Courtesy of Albert Le, Japan Trip – 2018.
The smell of takoyaki tickled the salaryman’s nose.
Sweet with a hint of frying fat, it woke inside of him, a long dormant hunger that was supposed to have been buried under the 4 sake shots he had taken earlier at a bar.
Fumbling around his pant pockets for his wallet, he looked forlornly at the 5000 yen note and the 5 tiny bronze coins. It was all he had for the night.
The smart thing was to head home, and save the money, eat some 2 minute ramen and then sleep the whole night off.
But his stomach rumbled, and the salaryman thought about the lonely dark 6-tatami sized room and the tasteless ramen he would eat. The cold shower he would take and the dirty pajamas that had holes around the elbows and knees.
The inevitable slow login on his tiny laptop and loading of an AV DVD he had borrowed from the nearby adult shop. The sad, unfulfilling sensation, as his hands tried to bring him close to something akin to ecstasy but it would only ever last seconds and fill him with shame.
He thought about the unenviable task of cleaning himself off with a tissue, and discarding it away before falling asleep, unhappy and restless.
This mental film kept playing over and over in his mind, and it finalised his indecision causing him to pause mid-step and nearly bump into a couple strolling behind. He enviously looked at the young man, with his pretty girlfriend, and apologised with a bow, staring at the girl’s feet, perfect in little red heels.
They went around him, smiles on their faces. As he watched them disappear, the tiny clicks the red heels made on the damp concrete, sounded like to him, the hands of a clock counting down the hours he had left to enjoy himself, this very night.
“To hell with it” thought the salaryman, and he stopped walking towards his apartment and turned around in search of the takoyaki stand, following the smell.
The bright neon of Osaka‘s city-scape felt like a thousand pin-prick needles of light into his brain. As far as the eye could see, buildings after buildings, after buildings stretched towards infinity. Most were tired and weather-beaten, the constant hum-drum of millions of people taking its toll, grime and pollution reaching up the walls.
Some were so old, that no one knew what their shiny and clean exterior looked like anymore. During the day, the buildings lost much of their appeal, the shabbiness of it all apparent and creating an ugly concrete jungle.
It was why there were so many neon signs. It was a way to hide the mismatched nature of the buildings, the thousands of strange designs, faded paint and harsh staircases. Osaka, could only ever be appreciated at night, where the lights provided a gloss over the ugliness of the city. A thin mask that disguised the rot beneath.
Everywhere he looked, there was so much happening.
Thousands of people walked the street, many just like him, a lean, average man, in a simple, cheap black and white suit, with ties loose around their necks and hands gripping their precious brown leather briefcase.
In contrast, young carefree teens were in large groups, their colourful, contrasting clothes emblazoned with kanji text, and strange English words.
They laughed, yelled and play-fought on the street, boys one-upping each other to prove themselves worthy to the demure and coy girls, who giggled and whispered to each other, spurring the boys on to greater antics.
Then there were the quiet couples, who strolled arm in arm, the men dressed down casually, with polo shirts and chinos, the women in long, plain skirts with elegant blouses and subtle jewellery. They talked softly to each other, stared longingly, and passionately discussed the film they had just seen and the sushi train they just ate.
Shopkeepers strolled through the crowd, enticing foreigners, holding up colourful menus and chattering away in rapid-fire Japanese, punctuating sentences with accented English. They were bold, friendly and ruthless. Tourists, overwhelmed by the service, smiled and nodded, their eyes wide and mouths agape as they stared at the delicious images on the menu, entering and leaving the shops, full but poorer and the shopkeeper pleased with his outrageous pricing.
The salaryman stared out at this mass of people, as he waited by a lonely takoyaki stand, its lantern shining a yellow light over the tired chef, who looked like he would rather be anywhere else, than making octopus balls on a busy Osaka street.
Having wasted 20 minutes searching for a decently priced stall, the salaryman hoped this would turn out OK. This was the problem with living in a tourist town … nothing was ever right for the locals.
And … nothing tasted as good either. The takoyaki when handed to him, smelt promising. But on the first bite, it was a little cold on the inside, the octopus inside slimy and rubbery, and the coating tasted of flour, instead of a crispy, soft melting sensation.
Disappointed and sad he had lost money on this gamble, he glared at the chef, who pointedly ignore him and began making a new batch for a tourist couple, he ate half of the plate, before tossing the rest away, disgusted and in need of a good drink to wash away the taste.
