Sitting side-by-side, facing forward atop a stone wall, Kenji fell in love with Natsuki over the course of an afternoon with a single gesture. It went from his palm resting flat against the back of her hand to their fingers locking, entwined. They didn’t look at one another, but stared straight ahead into the lighting. Then, slowly, he gave her short glances, peeks from the corner of his eye, smiling, laughing uncomfortably. Over and over, they were asked to do it: engage and disengage. In the hours they’d been acting, he sensed their touch go from dry and cool to moist and warm, sweating, increasingly damp, but he didn’t mind her perspiration and hoped she didn’t mind his either.
For the day, they’d been hired as stand-ins, two aspiring actors with stunning skin cast as live-action reference for an animated film, and excepting a small scar near the base of Natsuki’s thumb that the director, anime auteur Toru Yamamoto, cited as adding realism, one might have called the couple’s hands flawless: conch-like cuticles, smooth segments of knuckle with the slightest trace of azure vein beneath their lightly tanned skin.
“My upcoming project,” Yamamoto had announced in pre-production interviews, “deals with the Shinto creation myth of Izanami and Izanagi as recorded in the Kojiki. The adaptation, however, will be loose, as I plan to assimilate threads of the similar Grecian tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. In any case, there’s a romantic core. This man, having lost his one true love, descends to the depths of the underworld to find her and lose her again.”
And now his cameras were focused for close-up, ready to translate the action of Kenji and Natsuki’s limbs into a series of stills from which his team would animate and put them back on film. Great artists of old had worked from real-life subjects in painting portraits and landscapes, and Yamamoto, an industry veteran of four decades, preferred to work in this same manner. For Kenji, it was a great opportunity. He’d gain experience and exposure with a revered figure, not to mention he’d been a fan of Yamamoto’s movies since he’d seen them on TV as a boy, but he hadn’t expected to perform with a woman he felt such intense attraction to, and the whole time, he tormented himself over the best way to ask for a date. Distracted, he’d zeroed in on the scar at the base of her thumb, rubbing and tracing its contours with the tip of his pinkie while Yamamoto watched on a monitor, murmuring, “That’s good! That’s good!” He’d instructed them to trust their instincts, to move in different ways, but when Kenji sensed her shiver, he pulled back, fearing he’d gone too far.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“No, that’s okay,” she replied. “I’m just sensitive.”
But Kenji didn’t resume his exploration. Instead he touched her with greater caution while she tensed and released her grip, flexing her fingers, elongating, drawing them back, arching her wrists.
Yamamoto’s films were often built around doe-eyed independent young heroines that his audience fawned over, and Natsuki fit this mold. She wasn’t verbose, but when she spoke, she was positive, complimentary. She’d told Kenji right away that she liked his shirt, a simple but stylish black button-down with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. She had a wonderful, spirited posture. She held herself upright, her shoulders wide, chin thrust forward as if to face life head-on, and she glanced about with curiosity, taking everything in, the crew, the lighting. She was so natural, so comfortable that Kenji blamed himself for the awkwardness that had crept into their interaction. He slumped, his body tilted at an angle away from hers, and it was only when he started drifting further away that Yamamoto intervened.
“Get closer!” he called. “Kenji, closer! Imagine yourselves sitting atop Mount Fuji. It’s the dawn of time and you’ve just made this mountain and all the land surrounding it. The world is spread before you, full of every possibility. Now how does that feel?”
During an interview early on in Yamamoto’s career, a critic had asked him about his films’ popular appeal. Yamamoto shrugged. “I’m an ordinary guy. If I like something, I’m pretty sure others will like it too,” and this everyman image was one of the reasons fans admired him, but it wasn’t why his work had endured. Aside from an innate talent for storytelling, he paid attention to nuance, to body language and tone of voice and human behavior in general, and this is why, despite the boy’s reticence, Yamamoto recognized Kenji’s attraction to Natsuki and decided to tap into the couple’s natural energy.
