Questionable Days with Yokai
In the yokai town, Risako led Mizutani and Naoya to a tiny store that sold ink and paper. Naoya stayed outside, for obvious reasons. There was really only just enough room for a couple people to stand inside the entry anyways — the rest of the shop was just the clerk's stand, tables piled with stacks of different-colored paper, and a tall case of compartments filled with scrolls, brushes, ink stones, and ink sticks. The sleeping store clerk looked like a regular human, an old bald man in a dark brown and orange yukata.
“Sorry to disturb you,” Risako said firmly.
The clerk opened his eyes... maybe. It was hard to tell, honestly. But then his neck elongated, stretching out a good two meters or so, arcing about like a snake. Risako lurched back, bumping into Mizutani in the cramped space. He nearly slipped off the step up to the entry, but Risako grabbed his hand in time to steady him.
“Sorry. You okay?” she asked. Mizutani nodded, and Risako looked back to the unsettling yokai in front of her. In a way, yokai that more or less looked human but had one bizarre characteristic such as this impossibly long and rubbery neck were more troubling to Risako, than the more animal-like creatures.
A rokurokubi? Thought those were all young women. At least, that's how they were always portrayed in stories.
“How can I help you today?” the old man asked. His eyes still seemed closed, but his smile looked pleasant enough.
“The three of us would like to do some writing,” Risako said. “We need some paper, and the tools to write with. And I guess something to write on, if you have it.”
“Heh heh heh heh, that can be arranged, young man.”
Risako hoped that was just a laugh of enthusiasm for a customer's interest in his products, and not anything more sinister.
The rokurokubi slid his head to the right a bit to glance at Mizutani, then said, “I only see two of you though.” Mizutani held open the thick front curtain at the entry to show Naoya standing outside.
Risako explained, “We're hoping to give this fine wheel monk some mental training in preparation for his big race.”
Naoya turned to the side upon realizing the rokurokubi was staring at him.
“No no no no,” the clerk said, shaking his head vigorously, his neck flopping about like a hose. “That wheel monk is not allowed anywhere near my shop.”
“What? Why?” Risako asked.
“Because I don't like him! He has nearly run me over gods know how many times. And every time he opens his mouth, it's so he can drink far too much saké, whine incessantly about something completely unimportant, or both. Then there are all the fires he has started over the years...”
“The last one was ages ago!” Naoya bellyached. “Can'tcha let anything go?”
“It was a mere four years ago!” the clerk replied, sliding his neck past Risako and Mizutani so he could stick his head outside. “A whole community of kodama lost their homes because of you! Oh, I can still hear their cries, the poor little tree sprites.”
“Don't remember any-uvthat,” Naoya muttered, then in a louder voice replied, “I probably apologized! And they're fine now, right? There's like a thousand trees out there.”
Maybe Risako shouldn't have called Naoya a nice guy after all...
“Of course you don't remember,” the clerk said. “You're always either dead drunk, or zip-zipping about out and about every which way to nowhere. I don't even get why you have to rush by so recklessly all the time, when you don't even race anymore.”
“Mister Naoya is going to race this year,” Risako said. “Like I said, we're here to help him train. I know this looks unrelated to racing, but please let us do some writing.”
The rokurokubi slid his head back into the shop, his wrinkled face contorted in concern. He hummed a bit, slowly tilting his head until it was completely upside-down. “I don't know...”
Risako couldn't let this old man turn them down; Naoya's self-esteem would probably take a huge hit. But if she couldn't get through to the clerk...
Risako nudged her elbow into Mizutani's side.
“What?” he whispered.
“Help me out,” Risako whispered back. “A while back you said I was kind of cute, right? Use my kind of cute face to our advantage!”
“Sorry,” the clerk said, tying his neck into a loose knot. “My hearing is going bad. What was that?”
