This is the seventh and final part of Natsume's arc in my post-Lilly-neutral-end mosaic, 'After the Dream'.
The events referred to here can be compared to accounts such as the one in Hanako's arc, here, and also that in Hideaki's, here.
Natsume 7: Chaos (T +60)
My few remaining readers these days often talk about the Yamaku gang, or the Yamaku conspiracy, as if we got together one day and decided to rule the world. The truth was never that. We were all the cripples, the disabled, the undesirable of Japanese society as it still was at that time, so we huddled together in the world’s darkness for mutual solace and companionship. But something happened—the world changed, Japan changed—and some of us, strangely, decided not to let others rule our world.
It was probably Shizune Hakamichi who catalyzed that change, who flapped her wings and brought the storm. She had never been content to let her deafness constrain her. Many people hated her for her ambition—do you think that in Japan the disabled had ever dared to be pushy, to grasp authority and power? Not since the days of Date Masamune, perhaps, ruling from his seat of power on Mount Aoba.
Here, as I write this in my old-fashioned way, I marvel at the tiny collective miracle that enables my gnarled hands to create anything at all. A lifelong battle with rheumatoid arthritis, finally won. The same miracle lets me hold Hideaki Hakamichi’s own hand in his final moments, as I tell you something of how it all came about.
This is about forty years ago. We are sitting on the bleachers at Yamaku and watching the children run. It’s a sports meet, and it’s bright and everything is summer, like warm butter in the air. I turn to Kenji. “Were we ever like that?”
He grins, the sunlight glinting off his glasses. “Ha, no. You hated running and I hated being hot.” Same old nasal voice.
I smile. Yes, that’s how it had been. I look down to the VIP guest area, where Shizune sits, resignedly making small talk with the Family visitors and the high-donation parents. “What are your own children doing these days, General-san?”
“This and that. At the risk of sounding much like Tezuka, a bit of this and a lot of that. Masako’s 28 now, just got married to her childhood sweetheart and has dragged him off to South America; Koji’s about a year younger, and he’s teaching here.” He looks wistful for a moment, then adds, “They grow up so fast.”
“That’s true. Look, down there, the lanky one with the thick hair? That’s Kinnosuke. Seventeen in a few months, and horribly conflicted.” I can’t help beaming proudly, like any mother would.
“Ha. A bit of a beanpole, but good at the hurdles, I see. Interests? Interesting?”
“Don’t be rude, Kenji. He’s a pretty simple young man, likes hanging out, buying new sports gear, that kind of thing. Also, spends too much time in dangerous laboratories sucking up to smart older ladies like Auntie Rika.”
“Eh-heh. Two tall thin people, one dark, one white, what a sight! How come he’s so tall?”
“I have no idea. One of those generation-skipping genes, I suppose.” I glower at my friend, who while not tall would still be looking down at me if we were standing.
“So what conflict? Easy life, some ambitions, typical high-school senior.”
“He’s in love with little Kit, who’ll soon be fifteen.”
“Kit? Who? Our little naughty one whose aunt is Madam Principal Boss Lady down there?”
“The same. Kitsune Hakamichi, the daughter of the most underestimated man in Japan, as my brother once said.”
“That he is, that he is. Who would’ve thought that Shizune’s wimp of a brother would grow to be a big tree in the forest, eh? A Hakamichi boss. How convenient for us.” Kenji looks reflective. Where previously he’d been wistful, he now looks melancholic as his voice trails off, stops, and then continues. “Did I ever tell you he was my sister’s best friend in middle school? It all sounds so incestuous, until you realize that it wasn’t likely we’d have other friends.”
“Yes. Rika said that once; she hated making friends because my father would then send her dossiers on each one.”
“My God!” says Kenji, whom I’ve never thought of as particularly religious. He looks horrified, as if I’ve triggered some old paranoid delusion. “What a way to grow up! And to think she was one of the few of us who actually knew what was going on. How could she not get scarred for life?? No wonder she’s like that!”