That night, following the afternoon they’d spent posing for Yamamoto, Kenji walked Natsuki to her car. His only relationship, if one ignored the two or three month flings he’d had in college, had lasted a year, but he’d never been comfortable talking to girls, and now that girls had become women, it wasn’t any easier. At least with Natsuki, they shared the same aspirations, but still, he was nervous, fumbling through the various approaches he could take. “Let’s have drinks,” came off as uncreative and lecherous, a transparent means of saying, “Let’s get drunk and have sex,” and if he asked her for drinks he’d surely blush and look away. “Dinner” sounded so grown up. He’d recently turned twenty-two, and he guessed that Natsuki was somewhere around that age, and candlelight and soft music were too much of a commitment. He’d overdo it, try to take her to an expensive restaurant he couldn’t afford where he’d have to wear clothing he wasn’t comfortable in, and he’d end up fidgeting all evening and spilling something on her. Aside from which “Would you like to have dinner?” had to be asked in a deep voice, at least one octave below his natural tone, with a smooth squint of the eyes and a slick confidence that Kenji, whose contralto laugh climbed the scale into a feminine pitch whenever he grew excited, didn’t possess. Was she a fan of Western cinema? Of course, she was. Everyone liked American movies, right? Discussing Yamamoto’s films was too obvious, and after weighing a number of options, he discovered he’d started rambling on about Battle Royale.
“I haven’t seen it,” Natsuki said.
“Oh, you have to! It’s set in a dystopian future where they send these kids to an island and the government forces them to fight to the death until there’s only one survivor!”
He realized he was gushing but couldn’t stop himself. The picture was playing at a local university’s repertory theater, and it seemed he now had an airtight approach to seeing her again. She was watching him, listening, nodding at appropriate intervals, but before he worked up the courage to ask, she said, “It sounds good, but I’m not really into scary movies.”
Kenji got flustered and stammered over his next few words. He thought of that brief instant during their second setup that day, the unplanned setup where they’d portrayed the gods flying and she almost fell and he reached out to grab her and held her tight in his arms. He’d imagined she held him back, but it might have been just that—his imagination. His cheeks flushed.
“Well, you know, that’s okay. I mean, it’s not that scary. It’s more intense, like a thriller. Not really horror. I mean, I’m not into horror either.”
It was almost as if she’d anticipated his invitation and cut him off to put him down gently. He couldn’t meet her gaze, didn’t look up to catch her as she grimaced, not at him, but herself, having recognized how she’d embarrassed him. They’d reached her car and she leaned against the door. Kenji took a deep breath, his courage having failed, and glanced past her shoulder into the streetlight glare beyond. “It was nice working with you.” He held out his hand.
She smiled and laughed through her nose, taking the hand she’d held all day, clasping it, lingering a bit longer than propriety would dictate. “Do you need a ride home?” she said, offering this as a reconciliation for her earlier blunder, but he shook his head. “It’s just a few blocks,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to put you out.”
One problem Yamamoto faced in making a film about the gods was how to humanize them. Over the years, hiring actors had helped him with trickier aspects of human anatomy and motion, and watching the rushes from his afternoon filming Kenji and Natsuki, he was moved by the expressiveness they brought to the roles with fingertips and palms and wrists: Kenji arching his arm in reluctance or Natsuki brushing the back of his hand to calm and reassure him.
In addition to the scene atop Mount Fuji, they’d filmed Izanagi and Izanami emerging from the heavens. Yamamoto hadn’t intended to use the actors for this, but he’d admired Kenji and Natsuki’s work, and he asked his crew to set up high-power fans and strap the actors into harnesses.
“I feel like Peter Pan,” Natsuki had quipped, as two operators hoisted them into the air above safety mats, but Yamamoto had been nervous. The men wielding their ropes weren’t professionals, and he worried they might collide or fall and break a bone.
“Slowly,” he cautioned. “Bring them together slowly.” And he watched with trepidation, as they drifted, their bodies spread to full wingspan, in flight, their horizontal forms against a plain blue backdrop, the artificial wind rippling through their sleek black hair, Natsuki’s long and flowing down her back, Kenji’s shoulder-length and waving across his smooth forehead.
Yamamoto had wanted to capture the muscles in their wrists and forearms as they strained to hold onto one another’s hands, but as the cameraman pulled back for a master shot, the man hoisting Natsuki lost his grip. Yamamoto heard someone cry out off to the side, but as Natsuki slipped into a free fall, Kenji lunged, caught her in a firm embrace, and the other operator, who held fast despite the additional weight, lowered them to the ground, spinning and unspooling like a ball of twine, staring into each other’s eyes.
Izanagi and Izanami weren’t the first gods, but they were among the first.
In the beginning, according to Shinto, the universe had been an amorphous ocean of reeds, but somewhere along the line, it separated into land and sea and sky. When this occurred three kami, or spirits, rose to the heavens and started creating others, bearing them in pairs, of which Izanagi and Izanami were the fifth. They were sent down over a rainbow bridge to bring order, and as they landed, Izanagi drew his sword, dipped it into the sea, and dripped its briny solution onto the surface, forming Japan’s first island Onogoro, where, soon after, they wed. From there, they produced the other islands and set about making the kami of the wind and trees and mountains and seas, but the last, Homu-subi, the fire kami, killed his mother Izanami in childbirth.
