July 7, 2002. It’s my 25th birthday. I’m twenty-krunking-five. I had been dreading this birthday for a long time. 25 is supposed to be the age when you have it all figured out. This is when you’ve finished school, have a plan in place, and are ready to begin your life. And where am I? I’m alone, in a tiny little apartment in Japan. No goal. No plan. I just exist. Do I have a girlfriend? Never have, no prospects on the horizon. Do I have any friends at all? Yes, but they are all so far away. This is the one thing I was dreading the most about being in Japan. I have reached the age, but I am truly and completely alone.
I slept in until 10 am, which is unusual for me. I laid in bed for about an hour or so, just pondering the fact that it was my birthday. Eventually, I knew that a person who did nothing but lie around on his birthday is a sad and pathetic thing. So, I got up, made a brunch of noodles, and started planning my day. I was entertaining the fantasy that Chuck and L would be sneaking down from Sapporo to surprise me, but my doubts were increasing that such a thing would actually happen. The way I saw it, I could either sit around all day, waiting for guests that would never come, or get out and do something. My ink cartridge in my printer was acting up, so I was thinking that I’d need a new one. My “something” was to be the quest for a Canon BC-02. After I got dressed, I hit the mean streets of Kumagaya in search of either a computer store or an office supply store.
It was an ungodly hot day, as most of the days had been recently. I was starting to see why everyone warned me that Kumagaya held all sorts of heat wave records. My search wasn’t going very well. It was Sunday, and most of the stores along the streets were closed. I wasn’t having much luck in my search for ink. Something deep inside me said that I should head to a department store/mall I had found last week called Saty. Something told me that Saty would have what I was looking for. I continued my walk.
I was still getting to know this town. My walk was part exploration, part instinct. The streets are so small here, and the stores so close together. It wasn’t long, though, before I saw Saty on the horizon. It’s a massive complex, with a sign towering high above most of the surrounding buildings. I entered the air conditioned building and breathed a sigh of relief. I still don’t know how to describe these department store/mall complexes. At first glance, you would assume that they are a department store. They look just like a Sears or a Bay. But then, you start noticing the little differences. Each department is actually a store. It’s got its own till, its own staff, and its own way of doing things. So then, you start thinking that it’s a mall. A mall with no walls. It was very confusing for me, but I’ve gotten used to it. And something told me that what I was looking for would be here.
I started searching the floors for the stationary department. I found it on the third floor, and I began looking for the ink cartridges. I found them all right, and after a quick look, I turned up nothing. I couldn’t understand it. Something was still telling me that this place held what I was looking for. With this weird sense that I should keep going, I headed up to the fourth and top floor. When I stepped off of the escalator, I suddenly knew what had driven me here. The time had come for me to drop this pretence of an ink cartridge.
I was here because Saty has a movie theater.
On my twelfth birthday, my mother had begun a grand tradition that had been followed for pretty much every year since 1988: Mark gets to see a movie on his birthday. Over the last 13 years, there have only been three years where I didn’t get to see a movie on my birthday. Last year was one of those years, and I really didn’t want to make it two in a row. Before I got a job in this country, I was planning on making The Powerpuff Girls Movie my birthday movie, but it doesn’t hit Japan until August. It was time for my second choice and, lucky for me, it opened up in Japan the same weekend it opened up in North America. It had come to see a little movie called Men in Black II.
I studied the movie listings board for about half an hour. Luckily for me, the movie titles were listed in English. The one thing I was having difficulty with, though, were the Japanese words next to the movie titles. Chuck and L had been telling me that, here in Japan, most multiplexes show two versions of North American films: one dubbed in Japanese, one subtitled in Japanese. Naturally, I wanted to see the one subtitled in Japanese. And therein was my problem. One of my coworkers had explained to me a few days earlier which of the Japanese words said “subtitled” and which one said “dubbed.” But I had forgotten. I was nervous. Would I get to see the film I wanted to see, or would I spend an afternoon trying to decipher the poor dubbing on Tommy Lee Jones?
This was the first time in my life I was about to chicken out of seeing a movie. I was thinking that maybe I should turn around and go home. Another of my coworkers had presented me with a Japanese phrasebook. Perhaps it would hold the translations I seek. But there was another part of me thinking that maybe I didn’t have to do that. I mean, why not just walk up and ask the clerk? I mean, there existed the possibility that the clerk would speak English. And even if she didn’t, I’m sure that my thick Canadian accent would imply that I wanted to see the English version. I could turn around and head home, or press forward. I took a deep breath, and got in line.
