Fiction: The Shokunin by Michael Somes

Photo by Greg Ortega

We were stopped at the gate by two attendants who demanded to see our invitations. We’d been warned about this group. Our contact had complained that they did little but parade in front of the property in their leather jackets or white jumpsuits, only doing enough work to keep the owner of the property from complaining to the prefecture and having them removed. The attendants were agitated by our presence until we could show them the note our contact wrote which gave us permission to film the grounds and maybe even the Shokunin himself. Upon seeing the note, the attendants called their friends over and insisted that we film them as well. The group strutted in front of the car and gyrated their hips; whether or not the cameraman caught them all probably didn’t matter as the attendants were all dressed about the same and had their hair styled into identical pompadours.

One of the attendants sang what sounded like “Heartbreak Hotel” before being silenced by another one. Given the elaborate design on this latest attendant’s jumpsuit, we concluded that he was the leader. We marveled at the rhinestone image on the back of his jumpsuit which seemed to depict his own face. A faded script above the image read The K, and we wondered if the jacket once had more letters. We filmed this attendant until our van crossed over a hill, obscuring him from our viewfinders.

***

We were shown into the kitchen. Ichikawa-san immediately slapped at our boom mic operator with the flat of his knife.

Our boom mic operator apologized, and we were told we could only do the interview if it wouldn’t interfere with Ichikawa-san grilling the Shokunin’s steak. We huddled into a corner while he prepared the beef.

“Who is the Shokunin?” we asked.

Ichikawa-san said something which made the other cooks laugh. It was apparently a surprising thing for someone his age to say. Our translator struggled to find the right words.

“He says he has no fucking idea,” our boom mic operator explained.

“Yes,” the translator agreed. “More or less.”

Ichikawa-san speculated that the fact he knew almost nothing about America had deepened, rather than hindered, his friendship with the Shokunin. They would often spend their evening meals speaking to each other in their respective native languages until finally lapsing into a shared, thoughtful, silence.

***

The Shokunin walked down the rows of penned cattle; he liked to massage whichever animal seemed to be in the most discomfort first and work his way around the pens from there. He sang to each animal in a soothing baritone. None of his songs had any words, only a mixture of hums and “do” sounds. He started with each cow at the shoulders and worked his way down the back and flanks. His fingers strained against the cow’s muscles, made tense from lack of exercise. As he reached the end of the line of cows, we could see the Shokunin’s fingers were locking up from fatigue, and yet when he was finished with the massages the Shokunin picked up a brush and painted each animal’s coat with a thin layer of sake.

“It makes you almost feel bad when it’s time to send them off.”

***

The only condition for the attendants to attend the Shokunin’s midday meal was that they dress normally.  Technically, they complied with this directive; they dressed in the exact same plaid shirt and blue jeans worn by the Shokunin. We realized that the image on the back of the leader of the attendants jumpsuit did not depict himself, but rather a younger, more idealized, image of the Shokunin.

The attendants begged the Shokunin to teach them to be more like him, and he offered to meet them at sunrise tomorrow to feed the cows. That was not what they wanted. They wanted to learn his songs, his dances, and his hairstyling techniques.

“I don’t know anything about that.”

After the meal, the Shokunin explained that he was able to turn some of the attendants into reliable farmhands, but that most would leave the farm after a few months in frustration. A few remained for years, practicing their songs and dances among themselves hoping that the Shokunin would eventually find them worthy.

***

The lead attendant, the one who had The K written on his jacket, had been living on the property for almost five years. His name was Kazuo. He’d been given his jumpsuit by the previous leader, who had finally returned home after spending almost all of his twenties either on the property or performing in bars and street festivals in Kobe. Kazuo had also been left a pair of blue suede shoes, but those were since destroyed.

Kazuo answered the question “Who is the Shokunin?” by pointing to the back of his jacket.

“Every day in the presence of the Shokunin should be a joy. We have the opportunity to witness his mastery over farming, the same mastery he had over rock n’ roll in his youth.”