At this, Izanagi didn’t mourn, but rather, followed his wife to the world of darkness, where she hid from him. “I’ve eaten the food of the underworld,” she called from the shadows, “and I cannot return with you.” But Izanagi begged her to petition for release. “I’ll do so,” she acquiesced, “on the condition you come no closer.” And though he agreed, he crept toward her, impatient, to catch a glimpse. He hadn’t realized that death had transformed her body—rotting, hideous, infested with maggots—and when he saw her, she was so humiliated by his betrayal that she beckoned her guardians, the eight thunder gods, to pursue him. In peril, Izanagi rushed for the exit, fending them off with his sword, and once he reached the opening, he blocked the path with a large stone, forever separating not only himself from Izanami, but the land of the living from the land of the dead. His wife’s fate had saddened him, and while bathing in a river, he wept, new kami emerging from his tears, one of which was Amaterasu O-Mikami, the Sun goddess and source of divine imperial lineage until the second World War ended and the U.S. forced Emperor Hirohito to declare himself mortal.
Yamamoto could recall hearing this fateful announcement on the radio, listening in at the school he’d been sent to in the countryside, the adults silent and stunned, though for him, at eight years of age, he didn’t comprehend the impact beyond their reaction. He hadn’t realized that this erased centuries of proud tradition, even if this tradition had led them into the conflict.
Over the course of his youth, his country was subject to encroaching Western influence, and American films helped him escape the bombed-out landscape when he returned to his family in Tokyo, but he couldn’t completely ignore his ailing city, the piles of wood and brick and cinder that had once been homes. He saw men in the black market who’d returned from battle to a populace that couldn’t absorb them, wandering listless, looking for work or pushing products like cigarettes or clothing, and he became sensitive to the strained looks on his peoples’ faces. The crowded markets and ramshackle stalls coupling dust with summer heat leant the landscape a post-apocalyptic air that influenced his developing aesthetic sensibilities, and his first film dealt with a world on the edge of oblivion, with an earth that had grown toxic from radioactive fallout and a young woman who was destined to restore peace and reunite humankind.
He’d never considered his work distinctly Japanese, but when his early films were released overseas, the company distributing them re-cut the footage to pander to American tastes, and when the contracts expired, he signed with a competing studio that gave him final approval of any foreign versions they released. Around the same time, Yamamoto began to embrace his cultural ties, and his first crossover hit was also his first to feature samurai and kami, having recognized how much his youth and homeland had influenced him, how much he admired his people and their history. From that point forward, he strived to make intensely personal movies that the audience would experience on a deep, emotional level, films that showed the rest of the world how rich Japan had been and still was, and when he began production on his current film, he posted the following announcement on his studio’s webpage: “As I’ve grown older, I’ve become interested in my country’s history, in where we’ve come from. To this end, Birth of the Rising Sun will be both my final film and an ode to the Japanese people.”
Not long after Natsuki had posed with Kenji as point of reference for Yamamoto’s film, the studio had contacted her to ask if she’d like to return to shoot more footage, but she’d landed the lead role on a TV drama and had to decline. The seven part series was based on a science fiction manga, and Natsuki had come to the producers’ attention when they discovered she’d worked with Yamamoto. “The show follows a group of teenage students in the mid-twenty-first century training to be astronauts,” her agent told her, and after auditioning three times, she landed the part.
Over the next few weeks before shooting started, she’d lie in bed, alternating between reading the original manga and the script. She loved the character, this young girl whose adolescence was touched by tragedy, a space shuttle having exploded over her hometown, killing her mother when she was only five. She loved how, in spite of this, the girl looked toward the future, dreaming of reaching the stars and living in a better world. Most of all, she loved the girl’s code of ethics, her refusal to undercut the other students and propel herself to the top of the class. It was fantasy, yet this young girl’s emotions were so real, so true, that Natsuki couldn’t help but practice her lines aloud in front of the mirror each evening, and as production commenced, she’d not only memorized her part for the scenes that day but for all seven episodes. She was excited to meet her costars, anticipating the bond they’d develop, hoping that, since most of them were newcomers, they’d become good friends. What she hadn’t anticipated was the leading man, her character’s romantic interest, being so arrogant and self-involved.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she’d said.
