Chapter 7:

"Painted Black"

Vibrancy x Vibrancy

Mr. Matsumoto melts away - his wife voluntold him to attend a neighborhood gathering this evening - leaving Shizuko and I with Kentaro and Ayako, the two hot-blooded students with enough passion to melt the hearts of the apathetic citizenry they’ve set their sights on.

I look at Kentaro as we head down the sidewalk. “You really think you can change this prefecture-”

“Cut!” Ayako interrupts, bringing the camera down from her face. “Your delivery’s off, Shunsuke.”

I frown. “This is how I normally say things.”

“Have you tried being a more interesting person then?”

She’s short and small, so I simply pick up by the back of the collar over her protests. “I still don’t get what you’re trying to do.”

“I’m gonna film Kentaro as he writes his novel,” Ayako explains, dusting herself off once I set her back down. “A documentary of sorts, except it’s a living one, since I myself will appear in it. Once I show the people just how much our rural areas have declined, it’ll get people to vote, and then we’ll change things around here and everywhere.”

She crosses her arms and nods in complete confidence. Her director’s beret around her dark hair is slightly off-centered, but it’s the thought that counts.

In any case, Kenji features a statue of an old samurai hero, a pond said to be one of the Five Wonders of Yoshiaki, and a century-old yakisoba stall. Instead, the two students take us to the hottest spot among the youth culture of Kenji - the Field. The Field is just a field, but a big one at that, flat grassland at the outskirts of the town that stretches far and wide until hitting wooded hills.

“They were gonna build the world’s biggest amusement park here,” Kentaro explains to me as we arrive. “They only got as far as draining the paddies and clearing out the trees. But it’s not that bad. We have a pretty nice baseball field and a lot of open space. That’s how most of the kids in Kenji spend their time.”

He’s brought a backpack from his clubroom, containing baseball mitts, baseballs, and a bat. It’s obvious what his intentions are, but I’ve never been athletically-gifted (or inclined) like that. But he has a point - while the field itself is empty, the remainder of the grass field (and there’s a lot of it) is filled with elementary schoolers in their caps playing catch, middle school girls kicking a soccer ball around, high school athletes running suicide drills to and from sets of cones. Even someone bookish like me can feel the primal, physical instincts kick in once I'm on the Field.

“You can’t know a place unless you understand its culture,” Kentaro tells me as he tosses a mitt to me. “Understand what the people there like to do. And besides, I know I’ll hit you out of town.”

To be fair, I did play baseball in school (elementary tee-ball third-stringer), so I take the mound, punching my mitt confidently. We have three baseballs - since we don’t have enough people, I’ll pitch, and they’ll hit, and we’ll all have fun like that, in the grassy field under the orange glow of a summer sunset. Cicadas buzz in the background, crickets joining them with their chirps.

Shizuko goes up first. Two things stick out to me - first, she gets up to the right side of the plate, meaning she’s a lefty, and I’m notoriously bad against left-handed pitchers (and right-handed pitchers). Second - she does a warm up motion and grips the bat coolly and confidently, which means she has experience.

I wind up like I see the pitchers on television do and lob the ball over. To my credit, it actually goes somewhat near the plate. To her credit, she plays like the legendary Sadaharu Oh - which is to say, very good. There’s a tremendous wooden cracking sound as she bombs the pitch out of the stadium, far overhead, beyond the fence at the back of the stadium. She just grins at me; the elementary schoolers squeal in delight.

I wipe my face. “Let’s redo that,” I say, because I want to see it again. “In case it was a fluke.”

She nods and holds her bat up again.

Kentaro raises a hand. “Uh, it’s my turn now-”

I put a little mustard on the ball, but Shizuko runs it back, smacking it out of the park once more, disappearing into the sunset.