As he walked a short distance away, he wondered whether the takoyaki was a sign of things to come. Shaking off the disquieting feeling, he saw a red-light hostess bar up ahead, and looking up, he noted it was on the 5th floor, but could still hear the yells of men singing their hearts out, a good sign.
Walking through the gloom, he saw that the elevator was crammed through the narrow hallway and that it was out of service. Sighing, he put his left hand on the staircase, which felt slightly sticky, and began to climb.
The girl that greeted him with a bow, stretched her thin arm over to the manager, who was dressed immaculately in a sharp suit, with a black bow-tie. Pocketing the entry fee, he took out a ring binder and placed it open in front of the salaryman.
Inside were 30 polaroids of varying girls, in a myriad of seductive and coy poses. Most had the peace sign up, were dressed in garish skimpy mini-skirts and resembled dolls more than actual women. Squinting, he stabbed his finger down and chose Mayu.
The polaroid of Mayu showed a young woman, with brown hair in a bob with a part across her forehead, almond eyes and a straight narrow nose. She was the cute girl with cat-like features that made her sexier. Her outfit in the polaroid, a sailor fuku, her head at an angle, revealing a three-quarter profile and her pout with a peace sign was what sealed the deal for the salaryman.
The manager nodded sagely and walked through a curtained doorway with the bar’s logo and a few minutes later walked back out and handed the salaryman a room key.
Walking through, he could smell the pervasive odour of cheap perfume mingling with equally cheap cologne and the sharp acrid smell of cigarettes and alcohol.
The sounds that accompanied the smell were equally provocative, loud phrases of famous enka songs were belted through the walls and doors, and just below the volume of the cacophony, were muted moans and fluttering sighs.
Ignoring it, he opened the door to his room and looked around, the tiny room reminded him strangely of his apartment.
There was a TV next to him, with a pair of microphones attached for karaoke, and in front of the TV was a U-shaped couch that spanned the entire room. There was a small unobtrusive table in the middle, and an Ipad that allowed him to order drinks.
Sitting down, he ordered himself a neat whiskey, and waited for the girl, as he started to pick which song he would sing.
However, he could not make up his mind. He couldn’t shake off the feeling of disquiet. The silence inside the room, was such a stark contrast to the hallway he had just entered and the bustle of Osaka, that he was starting to get uncomfortable when Mayu entered.
Wearing a sheer top, that did little to hide her small breasts, and a mini-skirt that just hid her pert bottom, Mayu cradled the small glass of whiskey and complimentary snacks and saddled up next to him.
Nervous, the salaryman averted his eyes from her breasts and placed his hands in his laps, hiding his excitement. Mayu smiled, revealing slightly crooked teeth, and began to hold onto his arm and whisper endearments.
She asked him for his name, promised him he was handsome, and cried out that she wanted to do things to him. The salaryman endured all the ego-stroking, wanting to believe it himself, that he was big, strong and that he could really make pin her to the wall right now, if he desired. But it didn’t work. He was aroused, the body roaring to go, but … the mind was elsewhere.
She tried to coax him to sing, to really relax, after all, this was her job. She knew that if the customer wasn’t happy, she could lose her job. So she kept at it. She tried every trick she knew. She lightly slapped him, pleaded with him, opened her eyes wide, crinkled them, made them doe-eyed and even questioned whether he was a man.
But the salaryman couldn’t respond. Despite his every yearning to do so.
Even when she slid off his pants, and took him into her mouth, the salaryman couldn’t move. He sat there stiffly, shame, pleasure, guilt, confusion diffused through sheer anxiety.
She kept her movements rhythmic, up and down, the tongue lashing this way and that but there was no response. When the salaryman finally came, it was the same anti-climatic response he felt when masturbating at home.
Disgust at himself channeled itself in another way, and found its target with the girl. His face underwent a transformation, one of reluctant pleasure to a cold mask of fury.
Mayu, having seen enough of these episodes in men, ducked away, terrified and quickly ran out the door.
Minutes later, two large yakuza came in, their loud disco-era shirts and flamboyant colourful suits, betraying their occupation. Scowling, they glared at the salaryman and swiftly punched him twice in the stomach. Doubling over, the salaryman vomited out the whiskey, snacks and takoyaki, causing him to hate the taste all over again, and the two yakuza deftly stepped away, their experience showing them what was coming.
They looked at each other, shook their head in scorn and grabbed an arm each before dragging him down the stairs and instead of going through the front entrance, kicked open a side door next to the elevator and tossed him into an array of bins.