Mizutani let out a quiet sigh, then gave a long bow to the rokurokubi. “Please, Mister Stretchy Neck. It would mean so much to me if you could let us do some writing.” He lifted up his head to make eye contact with the clerk, and angled his eyebrows inward to look just the right level of distressed. “Could you please be so kind, as to look past the wheel monk's faults just once more? I love good paper and ink so much, and the paper and ink of this store looks especially good.”
“Oohh, you don't say?” the clerk said with a chuckle. “Well... okay then. I'm hesitant to help out that wheel monk, but I could never turn down the business of such a well-mannered ghost girl.”
Mizutani bowed again. “Thank you ever so much.” He stood up and smiled brightly. “We truly appreciate it!” But then his expression reverted back to concern. He cast his eyes downward and hugged his arms together tight. “But we're not so good at calligraphy. We might need some help? If only there was someone with lots of experience in it...”
“Oh, uh, ah, er, well.” The clerk untied his neck and cleared his throat for a good ten seconds, which felt normal for about one second and then super awkward the next nine seconds. “I just so happen to be a certified teacher in the way of writing.
Mizutani looked up and beamed. “Thank you! That would be so wonderful of you, kind sir!” He tilted his head and clasped his hands together in a sprightly manner that somehow looked completely natural.
Ah, he's getting good at that, Risako thought. Maybe too good... She wasn't sure if she herself would've ever been able to pull that off.
She looked back to the wheel monk and asked, “You don't mind paying for today's training supplies, do you? It'll be worth it in the end, I promise.”
Naoya pivoted to face them, still looking resentful, eyes unblinking as always. “If you say this'll help me go faster...” The wheel monk carefully spit out a large gold coin against the rokurokubi's limp body, the clerk's arms and chest still resting atop the counter. Though the head was active, the body was still asleep, Risako figured.
“Don't worry, it'll be money well-spent!”
* * *
They ended up sitting on cushions at small floor desks outside a ways behind the shop. The rokurokubi's body was still sleeping inside, but his neck could stretch out far enough for his head to face Risako, Mizutani, and Naoya and instruct them in basic calligraphy. Risako and Mizutani had some practice with shodo at school, but Naoya likely had never attempted any kind of writing before, let alone any artistic variety.
He held his brush between his big blocky black teeth, but his bamboo-stick brush was no different from the ones Risako and Mizutani were using. Considering how large Naoya's head was, his writing utensil almost looked like a toothpick. Simply keeping it in place looked daunting; the brush would angle sharply in random directions with every slight movement of his teeth. Risako was worried he would swallow it... not that he would choke on it, or anything.
While the rokurokubi demonstrated to Naoya what constituted the proper way to hold a brush between your teeth, Risako took the opportunity to whisper to Mizutani, “We might as well treat this outing together as a practice date. We'll have to act like a convincing couple for the yuki onna at the festival coming up...” It was starting to feel (to Risako at least) like this was going to be the most difficult of the three challenges they had signed up for.
“If we must,” Mizutani whispered back. “What should I do?”
“You're the one who has had a significant other. Just act like your girlfriend did on your dates with her.”
“She wasn't really the lovey-dovey type though...”
The wheel monk starting making loud grunts and snarls. He was probably trying to say something, but couldn't while holding his brush between his teeth.
The long-necked clerk hummed and nodded a couple times. “I think he said, What're ya two whisperin' about? Didja forget what we're writin'? Or something along those lines.” Curiously he was able to mimic Naoya's voice with remarkable accuracy.
“Oh, that's not it,” Risako said. She placed an arm around Mizutani's shoulders and smiled as warmly as she could manage on the spot. “I was just checking on my sweetheart Risako, making sure she's comfortable.”
“You're too considerate, dear Yasuo,” Mizutani said, closing his eyes. That was most likely a closing his eyes in agitation, but it was perhaps possible for others to infer it as closing her eyes in devoted appreciation toward her lover.
“Heh heh heh heh, so what would you like to write today?” asked the old rokurokubi.
