There was a traditional love song playing. The man collecting tickets recognized Tony and flashed a big smile, embellished with gold teeth. The room was smaller than I’d expected, with a low ceiling. A dim spotlight glowed over a tiny, semi-circular platform which projected several feet into the first few rows of the audience. Only the front half of the room had any seating; the rest was filled with men standing in groups or alone, smoking cigarettes and talking excitedly. Those sitting closer to the stage were gazing at the curtains behind the spotlights. Some of the men in the front row were leaning against the stage itself.
I followed Tony as we made our way to the far side of the room. There were no seats available, so we positioned ourselves against a wall. It was crowded; more than a hundred men pressed into the cramped space. Tokyo rents are expensive. I made a quick calculation: half a million yen for a couple of hours’ basement space, three or four times an evening. It was a respectable return per square foot – probably a lot better than the return on the floor space at the office where I worked.
In front of us two men, who looked like construction workers, were talking in Korean. The music disappeared into the babble of the audience’s conversation. The spotlight grew brighter, there was a movement behind the curtain, and a dwarf with a painted clown’s face stepped into the circle of light.
‘Welcome, honoured customers and friends.’ He bowed deeply. ‘It is my pleasure to introduce the evening’s entertainment. I hope the girls who dance for you will be to your satisfaction. We have Mariko-chan with us again: we confidently expect she will meet with the approval of those of our regular customers who, over the past few weeks, have asked repeatedly to see her. Unfortunately, Mariko-chan was on holiday with her family in Osaka …’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ someone called out from the audience. ‘I was there last Wednesday!’
‘But we are delighted she is with us again. Then we have something a little exotic, America girl Suzi-chan.’
The dwarf began to move to one side of the stage. His walk was clumsy and disjointed. His shoes were uneven; one was much larger than the other and looked like a surgical boot. He stopped in midstride and, for an instant or two, the spotlight lost him and wandered uncertainly over the empty corner of the stage.
A Japanese song, a slow, old-fashioned and slightly wistful melody, pre-prosperity music from the fifties, emerged from the amplifier by our heads and the dwarf hobbled out of the spotlight. The bright circle of light remained. There was a movement in the folds of the curtains, then another, and with a jerk the sparkling material began to open before our eyes.
A woman in a brightly coloured kimono stepped into the light and advanced towards the front of the stage. The light penetrated the white cosmetic that covered her face, revealing the set of her eyes and the contours of her cheeks, and the shape of her mouth under the vermilion of her painted lips. The music receded.
‘Dear patrons,’ the dwarf’s voice intoned from the shadows, ‘it is my honour and pleasure to present our very special friend Mariko-chan!’
There was polite applause, and someone in the audience called out, ‘Good to see you again, Mariko-chan.’ The woman in the brightly coloured kimono bowed. The brilliance of the spotlight was unrelenting: as it showed a woman in an imitation of geisha finery, it uncovered a face of worn beauty and corruption.
She began to dance. The central spotlight dimmed and other lights, set out to the front of the stage, glowed into life, no brighter than paper lanterns; a play of light and shadow in the art of illusion. I listened to the words of the song: a woman singing about a man who was far away. It was a simple story but finely calculated to pluck the heart-strings of every man in the room. Thirty or forty years ago the song would have had a particular poignancy, when the last of the men were coming home from the war and the bombed towns and cities were drawing in the labour force from the surrounding countryside to help in the rebuilding of Japan.
A girl in a mountain village was waiting for her lover to return from far away. Mariko-chan’s movements were cramped with grief and desire. It was midsummer in the village. Mariko-chan was on her knees. The upper part of her kimono was loose and as she lowered her fan from her face the silk material slipped from her shoulder. With a gesture of self-conscious modesty, Mariko-chan rearranged her kimono, casually revealing as much as she concealed. Her breasts were small, but even in the softened light it was possible to see they were not the breasts of a young woman.
The girl in the village was lying awake at night, thinking of her lover; Mariko-chan was half kneeling, half reclining in the middle of the platform, supporting her body with her right hand while her left hand moved under the folds of her kimono. One of the Koreans whispered to his companion and they both laughed. The girl was describing the gentleness of her lover. Mariko-chan moved her legs slightly, deepening the shadow that was just visible under the border of her kimono, in between the whiteness of her knees.
Some of the men in the front row were leaning against the stage, their faces no more than a few inches from Mariko-chan’s feet, which were neatly enclosed in white cotton tabi socks. Mariko-chan did not register their presence; instead she turned her head, very slowly, to the left and to the right. Then, like a time-lapse film of a flower in the final stages of disintegration, she unravelled the last length of the obi at her waist and lay back. For a while she remained still, almost rigid.
The rhythm of the music changed. I couldn’t tell whether it was another song altogether, or a different part of the same one.
