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Everyone needs a good assistant

Chapter Text

Kinema Junpo January 2020 –
An Interview with Mizuhara Chizuru by Yaemori Mini

This was the second time I had met Chizuru, one of the biggest newcomers to grace us this year. I got to meet her first time a year ago when she was on the circuit promoting 1000 Cranes, a remake of the 70s classic, and according to Chizuru a personal favourite. However, this had been in the aftermath of personal tragedy, and the movie star had been aloof. We had met at her Tokyo Studio apartment, and the cold austere atmosphere of the room reflected her tragic role in the film. She had a shyness and understandable reservedness that I have often seen in new stars, but once she was into our conversation she had a real life to her and a sense of style that showed why she was the big new star.

This time was different. We arrived at the same apartment early in the morning, the full crew ready for action. We were greeted by a vibrant young man in an orange T-shirt with messy ginger hair, who introduced himself as Miss Mizuhara’s assistant. He took our coats, telling us Mizuhara was ready for us and insisted on pointing out Chizuru’s series of awards resting in a new cabinet opposite a large aquarium with a lungfish. The apartment had become filled with object d’art and a new shrine devoted to members of Chizuru’s family. Please see the spread on p.94 and note in particular the wonderful bonsai cherry which was blossoming. In the main room, the assistant, a young Mr Kinoshita guided us carefully, impressing us with a series of photos of warring era castles which he said Chizuru had taken during filming and a delightful array of signed play scripts. Chizuru was waiting for us in an elegant blue dress covered in stars, and her genuine smile lit up the room.

After her assistant brought us all a glass of Sake, recommending it as an old family speciality, and some sour plums to restore us early in the morning, Chizuru turned on the brightest smile, and wondered what we made of her latest movie, Ultramarine Constellation. The romantic comedy about a woman’s first steps into adulthood had been a passion piece for the aspiring young actress, something she had spearheaded very early into the process. I praised its realism, but also the more human character Chizuru had played. ‘Some say this romantic and passionate side you’ve revealed on this project is the result of being partnered with the heartthrob Nakano Umi, or a productive rivalry between yourself and Sarashina Ruka. I personally think you’ve grown up and found love. What do you say Chizuru-san?’

Chizuru laughed at this, before asking her assistant to ‘get the thing’. The thing, it turned out, was a battered ticket for an aquarium. When I looked puzzled, she explained airily ‘I take acting seriously. I learnt to overcome myself by experience and practice. I loved Ultramarine Constellation for its rawness and reality, and I had to explore its romance, with help from the rest of the cast. Each of those dates my character explored, I explored. That role opened my eyes to love, how it can grow unexpectedly. As my mentor told me, acting is 99 lies that protect one precious truth. I’m in love.’ She paused looking away flushing at the thought of this intimate role, ‘I’m in love with acting, the process of discovery. When we last met Mini-san I was just scratching the surface, I can’t wait to show more of what I can do.’

As we enjoyed the smooth sake, Chizuru opened up more about the process, what a pleasure it had been to work with so many talented young actors. She laughed off breezily rumours about Ruka being a diva, ‘She’s a handful, but only because she is so passionate about the craft, and I can’t wait to work with her again.’ She had particular praise for the cautious young method actor Sakurasawa Sumi for bringing her method acting awkwardness on set, and her real commitment to acting.

Finally, we talked about the now famous incident in filming the coastal scene where there remains speculation that Chizuru was caught in a dangerous accident. Once again, she demurred to say much about the alleged accident, only that the team on set had been fantastic, and that she had been able to rely on strong support from her agency pointing at her assistant who was kindly refilling our drinks. ‘Kaz- Kinoshita-kun has been a godsend from the agency. Everyone needs a good assistant, who gives you what you need rather than what you want. I’ve been immensely lucky to get this far.’

Ultramarine Constellation should go out to general distribution later this month.

Chapter Text

You know it's not easy being a superstar actress. You need to keep a lot of plates spinning. Endorsements, managing homes, sorting out your next job, walking the dog, feeding the fish… especially the damned fish. Why a Lungfish? No… that doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that even moderately successful actresses need help. And I, Mizuhara Chizuru, star of stage and screen was caught in a rut about a year ago now. I was in my early twenties and already noted for two films, but I just felt off. Yes, 1000 cranes was a success, and people were praising the film version of The Heron Princess. I even had fame, I had fortune, even if she couldn’t see it, but not the recognition I craved. I was still just someone who could support a film, add comedy or action, and the snooty drama types thought I couldn’t act. Well, that was frustrating. Entirely unfair. Oh right… you were asking about the assistant? We’ll get there I promise.

So, filming had finished on The Heron Princess, and my agent Nanami was needling me. She was good, if sometimes a bit condescending about her talent, and after hearing about it all pointed out I needed to get a drama under my belt, something with romance, but wondered if I had the range or the passion. There were some hot words, she dropped me, and I floated, feeling lost. Everyone does that, it’s normal. I was sad and just spent some time in my Tokyo flat to consider things and not do anything silly like cry and stay up late watching movies. Stuff happens, boo hoo, but I got back up and looked forward. I turned to the Diamond agency instead. A bit more faceless than Nanami’s talent search, but I needed work and to prove myself. What they did offer, to get me back on my feet was an assistant who would help me ‘ground your emotional chi’ and ‘support my best endeavours’.

The first of these was a dark-haired looming man called Iwafune. He was quiet, kept to the shadows, and was initially helpful in boosting my work rate. However, he quickly grew to make me feel uncomfortable as he shrank from the sunlight and rejected all offers of Italian food. The Bela Lugosi rip off was replaced by a series of forgettable minions straight out of uni and utterly unsuited to the role. They lacked an understanding of film or appreciation for my role. I thought I was cursed and was ready to call it quits until the Kinoshita kid turned up.

I was beyond caring for this whole madcap idea of an assistant by the time spring rolled around, but I had paid the agency enough for one more try. The initial meeting was at the Kanonoir café, a favoured haunt of mine which was private enough to be off the beaten track for the press, stylish enough to feel upmarket, and I liked the menu. I had decided to dress in something girlish, to follow Sun Tzu’s maxim ‘Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak’. I wanted to see how this assistant would treat someone vulnerable. I remember how the men ogled and the women condescended. It was an excellent way to weed out the weak-minded. I had provided the booth location over the agency’s line and sat with quiet resolve to see what new horror I would be provided.

A scruffy looking head popped round the booth. The hair could use a good comb, dyed an unusual shade of auburn, followed by a forgettable face marked by an anxious face. This was owned by a lanky young man in the brightest orange shirt, some ill-fitting trousers in some bougie fashion, a student’s satchel bag, and some kind of brightly coloured sneakers. My eyebrows rose, this was not the normal kind of customer for the Kanonoir. He finally saw me, and I could feel his gaze slowly working down my body as he gaped a little and a fine sheen of sweat appeared. I didn’t know if to be offended or flattered.

