicago and on screen now at Landmark Century Theater.

Tony Takitani’s real name was really Tony Takitani.

Because of the name (of course, on official records, it was Takitani Tony), his rather Western complexion with deep-set eyes and distinct nose, and his curly hair, people often mistook him for a mixed blood child when he was little. It wasn’t long after the war, and there were many children with American soldier’s blood around. But in reality, both his father and his mother were indisputably Japanese. His father was Shozaburo Takitani, a jazz trombonist with a bit of fame since the pre-war period. About four years before the start of the War in Pacific, he got into trouble involving a woman, and had to leave Tokyo. He took the opportunity to go over to China, bringing with him only his instrument. At the time, a day’s ferry ride from Nagasaki took him to Shanghai. He had nothing at all he couldn’t bear losing, not in Tokyo nor in Japan. There was no way for him to be regretful. Moreover, the artificial glamour the city of Shanghai offered at the time seemed to be more suited to his character. Ever since he saw the elegant cityscape shining in the morning light from the deck of a ferry that went up the Yangtze River, Shozaburo Takitani was in the city’s spell. The light appeared as if it had been promising him something very bright. He was twenty-one.

He spent this turbulent period of war, from Sino-Japanese War to Pearl Harbor, and eventually to the atomic bombs, nonchalantly playing the trombone in nightclubs in Shanghai. The war went on somewhere totally unrelated to him. In short, Shozaburo Takitani was the kind of person who was almost completely unequipped for things like a will about history or contemplation on history. If he could play his trombone as he liked, could have three decent meals a day, and could have a few women around, he didn’t have any particular desire for anything more.

Most people liked him. Young, handsome, and good at his music, he stood out wherever he went, like a crow on a snowy day. He slept with a countless number of women. Japanese, Chinese, Ukrainian, prostitutes, wives, beautiful women, not so beautiful women—he had sex with almost any women he ran into. With his obstinately sweet sound of the trombone and his gigantic and active penis, Shozaburo Takitani came to be an iconic figure of Shanghai of the era.

Also he was gifted with a talent to make “useful” friends—not that he was conscious of it. He kept close friendships with high-ranking army officials, affluent Chinese, and a pack of others who sucked out a huge profit from the war through some dubious methods. Most of them were the type of people who always hid a pistol under their jacket and looked around the street up and down when going out of a building, but somehow Shozaburo Takitani got along with them very well. And in turn, they took special care of him. Should a problem arise, they set it straight for him. For Shozaburo Takitani, life was such an easy task at that time.

Such convenient gift, however, sometimes works against us. When the war was over, due to his friendships with various dubious people, he was marked by the Chinese army and was thrown into jail for a long time. His fellow prisoners were executed one by one without a decent chance of trial. They were dragged into the courtyard of the prison one day, without warning, and were shot in the head with automatic machineguns. The execution always took place at two in the afternoon. Pfewn, the hard-packed sound of the automatic machineguns echoed in the prison’s courtyard.

It was the biggest crisis in Shozaburo Takitani’s life. There, there was literally only a hair-thin gap between life and death. Death itself wasn’t so terrifying. He would have his head shot through and it would be the end of it. Pain would be only momentary. Until then, he had lived his life as he pleased and slept with a few women. He had eaten delicacies and experienced some good fortunes. He didn’t have anything to cling to in his life. He hadn’t been entitled to complain, even if he had been offhandedly executed right there. Millions of Japanese died in this war. There were many who died far more horrible death. He persuaded himself and spent his time in jail, whistling away. Day after day, he watched the shapes of clouds floating outside of the small window with iron fence, and pictured one by one, on the stained walls, the faces and bodies of women with whom he had slept with. Yet in the end, he became one of the only two Japanese who managed to made it back to Japan alive, from that prison.

It was in the spring of 1946 when Shozaburo Takitani came back to Japan, a bag of skin and bones, with only his cloth on his shoulder. When he came back, his parents’ house in Tokyo had burnt down in the great Tokyo bombing in March of the year before, and his parents had died in it. His only brother had been missing in action in Burma. In short, he was completely alone in the world. But he didn’t feel it sad or lonely, and wasn’t particularly shocked. Of course he felt some sense of absence, but one would become alone at some point anyway. He was thirty then. He felt like he aged a few years at once, but that was it. Beyond that, there was no other emotion welling up in him.

Yes, Shozaburo Takitani managed to survive anyway, and given the fact, he had to use his head to keep surviving from then on.

Since he couldn’t think of anything else he could do, he formed a small jazz band with his old friends and started to tour American bases. Utilizing his inborn friendliness, he befriended with a jazz-loving American major. The major was an Italian American from New Jersey, and played clarinet quite well. Working in logistics, he could order whatever record he needed from his home country. In spare time, they often played together. They went to the major’s barrack to listen to Bobby Hacket, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, and that sort of happy jazz records, drinking beer, and worked hard copying the phrases. For him, the major procured foodstuff, milk, and liquor, scant at the time, as much as he needed. This isn’t too bad of a time, Shozaburo Takitani thought.

He got married in 1947. His wife was a distant relative of his mother’s side. When he was walking in the street, he ran into her, and over a cup of tea they talked about the news of relatives and about the old days. It led to their friendship, and somehow—which could very well be due to her pregnancy—they ended up living together.

At least that was what Tony Takitani heard from his father. He doesn’t know how much Shozaburo Takitani loved his wife. She was pretty and quiet, but she wasn’t built sturdily, Shozaburo said.

In the second year of their marriage, they had a boy. Three days after the baby was born, the mother died. She died within a blink of an eye, and was cremated within a blink of an eye. It was a very quiet death. There was no inner conflict, no real pain—she died as if she faded away. As if someone went to the back and turned off the switch ever so gently.