“Third time’s a charm,” I declare. Both of us get ready for one final showdown. I lean over, staring her down, wondering if I can spontaneously figure out how to throw a curveball; she just does the warm up motion again and dares me to try. If throwing something kind of near the plate is a curveball, then I’m an expert at it, but Shizuko is an expert at hitting them; this one goes far enough to scare the middle school soccer players. She smiles at me and then tosses her bat away, doing it in a way to suggest that this is an American bat flip - and in that country, such a motion is the equivalent of making fun of one’s mother.

Kentaro gives the bat a lonely look. “And I was so excited to hit-”

Ayako bounces up to Shizuko, some sort of realization dawning on her face. “Is it you? Is that really you? Are you the girl who won back-to-back Tsukamoto Summer Races a couple years ago?”

Shizuko takes a step back, unsure of what to say. Come to think of it, she hasn’t said anything to the students yet whatsoever. She tugs at the collar of her long-sleeve shirt. “Yeah. That was me.”

“Why didn’t you run it your senior year?” Ayako stares up at her with awe. “They say you would have broken the record for fastest time if you ran it!”

More collar tugs, and Shizuko looks away. “Life’s complicated.”

Ayako stands on her tip-toes, now staring Shizuko down with a camera lens. “Can you say that again for me-”

I hoist Ayako up by the back of the collar again. “You don’t need to film everything, you know.”

She squirms under my grip. “Help, help, I’m being repressed! The revolution will not be televised!”

After several more attempts at freedom, Ayako admits defeat, and skulks off with Kentaro to collect the baseballs. They ended up spending the rest of the sunset interviewing the middle schoolers, none of them particularly camera shy.

As for Shizuko, she sits down against the backstop, while I continue to stand at home plate. I swing the bat a few times, trying to deduce how she could rocket the baseballs out of there. It also gives a great view to admire the sunset, the way it slowly dips behind the treeline.

“Shunsuke, stay there for a second,” Shizuko suddenly requests. “And don’t look back.”

In general, I receive a disappointingly low amount of strange requests from women, so I do as instructed. I keep my eyes on the orange array in the sky above me, the way the trees shift in the wind. Minutes pass, and I hear scribbling behind me, then a ruffling of paper. The pattern repeats a few times, then finally I hear a disappointed sigh.

“Never mind. Sorry.”

I sit down next to her. There are discarded balls of paper around her. “Were you drawing me?” I ask.

She nods. “I’m an art major at school. I like to do landscapes. Usually I paint. But I can draw, too.”

“Paintings? Like Monet?”

“I prefer Manet,” she says (I wasn’t aware the pronunciation of his name was multiple choice). “But both of them were Impressionists. I’m much more of a Neoclassical.”

“I know what some of those words mean,” I admit.

She just chuckles. “Impressionism is about putting your feelings into the work. It’s an impression of reality. But I want to capture reality as it is.” Then she hugs her knees. “I can’t talk that well. I feel like I’m always drifting away from things. Like I’m not part of the scene. So painting that scene out helps me feel like I’m really there. But I have to get every detail exactly right. Otherwise, it’s no good.”

“Can I see your drawings?” I ask. “I bet they’re good.”

After a moment, she unfurls one of the mashed-up papers and reluctantly slips it into my hands. She draws with straight, exact lines, forming a quaint picture of me looking out into the sunset. Artists are the best. Words are fun and all, but to be able to capture something visually is a skill like no other. To have a clear picture in front of you, no need for words to transcribe it to you, a snapshot of the real thing, that’s something tremendously powerful.

“It’s great,” I say, nodding at the picture.

She shakes her head. “It’s not quite right. For the past year, I haven’t been able to draw or paint like I used to. I can’t get the details right. Something’s always missing.”

I scan the picture, but I can’t find what’s missing. But creators are always their own worst critics - to the outside world, their feelings are riddles inside mysteries inside enigmas.

“I know the feeling,” I tell her. “But I still think this one is good.”

When I hand it back to her, Shizuko looks down at her own drawing for a moment. She packs up the balled, discarded papers in her backpack haphazardly, but this one, she slips it neatly, even if it's still wrinkled, so it won’t take any more damage.

“Thanks,” she says, trying to hide her smile under the sunset.

Steward McOy