The Art of Adaptation and Depictions of the Incorporeal
A cross-cultural examination of the representations of death and the supernatural in Ringu and The Ring
Volume 18, Issue 2 (Discussion paper 3 in 2018). First published in ejcjs on 8 September 2018.
In 2002, Gore Verbinski released The Ring, which was an adaptation of Nakata Hideo’s 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu, marking the return of Japanese horror cinema to the Western mainstream for the first time since the 1960s via a new ‘cycle’ of Japanese cinematic remakes produced by Hollywood. While many scholars hold that the Japanese film adaptation is of more analytical and artistic value than the Hollywood remake due to its assumed ‘authenticity’ as a cultural and historical product, this exegesis employs the social constructionist view in that adaptations exist within the context of their own time and place. Therefore, examination of these films and their representations of death and the supernatural may provide insight into the differing cultural and historical values, mythologies, expectations, anxieties, and traumas of the societies in which they were made. This discussion paper will explore the question: ‘How do Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror films reflect differing cultural and historical landscapes in their representations of death and the supernatural?’ This paper identifies and examines various cultural and historical influences, which help shape differing representations of death and the supernatural with a specific focus on Nakata’sRinguand Verbinski’s The Ring. This exegesis will examine three specific influences in relation to representations of death and the supernatural in these films:
- The religious landscapes of Japan and the United States in relation to mythologies regarding death and the supernatural;
- Shifts in socio-political and power relations in Japan and the United States; and
- Historical trauma, with specific focus on acts of terrorism and extreme violence in Japan and the United States.
The creative component of this discussion paper will consist of a short novella which will recapture this process of cross-cultural adaptation by examining such issues and anxieties in modern-day Japanese society from the perspective of a non-Japanese [Western] character, such as those resulting from the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and anxieties surrounding modernism and globalisation, particularly those regarding information and communication technologies. The novella has been chosen as the genre for its work both for its length and narrative purpose; falling between a short story and a novel, the novella allows for a focused theme and storyline while also allowing for subplots and secondary themes which hold a significant presence in the narrative, yet remain undeveloped. In this way, the novella shares many similarities with the screenplay, and therefore lends itself well to cinematic adaptation, making it an ideal genre for this work due to its cinematic influences of Nakata’s Ringuand Verbinski’s The Ring. While this work will draw primarily from Japanese kaidan(怪談“ghost story”) horror films, such as Nakata’s Ringuand its Hollywood remake, The Ring—the aim of this creative work being to emulate these films in both style and themes—inspiration has also been drawn from Suzuki Koji’s original Ringnovel, published in 1991, as it is representative of the literary incarnation of the Ring phenomenon as a cross-cultural, cross-media franchise. The novella for this discussion paper will emulate the findings of the exegesis by primarily drawing on the anxieties of modern-day Japan, while also addressing similar issues of modern-day America through the novella’s protagonist.
Keywords: Japanese cinema, adaptation, remakes, horror cinema.
In 2002, Gore Verbinski’s adaptation of Nakata Hideo’s 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu—titledThe Ring—was released in the U.S. The critical and box office success of The Ringmarked the return of Japanese horror cinema to the Western mainstream for the first time since the 1960s and sparked a new cycle of Japanese kaidan(怪談‘ghost story’) horror film remakes, including The Grudge(2004), Dark Water(2005),Pulse (2006), and One Missed Call(2008) (Lacefield, 2010, 13-14; Richards, 2010, 6-15). Both Nakata’s Ringuand Verbinski’s The Ringshare the same basic premise and plot trajectories: a TV journalist and single mother—Asakawa Reiko (Matsushima Nanako)/Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts)—investigates a series of deaths centred around a cursed videotape which is rumoured to cause its viewers to die seven days after viewing. When Reiko/Rachel’s son watches the tape, she sets out to uncover the origins of the tape in hopes of saving both herself and her son. With the help of her ex-partner, Reiko/Rachel discovers that the videotape is connected to a vengeful female entity—Yamamura Sadako (Inō Rie)/Samara Morgan (Daveigh Chase)—who was brutally murdered by a parental figure. Using her mysterious ability to “transfer—or