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‘Why Get Upset When You Can Just Smile?’

Despite the threat of Covid-19, nature lovers thronged Ueno Park in Tokyo on March 21 to take pictures of the cherry blossoms. Credit Charly Triballeau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Despite the threat of Covid-19, nature lovers thronged Ueno Park in Tokyo on March 21 to take pictures of the cherry blossoms. Credit Charly Triballeau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By late March, Covid-19 had already unleashed havoc across the globe; the internet was flooded with terrifying images and videos. Yet somehow, things in Japan remained unbelievably normal. On March 21, when the Japanese government still thought the nation would be hosting the Olympics this summer, large crowds of people — many wearing face masks, but some not — headed outside to enjoy each other’s company under the cherry blossoms that filled the landscape.

After seeing photos from that day, some of which had captured significant international attention, an American friend of mine emailed me asking, “Is this real?”

All I could say was, “I know, I can’t believe it either, but it’s absolutely real.”

Things have changed dramatically since then. And yet I can’t free my mind from the idyllic images of all those people underneath the cherry blossoms, gazing up at the trees as if they had succumbed to mass hypnosis. Looking back, I’m stupefied with terror, but there’s something else mixed in there, in trace amounts. Something close to rapture, piped in from behind the scenes; the essential ingredient of both dystopias and utopias.

In Japan, where patriarchy and the pressure to conform function almost like religion, what does it mean to face a crisis? How do they rob us of our desire and anger, and how is it that our imagination and creative forces are depleted? When we are at that point, what kinds of resistance and artwork can flourish? My thoughts, premonitions, hopes and doubts concerning all of this led to the creation of this story.

Golden Slumbers

All of us were at the wedding. And by all of us, I mean all of us. Like when you say, “Hey! How are you? All of us are doing fine.” That all of us.

It was the sort of clear day that burns off every misery. The entire venue was buried in flowers, the tables covered with catered delights. In the garden and in the buildings, heaps of roses bloomed like thunderheads at the height of summer.

I started sweating at the thought of the heat. It was far too warm for a May afternoon. The groom was a well-known painter and something of a household name; the bride was a tanka poet at the outset of her career. In fact, everybody on the guest list was an artist of some kind. Myself included.

The groom was 75, the bride 21. When I was a little younger, we would have had all kinds of thoughts and opinions about the age gap, how it highlighted the exploitation of women, how it grossed us out. But these days, nobody is inclined to say anything. And not just about this kind of thing. The stuff we used to get worked up about, the moments we would fixate on and tell ourselves we couldn’t overlook, don’t happen anymore. In the spring of 2020, isn’t it enough to be alive? Nobody wants to ponder the hard questions.

Maybe we weren’t cut out for it. We did our best to one-up the people outside our sphere, but in the end it got us nowhere. Why get upset when you can just smile? That’s where all of us were at. And the truth is, we were raised that way: It’s great to speak your mind, but there are more important things in life. Being a little apathetic all the time is more attractive than being totally checked out some of the time. How did we ever forget the most important thing? It only worked if all of us showed up — all of us, like I said before.

Which is why I was so stunned when the girl seated next to me suddenly voiced her disgust.

“Doesn’t anyone get tired of this trash?”

She sounded like the girls I used to know, plus she looked like she was actually still a girl, too young to talk like that.

“What trash?” I asked.

The girl didn’t respond. She continued with her knitting, working the needles swiftly as she glared at the cold chicken on her plate. She must be a fiber artist. Makes sense. The plan for the day was that all of us artists would share our work with the rest of the party. No plate fee, no presents. This was what the couple asked for in their invitations, for us to show our love and celebrate their union with our art. Trends these days.

“Someday I’m gonna leave this trashy place and find a world that isn’t trash.”

She had a voice like dark blue ink. Eyes sharp as a knife passing through tofu. The ball of yarn spun in her lap.

“I mean, I get what you’re saying,” I said cautiously. The girl offered no reply.

Her needles maintained a steady rhythm. The tips knitted the yarn around and over and around. Poking the tip of one needle through the knit, she caught the yarn and passed it through the newest loop.

I watched her working. I figured she might ask me what I did for work, but I guess she wasn’t interested. She gave the knitting her undivided attention, and it showed. Whatever it was, the thing was enormous. The completed portion draped over her legs, practically touching the grass. Was it something you wrapped around your body? Something you spread out underneath yourself?

As I observed the motion of her hands, adding the yarn to the knitting in quick intervals, I felt my spirits flag. To make the feeling go away, I thought of asking her what exactly she was making. But I got the sense I wouldn’t understand, so I decided not to bother.

“Hey,” I said to her, pointing to the people gathered by the stage up front. “How about putting that down for now? Get up there and say something. Talk like a normal person.”

The girl stared at me. Really stared, for so long I almost felt like I had become the cold chicken on her plate. She shook her head and sighed, then snorted, not having any of it.

The temperature started to rise. The mass of roses grew and grew. Nature closed in. Someone was laughing. I could hear music. Sleepiness and solace filled our bodies. I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open. I had to ask myself, was I really at a wedding? Not a funeral? It was becoming hard to tell. What, exactly, was the difference between the two? Obviously, it was whether the star of the event was dead or not. Standing beside the groom, smiling to show her perfect teeth, the bride looked alive, but how could any of us say for sure? Maybe I could ask the knitting girl.

Struggling to keep my heavy eyelids open, I turned to her. But she was gone. Though it really didn’t matter. Just as it made little difference whether my eyes were open or closed, or whether I was here sitting in my chair or a piece of chicken on a plate. None of it mattered, not anymore.

It started to rain. Catching the light, everything sparkled. The wedding, and the afternoon that all of us had spent together, fell into a gentle, golden slumber. We tossed our art onto the grass and reached for the folded sheet that had been laid out for us nearby. Working in unison while minding our neighbors, we raised our arms and gently spread the sheet wide, a cloud that could do us no harm. Nobody bothered with umbrellas. We could all get soaked together. Or if we didn’t want to get wet, all of us could huddle under the unstained whiteness of the sheet.

Mieko Kawakami is the author of the novels Heaven, The Night Belongs to Lovers and the newly expanded Breasts and Eggs, her first novel to be published in English. Translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd.

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