The Sushi Maker’s Daughter

By Loren Stephens

Noriko poses in front of a full-length mirror; she holds a candle, moving it from left to right, watching the shadows play across her face. The scar on her forehead is barely visible under the fringe of black bangs.

She turns on the record player, puts her fedora on at a jaunty angle, tightens the belt on her raincoat, turns up the collar, and sings the words she has memorized to the zither’s haunting refrain:

 

Once again there comes to mind

Someone that you left behind

Love that somehow didn’t last

In that happy city of the past.

 

The next evening Noriko takes her place on the stage against the scenic backdrop of 1940s Vienna. Behind her is a miniature Ferris wheel, decorated with tiny white lights, that turns in time to the music. She cannot see the audience in the darkened theater, but she feels her father’s presence in the first row. She floats through the performance, her mind and body in perfect harmony. When Noriko takes her bow with the cast, her father comes out from the wings and hands her a bouquet of white orchids.

In the school newspaper the review of the drama club’s adaptation of The Third Man makes special mention of Noriko Ito’s “convincing performance as Holly Martins. Her singing and dancing were outstanding. She is a chameleon with an androgynous yet delicate face, and she will surely be able to play the men’s roles when she is accepted in the Takarazuka Theater Company Academy. We look forward to seeing our Noriko in the spotlight.”

Before the end of her senior year in high school, Noriko takes a trip from Hiroshima to Osaka with the drama club to see a performance of Mon Paris, a musical review at the Takarazuka Grand Theater. As the orchestra plays the overture, the shimmering curtain rises, revealing a staircase stretching across the width of the stage with lights underneath each step. Noriko leans forward in her seat. From the back of the staircase, a troupe of twenty women – some dressed in pink taffeta ball gowns and others in tight-fitting sequined tuxedos – sing and strut their way down the stairs. The audience breaks out in thunderous applause as the otokoyaku top star, bathed in a single spotlight, appears, dressed in a black tuxedo with glossy, blackbird feathers attached to her back and arms. She spreads them wide, commanding center stage. For the finale the star has changed into an all-white tuxedo. Her short-cropped hair is slicked back, and she wears sideburns that accentuate her high cheekbones. As the last musical notes are played, women dressed as traditional geishas stand on the top of the stairs and take their bows with the rest of the company.

Crowds of women and young girls wait patiently for the stars to come out of the side door to receive gifts and sign calling cards. Out of respect, no one speaks or calls out their names.

The drama teacher leads the girls back to their hotel near the theater. Noriko hands her roommate, Akiko, a pair of scissors. “Here, cut it all off.” Skeins of her long, black hair fall onto the black-and-white tile bathroom floor. She wets her hands under the faucet and runs them through her shorn hair. Turning to Akiko, she asks, “How do I look?”

“Just like a Takarazuka star.”

Noriko lowers her voice and imitates the otokoyaku spreading her arms above her head. The girls start to laugh. Outside, on the street below their hotel window, musicians are playing a jazzy American tune. Noriko takes Akiko in her arms and leads her in a foxtrot across the tatami mats toward the sound of the music.

Her father, Ryo, gives Noriko permission to move to Osaka after she graduates.  It is arranged that she will live with her half-sister, Setsuko, and work as a waitress at the Tesagara Tea Room while waiting for her audition into the Takarazuka Academy. She will “play” the part of a tea room waitress, and her costume will be a pretty pink uniform and white apron.

Unpacking her dance shoes and sheet music, she is dizzy from excitement. A few days before her eighteenth birthday, she will be auditioning for the academy. She cannot fail. There will be no second chances because the academy does not accept girls older than eighteen.

Noriko runs past the Hojenji Temple in the alley next to the tea room, nearly knocking over the caretaker, who is carrying a wooden bucket filled with water. She slides over the freshly washed stones and yells over her shoulder, “Forgive me madam. I am late for my audition.” The temple caretaker silently blesses the pretty young girl; she looks as if she is dancing, her feet barely touching the ground.

The waiting room is filled with young girls between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. Only fifty hopefuls will earn a place in the Takarazuka Theater Training Academy. Noriko scans the waiting room for Akiko, who waves at her and points to an empty seat next to her. She slips into her dance shoes and checks her makeup in the small mirror in her purse. Trying to remain calm and poised, she visualizes her audition routine. In her head she hears the voice of her acting teacher instructing her: “Remember to stand straight so that you appear taller. Keep your eyes focused on the judges, not on your feet. Extend your arms like the wings of a bird, and remember to breathe from your diaphragm, not your throat. That is where your power is.”