He awkwardly closed his mouth before quietly asking., ‘Are you Mizuhara Chizara?’, before blushing and correcting himself to, ‘Ummm… Chizuru?’ I nodded, not quite sure to make of it all. He looked apologetically at me before proffering his hand. ‘I’m Kinoshita Kazuya, I’m your assistant for today. I’m in your care.’

This was my chance to lull him in with sweetness. ‘Oh, what a kind boy you are Kazuya-kun. Just the assistant I would like.’ His eyes lit up. Whilst I wanted to test his abilities out it felt almost like being cruel to a puppy, but I remembered his obvious gaze and my pity crumbled. ‘The agency should have provided your task for today, providing a photoshoot for 30 thousand yen.’ I carefully opened my wallet, letting my eyes narrow as I provided the yen necessary. ‘I am in your care today Kazuya-kun, so please take good care of me.’

Despite my apprehensions over this nervous wreck of a child in front of me, he proved attentive, pulling out a notepad and set of printed notes. He asked about my needs, whether I had a camera ready, and other such details. He seemed prepared at least, as he poured over his notes and declared himself ready. I hid my amusement at his earnestness. This was obviously some kind of amateur, but since I had already paid him, I saw no harm in following. To disguise myself I wore a sun hat and sunglasses, taking careful steps to look like some casual friend.

The first stop was in front of a little family mart. My eyebrows rose, especially when Kazuya opened a little door to the side. However, my curiosity kicked in, and a small corridor led to a spacious room filled with vintage clothes. A short, older woman greeted my new assistant as Kazuya-san and asked who I ever was. He briefly reddened before lamely explaining I was a friend.

‘I don’t know fashion very well, but I am sure you would look good in anything Mizuhara-san. Considering our limited budget, I thought that something vintage might be preferable, and Shigomi-san is a good friend of Nagomi-san and would be generous. Might I ask only that you find something in green… I did some reading and hope it would suit the location.’ He stammered from an awkward and unwieldy way through his explanation. I acquiesced and found an old fashioned but elegant green velvet dress that matched the sun hat, and with my assistant’s help found it at a reasonable price. I hated to admit it, but I was impressed.

‘So where now Kazuya-kun?’ I asked sweetly, taking his arm. He flustered awkwardly, extracting himself. I enjoyed that moment of power. He spluttered something about the Tokyo aquarium, and so I am not too proud to say I mocked him about such a cliché location, but he seemed proud of himself. He checked his watch constantly on the way there, but once we arrived, he proudly showed off the place. I didn’t have to pretend too much interest, as his passion and sudden confidence was certainly more charming than his early anxiety. Certainly, I had never expected penguins to be quite so complex nor the range of colours shown off by tropical fish.

The clock struck two and Kazuya seemed excited. He grabbed my hand, which was presumptuous, but I let it pass, as something about his excitement was infectious. ‘I called in a few favours… got us a private shoot in the main tunnel under the aquarium for an hour. There is a private room for you to change while I just set up the camera and check a few things.’

It seemed I had underestimated the young man. When I returned in the green dress and gave it a twirl once again Kazuya reddened but calmed himself. As I turned and looked, feeling as if I was swimming in amongst the fish I could hear him clicking away, I felt that thing I had been missing so long, a sense of being a star, someone worth noticing. I moved from bench to window, nestling in its curves like a child, and Kazuya approached from different angles. He took a quick break to point out the garden eels in the sand, and how the dress really complimented the shade of the water. ‘You know, like this, you really look like a movie star,’ he said without an ounce of guile. I turned. It was definitely to take a closer look at a large ray swimming past, and nothing as stupid as hiding a blush.

Kazuya handed me the photo, along with 10 000 yen back. I smiled and pushed it back into his hand. ‘Maybe you are a decent assistant, but I’ll let you know once I get a proper look at these photos. For now, run off and get a coffee, Kazuya-kun. You’ve earned it.’

I felt exhausted by the time I arrived back at my flat. It felt so empty after a lively day, but I smiled at the pictures in my shrine and uploaded the photos onto my laptop to give them a thorough inspection. As I waited for them to transfer, I checked out the diamond reviews for Kinoshita. It was not pretty reading. While his diligence was praised, he had taken so many of them to the same aquarium for the test photoshoots. They had noted his awkwardness. His words came back to me ‘you really look like a movie star.’ I didn’t just look like one, I was one, one that deserved his respect. He dared to use some off the shelf excursion! I wasn’t someone special to him, a client he respected or researched. My anger built. Well then… let’s see, I thought, if this assistant can cope with a proper movie star tomorrow!

Chapter Text

It had been simple to book Kinoshita for a second day. The more fiendish part had been organising my revenge on the ungrateful twerp. He needed to realise his position, to respect and admire my fame. I would need to go full Diva and show him the fury of my star power. The plan was glorious in its simplicity, I merely needed to organise a place of meeting. Then find a series of ways to humiliate the child until he acknowledged that he was unworthy of assisting a real actress, and I could say my piece about the respect I deserved.

My first and most brilliant plan was to meet up once more at Kanoir about midday, but this time I would wait for the boy in a costume I had used during my brief stay at university. I was pleased I had kept the practical flat shoes, the aged jeans, the unshapely jumper, the awkward round glasses, and a big satchel bag. It had taken a while to get the braids right for the twin ponytails, but that morning had felt like slipping into an old character, a forgotten me who would prove how oblivious this Kinoshita was. I felt smug as I sat in the booth. The idiot who couldn’t recognise raw charisma obviously wouldn’t recognise my dressed down costume and so was unable to assist me. I needed someone who saw me.

I kept myself calm through herbal tea and a battered copy of Sun Tzu’s art of war. As I hovered over ‘In making tactical dispositions, the highest pitch you can attain is to conceal the-’ I heard a now-familiar earnest voice ask ‘Ah, Mizuhara-san! What a wonderful look! Those glasses make you look quite the intellectual. Is this for a role?’ It was the Kinoshita boy, in a hideous tartan check shirt concealed by an at least presentable yellow hoodie, which didn’t go at all with his dark black trousers.

How had this imbecile seen me? My blood boiled. I forced a thin smile and checked my watch and forced a tut. ‘You are a couple of minutes late, I expected better of you on your second day. He looked crestfallen like a kicked puppy, enough to make me feel guilty. However, his face brightened as if some exciting thought had entered his likely empty brain. He carefully pulled out a plastic container conspiratorially, trying to prevent detection by looking as suspicious as possible. At my puzzlement, he carefully removed the top of the container to reveal a decorated cupcake, emblazoned with a crane.