I approached the clerk with a quickness in my breath. She greeted me with some form of Japanese greeting. I smiled and said, “Hello.” She said, “Hi.” I said, “I want to see Men in Black II.” She nodded. Out of panic, I blurted out, “In English!” She smiled and said, “English.” She pulled out a small paper version of the movie listings and pointed at the line for Men in Black II. I glanced at my watch and saw it was 2:15. The next showing was at 2:50. I picked the 2:50 show. She nodded, punched some numbers into her cash register, and pointed at the display. 1800 yen for a movie. That’s about $20 Canadian. I had been warned that movies are expensive here. I paid, and she gave me my ticket. I had about half an hour to kill.
I went back downstairs and started browsing through the mall/department store complex. I was getting quite dehydrated, so I grabbed a pop from a machine. It was “Melon Cream Soda.” Wow. Cantaloupe flavored pop. I sat at a table in the food court and downed it. I then began to wander aimlessly around the complex. I was looking for nothing in particular, just killing time.
At around 2:40, I headed back on up to the theater. Now, there was a little peculiarity on my ticket, and I saw it confirmed when I walked through the doors. Theaters in Japan (at least this one) have assigned seating. No “sit wherever you like,” but “sit in the seat we give you.” On this particular day, I was in M-17. It was aisle seat, just the right distance from the screen. The only depressing thing was the fat guy in M-16. He looked like the Asian counterpart of the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. And next to him was this really hot woman. Do fat geeks have a chance in Japan? Or was it his sister? I will never know.
Around five minutes before the start of the movie, that’s when this delightful young woman came in. She gave a little speech, which I didn’t understand a word of, but I got the jist. She was there to sell us Kit Kats. I remember back in 1996, movie theaters in Canada tried the same thing. Just before the movie started, someone would come in and try and sell you snacks, much like the concessionaires at baseball games. Soon, a person who I can only assume was the woman’s boss came in and gave her a hand signal. She made a hasty retreat, and the lights dimmed in that way that I love so much.
The first thing I was treated to was…Bugs Bunny! Turns our Warner Brothers owns this chain of movie theaters. Bugs opened his mouth and…he spoke in Japanese. Panic raced through my heart. Was I in the wrong theater? Was I going to see Men in Black II dubbed in Japanese? I took a deep breath, and tried to look at things logically. As this cartoon played out, I could tell that it was one of those public service announcement things. You know, “Last chance to run out to the lobby and get some snacks. Please be quiet. Turn off your damn cell phones.” This is probably something that this theater runs in front of every movie. And of course it would be in Japanese. This is Japan, after all. I wasn’t going to flee the theater in terror just yet. Let’s wait and see what the movie was like. Coming attractions. Some were in English, some were in Japanese. No conclusive proof. That’s when I saw English words I recognized: “Feature Presentation.”
Suddenly, it was five years ago, when I first saw Men in Black. The Columbia Studios movie logo appeared. For a brief moment, the urban legend that the logo is designed to look like Annette Benning crossed my mind. I couldn’t help but grin like an idiot when I heard the first strains of an unmistakable Danny Elfman score. Did you know the score for Men in Black won Danny Elfman his first Oscar nomination? But I digress. But this was not Men in Black, but its long awaited sequel. I grinned at the wonderfully cheesy opening scene starring Peter Graves hosting an Unsolved Mysteries type show. And lo and behold, he was speaking in English. Danny Elfman’s Men in Black theme kicked into high gear, and the opening credits began.
100 minutes later, I was walking out of my first movie experience in Japan. Will Smith’s theme song was still making my head bob up and down. Quite frankly, movies are my drug. When I watch a good movie, I feel as though I absorb the qualities of the hero, and when I walk out, I feel like a total bad-ass, ready to take on the world. Men in Black II was just what I needed. I walked a little taller, with a little more confidence. I was starting to modify the lyrics of the Will Smith song from Black Suits Coming to Scarecrow’s Coming. I was pumped. I was primed. I was ready to enjoy the rest of my birthday.