“We need to write something full of energy,” Risako said. “Something inspiring, uplifting, and powerful!”
“We can start with those words then. You can be inspiring, the young miss can be uplifting, and old Naoya can be powerful.”
Naoya attempted to say something again. “Err arh ehr reah uh aah uaaruh.”
“You don't know how to write it?” the clerk said. “Can you write any of the other words?”
Risako said, “Don't worry, Mister Naoya. We can teach you the kanji characters.”
Risako and Mizutani proceeded to grind their ink sticks into the small amount of water they placed atop their ink stones. It took some time, but they eventually filled the shallow wells of their ink stones with enough ink for the three of them to work with.
They each wrote their respective kanji characters on their sheets of paper, doing their best to paint the straight lines boldly and curved lines delicately. There was a certain balance of focus and relaxation to shodo that took practice to master, like any other art. The rokurokubi emphasized that once you start writing the character, you don't stop. You have to follow through with it, and you can't go back and touch it up with any corrections. What's done is done, as they say.
And... Naoya's was an entirely illegible mess of squiggles. But Risako congratulated him anyways. It wasn't like she could have done any better, writing with her mouth.
“This is a good start,” she said, “but we're going to need more. More words means more fire! We need all the inspiring, uplifting, and powerful words we can get.”
“Anything more specific you have in mind?” the old clerk asked.
Risako mulled it over for a bit. She got an idea, but she wanted to see if she could get Mizutani into the spirit of things more. Perhaps if he had Risako's level of enthusiasm too, that would affect the wheel monk more.
“Risako, my sweetheart,” Risako said, “can you think of an upbeat and lively song that you know the lyrics for?”
Mizutani raised an eyebrow. “Eh? I thought you were the one who is into singing.” After a nudge from Risako he added, “My dear Yasuo.”
“I do love to sing!” Risako exclaimed. “I especially love to sing with you, since you have such a lovely voice.”
“Do I now...”
“So what tune comes to mind, my sweet-sounding songbird?”
“Uh. How about Bungee Jump Party.”
“I don't think the lyrics for that will make sense to any of the yokai...”
“Okay then. Feel These Numbers, Don't Write Them Down.”
“Ugh! I hate that song.”
“Fine. The theme song of Peerless Flashy-Splashy Champions. You know, the show with the masked heroes who go around on motor scooters.”
“Ah! Pifusucha!” Risako remembered seeing that show from time to time as a child. Brash Blue, Cash Green, Dash Orange, Sash Pink, and Trash Purple—the heroes who beat up people dressed up as trilobite aliens every week. Sash Pink was the girl, and she did indeed have a sash. But Risako always liked Trash Purple best, since he could never land a single punch or kick. And that was funny.
But more importantly, the theme song was incredibly catchy, and would probably stick with her until the day she died. “Yes, I think that song will work perfectly. My sweetheart!”
With some help from Mizutani, Risako relayed the words of the song to the rokurokubi clerk, who nodded with enthusiasm after each line.
“Heh heh heh heh, yes. Yes! A master poet must have come up with that.”
“Can you help Mister Naoya write the chorus? The Go Champions / You can't fail, Champions / Know Champions / On the trail, Champions! That part. My sweetheart and I can handle the other verses.”
The rokurokubi agreed to help Naoya write that all down. Meanwhile Risako and Mizutani handled the other verses, and though they had more to write they still finished well before Naoya. So they focused on encouraging him, and congratulating him each time he finished another kanji character.
“Still don't see what this hazta do with anything,” the wheel monk grumbled.
“It's a mental exercise,” Risako said. “Writing this all out will unlock a vital part of your mind. The part that tells you, you can't fail! And that you're on the trail.”
Risako pointed both her hands squarely at the wheel monk. “The trail that leads to a new you, Mister Naoya!”