‘I saw it on my way here… and I thought it was fate. A crane for Chizuru, and a wish. Also, I don’t know about you… but I get kind of hungry mid-morning… and I thought you might be…’ he ended lamely as I shot him a confused look. This was just weird. Buying confectionary for your boss on your second day, just seemed condescending. I gritted my teeth as his face fell. ‘I appreciate the thought, but I need your promptness more than cake… I am quite capable of buying my own.’

I sighed, rubbing my temples. Why was I feeling like the villain? Nonetheless, the boy must be put in his place. He got lucky picking a dress yesterday, but today I would crush him and make him face his uselessness, and a Mitsukoshi Ginza store would be the means of my victory. The boy acquiesced to help me pick out perfume to offer endorsements, but like Liu Bei at Bowang I had prepared an ambush on our route. He was completely unsuspecting as we crossed from the safety of kitchenware into women’s wear. This land of dresses gave way to a valley of lingerie. I enjoyed my ambush, turning in faux concern and trying to ignore my smirk as the boy blushed, a thin sheen of sweat obvious on his forehead as he attempted to look resolutely forward. The torture on his face as he tried to look at only my face was weirdly endearing rather than pathetic, so my victory was short-lived, so I led the way to the mist of the perfume counters and challenged the boy to find my scent.

He didn’t take long to trawl through the scents and the attractive young ladies spraying them out in profusion. I had expected a more careful search. The bottle was an elegant light purple vase but seemed a little old fashioned, and when I raised my eyebrows and sprayed a little on, the Kinoshita boy stammered out that it was a fragrance that his mother had recommended, and I groaned internally. Just some nice scent his ageing mother liked! Was that the way to treat a star? The waft of lilac was nice but what was the boy warbling on about with strong mid-tones and calming after tones? He looked disappointed at my expression, like a beaten dog just cowered, pathetic.

I had one more job to do at the department store and although I was so sick of the boy now, I had already paid for his time and I still needed to crush him so dragged him down to the bookstore level and told him to look for romances ripe for adaptation. Certainly, he was desperate to please, pointing out some High School romance about a stuck up rich girl and some proud blonde girl, goodness knows how many Isekai, so coming of age pablum called Ultramarine Constellation, something about a boy who couldn’t die? All it looked trashy, but worth looking at a later date even if just to humour him as I prepared to crush his spirit.

When I suggested we returned to the aquarium his eyes lit up. The poor fool thought he had impressed me. He insisted that we rode the subway, and I cringed internally, but let him lead the way. The perfume fit my mood now, intense jasmine letting my feelings reach their peak, and I tried to grab hold of that feeling. I had been let down enough by people, and this time I would be in charge.

As we arrived the crowds were light and the sky turned grey, reflecting my internal resolve. He was lost in his own thoughts, pointing out the neon tetras, bright against the dull shaded waters and the cautious garden eels remaining hidden deep in the sand. I felt it now, that dull ache I had been holding on to since last night.

‘You don’t care at all, do you? Just another stranger passing through, never caring or looking at me! Why are you so insensitive?’ I let the force of my finger-wagging push him back against the wall of the aquarium, as he fell back as if struck, ‘I am a star, an actor, a woman who deserves respect, and yet you offer me this?’ He looked confused and hurt, and his eyes were misting over, but my anger was still hot, ‘Why did you take me here? Why take me where you had taken so many other people? Why can’t you see I am a star? Why don’t you care?’

The boy’s tears were streaming now, and he tried to brush them away, ‘I didn’t… I didn’t mean to? It was just a job… I am meant to be your assistant and help you… I just needed the job and the money… Sounds like you want a boyfriend, someone to make you feel special… not me, all I’m good for is an assistant….’ I cut him off, starting to feel my anger ebb. He looked beaten and down. He couldn’t even look back at me. And yet he was right… He had done everything I had asked, again and again. Was I blaming him and his fellow assistants for my own fears and my own need to feel special? I sat down at a nearby bench, suddenly exhausted.

The boy… Kazuya… had dried his eyes, and sat next to me, but I couldn’t look at him. I tried to summon up the courage to apologise, but it was too scary to admit how badly I had acted. Instead, he was apologising, trying to explain how flawed he was, but my head was pounding, my face flushed, and I had to rub my neck to calm myself. What an idiot!

Suddenly his phone went off, and Kazuya paled, a look of resignation on his face. ‘I... I need to go. I’m sorry this didn’t work out, and I am not the man you are looking for. I’ll let the agency know, but I need to go.’

He stood up and I followed. I’m still not sure why.

Chapter Text

I despise actresses who promote bad beliefs. There is one percent of truth we protect and surrounding it with nonsense annoys me. But, my day with Kazu- with Kinoshita made me believe in karma. My punishment for my arrogance reminded me of my greatest shame and sorrow. Still, I am getting ahead of myself.

The subway journey was horrible. Kinoshita rubbed his eyes which still looked puffy and couldn’t bring himself to speak to me. My face was warm, and I could feel the shame and pity roiling around inside me, twisting my guts. Only the smell of lavender surrounding me gave me any calm, and I tried to just breathe through it. How could I be such an idiot?

Our stop was painfully familiar. The imposing building in front of me brought back too many memories. It was still raw seeing Itabashi Third Hospital, like someone punching a still healing bruise, and still Kinoshita ignored me, striding in like a condemned man. Still, I followed after him, wanting him to speak to me, explain or curse at me.

I felt paralysed. I am still not sure if it was fear, hurt, guilt, destiny, or a need not to be alone. The chairs in a corridor felt so familiar even after half a year. I had a compulsion to hold his hand, to have some human touch, but he just sat there beaten down, completely pathetic. Why was I still here? I was letting myself get hurt again for this loser!

A nurse ushered us from a sterile corridor to a bright roomy ward, a large bunch of blue roses lit up by the late afternoon sun, giving everything a golden feel. By the bedside was a kindly looking middle-aged woman with her hair tied back in a bun and a stern looking man of a similar age with his widow’s peak curling behind his head in three tufts. They were overshadowed by a stern and imposing looking woman, but whose pale skin and dark bags under her eyes hinted at a fragility, like ageing paper grown stiff and brittle. The older woman demanded not to be fussed over, as the doctors were fussing like old women, but Kazuya’s grim expression seemed to belie the reassurance.

‘Who is your friend Kazuya, someone on your course?’, the middle-aged woman asked, curious but not unfriendly, ‘You didn’t need to bring a study friend with you.’ ‘He hasn’t had many female friends, it's nice he could meet a diligent student,’ the older man said gruffly, ‘pity he couldn’t find a girlfriend. Our poor Kazuya.’ I could feel Kinoshita’s cringe by proximity as he attempted to slouch so hard his soul could escape his body. ‘She’s just a friend….’ He said barely audibly, completely defeated.