“Kenji, mind the saliva?” I say softly, as he apologises wordlessly and wipes his mouth, before handing me a clean packet of tissues.
He looks at me. “Eh-heh, maybe that’s why Shizune is the way she is. Her father and all, you know.”
I glare back. “Maybe it’s better that women run things, not men.”
To his credit, his reply is pretty direct. “Maybe you’re right,” he muses. “Ah well. So what’s our status, Madam Editor Boss Lady?”
It’s disheartening, and he knows the score as well as I do, but we remind each other of the fallen and the still-living, the quick and the dead. “MM went off the board in January,” I say stiffly, remembering the tubes, the shaven scalp that finally broke me down—the beautiful hair, gone forever with the expressive eyebrows. “Nakai’s foresight was incredible, and only he could have made Rika and Shizune friends. We’ll never know what Mutou discussed with his disciple, but they were two of a kind.”
“No, no. Give credit, they were two very different men, but they both saw it coming, and I think it was really Mutou who brought the two ladies closer. Four years ago, the rumours about armed guards all over Mount Aoba? I sent drones, got lovely footage of the four colours seen together for the first time. They were an honour guard for the old man’s burial ceremony.”
“I wonder which man loved Shizune more,” I think out loud. Old rumours never die; they just fade away.
“Eh-heh. Speaking of which, her father screwed the Families over really well. Who got to him, I wonder?”
“If the tabloids have it right, Misha did,” I say with a straight face but also a sense of visceral sadness. I know part of the real story, and I suspect Kenji does too. “And my father helped him do it, except that nobody can prove that now.”
“Speaking for the Sakura, the government will remain silent and no serious intervention will occur if the Families suddenly decide to go to war with each other. Provided, of course, that civilian casualties are minimal.”
“How long will it take, General-san?” I say sadly. “Will we end up hiding in our fastness on Mount Aoba while the enemy besieges us?”
“Oh no, nothing like that,” he says lightly. But I can see through him better now. He’s not paranoid old Kenji Setou anymore, but the deceptive badger, who may shapeshift to deceive and yet will fight to the death for his family.
It’s a beautiful summer’s day as I put on my sunglasses and Kenji walks away, back to the Yamaku general office to collect the first of his cherry blossoms. Nobody knew then that it would take twenty years.
And then it is twenty years later and also twenty years ago, the half-way mark between my middle age and my old age. As my younger friend once wrote: “It is from 2044 to 2064 that we fight the secret wars of the Nakai Foundation. Who would have thought that Katayama and Hakamichi colours would one day share a banner?”
I look upon his withered face now, and think about January 2064 and the iconic scene that all the archives now display when you run a search for ‘Peace of Aoba’—for that is how the media portrayed it. There is little mention of Yamaku, because that was a legacy of the old days that we loved, but which did not love us. In twenty years, the Nakai Foundation’s flag of four colours had brought down the Families, and forced them to become well-behaved and much less powerful corporate citizens.
Look at that footage, exclusive to my Shimbun. It is dedicated to the memory of Naomi Inoue, dearest and best, who died too young—and to all of us who wanted a better world for Japan. Let me describe it to you, if you prefer words and not pictures, unlike most of your generation.
It is New Year’s Day in 2064, sweeping across the globe as the Earth turns on its axis. And when the fireworks welcome in the New Year in Japan, all the newsfeeds switch to midnight in a little-known auditorium on Mount Aoba. It is tonight that Shizune Hakamichi acts as the face of our long fellowship. Hidden from view, every joint in my body throbbing painfully, I sit in the command centre. A certain observer, the Director-General of a particular government agency, is there with me. We can hear everything, see everything.
Before the feeds go live, Hideaki Hakamichi enters the hall. He looks like an old, grizzled warrior, a tiger turning dangerous as he ages. He exchanges words with Rika Katayama, each of them the senior surviving executive officer of their respective Families. “Rika, honoured lady? The count is in. Taian Holdings carried by two. There is a reserve, and the proxies make it at least thirty.” Her austere, ascetic frame moves slightly as she nods. “Esteemed colleague, old friend, it is well done.” They do not look tired; they only look incredible weary, worn like old furniture.
