My name is Rosalie Wada. My identity is not my own, merely an extension of my master Akira’s. My purpose is to bring sound to this world as my master desires. I am an instrument. Purchased through the sweat and tears of my master, I joined Onna Gumi, and became their most prominent member, inseparable from my master’s identity. Without me, she’s a tomboy with a demeanor that makes people cautious to approach. Without her, I am a fancy display piece in the front window of a music shop.
Until I met him. Gitah Hirasawa, owned by that childish guitarist Yui. His strings had rusted over due to her ignorance, but his rain-splattered body belied a musical form that was perfectly in tune. Worse, it was by accident. Yet, he and his master were happy to be playing music, unaware of the latent talent that was hidden within them. That’s not to say I hated him. He didn’t give me any reason to. He always wanted to play duets or learn some new tricks from my master and her friends. The rest of Houkago Tea Time’s instruments reassured me this was normal.
Before long, our last year of college came. Akira was on her way to becoming a teacher, but she promised to remain as part of Onna Gumi for as long as she could. It would be a fun career to moonlight by, giving her an edge that would endear her to her students, or so she hoped.
It was late in April, and Onna Gumi had been invited to perform at a cherry blossom festival in Nagoya. Sachi, Ayame and my master were having breakfast at the Tiger Cafe. The sun had barely broken over the horizon, and the air was still crisp and cold. Akira’s coffee was left mostly untouched. Ayame was stuffing her mouth full of sweets.
“Seriously, a flower viewing?” asked Akira, tapping on the dewy glass window. “I was hoping we’d be performing in a club with lots of neon signs and a smoke machine. If we have to perform some sort of sappy love ballad here, people might think that’s all we can do.”
“This does seem like the kind of thing Yui would enjoy, would it?” said Ayame, tapping her spoon on the edge of the table like a tinny metronome. “Cheer up, Akira. We can find a club to crash tonight.”
“It’s not about the place, it’s about our image,” said Akira. “Not just that, we’re going first.”
“We are still a college band,” said Sachi, “perhaps we’ll get lucky. Have you heard about Houkago Tea TIme performing at the Budokan? This could be our stepping stone to success.”
“Getting to the Budokan that quickly is unreal,” said Akira. A waitress came by and left the bill behind for the three. Akira and her friends continued talking as they left the cafe. “Let’s go. I wanna take in the scenery. Who knows when we’ll be coming back here?”
Akira placed her hands in her pockets and briskly walked ahead. Sachi’s steps grew wider as she sought to catch up. Ayame, however, heard the sound of a can rolling across the street, and peeked down the intersection.
A figure, lightly dressed with a notebook in his hand, was running up the street. Something bulky and cylindrical was swinging from a cord on his neck. His shirt was wrinkled, half of it not tucked into his pants. Ayame reached out her hand in a brief but wasted attempt to call his name. By the time her breath had been drawn, he had vanished behind the next row of buildings.
Ayame closed her eyes, and looked across the block once more. Nobody was there. Her friends were about to round the street corner themselves. She sprinted, her golden hair blowing in the wind, and caught up. Sachi turned around, asking what it was the drummer had seen. Ayame nervously laughed in response.
Everyone was headed down to the park for the flower viewing, leaving the streets of Nagoya sparsely packed. The three piece band take in the scent of the city. Freshly cooked bread, the starchy smell of suits and the fainest hint of cherry blossoms made a smell that was unusual, but not unpleasant. As they neared the park, the crowds began to swell. A large cluster of folks of all ages were at the front of the park.
“How do they expect us to get to the stage?” asked Sachi.
“We could always ask,” said Akira.
“I don’t know if they’ll hear us over all the shouting,” said Ayame.
A member of the city council tapped Akira on the shoulder. She turned around, preparing her fists in defense, only to see that it was a harmless man. He was holding up a clipboard. He nodded his head towards a cable connected to the stage’s speakers. Onna Gumi got the message, and followed him to the spot where we, their instruments, were waiting.