I felt my panic rising. I don’t like to be out of control, being ignored, treated as a side-line, and unseen. I needed to do something, something to make this child feel better in front of his family. This was what I could do to make him feel better and impress his parents, after all, who couldn’t be impressed by me! ‘I’m Ichinose Chizuru, and I’m Kazuya-kun’s girlfriend’, I said in a blaze of glory, standing up, hands on hips, trying to look every inch of the movie star I am.

Several things happened at once. Firstly, I realised that I was currently not impressive in my old disguise, secondly, I had just committed myself to a fake relationship with someone I had made cry not very long previously, thirdly, the older woman rose from her bed crying as if struck by joyful lightning, fourthly, Kazuya rose pale as death and eyes wide open.

‘Is this true Kazuya, or some kind of prank you young people play? You know grandma Nagomi is not strong enough for such nonsense!’, the older man said firmly. Kazuya had a thin sheen of sweat, putting out his hands in front of him defensively, looking back to me with fear before blurting out, ‘it’s a new relationship… but when I heard grandma was ill again I thought it would raise her spirits to meet the love of my life, Chizuru-chan.’

The questions came thick and fast, and all that improvisation made my head spin, as I just nodded along to a complex web of lies. All I could add was that I was a third year at Nerima university, which was almost true, studying something boring so as not to arouse suspicion, so I picked business studies. ‘Oh, that must have been where you met Kazuya! I can’t believe it, meeting someone so sweet in class! Isn’t it so lucky you were a ronin Kazuya?’ the kindly woman Harumi looked so happy and I smiled and nodded, before shooting a death glare at Kazuya. How was that boy older than me? Studying business when he seemed barely able to manage a single client?

It was the older woman, introduced as Nagomi who shooed them away and took my hand. She looked uncomfortably straight at me, through my glasses, braids and through my face as if right into my soul. Her perceptive gaze lasted a few seconds but felt like hours, and it took all resolve to look back. Then she broke into a kindly smile, then leaned in close, speaking so only I could hear.

‘I remember an Ichinose, a dear friend of mine. She worried for her grandchild just as I worry for mine. Poor Kazuya, I spoiled him, teased him, and loved him. I have one wish now for this grandson of mine, and one I must now trust to you. I need you to look after him, to give him the care he needs, the love he deserves, and to trust him to be the good man he wants to be. I might not have time to see it, which is why I need you to promise me that you will be there for him and help him be a good man.’ Her voice was strong despite the cracks of age, but no less full of love. I couldn’t look at her, just nodded and stretched myself to a smile, gripped her hand, and brushed my watery eyes.

As I walked back to him Kazuya looked near frantic, a mix of nervous energy and a desire I couldn’t recognise. He thanked his parents and promised to return, making noncommittal noises when Nagomi demanded I joined him. The moment we were in the corridor and away from them he turned to me red faced, fearful and angry to ask, ‘What was that about?’

‘I thought it was pretty obvious I had rescued you from social anxiety and made your family happy?’ I declared, ‘I understand why you might be confused by my actions…. But I err…. Well, I felt sorry for you. I treated you harshly, and obviously, you are having a hard time.’

He looked grateful at this, but still worried and plaintive, ‘I can’t lie to my grandma. She’s like a goddess to our family, she cared for us all since my grandfather died young. I just want her to be happy… I don’t think she has long left now.’

‘The solution is simple then. You show some talent as an assistant, and obviously need to build some confidence and experience, so I can give you that,’ I said forcefully, before remembering I needed to fix the situation I had wandered into and Kazuya had created. The answer was of course brilliant, an appeal to film history. ‘More importantly with all this girlfriend stuff you have no idea what you are doing and how to treat a woman. I will be the Rex Harrison to your Audrey Hepburn and make you the favourite lover’, he looked blankly as if I had spoken in a foreign language, ‘I shall teach you how to be attractive. You don’t need to worry about me, I shall use your awkwardness as a teaching experience. Further dates will show me how to prepare for my next role, a romantic lead!’

The foolish boy was easily mollified and seemed quite pleased with the bargain struck. Only once he had gone I could let the adrenaline that fuelled me out of that disaster dissipate. An overwhelming sense of exhaustion and sadness overwhelmed me and I trekked down to my video store and once again rented 1000 Cranes, picked up a tub of ice cream and returned to my controlled safe apartment, safe in my ritual contentment and forget about that ridiculous boy and his nonsense.

Chapter Text

The lull between projects is the hardest thing to bear. All that energy and passion dissipating, as you look for something to fill the hole in your life before something bigger and better arrives. I had scattered pieces of work, but nothing to fill the gap. Instead, I turned to Kinoshita, to mould him into a useful and functional member of society. It was a project at least, and one with some merit.

The first job was to make Kinoshita useful. On the first Monday since our trial I met him once more at Kanoir, this time as Mizuhara the movie star, dressed in fitted jeans, white pleated blouse, wide brimmed sun hat, and dark glasses, which I took off confidently as Kinoshita arrived a couple of minutes early. He entered the café flustered and red faced suggesting he had run his way there and sought to look inconspicuous despite the signature loud orange shirt, clashing pale green slacks, and hair that looked the product of being dragged through a hedge violently. The most important thing was setting boundaries with Kinoshita. He listened intensely, as I listed my demands. Unless I gave orders otherwise, he would join me daily at 9 am at my flat’s expansive living room kitchen hybrid and was not allowed to go further than the guest bathroom. I also needed to leave the space full of zen calm, so he was not to fill the house with his belongings, junk or otherwise. I would be leaving Kinoshita a list of tasks to complete during the day which I would review in the afternoon before dismissing them. He was to have an hour for lunch, but no more. This would of course bring discipline and order our lives obviously needed.

The other task I set out on that day was getting Kinoshita to smarten up. On this count, I failed spectacularly. Any attempt to argue that he needed a proper shirt and jacket, and to look like a member of society rather than an overgrown teen was met with evasiveness. I didn’t press it too hard, but I was distinctly unimpressed. If he remained as my assistant, this would be a long-term fix. I made a note to rectify this in the future.

I hadn’t expected to be so nervous introducing my living space to yet another assistant, but Kinoshita’s curiosity made me wary. I politely explained that my agency had organised the flat for me whilst filming 1000 Cranes, but my busy schedule had prevented much time to myself over the last year. He had cut closer to the bone than I had expected. He didn’t even notice I wasn’t looking at him as he babbled on about what colour he imagined the walls as I buzzed in via the intercom and rode the elevator. No one else had asked, and the clean yet empty space of the living room felt more a rebuke than I remembered. This wasn’t home, that was just my box filled bedroom that felt that way. Instead, the clean to point of antiseptic empty bright white walls and cold dark tabletops felt like a brochure brought to life.