They’ve been counting shares and proxies, because whatever the Families have expected from the peculiar nature of our conflict, it was not that. My son—yes, my son—Kinnosuke whispers into Rika’s ear and then goes off to make sure that Shizune is properly miked up. He fusses over everybody; I don’t know where he got that trait. His sweet, elegant wife smiles, and it reminds me almost exactly of her aunt Shizune’s ‘catface’ grin.
When the feeds go live, there are thirty thousand officers from all the Families of Japan in the auditorium. Many are hostile, but they know that somehow they have been invited here for negotiations, with little choice but to comply. They do not know how little choice remains.
What the public, and the world, sees in the end is the myth we have crafted. A sea of guardsmen—in Katayama black-and-red, in Hakamichi blue-and-silver—bow to the left and right of the single figure of our Madam Director, Chairman of the Foundation. She is isolated by subtle spotlighting. The other members of the Nakai Foundation’s board are shadowed by the same subtlety, although there is bright light everywhere. In this age of special effects, we are still able to trick the world.
Thousands of our guardsmen bow in genuine gratitude, giving honour to one who might as well be their empress, such is the loyalty they offer her. It matters little that the others do not. The people of the world see and believe that Shizune, whom the opposing media have called ‘The Unspeakable’, has broken the power of the Families. How has she done it? By sacrificing all of it. Every guardsman is now a shareholder, and they have all given her their proxies.
That is of course not all that gives her such authority. The Foundation’s trust is deep, and the old intelligence networks have won us many little victories in boardroom after boardroom. Shizune does not demand a count, but an accounting. The Foundation owns the Families now, and she is its chief servant.
As we look at her from our nest, Kenji grins at me. It’s with a note of serious admiration that he says, “Madam Student Council President School Principal Corporate Director Boss Lady, or something like that… she’s a natural, always has been. Damn feminist dictator.”
I nod, smiling. My son gives me a thumbs-up and turns up the volume. Magically, Shizune speaks. I do not recognize the voice she is using, but it is clear and sharp and hard-edged while being rich and low. The source was well-chosen. Camera 2 catches my attention: Rika has stiffened in her seat, her eyes slightly narrowed. I wonder why, and make sure nobody will see it.
“The dream of Yamaku was that all of us would learn to be human, to love one another, to treat people as people—regardless of infirmity or debility, appearance or disease, whether possessing a long future or a short one, in comfort or in pain. We did not know that at some point, those who paid for this dream would demand repayment. We did not know that we were property. But we did the best we could, with whatever we had.”
There are many voices represented here. Hana and I have borrowed from the dead and the living, the firm and the infirm. Rika has chosen to remember her husband, and Shizune has chosen from what we have offered.
When she is done, the world is behind us, and the Families are broken. When Hideaki and Rika embrace her and hand over to her their scrolls of office, the world sees it all. All that power now goes in one direction: to those who can be given more, when the world has given them too little.
We wrap the programming up quietly through the photogenic presence of Akiko Nakai—national athlete, acclaimed beauty, Hisao Nakai and Emi Ibarazaki’s firstborn, Shizune Hakamichi’s adopted daughter. She is fluent in at least three languages, and able to appear sincere in more than three.
By the time we shut down, the exhilaration is making us all light-headed through our fatigue. Kenji turns to me, two septuagenarians who should be asleep in our aged dreams by now. “Nat, we’ve won. The cherry blossoms are safe for now, and nobody will know we did it. Come with me.”
He grasps my elbow firmly, and my weakened joints cannot resist him. He presses some buttons and overrides my chair. It begins to wheel me out, amidst our much younger celebrating colleagues. He pauses, then says, “Tonight, no ramp is too long for you. I may be old, but Kenji is a tough one to kill.”
Something clinks in the darkness. Where are we going? Up on the roof? What ever for?