I felt an urge to share this feeling with people, so my next destination was going to be the Internet café so I could send some e-mail. As I began the trek, I wandered by this other department store that I had passed on my way to the theater. Still high on movies, my adventurous spirit kicked in, and I stepped inside. I wandered around the store. I was still looking for a halfway decent toy store, so I could finally check out some of these really cool Japanese toys that ToyFare always raves about. There was no toy section, but I did find the stationary section. I checked around for my Canon BC-02 and found none, so I started browsing through the postcards.
Now, I know that I’ve promised postcards to about half a dozen people back home. But I have yet to find any “tacky tourist postcards.” You know, ones adorned with “Greetings from Mount Fuji” or anything like that. Most of the ones I’ve found are just striking photographs that have little to do with the local area or funky-cool graphic designs. I was going through some funky-cool graphic designs ones, when I came across this one of a woman casting the shadow of the cat. The woman herself was rather dark, not in complexion, but in that Neil Gaiman’s Death kind of way. I took a look at it and though, “That…that just reminds me of so many women I know.” So, I bought half-a-dozen of these to send to all the women that it reminded me of. I was already going to share my good feelings.
I left the store and began venturing back to the Internet café. I was nearing the district when I passed a small, unassuming stationary store. I recognized one simple logo in the window: “Canon.” Could this be a Canon store? Could they hold my much-sought after BC-02? I ventured inside. It was a small store, with cramped shelves. I had to walk sideways to get through most of the aisles. Finally, found their modest selection of ink cartridges. I held my breath as I began sorting through them. And there, tucked in the back, was one lone, solitary BC-02. I bought that sucker, and left smiling. My birthday was definitely looking up.
I got to the Internet café, whipped out my membership card, found a computer and started going through my e-mail. Spam, spam, spam. My brother sent me an electronic birthday card featuring an animated stripper. Oh, brother. He promised to follow it up with a digital photo of his family. I went to my website to see if anyone had left anything on my message board (nope) and then started skimming some movie news headlines. As I was reading the startling news that Hasbro has just sold the movie rights to The Transformers, I couldn’t help but think that maybe I don’t need to get Internet access in my apartment. This could be a fairly comfortable routine. Come to the Internet café every Sunday afternoon, check my e-mail, read the week’s headlines, upload the latest column. This could be a good life. After an hour of e-mail and movie news, I knew I had to find a phone.
I was still eager to share my birthday cheer, and I knew that Chuck would freak at the prospect of someone, out there, getting ready to make a Transformers movie. I went to the nearest phone booth, whipped out my notebook, and found Chuck’s phone number. Plugging in the first 100 yen coin, I dialed Chuck’s number. I hoped that he had his cell phone on. It rang a few times, and then I heard his familiar voice say, “Hello!” I said, “Hey!” And then he clued in that it was me and said, “Oh, hello! How are you?” I casually mentioned that my first birthday in another country went OK, to which he replied, “Oh yeah. You’re birthday’s the seventh, right? So that means it was…today. OH MY GOD! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” And then we talked about how I spent my birthday, life, love, the meaning of it all, you know, best friend stuff. And then he put L on, and she and I did similar. And I was right. Chuck was giddy at the prospect that there just might be a second Transformers movie.
The sun was starting to set, so I knew it was time to head home. I stopped at a convenience store on the way home and bought myself some supper. I returned to my apartment and began eating. With a full belly, I ripped open my packet of postcards and began writing love notes to all the women I left behind. Well, OK, not love notes. They know what I mean. I put the new ink cartridge in my printer and fired it up. A few test pages confirmed that my printer was now AOK. With a working printer, I started running off the first letters that I had finished to all the women I left behind. And some of the men.
As I settled into bed that night, I looked back on my day, and everything that had happened throughout the last year. I wasn’t truly alone. It’s hard to be alone with modern telecommunications being what they are. I couldn’t help but think of all I had accomplished this past year. I had visited Vancouver, not once, but twice. I had ditched the hellhole that was Extra Foods. Do I have a plan in place for my life yet? Nope. But I’ll have this life-thing figured out by 30, for sure. I don’t have a plan so much as I have fuzzy goals. I will get to them, someday, but for now, I have little plans. Once I figure out what the plan is for the day, then I can start working on the plan for my life.