Kinoshita placed his hand behind his neck, viewing the room with a certain unease. Once again, I looked away, turning to rub away some imaginary speck of dirt. With a slow and careful vocalisation, Kinoshita said, ‘It’s very… fashionable? It’s a clean space… very big.’ The question hanging in Kazuya’s words, wondering who it was all for hurt again. The sense of alienation from this space I owned but didn’t live in hit me again.

I didn’t look at him, just turned to leave, saying as I did, ‘I have been told this is the height of fashion. Clean living on the KonMari scale. I have the list of jobs for you on the table, and I do not expect to be disturbed until this evening.’ With that, I ran away to my room, my boxes, her picture, and battered copy of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and hid until lunchtime, at which point I studiously ignored Kinoshita as he fiddled with a coffee machine as if it was his first day on the bomb squad and he couldn’t remember which wire to cut. I vaguely remembered leaving a suggestion for Kazuya to reorganise the kitchen and make sure everything worked. By the time I came back with a convenience store bento, the coffee grain covered assistant proudly looking at the machine, surrounded by mess. It was strangely appealing, but the state of the kitchen had made a nonsense of the task. Yet seeing Kinoshita so pleased stilled the sharp words I intended, as he proffered a cup of coffee like an infant handing art to go on the fridge. In the end, I just took the proffered coffee and reminded Kinoshita to have it cleaned. The coffee was sweeter than I was used to but bearable.

When it was time for Kinoshita to leave at 3 pm, I returned with my empty mug to find the mess gone, but the coffee pot, mismatched mugs I had collected over the years, and the coffee machine left out. A small vase was left in the middle of the dinner table, which had been left the last of the summer wisteria, leaving a sweet scent in the air. It felt like a home and carrying my mug to the counter, leaving it out rather than putting it away made it feel like my home, rather than a space I was living in. I scolded him lightly, saying I had needed a stock take and a tidy rather than whatever this was. He put on those puppy dog eyes and feigned ignorance, just believing himself lost in the moment. I couldn’t stay mad but rolled my eyes and looked forward to seeing him tomorrow.

This routine continued day by day that week as I gave Kazuya tasks to do quietly organising my life as I sat and pored over scripts, reading quietly. By Wednesday I felt comfortable enough to remain in my room with just an old red hoodie and my glasses and just let him hum along idly. I could trust him to work and just fill the space with the noise and work, but also a room away.

However, on Friday he challenged that peace. I had brought another bento, planning to cover that with some yoga, when Kazuya called me over. He was sitting thoughtfully, chewing on the top of his pen, looking like a school puzzling over basic maths. He looked pained, nervous, his confidence melting in the face of me. I enjoyed it, but curiosity got the better of me as he tried to pretend he hadn’t asked anything. In the end, I coaxed a question out of him, as he rubbed his neck awkwardly, and wondered idly, ‘Who is Ichinose Chizuru?’

Firstly, I flushed red. He knew too much. How could he? He wasn’t that bright. As I started to think through a series of lies, he explained awkwardly, ‘Just granny was asking after you, and I wondered if this was a character you had in mind? I told her you were busy… but she really really wants to see you again. I know you are a busy movie star and all…’

I felt an idiot, caught up in my own truth, using my own name. And this would mean hurting an old woman, lying to an old woman, or revealing too much of myself. I smiled politely.

‘Thank you for asking, you are right to ask. If we are to use this as a learning experience we will need to prepare for a meeting. You organise a meeting next week one evening, I shall prepare the rest!’ I said with confidence. The moment Kazuya left I sunk down beside the door, put my face in my hands and wondered what kind of an idiot I had become.

Chapter Text

In my experience, we all hide our true selves from harm by wearing a fake self, and usually multiple fake selves to different audiences.  You build a smoother self, you hide the blemishes, and you keep a secret self that is safe within your armour.  Ninety-nine lies that protect one precious truth.  That way when people criticise you, they criticise the mask.  And yet now I tasked myself with playing myself as my mask.  I sat opposite Kinoshita in a booth at Kanoir, having agreed to meet with his elderly grandmother, and I had to pretend to be a version of myself.  But as that British show with the Vikings put it, there is no escaping fate.

 

The day had started promisingly.  I had a brief advertising gig in the city, a promotion for an anime, and Kinoshita had brought the costume and wig.  The character was supposed to be some kind of goddess, and the flowing blue and white dress and blue wig looked presentable, and the flesh coloured tights were necessary considering the shortness of the skirt.  It wasn’t the most edifying work, but it got public attention and my manager thought a good performance would give me the edge in auditions for the live action version.  The only thing was getting the zipper up.  Kinoshita had been supposed to be waiting patiently, but he had his nose in a light novel he had picked somewhere in the flat, I think.  As I called his name he looked up and went red.  It was a reliable thing about him, even a couple of weeks in he still seemed surprised and startled, like a deer in the headlights, just by seeing me.  I was tempted to ask him to do up the back of my dress to see him melt, but such petty cruelty seemed unnecessary. 

 

Instead, I had him reread my notes on the goddess as we headed to the event at a local mall, taking a taxi to protect the costume.  I didn’t care for the useless goddess element and needing to cry when ordered, but comedy is an art and one I had enjoyed mastering for the Heron Princess.  Kinoshita did a decent job at reading the lines for me to respond to, though seemed too kind for the Goddess’s antagonist, and he kept his head when we were reading.  When I ordered a break, he finally looked up curiously, turned his head, and asked, ’How are you so good at this?  Everything feels so natural?’

 

I was satisfied to see him realise my talent and sought to explain acting, living the moment, and feeling the character.  He listened intently, but I could sense the puzzlement behind those earnest eyes.  I shook my head, before simplifying it down.  ‘Acting for me is both a passion and a profession.  It’s a skill I need to practise, to keep sharp, but requires me to live a lie to reach a truth.  Haven’t you ever felt there was something you wanted that much that you would commit to it?  Really give anything to be great at it?’

 

Kazuya looked away, and I realised there was no mask for him.  I had cut through to hurt an obvious weak point.  No wonder he felt so pathetic. ‘Never found something like that,’ he explained sheepishly, rubbing his hand along the nape of his neck, ‘How did you find yours?’ 

 

This was a truth I didn’t care to share but seeing him so guileless in asking such a piercing question I just sighed and told a small part of the truth.  ‘It was a film I saw as a child called a 1000 Cranes.  It was a real tour-de-force from the lead, who showed real passion and range.  Ever since then I wanted to be an actor like her.  I’m sure you’ll find some inspiration at some point.’  Kinoshita nodded, knuckled down to reading and we resumed.  He looked thoughtful, but I suspected it didn’t happen that often.  Just good to see him taking the talent seriously. 