The doors to the audition hall swing open. A girl runs out, tears streaming down her face. Noriko whispers to Akiko, “Ah, she must not have made it. But she looks young enough that she will have a second chance.”

Akiko does not react. Her mind is on her routine.

And then the chorus master calls out, “Miss Akiko Takahashi.” Noriko squeezes her friend’s hand and whispers, “Good luck.”

Ten minutes later Akiko rushes over to Noriko. Drops of perspiration run down her smiling face. She can hardly get the words out, “I am in; I am in; I am in.” Noriko throws her arms around her. She wants to laugh and cry at the same time in happiness for her friend, but she needs to stay calm and focused. Akiko says, “I will wait until you have your turn. Then we can celebrate together.”

When Noriko hears her name called, she stands up. Her legs are shaking like a vibrating sewing machine and her mouth feels parched. The room spins around and she hesitates before entering the audition hall. A man with a white scarf tied around his neck sits at a table between two women, each wearing horn-rimmed glasses and bright-red lipstick. The man speaks. “Give me your paper.” He glances at it. “I see you graduated from high school in Hiroshima. Were you living there in 1945?”  The woman to his left raises her eyebrow.

Noriko hesitates to acknowledge that she is a survivor of Little Boy. She wants to shout out, “Don’t hold this against me. I did not choose to be there. I don’t carry the poison of radiation. I am strong enough to be a star. You won’t be wasting your time with me.”

Instead she whispers, “Yes, sir. I was there.”

 

* * *

 

At 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, eight-year-old Noriko opened her song book, and suddenly there was a blinding flash of light. There was no warning air raid siren, but her teacher screamed for all the children to get underneath their desks. Glass and debris flew everywhere, and something hit Noriko on the forehead, but she was too numb with fear to feel the pain or notice the blood dripping down her face. Buildings next to the school caught on fire and smoke filled the sky. Everything was dark and a furious wind lifted broken tree limbs into the air. When the wind died down, the children were led to the cellar, but the “all clear” signal did not come. There was an eerie silence. Noriko huddled in the dark cellar, waiting for someone or something to rescue her.

Her father, Ryo, made his way through the burning streets on his bicycle. He tied a scarf around his nose to block the smell of the sulfurous fumes rising like steam out of the ground. Everywhere he looked, there were bombed-out buildings. Charred bodies cluttered the streets, and those who were still alive staggered around in a daze, many with blackened skin hanging from their faces and arms. The sun disappeared from the sky.

Riding on the bicycle behind her father, Noriko buried her face in his broad back as he tried to find his way home. Their house was far enough from ground zero that it withstood the mysterious explosion.

Her parents spoke in hushed tones, but Noriko heard her father say, “Many people jumped into the canals. The water acted like fuel and I could only watch as their bodies burned like so much parchment paper.” Noriko pinched her nose when she ventured outside because the stench of dead bodies was horrific. Fish turned upside down in the tributary of the Ota River.

Ryo worked on a volunteer crew clearing the streets in their neighborhood. When he came home, he dropped his clothes in a bamboo basket by the door and put them on again the next day. Water was too scarce to waste on washing clothes and there was no electricity.

Noriko’s head throbbed from the shard of glass that had punctured her forehead. The pain made it difficult for her to sleep at night, but worse than the pain were the nightmares. She wondered if the sun would ever come out again, but she was too afraid to ask her father. To pass the time, she put on plays with her dolls for her brother’s amusement and sang him a lullaby to help him sleep at night. Listening to his daughter, Ryo remarked to his wife, “Noriko has a beautiful voice, ne? It is good to hear her singing.”

A month passed after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and then the Japanese mainland was hit by one of the worst hurricanes in the country’s history. Whatever damage had been done by the bomb was magnified by blinding rainstorms and gale-force winds. People who had no shelter were thrown against wrecked building walls and washed into the river by currents of gushing water and mud. It seemed to Noriko that Izuna Daigongen and his fellow gods were truly punishing the world.

When the rain finally subsided, Noriko and Ryo waded through the mud to find the remains of his sushi shop near the Hiroshima train station. Children no older than Noriko cluttered the streets, swatting at mosquitoes that bred in the soggy rain puddles. Many of the children had been sent into the countryside during the war, but with the cessation of fighting, they returned to the city, unable to locate their parents. Noriko saw a young boy carrying a shoe shine box, hoping to find a customer with shoes that needed polishing.

A young girl with a white satchel strapped to her body stood outside the overcrowded orphanage. Noriko asked her father what she was carrying inside the satchel. “Those are the bones of her mother and father. She is hoping to find a place to bury them.” Noriko felt ashamed that she and her family had survived and others were not so lucky, but she took her good fortune as a sign that she must be destined for great things. Otherwise why would she have been spared?