“This is a pretty large park,” said Akira. “Are you sure you’ll be getting your money’s worth out of a group like us?”
“We do have a couple of sponsors,” said the man, “I’ve heard there are people from some major record labels here scouting out new talent. Don’t mind the signs, girls. Come on, get dressed.”
The man revealed a set of three cherry blossom patterned yukata in varying shades of pink. Akira winced, but knew she would have to go through with it. Onna Gumi wasn’t the one holding the cards in this scenario. The three musicians walked towards the changing room hidden within the park. Akira glanced at the signboards placed across the park giving thanks to the sponsors.
“Our gratitude to Masaka Yumeno,” she said, reading in a hushed voice, “That’s a weird name.”
“Come on, Akira,” said Ayame, grabbing Akira by the arm, “Let’s make you cute!”
“I don’t want to be cute!” Akira protested.
The sounds that followed were intense and stare inducing. Without a Gitah-like presence in this band, we’re a much more cohesive unit. Yet our enthusiasm for this gig is less than optimal.
“Alright, Rosalie. Let’s make this count,” said my master as we ascended to the stage.
People of all ages were lined up on blankets, their lunches set out. Some of them were drinking sake, and talking amongst themselves in voices too distant for the trio to hear. Sachi played a few notes on her bass, and turned to Akira. A group of children playing a game of tag ran through Onna Gumi’s field of view. When they had cleared away, a solitary man was seen reclining against a tree.
“I think he’s looking at us,” said Sachi.
A spiral notepad was in his left hand, and a pen was in his right. A pair of binoculars hung around his neck. He was skinny and his hair was messy. His clothes were mismatched, a bright red shirt with dark khaki pants. He looked like a blot of ink that had dropped into the matte painting of the cherry blossom fields in front of us. The man was clearly approaching middle age, but looked five years younger.
“That’s him!” shouted Ayame, standing up over the drums. Her voice wasn’t picked up on the mic, luckily. The sound of her feet stomping onto the stage drew the attention of the crowds.
“Ayame, everyone’s going to the flower viewing,” said Sachi, “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Sorry,” said Ayame, sitting down once more.
Akira approached the mic, holding me tightly between her arms. My strings were tight and tuned, and my black body reflected the curtains of sunlight cutting through the branches. The wind was blowing behind us, carrying every pluck of my strings to the ears of the people.
“We’re Onna Gumi, from Tokyo,” said Akira nervously, “Thanks for inviting us out here today, and...”
“We’re gonna show you a fun time!” said Ayame, “One! Two! A-one two three four!”
Our first song had been personally written by Sachi. It was a powerful sound, heavy on the guitar. The song’s lyrics spoke of a girl so large she can’t see the world beneath her. If the largeness is a metaphor or literal is something we leave up to the audience. Though I doubted most of the audience was listening. All they could hear was the melody of the song providing background noise to their midday meal.
Except for that man. He had his binoculars focused on Akira. He wasn’t staring her directly into the face, but looking to her left, as if there was something beyond the trees that had caught his attention.
“Maybe he’s a birdwatcher,” said Ayame, working her statement into the beats of the song’s bridge. We wrapped up our first tune. The audience gave us a round of applause, scattered but appreciative.
The next two songs had not been chosen by the band. They wanted us to do an enka song to celebrate the cherry blossoms blooming. I am not a traditional instrument, so my body had not been built for these kinds of songs. Akira’s singing voice wasn’t cut out for enka either. She was a rocker at heart, used to screaming in a deep voice, shouting words that barely completed themselves before moving onto the next lyric. Enka is the exact opposite of that.
We tried our best to play the song. Compared to what the girls had written on their own, the lyrics were short. It’s just that every syllable was held for so long. The crowd was paying more attention to us this time. Their stares only intensified the nervousness that comes with playing something outside one’s genre.
When five minutes had passed, Akira bent down onto the stage. The crowd applauded with more passion than before. Akira stood up and wiped the sweat off her forehead, leaving a dark spot on her yukata. Playing that song had left her more worn out than anything Yui had put her through.