 

The show itself proved not much of anything as the rest of the performers weren’t all that talented, their mood dampened further by an otaku crowd and the hint of rain in the air.  The shy girl who struggled with being the red wizard intrigued me though, as she sought to at least express herself in the moments she was called upon to do some kind of magical explosion.  I’m not sure how much Kinoshita saw, but he did his job well, having a big coat and a can of coffee ready the moment I left the stage, and I needed it.  It wasn’t the most humiliating thing I had ever done, but the fear remained at the back of mind that this was what I was stuck with if I didn’t find another big film.  I shared my Line with the other actors, immediately blocked the slightly creepy guy in the tracksuit and returned home to change.

 

The drive back started quietly.  I made some notes for myself on the script, thinking about how to improve and initially enjoyed the quiet.  However, it quickly became oppressive.  Kinoshita rarely remained quiet for long, filling silence with inane chatter of one kind or another.  Having him not speak now was unsettling and made me think he was up to something.  I looked up and sighed as he immediately looked away, whistling, his phone out.  I could tell by now something was up, and sighed loudly to get his attention, before pointedly asking him what was wrong.  He stammered some nonsense about not wanting to bother me… but finally managed to explain that he was meeting with his grandma that evening and he described how she was dying to meet ‘that sweet scholar Chizuru’.  Kinoshita also explained how unwilling he was to upset his grandma and grovelled quite pathetically… and despite my better judgement I agreed to acquiesce, but only if we treated this as further acting practice. 

 

And that's why I ended up in Kanoir, dressed up in nice but aged jeans, a nondescript red jumper over a smart shirt, hair in two pigtails, and my face disguised by oversized round glasses.  Kinoshi- Kazuya-Kun sat opposite, his hair slicked back slightly, the scent of a cheap cologne wafting off him, and a decent if somewhat vintage jacket over his normal clothes.  Despite the fact I now knew he was older than me I couldn’t help but see a teen on his first date.  His earnestness was oddly endearing, but in anything short of a romantic comedy I couldn’t imagine Kazuya ending up with Ichinose.  I told him to go wash the grease out of his hair, remove the worst of the stink of cologne, and return with a coffee.  He looked crestfallen as if his great masterpiece had been traduced.

 

He easily accepted the half-truth that I had more experience of dating.  I mean, I had been seduced a few times as Juliet in drama school, and that counted right?  When he returned, he turned to his satchel and pulled out a notebook and pen which was slightly disconcerting.  He was being so diligent, and I wasn’t sure if it was attention or desperation.  He was quiet, staring earnestly, and I sighed, ‘On a date you need to ask and find out about your partner, you idiot.  This really must be your first time!’ I said, angrier than I intended.

 

He reddened and looked down.  ‘Not my first date….’ He stumbled out.  He looked up suddenly defiant, ‘I went on dates to the aquarium, to the pub, to funfairs.  I thought it was fun.  We kissed and everything.’

 

‘So then this will be easy for an experienced man of the world like yourself,' I said, perhaps harsher than I needed to.  I put on a girly voice, turned my head to show interest and asked, ‘So Kazuya-kun what are your interests?  I’m sure a clever boy like you has lots of passions.’  He scratched his neck again and flushed, very quietly explaining, ‘I like fish.  I have a couple of lungfish….’  I couldn’t hide my puzzlement at his answer.  Though it did explain the aquarium obsession….  This was not how things were meant to go. 



 

I scrambled awkwardly for some firmer ground, ‘How is university going.  You were studying business, right?  What are you planning to do with that?’  I could see him cringe back further as if ready to flee, as he mumbled, ‘s’going kay… I’m gonna be a shop manager for my family.  Nothing as fancy as a movie star.’  Ah, the pressure from the family.  But so utterly without conviction or romance!

 

‘For someone who has kissed and everything you seem utterly unprepared,’ I noted acidly. He squirmed, and I could tell something was bothering him.  Perhaps I should have been more charitable, but I pressed on sharply, remembering words that had been thrown at me. ‘Do you even know what love is?  How to make a heart beat?  Were you just making it up?’

 

I honestly thought he was going to cry, as he turned in his chair ninety degrees to avoid me.  It was like I had picked at a seemingly healed scab, only for it to ooze out still raw and infected, and Kazuya ran his left hand over his right arm as if to soothe himself.  ‘Maybe I don’t know how to love.  It was a while ago… I asked her out and we hung out.  Then she just dumped me.  I didn’t understand then, but now I know.  I know I messed up, I couldn’t make her happy.  So now I just avoid it…  I am not someone people are looking for.’

 

I stood up, took a deep breath to centre myself, and decided on my next step, to explain how things stood.  ‘You’re such an idiot, you know that right.  So what if you like fish, so what if you’re a shop manager.  If you feel ashamed of yourself, you owe the aquarium owners and shop managers of this country an apology.  You’re doing your best for your family right?  You don’t need to impress me, you need to impress the imaginary girl Ichinose Chizuru. Let me tell you about her.  She’s a lonely student at Nerima, too shy of people so she hides away.  I’m sure she would love someone to talk about something they truly believe in rather than a fake line to impress her.  You might be an idiot, foolish, clumsy, pathetic, and unable to shut up, but your family?  They’re wonderful, and something special for whoever you want to share it with.’

 

I knew I had said too much, my heart was pounding like the drums of doom and my face was redder than I would have liked.  I looked at Kazuya.  He was crying, and I wanted to support him then, but he looked up and smiled, ‘You really think so?’ he asked.  I smiled awkwardly, before reminding him that it was a fictional Ichinose was into him and right now, I was Mizuhara and his boss, and he needed to tidy himself up.  I sat down, drank my coffee and reminded myself I was an idiot.

Chapter Text

 

 

I had brought a bunch of flowers for Kinoshita-san.  I had looked for dark roses but could only find delicate white lilies.  Their scent had been my companion across Tokyo allowing me to ignore the fidgety Kazuya.  Instead I could concentrate on the blooms, letting their life and fragrance relax me.  It was only as we closed in on the hospital, I felt the old worm of dread return.  My pace slowed, and my smile became fixed.  It must have been obvious enough for Kazuya to turn to me, and ask, ‘What’s up?'

 

I just ummed and ahhed, trying to think of a good excuse, before lamely blowing it off as nothing.  Instead I marched ahead, not waiting for him to catch up.  It was only when I reached the fifth floor and realised I had no idea where to go that I waited for Kazuya to catch up, holding my breath for seven seconds as a calming ritual, and letting it flood out.  I wasn’t the Chizuru of back then, I had nothing to fear.

 

Kazuya caught up to me, a little out of breath, but didn’t say anything, just moved ahead, turning back to check up on like some clucking hen.  I smiled for him, accusing him of being a fusspot.  I followed after, letting my braids sway, using their swing to focus my breathing.  This was not then.