* * *
For the next part of her plan, Risako had to hope a certain yokai was at a certain place that she usually saw it at. Bringing their inked papers with them, she led Mizutani and Naoya down the town's main street, passing by shops, stands, wells, fire watchtowers, and of course various yokai. Risako couldn't help but stop for a minute at what had to be a bookstore. Or perhaps a book-lender.
The books did not look like modern-day books, of course. They were simpler stacks of paper bound together, in varying degrees of quality. The covers merely featured a thinly-inked title and the stamped seal of the bookstore, which incorporated the likeness of a cat's face.
“See all those books, Mister Naoya? You'll be able to read them, if you start learning the kanji characters. I bet there are a lot of fun stories to enjoy there.”
Beside the front display was a small statue of a man dressed in a white kimono, holding a huge gold coin in one hand, and beckoning with his other hand raised up in the air.
“Huh, it's like a maneki neko,” Risako said, referring to the cat figures that welcomed customers into stores. This one was a human though.
Without warning, an enormous calico cat stepped out from the store's front entry. Rather than a cat person, it was more like a human-sized cat that happened to stand on two legs, and was almost as wide as it was tall.
“Oh, it is you,” the cat said, looking over at Naoya. The cat, presumably the owner of this bookstore, had the voice of a middle-aged woman. “I thought I smelled burning garbage.” She raised a paw to shoo the wheel monk away. “Off you go now.”
“That's no way to treat a potential customer!” Risako couldn't help but butt in.
“My apologies,” the cat said, “but you'd best steer clear of that guy. He's nya-thing but trouble. And no way that fire hazard's ever going to borrow a book from me. Probably can't even read.”
“Mister Naoya can learn though,” Risako said. “And once he does, he might want to read every book you've got.”
The cat laughed. “All that menace likes to do is run things over, crash into things, and burn things down. Like he did my thousand paper cranes!”
The flames of Naoya's wheels extended violently for a brief sputter. “Ferget that sour puss. Let's go, kid.”
“Hold on.” Risako wanted to turn this into an opportunity for Naoya if she could. So she asked the cat, “What did you make the paper cranes for? Did you have a wish?”
“I wished for all of us yokai to get out of this underground prison. Not that that's ever going to happen, thanks to a certain wheel monk, and a couple other mad wardens.”
“Shaddap!” Naoya yelled. “What did I ever do to ya to deserve this kinda talk? Other than the paper crane thing, which was an accident, I'm sure.”
“You dashed in front of me just yesterday, making me spill my entire bento box lunch!”
“Hold on to it better next time, ya idiot!”
“Now, Naoya,” Risako said, “why don't you apologize to her? Just bow your head and say you're sorry, and be more careful from now on when you pass through town.”
“Why should I?” Naoya muttered. “It's a yokai-eat-yokai world. No point in makin' pointless damn wishes. Ya gotta toughen up if you're gonna survive in this world. Or any world.”
“That's precisely the wrong attitude to have... Back me up on this, Risako, my sweetheart.”
“Sure, try being nice for a change, Naoya,” Mizutani said. “My dear Yasuo knows what he's talking about. Bitterness will just drag you down. You'll feel a lot lighter if you settle matters with Miss Bookstore Cat.”
“Fine, if it'll help me go faster.” Naoya faced the cat clerk and leaned forward as far as he could without falling over. “I apologize for burnin' that big bundle of origami birds ya worked so hard on however long ago that was, and I apologize for ruinin' your lunch the other day.” He stood back up and lightly spit out a gold coin for the cat. “That should pay for the bento at least.”
The cat caught the coin, and when she held it up with a smile she looked even more like a maneki neko. “Well I'll be! This just may be the most questionyable day ever.”
“We good to skedaddle then?” Naoya asked Risako.
“Yes, you did a good job.” At least, it was a good job for Naoya. Risako turned to the cat and said, “We'll be sure to visit your bookstore soon! I'm curious to see what kinds of stories you've got.”
“See you soon then. Take care, little spirits,” the cat said with a polite bow. “And Naoya?”
The wheel monk had already rolled off a ways, but stopped when the cat called his name.
