Underground City

One December morning, Yonekura received an announcement for a farewell show by the celebrated Japanese-style illusionist Kyokujitsusai Tenka. Holding the mica-flecked invitation, Yonekura recalled visiting the performer backstage years earlier. He remembered Tenka’s eldritch skin, wrinkled beneath a heavy layer of face powder, and the otherworldly glow in Tenka’s eyes that seemed to draw him elsewhere. Onstage, Tenka appeared as a young woman, his hair coiffed in the shimada style, and, being a man wedded to his craft, the illusionist played the part of the belle even in his everyday life, never letting himself break character. Yet, when Yonekura saw Tenka up close, it was the ravages of old age that caught his eye. At the time, Yonekura was still a young entertainment reporter, not yet aware of the seductive allure of older men.

Yonekura had asked for Tenka at the stage entrance. A young pageboy received him, bending at the knees: “She’s doing her face right now. Just a moment.” Much later, he resurfaced to tell Yonekura: “She’s coming through now.” Coming through—the young reporter didn’t know what this meant. He stood there flustered as Tenka emerged, accompanied by a modest entourage—probably on the way to the bathroom, his lilac under-kimono nearly undone. He offered a respectful bow and then vanished.

Only later, long after Tenka reappeared, was Yonekura finally summoned to the star’s dressing room. I only came for a photo, Yonekura thought. But he did not give up, even though he had been kept waiting for some time. After all, it was his first time backstage, and he was still under the spell of Tenka’s bizarre metamorphosis into a young woman of no more than twenty-five or twenty-six. Following his meeting with Tenka, Yonekura sauntered down a long underground passage—a tunnel illuminated by naked light bulbs, opening to the theater seats through a trapdoor—that seemed to him like a labyrinth wending into some limbolike otherworld, and for a sliver of time he was struck by the thought that he had wandered into an alternate dimension.

More than a decade had passed. Yonekura was now a veteran journalist. Tenka, on the other hand, had long since bowed out of the limelight. Yonekura assumed that modern audiences couldn’t appreciate Tenka’s old-fashioned repertoire of illusions: water tricks and paper butterflies. But he was wrong. Yonekura didn’t know it, but calls for the performer to appear on TV and in live shows had never stopped. It was Tenka, mad about the psychic arts, who had vowed not to return to the stage until he had learned to communicate with the spirit world. Apparently, Tenka wanted to hypnotize a volunteer from the audience, and have him serve as a spiritual medium. While Yonekura found nothing strange about great magicians like Houdini turning to mesmerism or necromancy, he didn’t know what these psychic practices had to do with an illusionist like Tenka. Yet it seemed as though Tenka had met with some success. At the bottom of the invitation, below interjections of “AMAZING!” and “SUPERNATURAL!,” the grand finale bore the title:

SÉANCE—THE DEAD ARE CALLING US.

The Dead Are Calling Us. At any other time, that statement might not have jumped out at Yonekura. But he had lost his wife only six months earlier, and the words cut into his heart. Yonekura’s wife Kaori had fallen ill with a general debilitation that left her doctors baffled. Until the end, Kaori did nothing but look at her husband with large, sad eyes, as if there were something she wanted to tell him. Those eyes: staring desperately, even when she died—what was it they were trying to say?

The Great Divide. To Yonekura, these words took on a new profundity. He was haunted by the infinite emptiness separating him from his wife. Yonekura knew that she was forever gone from him, that he would never again be able to touch her. His sorrow was too much to bear, so even though he knew it was absurd, he thought: What if the dead really are calling us? The possibility of communing with the departed inspired waves of anticipation and dread. Tenka’s invitation brought back—with a vividness that Yonekura could not have expected—the memory of Kaori’s pallor as she lay on her deathbed, and of her wide-open eyes.

The farewell show was held at a popular theater in Shibuya. Since it was the end of the year, and Tenka had not performed in ages, Yonekura assumed there would only be a modest turnout. Yet what he found was not at all what he had expected: throngs of people were flooding into the grand lobby, which was full of flowers. At the counter, Yonekura produced his card and arranged to meet with Tenka during the intermission after the first act.

Yonekura was smoking a cigarette and chatting with some acquaintances when he noticed a young girl, perhaps Eurasian. She was wearing a low-cut beige evening gown, which contrasted sharply with the stunning silver stole curled over her back. Her copious eye makeup, likely an attempt to conceal her girlish features, only accentuated her pure guilelessness. She reminded him of his class president from grammar school. Yonekura turned to a friend and asked, “Who’s that?”

“That’s Tenka’s niece, his star pupil.”

“You mean she—” Yonekura deftly made his cigarette disappear between two fingers, then reappear, “does this?”

 “I think she’s the hypnotist in the final act, The Dead Are Calling Us.”