We pressed him on this. “The Shokunin does not speak of his past.”

“He has no need to. He was a very famous man in America.”

***

The Shokunin overheard one of our crew singing “Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog” to his Shiba-inu. After a conversation between our producer and the Shokunin, this crewmember was sent to scout locations in the surrounding countryside.

After finishing with the cows, the Shokunin went in to play guitar. His hands were so exhausted from his work that he could not press down enough on the strings, and the pick slipped from his shaky grip. He kept at it for almost an hour before finally setting the guitar aside and resting his hands on his knees. He inhaled deeply before letting his breath out in a strained hiss. He did this three times and then went in for dinner.

***

We asked Ichikawa-San what he would do if the Shokunin retired. His knife slipped in the tuna he was cutting. He tossed aside the mangled fish and said something which seemed to catch the translator off guard. Our translator said nothing but nodded solemnly.

Our boom mic operator was less tactful. “He says he will go home to Nara, and probably die there.”

***

We were invited to film the Shokunin artificially inseminating a cow.

“You don’t try this unless you are feeling one hundred percent,” the Shokunin explained.

He could easily afford to contract this task out to a specialist, but his teacher once told him that a shokunin must pursue mastery in even the most unpleasant parts of the work.

When asked if he’d taken on the title at the suggestion of his teacher, the Shokunin shook his head. “Other people can call me what they want, but you should never call yourself Shokunin.” He pulled on a glove that stretched all the way up to his shoulder and prepared the rod.

“I always worry I’m going to have a heart attack and die doing this.” The Shokunin reached in.

He had a far away look in his eye as he went to work. At one point he was silent and immobile for so long we were afraid he really had died right there. Finally, he yanked his arm free and held up the empty rod.

“That’s Shokunin right there.” He laughed.

***

The Shokunin, after forty-five minutes of trying, finally got a sound out of his guitar. The first note was a break in the dam. The age seemed to fall away from him as his fingers snaked up and down the neck of the instrument. First, he played old country ballads and after that, the blues. When he was finished we jumped to our feet and applauded.

“Encore!” Our producer shouted.

The Shokunin swung the guitar into the wall, separating the body from the neck. He stomped on the instrument until the strings were flailing wildly over a flattened pile of wood. He took wire cutters and cut the strings free from the pegheads, and then he cut them into smaller and smaller pieces which he collected and threw outside. This done, he sat down and did his deep breathing until we left.

***

We did not see the Shokunin again for a long time after his outburst. Ichickawa-san brought him his meals, but he would not tell us about the Shokunin’s condition or when he might come back out. We used the opportunity to film the ships coming in across Osaka bay. When we returned no attendants greeted us. Only Kazuo remained.

“We were asked to leave.” Kazuo made a seat for himself out of his packed bags. It was unclear if he was waiting for us to return or if he was still waiting for a ride. Before we left him, he hung his faded jumpsuit on one of the gateposts.

We made our way toward the house, but Ichikawa-san met us on the stone path. He presented us with a note which only said thank you, thank you, thank you very much.

***

We arrived early, but the owners of the karaoke bar were more than happy to serve us drinks and listen to us struggle through J-pop tunes. After a few songs, an argument broke out among us about whether or not we left the ranch too soon. Our producer stressed that it was important we maintained good relationships as we did our work, but our boom mic operator insisted we had been close to breaking a real story. The slight was not lost on our producer, who stormed out. Our director followed after her. The rest of us sat in silence, realizing that the only people who could pay our tab were gone. Our next argument was interrupted by someone singing. We followed the noise out into the hall. The building would soon be flooded by office workers after their shifts ended, but at the moment there was only an old man in a faded white jumpsuit. Alone, he sang old American ballads and danced with his eyes closed.

Michael Somes is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Colorado. His work has appeared in Gutfire! Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Bear Review, 100 Word Story, and Defenestration Magazine.

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