“Yeah?” he said, not bothering to turn around.
“Don't crash and burn.”
“Pfft. No promises.”
* * *
Risako led Mizutani and Naoya to a large arched bridge that passed over a river that ran through the yokai town's center. From atop the nearly half-circle bridge they could get a good view of some interesting sights, namely the huge castle made of ice up on the side of the mountains. It reminded Risako of Himeji Castle, and she could only assume it belonged to the yuki onna. If that somehow wasn't the case, Risako would have loved to go there... A giant igloo sounded like just the place to be on a late afternoon as hot as this was.
On the other side of the long bridge, not far from a soba noodle stand, Risako found a living biwa. This wooden lute was a kind of tsukumogami, an everyday object that had gained a spirit. The biwa had grown tiny arms and legs, and had small black dots for eyes on the body — one on either side of its strings, which it could play without having to actually pluck them. No need for a bachi pick, or even for its stubby arms (which couldn't reach the strings anyways).
Whenever Risako and Mizutani walked by here, they always saw this biwa playing music. From time to time a passing yokai would drop a coin into a bowl-shaped hat similar to what begging monks once wore, only much smaller. Right now the biwa was playing a slow, kind of sad-sounding tune. There was probably a thoughtful poem that went along with it.
Risako clapped when the yokai finished, and she got Mizutani to clap too.
“That was great, Biwa!”
The biwa looked at the two of them and played a short happy jingle, which Risako interpreted as a thank you. But then the biwa looked past them and saw Naoya, and immediately fled to hide behind the soba stand, which didn't have anyone running it at the moment.
“What, even the biwa doesn't like you?” Mizutani asked Naoya.
“Not like we're best friends. But I never did nothin' to it.”
“I kind of doubt that, somehow...” Risako said under her breath. She walked over to the soba stand and found the biwa cowering in fear, its high-pitched staccato just barely audible.
“Don't worry, little biwa. I won't let the wheel monk run you over, or set you on fire.” If the rokurokubi and cat clerks were fretful over Naoya burning their papers and books, the yokai that was literally made of wood had even more reason to be apprehensive. “We just want to sing a song. Would you like to help us?”
“Sing a song?” Mizutani echoed. “You don't mean... the Pifusucha theme song?”
“I do mean the Pifusucha theme song! Let's work on the chorus first.”
Mizutani gave a slight frown, and Naoya just looked confused.
Risako held up the paper that Naoya had scribbled the words of the chorus on. “I'll sing through it first, and then when I repeat you two join in, okay? Go Champions / You can't fail, Champions / Know Champions / On the trail, Champions! Ready?” It felt very bizarre singing at a baritone when she was used to being a mezzo-soprano, and her voice cracked at the end there — but she was determined to see this through. Maybe all the yokai passing by would find her a weirdo... and maybe she was, but what of it? Everyone was a weirdo down here.
She started to repeat the chorus, but Mizutani and Naoya didn't join in. Well, Mizutani kind of muttered some of the words, but that wasn't going to cut it. Meanwhile Naoya still seemed clueless about everything.
“You're supposed to sing!” Risako said. “Let's try again. One, two, three...”
This time everyone sang along. Mizutani was way too quiet though, and Naoya might have had the most tone-deaf voice Risako had ever heard.
“Risako, my sweetheart, you need to sing nice and loud and clear! We'll need your higher octave to harmonize with our deeper voices. Just think, the sooner we all get this song right, the sooner we'll be done with this training.” Risako looked to Naoya and added, “As for Mister Wheel Monk... you need to learn notes.”
“This really gonna help me win the race?” Naoya asked.
“This is a rhythm exercise... It will improve your pacing and focus, give you a proper rhythm,” Risako made up on the spot. “Now repeat after me. Do re mi fa so la ti do!”
“Just do it!”