A short medley of our favorite songs followed.We were about to clear off the stage for the next band when the city council member reminded us there was one more song we had to perform. “Waga Nagoya”. We complied. It was easier than the enka, at least.
“We are Onna Gumi, thank you everybody,” said Akira.
“See you at the club tonight!” shouted Ayame.
“Ayame, quiet,” said Sachi.
“Now, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the stage...” said the emcee.
The three girls departed. Ayame wasn’t looking forward to transporting her drum kit all the way home again. They entered the changing rooms, removing the yukata. There was nothing worn underneath these robes, and their bodies had gotten sweaty. Akira shivered as a blast of cold air her struck her small chest.
“What was with binoculars man?” asked Ayame. “I think he had his eye on you, Akira.”
“That’s just creepy,” said Akira.
“Perhaps he’s a fan outside our audience of college girls,” said Sachi.
“That’s kinda our only audience,” said Ayame.
“So, what do you want to do for the rest of the day?” said Akira, slipping on a black tank top, “We could stick around for the flower viewing, but if the town’s empty, I think it’s a good chance to do some sightseeing.”
“I think we have to stay here,” said Sachi, “They want us to join the other bands at the end.”
“Playing a gig is hard when you don’t hold all the cards,” said Akira.
Onnna Gumi left the changing rooms. They briskly walked towards a secluded area of the park. An old rope and wood swing hung from one of the tree branches, and the hill sloped gently enough to allow a view, but also to give the girls a sense of privacy. Almost.
That man with the binoculars was waiting by the tree. He slipped his notebook into his breast pocket and smiled. Akira’s face scrunched up in fright. “There’s nothing to fear,” he said, “I could tell by your earring and your music. The real music, not the stuff the bigwigs wanted you to play,” he said, “Are you a Death Devil tribute band?”
“Death Devil?” asked Akira.
“There’s a lot of black and red, and chokers. You don’t look like the kind to wear a lot of makeup. It’s the music that’s important, and your sound is quite close to theirs,” said the man with the binoculars.
“Who the hell is Death Devil?” asked Akira.
“I think Yui might have mentioned them in passing,” said Sachi.
“Hirasawa. Why do I remember all this useless trivia?” said Akira. Yui had spoken of Houkago Tea Time’s past at great length, expecting Akira to follow her pace. Akira had retained some of the knowledge through constant repetition, but she couldn’t recall the details at a moment’s notice.
“You understand what it means to be a rock musician. Can you sign this notebook for me?” said the man, holding out his pen.
“We’re not a Death Devil tribute band,” said Akira. “Stop bothering us.”
“You’re right,” said the man, his face involuntarily breaking out into a smile. “Perhaps I should introduce myself to you girls. My name is Kota Yatsubo, costume designer to the stars. I promise you won’t have to wear any more cutesy stuff while I’m in charge.” He took out his business card and handed it to Akira.
Onna Gumi huddled a safe distance away, looking at the card. There was no organization listed. The listed address was in this area, but the cards were yellowed and faded, with noticeable creases. Sachi noticed dust gathering on the tip of her finger when she touched the paper.
“Do we need a costume designer?” asked Akira. “That seem so... Hirasawa-like.”
“Houkago Tea Time does have that advantage over us. Taking him into our circle would even the playing field,” said Sachi.
“He did say no more cuteness,” said Ayame with a smirk.
“No more cuteness is good. If it doesn’t look good with a black guitar, it’s not worth doing,” said Akira.
“Think about it, he wants to work for us. We get some say in our image,” said Ayame.
“He looks kind of old,” said Sachi, “and I think he has us mistaken for someone else.”
“This is the closest to being scouted we’ve had,” said Akira, showing a smile, “I say we go for it.”
The huddle broke. Akira took out her cell phone and punched in Mr. Yatsubo’s number. She showed him the phone’s screen, and told him he could do the same.