Clapping their hands clean from his cheap suit, they yelled at him, and made several threats, the harsh words ringing in his ears. Laughing briefly at the salaryman prone form, the yakuza smoked cigarettes and flicked ash over him before stepping aside and allowing the manager to toss the salaryman’s briefcase on his stomach.
The door slammed shut and after what felt like ages, the salaryman gingerly began to pick himself off the trash. Anger flashed through his mind, but it soon died away, to an depressing emptiness that made him struggle to walk away.
As he moved out of the alleyway and back onto the Osaka street, he remained blind to the occasional stares and whispers, too wrapped up in his own thoughts to bother with them. Most gave him a wide berth, disgusted by what they thought was drunken behaviour.
The salaryman stumbled his way through Osaka, listlessly, aimlessly and carelessly. He didn’t seem to care where he was going anymore. As long as he could still walk, he would continue. He just felt like he had to go somewhere. But his mind couldn’t make a decision.
So on he went.
Until the chime and bells of a nearby arcade pierced through the fog that his mind had created.
The sounds bought him back to his childhood, where things were simpler, more engaging and touched with a mysterious spark that had faded in his adult life.
Struck by the wave of nostalgia and a glimmer of hope, the salaryman went in and found himself lost.
Dimly lit, the arcade was lively and smelt strongly of disinfectant and teenage deodorant. Lights flashed, coins clattered, and loud pop songs blasted through the speakers and cacophony. Attendants moved to and from cabinets and games, spraying down surfaces and occasionally bowing and point to the coin-exchange machine for people. Young boys and girls came in and out of the arcade, hovering over well-known games to peer at each others’ progress, before flitting away to try another cabinet.
Girls laughed at their cute photos in the photo-booth machines, whilst boys sweated away at the dancing and rhythm games, their eyes intent on beating high scores.
All of them ignored him, as he wandered past and tried to find the game he had mastered when he was one of these young men.
It was in the darkest and lonely section of the arcade, close to the toilets where it perpetually smelt like urine and surrounded by older machines. It was also populated by similar people, men wearing work clothes and their eyes glued to the screen.
Depression reared its head inside his mind and as he sat down in front of a fighting game from his youth, he hoped that this session would shoo it away.
Slotting in a 100 yen coin, he found himself engrossed again, in a virtual world where he was the strong one, the one able to defeat villains, rescue pretty girls and everything was problem free, as long as it could be punched and kicked.
But after the completion of the first and easiest chapter, everything went downhill. He started jumping into punches, losing health, buttons were unable to land his combos and he suffered defeat after defeat.
More coins were furiously deposited into the slot, but the string of defeats kept growing, until in despair, he stopped himself from putting in another coin and sat back, staring forlornly at the score and the crimson “DEFEAT” icon flashing humiliatingly at him.
He stayed still, letting every red flash from the icon wash over face. How long he sat there, he didn’t know, but the mellow sleeping music started to fade into his consciousness when he finally shook himself out of his reverie.
Picking up his bag, he shuffled out of the arcade, embarrassed to have stayed so close to closing time, and forcing the attendants to work longer.
The streets were beginning to empty out. Neon shone a little more dimly down on less crowded streets and the sensation of alienation was beginning to creep in.
The salaryman, depressed, saddened and exhausted by the night he had, kept ambling along, until he found the place, that he should have not moved from, from the very beginning … a bar.
Pushing open the heavy wooden door, he waited at the steps of the basement entrance, to let his eyes adjust to the dimness of the bar. There was just a single man working, his hands a blur as he washed, cleaned and polished the huge pile of dirty glasses in the sink. He was dressed casually, with a white shirt and dark suit pants and a pair of half-moon spectacles hung in the vee of his shirt.
Motioning to the salaryman to take a seat, the bartender looked at the sorry soul and wordlessly got out a bottle of cheap sake. When he got the nod, the bartender poured a finer of sake into a small cup and pushed it gently to the salaryman.
Knocking it back, and feeling the alcohol take the edge off his depression just for precious seconds, his eyes began to look around.
It was your standard bar, with a corkboard where the bartender hung pictures of regulars, celebrities and parties who had visited, an A-frame that listed the specials that the kitchen was offering and a large TV hung behind the bartender, showing music videos of idols dancing and preening at the camera.
Everywhere was made of the same coloured dark wood, and weak, faded, yellowing lights created an atmosphere of quiet melancholy.
It was perfect for the salaryman. He just wanted to collapse into a bottle. If he died doing so, so much the better.
