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TOKYO, THE UNREAL CITY

MARIKO NAGAI

Here, in Tokyo, when an outsider comes, they come with an image of Tokyo: a metropolis, futuristic in its neon signs and high-rise buildings: the efficiency and punctuality of its people and all they touch: where the old ways of living smoothly inhabit the place of the modern: the East but not the East, and the West but not the West. Images they bring with their suitcases often collide with the real, and reality is as elusive as dreams, for this is the city made up of the dreams of the outsiders, a phantom, a city built with the imagination. People take on the city; they recreate it, redefine it. But they do not know that they are living in a dreamscape of their own making. That they are bringing their hopes into a space that is waiting to be filled, but they do not see that the city itself laughs at their – our – foolishness. That there is a narrative in its invisibility.

Hasn’t someone said this already? Have I heard all of this before? Nevertheless. Nevertheless.

It must’ve always been like this: cities created, then abandoned or destroyed, each new city built on top of the ghosts of the cities before. From the dirt road trodden hard into submission by men; then horses’ hooves; then thick layers of asphalt that crack open as if in protest, as if the earth underneath is restless. From dirt to black tar, which crumbles under feet and time, we put on layer after layer of foundation, so that like the make-up of actors, the sights presented are far removed from the original. It is lost. It is forgotten. Rivers shaped to fit our will, and now, their water stilled, filled with the broken artifacts of culture. Thousands and thousands of people cross the canals and rivers of various sizes morning and night: meanwhile, a patient sits on her bed in a hospital in the city, tracing the outlines of the buildings on her window.

The city is ablaze. The city is awake at all hours. Someone is always awake: at three a.m., a young man stands behind the counter of a convenience store looking bored, and a man enters. He looks around. Then settles himself in front of the magazine rack; across the street, the baker wakes up to start his day. The city is seismic, in motion. How many times has the city been destroyed, lay in ruin, and rebuilt? Every quarter of a century, the city lies in ruin. Fires. Dead bodies. Earthquakes. Volcanic eruptions. And soon, the city becomes reanimated, the dreams of people reinfusing the charred space like a reincarnated soul. The city built on the unclaimed dead and lost dreams and untold stories. Nevertheless. Nevertheless, what of the living?

Here is a woman, gaunt and skeletal, stubborn in her grief, and her life only important to herself. A fossil for where her heart once was. Frozen from a love affair twenty years ago, and her growth retarded, a soul caged in a coffin of a body for nearly a quarter of a century. It is night. She hums as she brushes her hair on the bed, her heart singing with a love so perverse that it has become a grandiose vision of who she is –a martyr, closer to god, like the anchoress of nervosa anorexia, afraid of being forsaken, jealous of the saints’ lives, but unable to move forward. He will walk through this door, she thinks. If he knew that I was sick, he will come rescue me. Isn’t that what all the movies teach us, to hope against despair, to hope despite the impossibility? She is where she was a quarter of a century ago, when some man loved her as the other woman, only half-heartedly, because his heart and body already belonged to his wife. He did not give his heart, at least all of the small daily gestures were given out to his wife; only the grand gestures of an opera were left to share with this woman. Her heart is still going; it is her liver that failed her, the organ that the soul does not reside in, but is cleansed through. She looks out the window into the many windows across the street, the many lives going on without her. She is the eye that watches. She is the eye of this city, the indifferent city. She sees the lives going on, she feels the pang of jealousy of the lives seemingly better than hers, but for the sick, everyone’s life looks better. For now here she is, a possibility of who we can be, if we make the choices she made. And we know that if given little, we too will make the same choices.

The city is deafening with stories. Stories we carry inside of ourselves. Stories no one talks about. How they got here. How they stay here. Why they stay. Stories in the crooks of alleys. On streets. In the slaughterhouse, right behind the whaling office buildings, a cow bleats as it is pushed off the truck in the middle of the night. A pig squeals before a stun gun is pressed against its forehead, just between the eyes. Away from the streets, inside the building. Hidden, but all things corporeal are hidden in this city. So instead, rumors, or already told stories. And a story must be about a woman, always. It is always a woman who appears in a story about a city. This is an intimate portrayal of a woman. Her story is a story of the city, but no one remembers her. She got out of the hospital. She moved back to her home country. She died two years later – five years ago – in her bed at home. It must be a sad story, so we can say to ourselves, thank god it’s not me, thank god I’m not her. So that we can feel better than the story, and perhaps, a little better than the city that silences us. See. Stories aren’t always sad, but a moment, a snapshot can condense a life into a tragedy. Nevertheless.