A young man in the front row was gazing reverently between Mariko-chan’s knees towards a dark triangle which was surely more shadow than revelation. Beside him a man took off his spectacles, wiped the lenses with his tie, adjusted them carefully to the bridge of his nose and leaned forwards again. Mariko-chan rolled on to her back, reached her right hand under her right thigh and gradually raised it until her knee touched her shoulder. The left half of her body hardly moved.
A man wearing a baseball hat in the second row leaned his head to one shoulder, like a prospective customer in a used car showroom looking into the engine of a car. With a quick, showgirl flick of her legs, Mariko-chan offered her body to another section of the audience, and the man in the baseball hat cocked his head to the other shoulder.
Once the audience had had an opportunity to examine her, Mariko-chan adopted a more formal kneeling position. She was still wearing her kimono loose and untied. She reached into the left-hand sleeve and drew out a dark silk wallet from which she took half a dozen or so rubber contraceptives.
The dwarf, who was still standing in the semi-darkness at the edge of the stage, made another announcement. ‘Unfortunately, due to the recent legislation, it is no longer possible for Mariko-chan to get to know her playfellows as closely as she would like. However, any member of the audience who is – how shall I say? – curious to know Mariko-chan better is most welcome.’
Mariko-chan made a formal bow, with the delicacy of a maid welcoming a customer to a traditional teahouse. The man in the baseball hat lifted his index finger. Mariko-chan flashed an arch expression and said something which I could not hear. Several other men close to the stage raised their index fingers.
Mariko-chan stood up and bowed to each customer before she rolled a contraceptive on to his upraised finger. After distributing three or four contraceptives, Mariko-chan knelt down at the edge of the stage, spread her knees and leaned back on one hand, while with the other she guided the rubber-clad index finger of a man in the front row into her body. For a minute or so she balanced on the balls of her feet, supporting herself with her hands, and watched the uncertain probing of the man between her legs. ‘Careful, sir!’ she gripped the man’s wrist. There was an edge to her voice. ‘I’m not a man, you know.’ She drew his hand away from her body, and took a tissue from the silk wallet which she folded round the contraceptive before removing it. Then she bowed, smiled and moved on.
It was the turn of the man in the baseball hat. Once again, Mariko-chan guided his finger into her. The man bent forward, and Mariko-chan adjusted herself to accommodate his curiosity. The man did not look at her face, but Mariko-chan kept a constant eye on him and just when it seemed as if his attentions might become too familiar, she drew back her hips with a swift, agile motion, leaving him bending forwards, staring at the tip of his finger wrapped in a glistening condom.
As the laughter subsided, another customer, emboldened by the party atmosphere, raised his hand, this time with two fingers inserted into the contraceptive. ‘Damme!’ Mariko-chan pretended to smack the man’s wrist. ‘Certainly not. You’ve only paid for one finger, not two. Don’t be unfair.’
For the last inspection Mariko-chan chose a young man in the front row who was watching her with an almost religious intensity. He was less confident than the others, and as she rolled the condom on to his finger he bowed so deeply and so frequently that she had difficulty putting it on. Once again she opened her thighs and drew his hand towards her. As she did so, the young man looked at her face and smiled apologetically. She nodded encouragement. He frowned with concentration, like a small boy. After a minute or so, Mariko-chan nodded again and the young man, bowing, withdrew his finger. Mariko-chan whisked another tissue from the wallet and deftly plucked the contraceptive from his finger. Then she bowed to him, smiled and rearranged her kimono.
Mariko-chan slipped her arms through the sleeves of her kimono and began to collect the discarded tissues into a neat pile, but some of the men in the front row were calling for more. ‘Come on, Mariko-chan, give us another look. Let’s see what you’ve got, don’t be shy.’
Mariko-chan gave a mock frown. ‘Girls are supposed to be modest. Haven’t you seen enough?’
‘No! Not yet! Show us everything!’
Mariko-chan pouted, walked to the front of the stage and lifted her leg over a particularly noisy customer, completely covering his head and shoulders with the hem of her kimono. There was a momentary pause, a muffled cry of ‘Wah! Kusai!’ – and a burst of delighted laughter from the audience at the man’s exclamation of disgust. I noticed a smile widening on Mariko-chan’s face as she stepped back and drew her kimono about her.
‘There now,’ the dwarf interrupted, ‘I hope Mariko-chan has satisfied your curiosity, sir. But if you’re still wondering, don’t worry, there are two acts to come!’ Mariko-chan placed the last of the tissues in a small square of red silk, which she tied loosely together to make a furoshiki. Then with the bundle in one hand and her obi in the other she gave a hurried, informal bow. ‘Thank you, Mariko-chan,’ said the dwarf, his voice rising, ‘everyone please, a round of applause for Mariko-chan!’ The spotlight returned and settled on her unsteadily. A few in the audience were still clapping as Mariko-chan began to make another bow and the curtains closed unceremoniously in front of her.