Shozaburo Takitani wasn’t sure how he should feel about it. He wasn’t familiar with these types of emotions. It felt like something flat and disk-like was enclosed in his chest. But what kind of object it was and why it was there, he didn’t understand at all. Yet the object remained there ever since and wouldn’t let him think deeper about anything. Such being the case, he spent about a week without thinking about anything. He didn’t even remember the baby he had trusted to the hospital.

The major consoled him sincerely. Almost every day, they drank at a bar in the base. You have to stand strong, you have to raise the kid, the major told him. He didn’t know what the major was talking about, but he nodded in silence. He could at least understand the major’s good intention. Then, as if the thought had suddenly popped in his mind, the major offered to be a godfather of the child. Come to think of it, Shozaburo Takitani hadn’t even named the child.

The major said he could give the child his first name Tony. Tony couldn’t be an appropriate name for a Japanese child in any way, but the question of whether or not it was an appropriate name didn’t seem to come into the major’s head even for a moment. Shozaburo Takitani went home, wrote “Takitani Tony” on a piece of paper, put it on the wall, and gazed at it for a few days. Takitani Tony, not too bad, he thought. It’d be the era of the United States. It might turn out to be convenient to name the child in American way.

But thanks to such a name, Tony was made fun of at school as a mixed-blood, and when he says his name, people looked at him funny or seemed offended. Many people took it as a bad joke, and some people got angry.

Partially for that reason, Tony Takitani grew up to be an introverted boy. He didn’t make any friends, but he didn’t find it particularly hard. Being alone was something natural to him, and it was almost a kind of premise of life, so to speak. As far as he could remember, his father was always away on performance trip with his band. When he was small, a housekeeper came to take care of him, but he started to do everything himself when he was in fifth or sixth grade. He cooked for himself, locked the doors, and slept alone. He didn’t find it particularly lonely. Rather than busily being taken care of by someone, being on his own felt so much easier. For some reason, Shozaburo Takitani didn’t remarry after his wife’s death. He invariably kept making numerous girl friends, of course, but he never took any one of them home. He too, like his son, seemed to have become accustomed to being all alone. The father-son relationship, however, wasn’t as distant as it might seem from such a life. But both of them were as deeply accustomed to solitude as a habit as each other, neither of them went ahead to open up their heart. They didn’t feel any particular need to do so. Shozaburo Takitani wasn’t made to be a father, and Tony Takitani wasn’t made to be a son, either.

Tony Takitani loved to draw. Every day he locked himself up in his room alone and did drawings. He especially liked to draw machinery. He was good at drawing minute details of things like bicycle, radio, and engines, using a pencil with its tip sharpened like a needle. When he drew a flower, he traced every single vein on its leaves. Whatever people might say, that was the only way he could draw. Although he received not-so-impressive grades for other subjects, his grades for art were always outstanding. When there was a context, he usually won the first prize.

So, it was only natural that he entered an art school after graduation (from the year he started art school, without neither of them taking the lead, somehow, as if it was a course of nature, the father and the son started to live separately) and became an illustrator. In fact, there was no need to consider other possibilities. While other youth worried, groped in the dark, and suffered, he single-mindedly continued his precise, mechanical drawing without thinking about anything. Since it was the time when young people were rebelling against the authority and the system earnestly and violently, there was scarcely anyone who praised his extremely realistic drawings. Seeing his drawings, teachers of the art school gave a wry smile. His classmates criticized the absence of ideological statements. Yet, Tony Takitani couldn’t understand at all how the “ideological” paintings of his classmates could be so remarkable. In his eyes, they were just immature, ugly, and inaccurate.

When he graduated the art school, however, things changed drastically. Thanks to his very practical skill and pragmatic utility, Tony Takitani didn’t have hard time finding a job from the very beginning. No one else could produce more minutely detailed drawings of complicated machineries and buildings than he could. Everybody unanimously said that his drawings were “real than the real.” His drawings were more accurate than photographs, and were more easily understandable than a thousand words of explanation. Immediately he became an illustrator of great demand. From cover illustrations for a automobile magazine to an advertisement illustration, he took any offer as long as it was about mechanism. He liked his job and it paid quite well.

Meanwhile, Shozaburo Takitani kept leisurely playing his trombone. In the age of modern jazz, then of free jazz, and then of electric jazz, he kept playing his old-style jazz as always. Not that he was the first-class performer, but his name was fairly recognized and he always had some job offer. He could have tasty food, and didn’t have to go without women. From the standpoint of whether he had complaints or not, it was quite a good life.

Because Tony Takitani turned to work whenever he had time to spare and didn’t have expensive hobby in particular, he made himself a small man of property by the time he was thirty-five. Following someone’s advise, he bought a large house in Setagaya. He got to own a few apartments buildings for rent. His tax accountant took all the care.

Tony Takitani had dated a few women by then. When he was younger, though for a short time, he had lived together with a woman as well. He had never thought about getting married, however. He did cooking, cleaning and laundry for himself, and he could call up a contract-based housekeeper when the schedule was tight. He never wanted to have children. He didn’t have any close friend whom he could consult with and confide in. He didn’t even have a friend to go for a drink together. Yet, he was not an eccentric man. Though not as friendly as his father was, he had no problem interacting with people around him in everyday life. He didn’t swaggered nor bragged. He didn’t make excuses, nor spoke ill of others. He preferred listening to others than speaking about himself. So, most people around him liked him. But he never managed to build a relationship with someone that went beyond the practical level. He and his father only saw each other once every few years for some practical matter. Even when they met, when the business is done, there was nothing much to talk about between them. Tony Takitani’s life passed thus quietly and peacefully. I probably will never get married, he thought.


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