We walk on the artificial roads paved by men; we walk the cobblestone streets and the back alleys of the Edo period littered with candy wrappers and signs of America, though America did not exist in the imagination or the knowledge of the people back then; amidst the pink neon signs of the porn shops offering live shows and the newly arrived, who pretend themselves to be different otherwise, navigating the labyrinth of lies and the past and the violent juxtaposition of buildings that do not match, of canals that carry the debris of yesterday’s mistakes, of rivers that men have taught to stop, and of nostalgia. Rivers lie fallow. Rivers lie. Rivers did lie fallow when the city burned from bombs and people sought out water, water, they said, and the rivers were congested with bodies seeking out water. A man carries his home on his back. He stands still, but no one wonders what brought him here. People walk around him as if he is a ghost. He is a ghost because he has no home, he is home everywhere and nowhere, but we are not at home. He stands still. Then he folds himself into his coat, and curls up on the street with his back pressed to the wall of a building. He sleeps but does not sleep. He is awake. He is alert for those footsteps, the swagger that only the young boys have: he does not fully sleep. He does not dream. We walk the streets that meander along the invisible canals. We walk on the streets that were created four hundred years ago, actualized in the imagination of the past but illogical to the present.

Hasn’t someone said this already? We are invisible, we are ghosts, but someone has already said this before. The past, the present, the visible and the invisible. These are already said again and again. But what of these moments in the city? Gestures of strangers. Gestures of the unfamiliar on the streets? Here is one.

In the world of the deaf, all words are embodied in gestures, hands that become mouth, and mouth that remains startlingly silent except to emit gargling sounds that break the expected scene. A boy, who is beyond his voice cracking, laughs silently though the window of the bus to another boy standing on the pavement, and his hands flicker, fast, like hummingbirds’ wings that follow the strain of the heart; the boy on the pavement laughs silently, his gestures faster than the boy behind the glass, their communication more condensed, fluid, faster than the words that must open up the throat and mouth muscles. It is a privileged moment, a moment that illuminates our daily lives, that worms out in time once in a while, that lets light in. That makes the world more meaningful, more raw, as if we are standing with flesh torn off, but feeling alive because of the pain.

The city burns. It stays awake. People come, stay, and disappear like startled pigeons. Buildings are erected. Buildings are torn down, and each walk is a walk through the unfamiliar. But what stays constant is the bathhouse. Men and women strip their present, faces they show to others, remove their underwear and false selves, and stand naked, revealing the self that does not shift, that does not move. Earthquakes and fires. The air raids and ruins and the charred earth. What we seek, even when the city does not stand, is the river we have stopped, the rivers we have reshaped in order to make them submit to our desire. But because there is no river left, we seek out bathhouses instead. To remember where we came from, and who we really are.

Bodies of many shapes and folds, showing the startling trajectory of gravity that traces the years and regrets and births; these bodies are domestic, domesticated. Sit in the bathtub the size of a king-size bed and watch other women go through the ritual of the public bath: some washing their hair, some gingerly looking at their own bodies in the measurement of others, some, the old, the young, walk about in seeming carelessness, as if they are beyond bodies, or perhaps before bodies themselves. And we fall in love, only a little, with them, with their shamelessness, their ability to let go of past glories. There is something beautiful in the aging process: the breasts with protruding nipples, areolas dark from sucking, with the startlingly collapsed look of late autumn persimmons. Lines crisscrossing the torsos like a road map, intricate, streets without names, a neighborhood here, a neighborhood right below the naval. Bodies decay. They age. They rot. And they are laughing at the city, this city that refuses to age, that has forgotten to age. Women laugh in the bathhouse, strangers becoming familiar, their bodies at their various stages of decay for all to see. This has been going on, even with the earthquakes, even with the city dismantled from the incendiary bombs and the eyes looking down from B-29s. The bathhouse. The constant.

This city does not age. The first sign of decay, and the building is torn down. A new building is built in its empty space. The city is not allowed to age. The natural process of aging is banned. But because this place is a collective dream, because in a dream, we can will ourselves into better selves, we can dive into the underground crowded with weekenders as we used to when we were small and we did not fear water or understand that we were weaker than the undercurrent. We can disappear into the train and give our faces, our histories of sex, love, the words we have recycled and the words we have never said, yesterday’s dinner and tomorrow’s expectations, our clothes and our desires, to the strangers who are also dreaming. Slip them into people’s pockets. Slip in the hopes we never used and the desires that remain unfilled. Slip into another body, into another story or two. Take on a new life. Seek it amongst strangers; seek them in the construction sites and collapsing graveyards, seek it amongst the corners of the skyscrapers and the precariously built houses of the homeless, and, for air, we can emerge out of the subway onto the ground, into the sudden eruption of the light, and gasp for air, and then, continue swimming in rivers of our imagination. 

CONTRIBUTORS

Photographer/Writer: Mariko Nagai