 

Kinoshita Nagomi was nothing like my grandmother, Sayuri Ichinose.  She had seemed brittle and fragile just a week or so ago, but she raised herself from the bed, and I was nearly knocked back by a hug, as I tried to hold her up. She was stiff but warm, and I’m sure I felt a tear down her face, ‘I was so worried you were my fantasy!  I’ve wanted a girl for Kazuya for so long I thought I had dreamed you up.’  Kazuya’s parents remained quiet. His mother was smiling gently while his father crossed his arms, his expression inscrutable. 

 

Kazuya’s mother sweetly offered a plastic bag of plums, ‘Kazuya has said you’ve been so busy and so diligent he barely sees you.  When I heard you were coming, I brought you some fruit. They are from a friend at work.  She says they are good for recovering from work stress. Thank you for putting up with our Kazuya.’  His father grimly nodded his assent, so by the force of peer pressure I couldn’t help but accept their gift, bow humbly and awkwardly hold the plastic bag.

 

Nagomi shooed Kazuya’s parents away after they had given me the gift of fruit, insisting she speak to us alone. I looked pointedly at Kazuya to make it obvious I was uncomfortable, so Kazuya tried to make reassuring movements with his hands while his face contorted with that half grin of his that meant to cover his embarrassment.  I sighed inwardly, but walked to Nagomi’s bedside, and Kazuya followed beside me, as a ball of anxious energy.   The old woman was too sharp, as she beckoned me closer, looking over me.

 

‘So has this good for nothing grandson of mine really looked after you?’ she asked conspiratorially, while Kazuya sweated anxiously.  I thought the old woman deserved a reassuring lie rather than any painful truth. As concern lined her face, her eyes showed a weariness.  The way her hand reached out for mine, it showed she needed something.  ‘He has been the perfect gentleman, showering me with affection.  I couldn’t be happier.’  At that she relaxed, Kazuya stopped holding his breath, and the atmosphere calmed. 

 

In the end it felt like hours, when it was just half an hour.  We just sat and talked, I was offered old people sweets, Kazuya talked about the frustration of fixing the coffee machine and Nagomi laughed.  It was comfortable.  Probably too comfortable.  I felt relaxed at Kazuya and Nagomi’s dynamic and the feeling of being part of a family again.  As shy Ichinose I didn’t feel a need to butt in when Kazuya described Uni life, his self-deprecating story of his friends from school, while Nagomi corrected the details.  It just felt right, I felt welcomed. 

 

We both avoided the other’s gaze, especially when Nagomi prodded me about our relationship.  At Kazuya’s prompting I wrapped up little truths in stories of aquariums and shopping sprees.  Nagomi’s eyes lit up at every story, even when I pointed out how ridiculous Kazuya could be, apologising for his family or getting lost in his fish obsession.

 

Time was up and Kazuya went ahead to get our coats.  Nagomi gripped my hand when I turned to leave, a sudden strength making me pause.  She nearly pulled me down to her, her face anxious.  ‘Someone hurt my grandson.  He tries to pretend to be strong and happy, but a grandmother knows.  I think it was love… at least for him.  You see, my Kazuya has always struggled with meeting women and I think we Kinoshitas may have pushed him too hard.’ She explained, gripping my hand hard. 

 

She took a few breaths, looking out of the window before returning her steely gaze to me.  Kazuya works hard for those he cares about but he is spoilt, shy, and needs someone who will support him.  I know it is so much to ask of you… but can you take care of my Kazuya?’

 

What was one more reassuring lie to a sick old woman?  I nodded but did not look her in the eye.

Chapter Text

 

 

There are certain nights where the stars align, and something shifts in reality.  A past decays behind you and new futures open up.  The thing is, you don’t realise it at the time. Just the feeling of spinning out of place.  I’ve felt that a few times, but I never expected it from quiet drinks while networking. 

 

I was getting pretty desperate for a new big project as Tokyo started to fall into autumn.  Leaves turned to red and gold, the nights drew in and film producers started to search around for big new projects and actors to fill them.  My agent was being worryingly quiet about anything that wasn’t an exploitation flick where I got to kick some fiends in something tight fitting.  I realised that Kazuya had started worrying for me when my morning coffee was experimentally replaced by a chamomile tea.  I turned to pacing. Suddenly Kazuya was into whale music.  I complained in no uncertain terms, and suddenly Kazuya was lighting aromatherapy candles, and trying to hide a notebook labelled destressing.  I think it was a relief to both of us when a message arrived from my former director and acting friend Nakano Umi to meet at a bar.  It was a swanky location in central Tokyo and Umi suggested that on the following Friday there would be a fruitful networking session.  This was a chance I would not waste, nor allow Kazuya to disrupt.  The first thing was clothes shopping.

 

Kazuya remained reluctant, and I virtually needed to ambush him in what I promised was a shopping trip for a new dress.  It took what felt like hours of bullying to get him to try on a couple of jackets, a decent shirt, and trousers that didn’t look like they belonged to some try hard teen.  He cowered, arguing he couldn’t afford a proper grown up wardrobe, despite this being a mid-tier clothes shop.  In the end I had to grab the full collection out of his hand and pay myself.  He was not showing me up!  He moaned and stammered the rest of the day despite me explaining it was necessary and all for my benefit.  At this event he was my accessory, and he needed to dress up to make me look good.  After that Kazuya accepted his lot.

 

As we walked back to my flat, Kazuya decided to ask who the mysterious Umi was.  I explained that Umi had been kind to me as a fellow actor on a 1000 Cranes and as an actor director on The Heron Princess.  He and his girlfriend Nana had been there for me when I felt I would fall apart and had understood and given me the space to recover, and more importantly a project to keep busy.  I trusted Umi and I needed to prove I was up to whatever chance he could offer, and I required Kazuya to step up too.   I showed him a picture of me and Umi on set, and he looked pensive.  I didn’t know why, maybe just daunted by the way Umi had such a natural chemistry with everyone.

 

I was getting a little tired with Kazuya’s questioning and his unwillingness to accept that I knew best about the business.  I needed to keep him busy and remind him of his place as my assistant. ‘You know what, you should be out there sourcing a gift bag for the host.  Can I trust you to get out there and buy a nice bottle of wine, sources some flowers, and maybe twenty or so business cards?’  That at least got the boy out of his funk, as he nodded his assent, taking on a determined air.

 

The day of Umi’s drinks I kept myself occupied with a new script for a theatre performance, fussing over every nuance.  The art of labelling and interpreting a script has always given me such peace and control, able to lose myself in someone else, how she should act and behave.  This part was another comedy, an airhead young woman comedically on the sides making wacky comments.  It was relaxing to shape her, work out for myself how she tied together her thoughts, untie, and connect her in a way my own thoughts would not. 

 

By early evening I just had to get ready.  I took herbal tea to calm the nerves, applied the jasmine perfume, gave myself a lick of makeup to look natural under the light of the bar.  The art of acting to give verisimilitude, of a precious truth hidden within a lie.  The next stage was settling on a dress, and in the end, I picked a garnet red dress and rose red cardigan against the cold night, matching it with a scarlet lipstick.  Tonight, I would be confident, clad in my favourite colours.  I was tempted to do something fancy with my hair, but no braid felt right, and hairclips seemed too childish. 