Once the introductions were finished, Yatsubo grabbed Akira by her hands. He bent down on one knee, looking up at her with his tired face. Akira winced and took a step back.
“Wait, don’t go!” he said, “You’re not going to reject me too, are you?”
“No, no. Just... keeping a safe distance,” said Akira.
“I’m okay with that. Thank you so much, girls. You’re the first group I’ve had that’s even willing to look at me in years. What gave you the change of heart?” he stood up, extending his hand towards Akira for a shake. Akira returned the favor, but now with an air of confusion hovering around her.
“Well...” said Akira, “I had this friend back at university. She told me her high school club advisor was really into this kind of stuff. Ms. Yamanaka, she said. I guess I want to try it for myself. For friendship, I guess.”
Mr. Yatsubo’s eyes opened wide. “Yamanaka? As in Sawako Yamanaka?” he asked.
“Yui said she was called ‘Sawa’, so I think that was her. Any reason?” asked Akira.
“Sawako Yamanaka, also known as CATHERINE!” shouted Yatsubo, “Death Devil’s guitarist, one of the most charismatic stage presences of the past twenty years. Girls, it would be an honor to work for you. If you can get me a line to Catherine, I’ll do my best for you.”
Akira stood still for a moment. “Sure.”
A partnership had been born. Yatsubo hastily scribbled an address onto the back of his business card, telling us to meet him there in the afternoon.
Onna Gumi returned to watching the flowers bloom. The cherry trees were a brilliant pink. Even in the daytime, there was a feeling in the air that, in this moment, anything could happen. More bands, none of them as “hardcore”, in the words of my master, as Onna Gumi followed, along with several comedy acts and a stage magician. Before long the stage cleared, and the cherry trees themselves became the entertainment.
People started to filter out as the sun began its descent across the sky. They had other places to go, and so did we. Sachi rolled up the blanket, placing it below her shoulder strap. We weren’t very familiar with Nagoya, and getting to a far off destination like Yatsubo’s would require some extra time.
Akira felt a dull buzzing sensation in her pocket. She flipped open her cell phone. It was not a new mail from Yatsubo, as she had expected, but from a name that was fresh in her mind, but meaningless.
“Masaka.... Yumeno?” asked Akira.
“She must be coordinating this,” said Sachi. “Though I didn’t hear anyone by that name being called for today.”
“How’d she your number anyway?” asked Ayame.
“You think I know?” said Akira, “Let’s see here...”
Onna Gumi, hello. I am a Pony Canyon employee who oversees musical events such as these. Music is not the only thing we’re scouting. Events require people of many talents, including costumes. If you see any stray threads, follow them. They may be pulled apart, but they can also be sewn back together. Best of luck. Masaka Yumeno.
“Hirasawa must have told her about us,” said Akira.
“You sure it’s Hirasawa?” said Ayame.
“Mugi seems to be the business-oriented one of their band. Getting a foot in the door for us is such a sweet thing to do,” said Sachi.
“We’re not sure if that’s what’s going on,” said Akira. “Maybe we should pay Yatsubo a visit. A short visit, though. Our image could go way down if we’re seen with a freeter like him.”
The streets were filled with people once more. A group of girls in high school uniforms passed by the members of Onna Gumi along the way. Akira gave her friends a smile. They recollected the moment they formed their band back in high school. They were wrapped up in their conversation to the point that they almost missed the apartment complex where Yatsubo had asked to meet them.
“Looks like this is the place,” said Akira.
Ayame ran towards the doorbell and called up the room listed on the card. Yatsubo’s voice came through the intercom.
“Oh, girls, sorry about that. I was getting something organized,” he said. “It’s on the third floor, room 304.”
The sliding door opened up, making way for the band to enter. The apartment lobby was a little run down. The decor looked like it hadn’t changed since the early 90s. It was clean, but stepping into it made Akira feel out of her element. It was the kind of place students would dare each other to walk through at night, the kind of place where the walls were squeaky to the touch.
“The elevator’s having some repairs done,” said the man at the front desk, “The stairwell is over there.”