“It is,” Hiroshi replied, “isn’t it?”
And though he laughed as if he’d made a terrific joke, she could tell by his conduct over the course of that day that he meant it. He would interrupt takes for no discernible reason. He hadn’t flubbed a line or missed his mark, but still, he’d interject, “Wait! Hold on! I can do that better!” interrupting Natsuki as she was about to deliver her dialogue. Twice, the director had to remind him they were on a tight schedule, and Hiroshi would roll his eyes as if to say, “Can you believe this guy?”
At the end of that afternoon, they had to shoot a scene in which they embraced. Natsuki’s character was so overjoyed at passing a physics test he’d helped her cram for that she ran up and enveloped him in a hug. Yet, he held her tighter than she was comfortable with, sliding his hands to the small of her back in a gesture too intimate for their characters’ bourgeoning relationship. The director explained that he was supposed to show confusion at this unexpected affection and only reluctantly hug her back, but when they set up to redo the shot, Hiroshi screwed up again. “I just like to hold you,” he whispered in her ear, and this made it almost impossible to hug him a third time, her character expressing gratitude while Natsuki herself was repulsed. Packing up for the day, he asked her if she wanted to get a drink with him, but she declined, saying she had to prepare for the next day and her thoughts returned to Kenji.
She regretted that she had to turn down the chance to see him again. Yes, she’d told herself over and over, he was just a boy she’d held hands with, but she’d liked him—his gentleness, his consideration, the wonder his eyes had shone with, grateful to be involved in Yamamoto’s project, even if just for a short time. She imagined he’d liked her too, but he hadn’t asked to see her again, so she tried not to dwell. And yet, whenever another man asked her out, she gauged some aspect of her date’s personality against Kenji’s: the way one might take her hand with an abrupt, presumptive air when she’d given no sign she was willing; the way a second might ask her to come home with him, as if she were a prize owed him for the price of a meal. She couldn’t help seeing their advances as aggressive, and this was when she particularly relished that afternoon with Kenji.
“You’ll meet someone eventually,” she kept assuring herself. “In the meantime, you have your work.” But now, she had to deal with it there too, and she wasn’t sure how she could endure the next eight weeks dodging this sketchy lothario. She tried avoiding him whenever they didn’t have a scene together, but this hurt her standing with the rest of the cast. “Who does she think she is?” she’d overheard one of the other actresses say. “Just because she worked with Yamamoto doesn’t mean she’s too good for us.”
She contemplated resigning, but one day, during a scene involving herself, Hiroshi, and a teacher, the older actress, seeing how dispirited and frustrated Natsuki was, said: “You know there’s a very good reason they call it acting,” and from then on, she felt better and sought the more experienced actress’s wisdom whenever she needed confidence. Still, she wasn’t entirely happy until her agent stopped by the set one day to deliver an invitation to the premier screening of Yamamoto’s film. In truth, she hadn’t expected to be invited. The event attracted the most famous celebrities and certainly not someone like her, but she was thrilled all the same. “At an event like this,” her more experienced friend advised her, “it’s best to be noticed, which means red and not black.” So Natsuki went out and bought herself an elegant red evening gown for the occasion.
The debut of Birth of the Rising Sun was held at the studio’s private theater on its Tokyo premises with a reception beforehand in the studio’s carnivalesque courtyard, and there was a playful, relaxed atmosphere as guests wandered the courtyard of statues, replicas of giant robots and fluffy egg-shaped forest spirits from Yamamoto’s previous work. Natsuki’s show had begun its TV run on the NHK network the week before to high ratings and critical praise, and as she entered the auditorium, she was exhilarated by the photographers’ attention, the bursts of light coming from their flashes, dazzling stars, a voyage through the stratosphere. All the while, she scanned the crowd, and though she wouldn’t admit she was searching for Kenji, she figured if she saw him, she’d stop to say hello. She walked the length of the red carpet and lingered by a marble fountain, doing her best to look as though she were waiting for her date, but the place was packed, and since she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to find her seat before the film began, she decided to head for the theater and settle in. She couldn’t say she’d even recognize him if he was decked out in evening wear, so vivid was her memory of him in jeans and that black button-down, and yet, he had such a nice smile and kind eyes and an endearing nervous energy that she somehow felt she’d know him instantly. She was so certain, in fact, that she didn’t realize he was sitting in the seat next to hers until he stood to greet her, betraying with a miniscule up and down shift of the head exactly how much he admired her red dress.