There were few patrons, mostly single men like him, drinking alone, wrapped in their own thoughts. No one spoke to each other, no one acknowledge each other.
They were too busy trying to drown their sorrows. The only one who seemed like his life was together, was the bartender.
Raising his hand, the salaryman placed the rest of his money on the table and told the barman to keep the drinks flowing.
As the sake kept disappearing, the salaryman wondered what had all this been for. He was supposed to spend a night out, away from the depressing atmosphere of his tiny room, but everywhere he went, reminded him of the failure he had become.
Food was tasteless and devoid of any comfort.
The arcade showed him him that his skills had faded. He was older, slower, and less vigorous.
The red-light hostess bar turned out to be a reminder of his loneliness, his failure to find steady relationships and how unfulfilling sex and masturbation had become.
It had gotten to the point, where even a real girl, administrating to him, was as soulless and joyless as his hand. He tried to control himself, but he could not help but do it three times a day. He would sneak into bathrooms and open his phone, hands down his pants, craving release.
He briefly wondered he had an addiction to sex, but could it even be called sex, if he did it alone all of the time?
The realisation sunk his spirits even lower, and he chased another sake cup down.
If he could not please himself, what else was there to do? Everything was being robbed from him.
Looking across, he saw another salaryman like him, suddenly collapse into the crook of his arm, asleep and drooling out of his mouth.
Staring at the man, he was reminded of his friend in high school who had the same features, angular features that made him popular with the girls.
He remembered snippets of their conversations, about how his friend used to sneak girls into the locker room, and behind the closed doors of empty classrooms. The time when he managed to get together with one of the girls, and then told his friend who laughed and congratulated him.
His friend who laughed, smiled and had such a casual nature about him … those were the memories he cherished, before the suicide.
It had come as a shock to everyone. He was one of the most popular students in the school, academically and socially, and yet he had taken his own life, suffocating on the fumes of his parent’s Mazda, with a garden hose taped to the exhaust.
He left no clue, or note. No apologies, no sign that he was going to take his own life. He had behaved completely normally, flirtatious and helpful, cracking jokes and teasing friends.
The only sign of something going amiss, was that he didn’t write any notes in class. He just sat up, and looked at the teacher attentively, a warm smile on his face as he looked like he was absorbing information.
The salaryman was crushed when he found out. Insulted and angry, he had gone to the tombstone and angrily stomped around, asking why he had done what he did.
When no answer came, from the stillness of the night, the salaryman had cried and walked home, bereft and saddened that his best friend did not tell him about his plans to kill himself.
But it was only years later, when he became more and more withdrawn that he understood that selfish desire. People didn’t understand him, so why bother trying to understand them?
The salaryman felt that way now, staring at the guy who looked so similar to his best friend of yesteryear. He felt selfish and nihilistic, empty and determined at the same time.
Pushing the chair back, he ignored the briefcase and stumbled out, in a drunken stupor and thought about whether he could make it home.
He too would, copy his friend and craw into the space of a car and slowly die.
He was already halfway down the street, and turning into an alleyway when he realised … he didn’t own a car.
Shaking, he collapsed down on the quiet, dark, Osaka street, and slid himself against a wall.
There he cried and cried and cried. His body shaking and heaving, his breath ragged and dry, the salaryman wept for himself and the darkness inside that didn’t seem to end.
He would remain there for the rest of the night, ignored by thousands who walked past, oblivious.
A quick exploration into the nihilistic and desperate loneliness that I saw a few times during my trip in Japan, I originally wanted to write this about a sex addict, similar to one of the most influential films I ever saw, as a university student: Shame (2011) by Steve McQueen, starring Michael Fassbender & Carey Mulligan.
I most likely will create a proper story based around the sex addiction, where I will have to practice how I balance erotic and melancholy language. But that film struck a deep cord within me, when I was single and spent a lot more time watching porn and being sucked into that virtual reward cycle.
This story of course, ended up mixing my desire to reference how sex can become meaningless if done too much and for the wrong reason, AND the nihilism I suspect anyone feels once stuck in a routine job, with no one to go home to and that special loneliness you only feel in a huge city.
I drew heavily on my experiences to describe the city and environments, which I went with my girlfriend, and 3 friends, one of whom was kind enough to let me use one of his photos for this story.
In a lot of ways, this was an attempt to mix Lost in Translation (2003)’s melancholy reflection on isolation among millions of people and Shame (2011)’s sad, existential crisis around loneliness and how you can be touched, but never felt.