Naoya proceeded to practice singing basic notes. It took longer than Risako expected, but eventually the wheel monk started to grasp the general concept of changing the tone of his voice a little. At first he would just yell the scale notes louder, and so Risako had to explain that volume was not the same thing as pitch. After a while the biwa yokai, peeking from the corner of the soba stand, couldn't help playing through the notes of Risako's octave, repeating along with Naoya each time he made another attempt at it.
“All right, let's go back to practicing the chorus.”
Risako led Naoya and Mizutani through the chorus a dozen or so times, and was happy to notice their improvement little by little, particularly on Mizutani's part. She was under the impression that Mizutani had never sung much before, but he now had Risako's voice box, throat, lungs, diaphragm, and so on. So perhaps Risako's years of karaoke singing carried over for Mizutani to some degree.
Once they got the chorus down half-decently, Risako proceeded to teach the rest of the lyrics. There wasn't all that much to it, as expected of most TV show theme songs. She held up the papers she and Mizutani had inked, partly to remind herself and Mizutani of the words, and partly to help Naoya start learning some kanji characters.
Eventually they were able to practice the finale, which required them to break into parts. It required Naoya to deeply boom, “Peeeeeer-leeeehhhhs.” Meanwhile Risako needed to belt out, “Gone in a flash, we're gonna splaaaash!” and Mizutani had to chant in the background, somewhat eerily, “Those trilobites must be stopped / Those trilobites must be stopped.”
This part took the most practice, but it was the part Risako felt was most important for them to get right. Because if this didn't get Naoya pumped up, then nothing would.
Once they did finally manage to get the timing down for it right (or close enough), the biwa yokai ran over and hopped in place a few times, playing a cheerful little jingle.
Risako had no idea what it was saying, but she responded, “That's right, Mister Naoya is just here to sing today, so he won't hurt you. Would you like to join us?”
The biwa immediately placed itself in front of them and started playing a prelude for the song. It didn't match the tune of the TV show of course, but it still worked nicely. As expected of an instrument come to life, the biwa was a very capable musician who could improvise on the spot and play by (metaphorical) ear.
Risako joined Mizutani and Naoya to face the biwa, as well as the handful of yokai that had gathered to listen. Among them were some tanuki raccoon dogs, a living umbrella, the intimidating ghost of a geisha, a one-eyed priest, and a demonic oni ogre.
Risako glanced over to Mizutani, who looked surprisingly nervous. He seemed pale, and was holding his breath. Risako felt nervous herself... and she was the one who instigated this impromptu concert in the first place. She slipped her hand into Mizutani's and grasped it gently. She felt taken aback by just how small his hand was.
Mizutani recoiled, but only for a moment. He then slowly gripped Risako's hand in return, presumably remembering how they were supposed to be acting like a couple.
And so together with Naoya, they sang the Pifusucha theme with all the energy they had left. As it turned out, having the biwa playing along with them did wonders for smoothing over the roughness of their singing. They also did a lot better with the timing for each line, and even managed to combine their parts for the finale seamlessly.
“Gone in a flash, we're gonna splaaaash!”
“Those trilobites must be stopped.”
“Those trilobites must be stopped.”
All the yokai in attendance cheered, the tanuki even jumping in place. Each yokai tossed a coin into the biwa's hat, and a handful of giggling tsukumogami coins with tiny arms and legs literally ran over to the hat and dove in.
“I've, I've never heard anything like this,” said the geisha ghost, wiping a tear from her eye. “I'm moved.”
“Beautiful. Stunning. A masterpiece. This... This is art,” said the umbrella.
“Again! Again!” shouted the one-eyed priest.
Risako laughed. “What do you say?” she asked Mizutani and Naoya. “One last time?”
“Uh...” Mizutani sighed.
“Yes!” Naoya whooped. “I can feel it... The energy that'll propel me forward, faster and faster and faster! On the very same trail that those Peerless Something-or-Other Champions have trod. The trail to my glorious victory!”
And so they sang one last time...
...sixteen more times.