 

* * *

 

The director repeats his question. “So Miss Ito, you are a survivor of Hiroshima?”

Nodding her head, she answers, “Yes, I am.”

“You’ll have to project better than that if you expect to win a place in our company. I see that you want to try out for the male parts. You are a bit short.”

Noriko raises her voice. “I have always played the male leads in my drama club productions. I won my school drama club prize in The Third Man.”

“How old are you?”

“Almost eighteen, sir.”

The director snorts. “So this is your last shot. All right, then, show us what you’ve got.” The director folds his hands behind his head and leans back in his chair.

Noriko hands her sheet music to the pianist. She has chosen one of the popular songs from the Takarazuka repertoire, transposing the music into the key of B flat to suit her voice. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror behind the director, she straightens her back and arranges her bangs to hide her scar.

The pianist plays the introduction and then nods to Noriko. She starts to sing. One of the women leans over and whispers into the director’s ear. The other passes him a note. When Noriko reaches the bridge, the director raises his hand. “That is quite enough. You have a very pleasing voice and a beautiful face, but unfortunately we already have enough candidates whose voices are stronger than yours. Thank you and good luck.”

The woman to his right takes off her glasses. “You would have been better off saying that you would be content to train for one of the women’s parts. There are more of those to be had in our company. Sorry. Your aspirations are higher than your height.” They all laugh at her joke, except Noriko.

Noriko bows. The pianist gets up. “Here, don’t forget your music, Miss Ito.”

Hiding her tears, she bows and backs out of the room. Had she made a terrible mistake to try out for the men’s roles? They are the real stars of the Takarazuka. Perhaps she had overestimated her talent. But it was too late now. She smiles and walks over to Akiko. In a whisper so that none of the other girls can hear, she says, “They said I am not tall enough to play one of the men’s parts and that my voice is not strong enough. I did not get in. Pretend that you are happy for me. I don’t want the other girls to know that I’ve been rejected.” She feels as if she is suffocating.

Noriko and Akiko gather their dance bags and run down the stairs. Noriko tries not to rob her friend of her happiness at being accepted into the academy. “Akiko, I shall look forward to seeing you on the stage. Someday you will be a star, and I can tell my children, ‘Look, that is Mama’s high school friend.’ And we’ll be sure and wait for you outside the theater so that you will sign our special card.”

“Perhaps there’s another path to your future happiness. In time, you’ll find it.”

“My dearest Akiko, that may be true. But right now the only path I see before me is the one leading back to the Tesagara Tea Room, and the only role I’ll be playing is that of a waitress. Besides, I want to pay my father back for paying for my dance and singing lessons.”

“Will he expect that of you?”

“I don’t know, but it’s only right. I have obviously squandered his money. I’m sure he will need it to pay for my brother’s tuition. He plans on being an engineer.”

“What is it that the sensei Morihei Ueshiba tells his followers? ‘There are many paths leading to the top of Mount Fuji, but there is only one summit – love.’”

Noriko answers, “Thank you for reminding me of our wise teacher’s remarks. But as far as I’m concerned, there’s love and there’s the theater. I wanted both. Now I’ll have to settle for something less. And who knows if I’ll ever find love? Perhaps I’ll be disappointed in that as well.”

Akiko puts her arm around Noriko’s slim waist, their steps in time with one another, each girl lost in her own private thoughts. The two friends take pleasure in their intimacy, their bodies silhouetted against the amber glow of the late winter sun.

Noriko runs upstairs to her room above the tea room, relieved that she does not have to tell Setsuko of her failure. She slowly unbuttons her dress and hangs it up in her wardrobe. Standing in her bare feet in front of the mirror, she examines her thin body covered in a white lace slip. She brushes her bangs from her forehead. There is her scar; it has barely faded after ten years.

Just that morning she had danced in front of the mirror, anticipating the excitement of her audition. Now she feels as if she is standing alone on the stage of an empty theater, a single ceiling bulb illuminating her face. Someone outside her window in the alley below sweeps the remnants of shattered glass into a dustpan.

­­___

Loren Stephens’ essays and short stories have been published in Peregrine, MacGuffin, the Sun, the Montreal Review, the Summerset Review, the North Atlantic Review, Eclectica, and ken*again, among many. She is the executive producer of the PBS Emmy nominated documentary, “Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist,” and a former member of the editorial advisory board of Memoir. She is the founder and president of Write Wisdom and Provenance Press.


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