“Thank you for your assistance,” said Sachi, bowing towards him.
Room 304. A nameplate was on the front of the door, and a corner of a sheet of paper could be seen sticking out of the front door. Sachi knocked on the front door.
“Mr. Yatsubo, it’s us. Onna Gumi,” she said.
“Coming!” said Yatsubo.
The doorknob turned, and Yatsubo himself was standing there. He had changed into a T-shirt and jeans, looking like a college slacker. The front hall of his home was bare, and the faint humming of a computer coupled with the sound of a fan blowing the wind about the room could be heard from the back.
“Are you okay?” asked Akira.
“Never better,” said Yatsubo.
“Your hands look kinda blistery,” said Ayame, looking down at his left hand, hanging down near his waist. His index finger and thumb had bandages wrapped around them, and his palm was red and speckled with swollen bits of flesh.
“Come in. I was just getting the place ready,” said Yatsubo.
Akira, Ayame and Sachi walked inside. The pure white hallway, reflecting the rays of the afternoon sunlight, was blinding to look at. The room that lay beyond the hallway, on the other hand, was covered in memorabilia from the late 90s. Piles of CDs were haphazardly thrown about the room, and scraps of fabric in many colors, but mostly black and red, covered the surface of the desk.
DEATH DEVIL, read the posters. The posters could hardly be called official. All of them looked like photographs taken at concerts from a distance. Some of them were from up close, but at unflattering angles. They had been blown up to a giant size, exposing their imperfections even further.
Ayame walked over towards the computer, trying to peek at what mysteries the screen held. The screen turned to black the moment she approached. Yatsubo stood in front of the screen, holding out his hands and pushing away the girls. His teeth were clenched, and his hands were shaking. Whether it was from the injuries or not, Onna Gumi did not know.
“Costume designer to the stars, you said?” leered Ayame.
“I’ve been following Death Devil from Tokyo to Kyoto to every summer festival they’ve played,” said Yatsubo, “I don’t think they know I exist. The band broke up before I had a chance to meet any of them.”
Akira pulled out one of Yatsubo’s CDs, brushing the dust off and looking at the band name. Anvil. Yatsubo’s hand backed onto the mouse, revealing a crude translation of one of their songs into Japanese. Behind that was an e-mail from Cospa. A word in the letterhead had been highlighted.
“I’m not even able to copy other peoples’ clothes to sell to those delusional nerds. And yet, that’s how I make my money. I have to accept what commissions come in these days, but you, you girls are the first people I’ve seen that I want to work on. So many body shapes, so many different aesthetics, all united under the banner of music that tells the world you’re in control,” said Yatsubo.
“This is sad,” said Akira, walking towards the door, “I’m out of-”
Sachi stepped in front of Akira, pushing forward on her guitarist’s chest. Akira tried to take a step or two forward, but her feet squeaked against the hard wood floor of the apartment. “You’re not leaving unless all of us agree to leave,” said Sachi. “He doesn’t sound insincere. And he looks too weak to hurt us.”
Ayame was holding her hand over her mouth in mousy laughter. Yatsubo’s grin changed to a stone-faced response.
“The day is still young. Didn’t you want someone in the crowds to notice our music? Well, we’re looking at him. The Onna Gumi name can be our chance to rise to stardom, and his. Akira Wada, if you walk out now, will you be able to live with yourself?”
“Yeah,” said Akira, looking at the disheveled room.
“I guess I’d feel kinda bad,” said Ayame, “Nothing worse than raising someone’s dreams only to crush them again.”
Kota Yatsubo cleared away the clutter near his closet, and grabbed the edge of the door. “Perhaps I should show you something I’ve completed,” he said, sliding open the white wooden panel. Inside was a red dress and a demonic looking mask perched atop a pale, flesh-colored mannequin. The mannequin’s blank eyes had been made up to resemble the stage makeup of Catherine.
“A perfect replica,” he said. “I can do the same for you. Now do you believe?”