Yonekura flipped through his playbill and found the girl’s name: Kyokujitsusai Tenjō. He excused himself and stood by a potted rubber tree. He was astonished to learn that such a stunning girl could be a hypnotist, but this only piqued his interest. He wanted to peer deeply into those eyes. To be sure, it wasn’t her gown that had enraptured Yonekura when he first saw her—it was the sultry sidelong glance that she gave him. That look wasn’t the standard coquetry of an entertainer. There was something earnest in her eyes, as if she were trying to tell him something. Sure enough, when Tenjō saw that Yonekura was standing alone, she walked past him several times, and each time her bottomless black eyes flashed something in his direction—almost as though she had winked at him. Even though her face was hidden behind mascara and lipstick, Yonekura was certain that he had never laid eyes on the girl before that night. He was also sure that, every time she walked by, she was trying to tell him something. A boyish curiosity started to throb in his chest, and then the bell rang, heralding the beginning of the first act.

Yonekura had reasonably assumed that Tenjō would slip backstage before the show, but there she was, sitting in the audience, just in front of him and off to one side. Even after the curtain rose, Yonekura couldn’t bring himself to focus on the show; at times he thought he sensed a furtive glance from the shadow of her stole.

A steady procession of young magicians performed deft acts of legerdemain onstage: in the blink of an eye a cane was transformed into a handkerchief, the handkerchief into a white dove. With dizzying speed, the magicians produced rainbow streamers, pocket watches, and coins—all from their bare hands; then, like phantoms of daylight, the objects disappeared. Watching this, Yonekura lost himself in reminiscence. He didn’t know anything of Ten-ichi and Tenshō’s glory days, nor could he have marveled at Tenshō II’s Autumnal Magic show at the Japan Theatre—that was all before his time. All that Yonekura knew were the breathtaking feats performed by Ishida Tenkai when the illusionist came home from the war. Perhaps that explained his affinity for sleight of hand, rather than large-scale magic shows. He didn’t care for grand stages like this one.

Yonekura was fond of the sordid scene of a street magician on a windblown corner next to a station, forlornly corralling customers, a sight that had long since vanished from the city. Five bony fingers would fan out a deck of colorful cards. And then, with a flick of the wrist, the cards would collapse effortlessly—contorting like animals. An onlooker would timidly pick a card, which would then rise up from the deck, or maybe appear in the coat pocket of another man. He knew all the tricks inside and out, yet Yonekura couldn’t get enough of the banal production of cigarettes and coins. Why did these things excite him the way they did? Still, Yonekura was always careful to wear a blank expression, to put on an air of indifference as he lurked just behind the wall of spectators encircling the magician.

After the show, when the magician would start to hawk the secrets of his trade, the crowd would scatter in the wind. Yonekura would stand at a slight distance, the bill of his hat lowered just a shade, stealing a glance at the magician, now somewhat melancholy. Moments before, the man would beam with a confident grin—so dashing he could have pulled off a silk top hat and tails. Now he stands: lonesome, pitiful, cold. His clothes tattered, the magician chews on his lip, alone in the bone-chilling wind. This man is a traveler from some faraway place. At the same time, he is me . . . 

Yonekura awoke from his reverie. A young magician in a white tuxedo, who waved his hand in the air and pulled white rabbit after white rabbit from his hat, was now walking off stage before Tenka’s final water trick, the conclusion to the program’s first act. In that moment, Yonekura noticed Tenjō getting up from her seat, which roused him from his daydream. She coolly made her way between the seats and, vanishing behind the door, left him with the enigmatic smile of a beautiful girl.

Yonekura applauded with the rest of the audience, standing up as nonchalantly as possible and then rushing after her. There was no sign of life in the carpeted hallway, but he thought he saw a flutter of beige at the side of the hall opposite him. He beetled after it.

At the far end of the hall was a rest room. It looked as if Tenjō had disappeared behind the door to its immediate right. Yonekura lunged through the door and the girl’s taut flesh fell into his arms. Just before his eyes were Tenjō’s vermillion lips, slightly parted, panting—and her deep black eyes, a terror hidden within them. Her eyes suddenly focused on Yonekura’s face, but in the next moment, Tenjō twisted her body with the agility of a boy, turned around, and ran away before Yonekura even knew what had happened.

“Hey!”

Yonekura lost his balance as the girl’s body, weighing no more than an armful of flowers, escaped his embrace. In front of him another hallway sprawled out in silence, slanting gently downward. The silver stole was swallowed into a far corner of the hallway. Yonekura gave chase, the clatter of his shoes echoing after him. Yet, as he turned down the corners of the endless passageway, he found nothing but a mysterious grin like the Cheshire Cat’s. The passageway seemed to approach the trapdoor. Just like his first time backstage—perhaps the passageway connected to another dimension. There could have been some underground city beyond there, completely different from the world aboveground. Yonekura kept running, drifting.

When at last he caught up to the girl, she was standing at a door at the end of the hall. As if she had no strength left, she collapsed again into Yonekura’s open arms. Had she fainted? Her closed eyelids were bluish, twitching. Her body—her slender waist, her boyish chest—was completely limp in Yonekura’s arms. Yonekura cradled her soft neck in his hand and kissed her brilliant red lips passionately. When Tenjō opened her moist black eyes again, she met his gaze intently, then moved her lips to his ear and whispered:

“Please kill me. Kill me, like you killed your wife.”

 

As Tenjō stared at Yonekura, her face transformed into Kaori’s. But this lasted only a moment, until he realized that behind the face of his lost wife, as if in a double exposure, was Tenka’s face, covered in white powder.