“It’s nice to see you again,” he said, and the words hung in the air, too awkward, too formal. She smiled and told him it was nice to see him too, and they sat, side-by-side once again, facing forward. Around them, there was the low murmur of guests conversing, but Natsuki and Kenji were silent, each wondering how they could cover the last ten months of their lives in a brief conversation before the lights dimmed. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to speak, but neither could think of anything to say. Natsuki was concerned that talking about her show would seem like bragging, like she’d developed a big ego, especially if he hadn’t found any acting work since their stint with Yamamoto, but it was also the most exciting aspect of her life and a hard topic to avoid. For his part, Kenji kept turning toward her as if about to speak and then looking away. The seats were comfortable, a plush red velvet, and after Yamamoto had introduced the film, the curtain rose, the screen filled with the studio’s logo, and Kenji and Natsuki sank back, glad they were no longer faced with the problem of finding a suitable subject for discussion.
The opening was an abstract twirl of tumult and strobe, a dizzying display of bright oscillating whites interlaced with color as the planet was born from darkness. Gradations of black and gray textures metamorphosed into waves thrashing in the wind and rain. Amorphous shapes sectioned off from the slick dark surface of the sea. All manner of sinuous partitions and boundaries drifted from one another to form the land. A blue-gray particle burst exploded from the vast ocean to make sky. And all this was accompanied by a furious symphonic crescendo of schizophrenic strings, crashing cymbals, and clattering tympani that settled into a calm murmur once the separation was complete.
The whole audience gasped with wonderment, as if rather than watching a film, they were witness to the most electrifying firework exhibition they’d ever seen, but what captured both Kenji and Natsuki’s attention more than this energetic prologue was the introduction of their images onscreen. Izanagi and Izanami slipped into the public eye not mid-flight, arms akimbo and wingspan wide, as Kenji had expected, but holding each other and drifting slowly to Earth, twirling as they’d done when Natsuki slipped and he’d caught her. The ropes and harnesses had been removed, but other than that, there was no artistic license in this depiction, no loose interpretation: the gods were exact replicas of the actors on whom their movements were based. They were Kenji and Natsuki, and this astonished them, but neither looked at the other. Instead, they hunkered down, as if the theatergoers might turn and accuse them of stealing their own faces and physiques, and as they hunkered, they leaned closer together, so close that Kenji could sense Natsuki’s lithe arm resting against the partition and had to resist the impulse to touch her. He found her more alluring now than when they’d met, and seeing them together on screen, crossing a bridge that unfurled into a rainbow’s arch and stepping onto the land they’d created only served to remind him what he’d passed up when he ran away instead of asking her out. He tensed, hovering near her warmth in the air-conditioned theater, then leaned away and focused on the film without watching, his eyes staring not at the screen but through it. His arms were trembling, he desired her so intensely, and sensing this shift, Natsuki, who’d noticed his proximity, impulsively reached out and took his hand.
She hadn’t planned on this, but it felt natural, and Kenji eased into it with her. She hadn’t acknowledged how strong her attraction to him was until they made this contact. She’d removed herself, even when her daydreams had returned to him, in case she never saw him again. But now he was here, touching her, and her skin tingled with excitement and pleasure. When they reached the scene that found Izanami and Izanagi perched atop Mount Fuji, their fingers reflexively danced with one another, reenacting the way they’d tangled on the fortuitous day they’d met. Kenji brushed his thumb against the scar at the base of her thumb, but instead of retreating as he’d done when they were filming, he caressed it, sending a jolt of warm, tingling sensation up her arms and shoulders. The gods onscreen revealed their affection in a brief close-up, but in the audience, Kenji continued to explore the contours of Natsuki’s skin, pressing his index and middle fingers against the lines of her palms and tracing them as gently as the gods above them traced rivers, skimming the surface of waters, dancing on rapids. He touched her wrist, examining the delicate bones beneath, and slid his hand over the back of hers, consuming, enveloping, locking together, holding on as he planned to hold on the rest of the evening and a long time to come. There was no grand design in bringing them together, yet as Yamamoto surveyed the audience from a private balcony, reveling in their happiness, he caught sight of his extras engaged in this flirtation. Before him, projected on the theater’s screen was a recreation of Japan’s past, the achievement of a life’s work, while on the floor he recognized the rewards of his art, this great compliment, a couple subsumed in each other’s lives, seduced by the power of an image, slowly drifting into love’s embrace and feeling their way with hope toward the future.