“I used to have a crush on you, you know,” he says conversationally. “That’s why I made sure that when Rika’s anti-inflammatory nanotech came to me, the first proven version should go to you. She agreed, with that strange gesture of hers.” He mimes a coiling-and-uncoiling action.
“What nanotech? Kenji, what’s this all about?”
“Old loves. Don’t worry, I told Yuuko I’d do this, and she laughed. But she said you might be nervous because both of us are old and frail. So I brought protection.” He grins, appalling the hell out of me.
“Kenji…” I say, almost growling as anger and panic rise within me. I can’t believe this kind of thing is happening. I attempt to rise out of my chair, but the safety restraints lock me down.
“Eh-heh. Sit down, old friend, nothing bad is going to happen. In fact, maybe something good.” My chair stops at the edge of the chain-link fence on the rooftop. Kenji sits down, his joints creaking almost as badly as mine. He whips a brown paper bag out from under his overcoat. Clink. Two bottles of whisky appear. Some tumblers. How quaint.
“Hold on. This won’t hurt.”
I don’t feel anything except fear. Then the door behind us swings open once, closes and then quickly opens again. It does this a few times. “Wahaha!~ It’s like old days, Natchan!” The voice is a little cracked, but very recognizable. What the hell…
“Yes! And my darling Shizune is here too!”
I turn my head, and see that indeed, the Empress is with us. It’s really like old days, indeed—we are all old, wrinkly caricatures of who we used to be. Behind her, her brother clears his slightly younger throat.
“Esteemed seniors, I have arranged for a somewhat delayed private New Year’s Day fireworks display. This high up, we should all have a view of surpassing clarity. Or so my most beautiful and charming wife, who is of your excellent senior vintage—ouch, that hurt!—has told me.”
And that is what we do, before dawn on the second day of January, in the year 2064, on the heights of Mount Aoba. We imbibe the water of life, and watch alchemical fires bloom like cherry blossoms. For a short while, we are young again.
It’s 2084 now, and I’m nearly a century old. But I’m sustained by therapeutic nanotech, twenty years’ worth of it, and Hideaki has decided that he doesn’t want any more. He misses his Hana, and I find that I understand how he feels.
So here I sit, holding the old—oh how stretched the parchment of his skin is!—man’s hand that once belonged to a callow young lawyer. The biomonitoring array tells me he has not long to go. His large body looks emptied-out, like an apartment that nobody lives in anymore.
His eyes open suddenly. Mine are watery with sentiment. “Hana?” he asks, and it sinks in that no, Hana is no longer with us, either of us. “Hana?” he asks again, and I find myself replying, “Yes?”
“Oh, good. I thought you were g-gone… I don’t want to live where you aren’t…” he mutters incoherently, closing his eyes again.
I can’t stand this, so I slowly let go of his hand, hoping he won’t feel it. He sighs in his sleep, a faint smile on his face. I get up, taking care not to disturb him.
Outside, my children await, anxious. I smile weakly at Kin, who moves to support me. I wave him away, since I can still stand, and look at my daughter-in-law, who has always reminded me so much of her aunt, my long-departed friend Shizune. “Kit, he’s asking for your mother. Please, can you go in? I c-can’t, I don’t… I’m not your mother.”
No, I’m not. I miss her so much. I miss Naomi even more. Everything’s missing, but at least the children are safe, and their children. The cherry blossoms remain, and there is still a future, even if it’s not mine.
Natsume Ooe, the secretive and dour boss of the Asahi Shimbun Network, remains one of Japan’s national icons. I thank her son Kinnosuke Ooe and his wife Kitsune Hakamichi for their invaluable service in the retrieval of many of her written documents from the apartment she once shared with Naomi Inoue and later sold to Rin Tezuka and Misha Hakamichi. Unfortunately, many of those documents had been painted over or otherwise incorporated into Ms Tezuka’s own creations. Fortunately, good nanotech is the salvation of many things.
— R., Osaka, 2090