“Wait! Stop!” Yonekura tried to call to Tenjō as she ran off, but the words wouldn’t come. He reached out for her, but all that was left in his fingers was the tip of her stole. She had already vanished behind the door.

Opening the door and stepping inside, Yonekura gasped and froze at the sight of Tenjō’s head flying around the room. The ceiling, the walls, the floor, and the curtains were all the same shade of beige as Tenjō’s dress, which created an illusion much like a skeleton dancing in pieces before a black curtain. Tenjō’s body parts—her head, arms, and legs—swayed about madly, each its own creature, swimming in a sea of beige. Yonekura looked on in disbelief as the head smiled at him—half fondly, half teasingly—and those pale arms, suspended in midair, called to him; then, suddenly her body reassembled itself and vanished, swallowed whole by the beige sea.

Summoning all his strength, Yonekura threw himself into that space. Just as he thought: a trapdoor. The room was bleak, empty. There was nothing but a couple of chairs and a round three-legged table. Tenjō was nowhere in sight. Yonekura had burst into the room only a split second after the girl vanished, so it would have been impossible for her to reach the door on the opposite side. Nor was there any place for her to hide. Tenjō’s vanishing act was immaculate, perfect.

Yonekura hung his head. That whisper, Kill me like you killed your wife, was now deafening. Although he had no memory of killing his wife, Yonekura couldn’t shake the feeling that it was true: he felt that he finally understood what Kaori was trying to tell him with her wide-open eyes. He would not be surprised to find on the other side of this final door the scene of his own execution. Steeling himself, Yonekura walked up to the door and opened it. When he shut the door behind himself, a thought flitted through Yonekura’s mind: Dammit! That was a table de Salomé, fitted with a mirror, and Tenjō must have been hiding behind it. But none of that mattered now.

An intense white spotlight hit him straight on. As he suspected: he was standing centerstage in Tenka’s final act, the séance, which was now underway. Tenka, dressed in a formal surcoat, addressed the audience as he took Yonekura by the hand and sat him down in a chair onstage. Tenka continued to speak, his words becoming gradually louder:

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience. Now, as I explained earlier, this man is a top writer at a major newspaper. I assure you: he’s the real thing—yet it’s best I keep his name a secret. Suffice it to say that he’s a veteran reporter, widely known among journalists. So, without further ado, let’s find out whose voice will speak to us through his lips. I ask that you please remain silent while I attempt to make contact with the other side."

Again, Tenka touched Yonekura with his ice-cold hands. Instantly, Yonekura’s eyelids felt unbearably heavy; he could no longer hold his head up. Yonekura could feel his inhibitions slipping away—he no longer felt shame at having his soul bared in public. He was sure that Tenjō had hypnotized him in the lobby, but his thoughts were now elsewhere: he was on tenterhooks waiting to hear from Kaori, appearing from across the infinite void, to tell him the truth about her death.

And then, as his head dangled, shrill snatches of a woman’s voice began to slip out from his mouth, blowing through him like a gelid wind.

“My name is Kaori—I’m this man’s wife.”

“You’re no longer with us, my dear. When was it that you passed away?”

“Six months ago.”

“Was it illness?”

“No, I was murdered.”

“Murdered! By whom?”

“By my husband… by this man.”

“How did he do it?”

“. . .”

“Come, child. You can tell us. How did he kill you?”

A heavy hush fell over the audience. Then a man jumped out of his seat, bellowing thickly:

“Stop! Stop it now!”

There was no doubt that the screaming man was also Yonekura. Yet, strangely, the audience, now on the edge of their seats, paid no attention. Nor did Tenka, with a sadistic glint in his eyes, take notice. After a moment’s hesitation, the voice on the stage resumed:

“I was poisoned, little by little. But I knew I was drinking poison. No—I don’t hate my husband for it. Not at all. But I would’ve been so happy if he’d only slipped his hands around my neck and strangled me. I was desperate to tell him this. I did the only thing I could—I tried to tell him with my eyes, but he never understood.”

Standing in the audience, Yonekura heard the woman’s voice and—as if all the energy had just been sucked from his body—he fell back into his seat.

It’s true: standing by and watching my sick wife as she was ravaged by an inexplicable sickness, how I wished that I was the one killing her. That, rather than looking on helplessly as the invisible demons of illness ate away at her mind and body, would prove my love for her. And she understood this. Kaori died thinking of her medicine as sweet poison. Yet she was still unsure. She wanted me to expel all doubt, to squeeze her throat with my loving hands. Those pleading eyes—forever looking at me, they never stopped looking at me—she was trying to scream with every scintilla of her being that she loved me . . .

At the end of the disappointing séance, with all its telltale signs of being staged, the theater lights came on all at once, revealing in the seats the body of a middle-aged man in a trancelike state. On his face was a blissful grin. It was the peaceful countenance of a man who had descended into the underground city of the mind, now certain—beyond a shadow of a doubt—of his lost wife’s love.

By arrangement with the estate of Nakai Hideo. Translation © 2012 by David Boyd. All rights reserved.