 

I had half heard the door open as I had worked, but I was semi surprised to see Kazuya sitting in the kitchen, anxiously gripping a tote bag labelled Nagomi Sake, holding a small bunch of pink roses mixed with ferns and tied with twine.  Despite sitting upright like a concerned meerkat, Kazuya looked more mature than I had seen before. The blue jacket, clean white shirt, civilised charcoal grey jump and sharp cute royal blue trousers made him look like a young adult, rather than a lost child. He turned round as I opened the door, and his eyes lit up, a certain redness to his face that suggested he was impressed, that was not unflattering.  However, there remained one problem. 

 

I grabbed a comb and towel from my room and ordered Kazuya to stay still as he tried to mouth some platitudes about how good I looked.  I leaned forward, looking him deeply in the eyes, and saw him redden a little further.  ‘I can’t let you go out with your hair in such a mess,’ I explained looking at the gelled monstrosity in front of me.  Certainly, it was tamed, but it looked flat and lifeless.  I tutted, lightly towelling off some of the layers of gel, before styling his mop with my comb.  It was closer than I needed to be, but I needed to get this right.  I stood up and admired my handiwork, a smart looking side parting, organised and calmed rather the shock of orange hair I had become used to. 

 

‘Thank you… Do you think I look good enough?’ He asked carefully.  ‘Almost acceptable for polite society Mr Kinoshita,’ I joked back.  He smiled and I laughed.  This had been worth it, as a sense of calm rolled over me.  I was prepared for anything.

 

It was beginning to cool as the sun set, giving Tokyo an orange glare that neon signs fought to fill with colour.  We arrived, movie star and assistant.  Kazuya diligently handed me the bouquet and tote bag, and I could feel him shrink behind me, like a nervous shadow.  Umi and Nana were playing the perfect host and hostess just inside the bar’s entrance, giving me and Kazuya a chance to take in the décor before greeting them, a fusion of western style marble desktops and eastern fittings, bathed in shifting shades of neon.

 

As we reached Umi and Nana, following twins and some child stars, I proffered Nana the roses and we kissed cheeks like proper actresses.  It was so good to see her, though something seemed a little off, even if she was as friendly as ever to her Chi-chan.  I offered Umi the tote bag carefully while he questioned me in his silky way, ‘So this is the boyfriend you’ve been hiding Chizuru-chan?  He really is adorable.’  I am sure I kept my composure at this ridiculous insinuation, and my face just felt a little warm from going from the cooling autumn air to the warmth of the bar.

 

‘Nakano Umi, this is Kinoshita Kazuya, my new assistant,’ I explained patiently, trying to keep myself as formal as I could be, but Umi was already opening the bag and appraising the sake.  ‘A Dewazakura Cherry Bouquet Oka Ginjo,’ he exclaimed, ‘I didn’t think you had this much taste in sake.  Choosing a Ginjo with a hint of acidity that gives richness to floral and fruity taste, it really suits you.’  I was about to explain that Kazuya had chosen the sake, but Umi continued to rifle through the bag, revealing a copy of Ultramarine Constellation, that blasted novel that Kazuya couldn’t let go of.  Umi smiled, but his eyes hardened as he glanced over the book and wondered out loud, ‘This isn’t your attempt to butter me up for your next role?’

 

I could feel my smile become false, plastered over as a mask to cover my fear.  Umi had been good to me. Treating him as another industry connection rather than a trusted colleague was a shame too great to bear, even if by accident.  Then came the anger as I turned to Kazuya, only to see him move forward from behind me, apologetical yet determined.  ‘I’m sorry, Nakano-san, but it was me.  I fell in love with the book, and I heard from Mizuhara-san you were such a good director that you would enjoy it too.  It’s my first time with all her actor friends, I don’t want to get Mizuhara in trouble for my stupid mistake!’ He had walked right up to Umi, and he looked ready to dogeza, eyes looked a little watery.  There was a silence and tension in the air before Umi cracked.  He let out a belly laugh, the first I had ever seen from the director, even on the set of the Heron Princess, and slapped Kazuya’s shoulder as the assistant looked ready to cry in relief. 

 

‘I wish I had an assistant as loyal as your boy Chizuru-chan.  I like him.  Tell you what, as its your first time, I’ll be gentle, and explain to you the protocol of flattering your boss’s friends,’ Umi said, still grinning, as he guided us to a table equidistant from bar and door that seemed to be Umi’s little bolthole.  It took a few minutes and a white wine to calm my nerves, while Kazuya seemed to adapt well to Umi leaning in close, conspiratorially talking about their favourite films… I think.  All I heard was some nonsense about a coughing robot with four arms and whoosh sounds and both laughing like children.  Nana leaned in instead, tapping my hand to get my attention, smiling softly, though I think a little sadly, ‘I like him.’

 

‘I’d expect you to like your boyfriend,’ I said rolling my eyes slightly, ‘he’s a skilled actor, and finds it so easy to get along with people.’  Nana’s smile shifted, as if about to come unstuck, but she recovered herself, and shook her head, ‘I mean your Kazuya-chan.  He’s a good boy.  He didn’t need to stick his neck out or be so genuine.  In this business that means a lot.  I would keep an eye on him… but for now I will.  You go out and mingle.  That’s why you are here, isn’t it?’

 

I nodded gratefully, taking a few moments to centre myself, before giving Nana’s hand a squeeze, ‘You are a good friend getting me this opportunity.  I won’t waste it.’

 

Circulating was easy, and being the glamorous, outgoing Mizuhara was easy in the bar amongst strangers who wanted a piece of her for their productions if she could make them a bit richer.  I recognised a few talent scouts and producers, and pretended to recognise a few more.  Maybe being in Power Zords 5: Wrath of MechaNeko wouldn’t be so bad?  Better to be in another disposable love triangle or harem for some dull protagonist then to be forgotten and let the spark go out.  Acting is acting. 

 

I was patiently speaking to yet another bearded director who wondered if I was interested in a romance based on barbecuing when the evening shifted again.  To this day I’m not sure how she managed it, but the halogen lights went dim, before lighting up again in a vibrant yellow, and I could swear the main door opened from the night air with a hint of fog blowing in.  Into a pool of radiant light entered the sweetest looking young woman, golden hair with pink ends lighting up almost like a halo, the angelic impression built up by her blue eyes.  Behind her two young actresses I vaguely recognised, and an assistant who looked either twenty-one or forty-one depending on how I squinted at his widow’s peak and goatee.  This was the famous agent Nanami Mami, who had gone from young face to mover and shaker in barely a year.  If I could work with her then I could have any role I liked…