translate or adapt—her thoughts and memories” onto film (Stringer, 2007, 298), Sadako/Samara is now avenging her death by cursing all those who watch the tape, only offering salvation to those who make a copy of the tape and show it to someone else (Stringer, 2007, 298; Wee, 41-42, 2011). This discussion paper follows the perspective presented by Linda Hutcheon, in that “[a]dapting across cultures is not simply a matter of translating words. For audiences experiencing an adaptation… cultural and social meaning has to be conveyed and adapted to a new environment” (2006, 149). Such adaptations “tell us continuous stories… yet says them differently” (Metz, as cited in Hutcheon, 2006, 3), therefore holding their own unique “presence in time and space” (Benjamin, as cited in Hutcheon 2006, 6), and hence variation between adaptations is not only inevitable, but also necessary. We see this in Nakata’s Ringuand Verbinski’s The Ringin that each film offers vastly different narratives and representations regarding the nature death and the supernatural, with themes that lie within their own particular cultural and historical contexts—Ringubeing that of Japan in the late-1990s, and The Ringof the United States (U.S.) in the early-2000s (Wee, 2010, 79). This discussion paper will answer the research question: ‘How do Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror films reflect differing cultural and historical landscapes in their representations of death and the supernatural?’ This paper identifies and examines various cultural and historical influences, which help shape differing representations of death and the supernatural in Nakata’s Ringuand Verbinski’s The Ring, with specific focus on religion and spirituality, feminist representations, and historical trauma.
Religion, spirituality and mythologies of death the supernatural
Representations of death and the supernatural are shaped by beliefs, traditions and mythologies surrounding these topics, as well as the acceptance of religion and spirituality within their respective societies. As written by Richards, Japan “demonstrate[s] a more widespread engrained acceptance of supernatural forces than their Western counterparts,” as influenced by religious traditions “whose animistic, pantheistic karmic beliefs contrast sharply with the more binary moralities of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition” (2010, 13). The religious landscape is one of syncretism, being primarily influenced by Shintoism and Buddhism, as well as various folk traditions and Chinese philosophies that inextricably intermingle with daily secular activities. In this way, Japanese religious tradition is not defined by affiliation with particular religious organisations, but rather with participation in various different ritual practices, with Buddhism specifically being associated with funerary traditions (Mukhopadhaya, 1997, 485-86; Roemer, 2010, 492):
In all Far Eastern countries Buddhism is closely connection with the veneration paid to the dead… [with] conducting funerals [being] the main function of its religion… The funerals of Buddhist environments are completely based on the idea of continuation of existence… [T]he problem was to appease the dead soul. The people believed that those who died angrily and in violent conditions would bring much trouble (Wijayaranta, 1997, 105-113).
As written by Walker, “among Asian populations, it is not unusual to believe that honouring dead ancestors is mandatory for avoiding disharmony in one’s earthly life” (1995, 3), with death being a “mere transitory [phase] of existence” (Stein, 2009, 238). In Japan, a popular incarnation of the angry ghost described by Wijayaranta is the onryō—a vengeful entity who had been wronged in life and has come back to “avenge upon those who harmed them” (McRoy, 2008, 76)—often featuring in Japanese kaidanhorror films, such as Sadako in Ringuand Saeki Kayako in Ju-On: The Grudge(Papp, 2009, 118; Wee, 2010, 82). As noted by Wee, Ringuis “primarily structured by the Buddhist notion of dualism” (2010, 79-81) in that supernatural forces, such as onryō, are not necessarily considered evil or Other, with “the supernatural, spiritual world [lying] alongside the natural, physical world” (2010, 81). This notion shifts the perceived morality of such beings towards ambiguity or amorality, particularly shown through Sadako’s backstory: Sadako’s mother, Yamamura Shizuko (Masako) was a psychic, who was then discovered by Dr. Ikuma Heihachiro (Ban Daisuke)—a university professor and married man who became Shizuko’s lover and presumably Sadako’s father—who experimented on her to try and prove the existence of Extrasensory Perception (ESP). However, during a public demonstration, Shizuko is accused of fraud by the reporters present. One of these reporters dies suddenly and both Shizuko and Ikuma are slandered by the media, causing Ikuma to lose his job and driving Shizuko to suicide. After Shizuko’s death, Ikuma kills Sadako by throwing her down a well. During the demonstration, it is questionable whether Sadako was the reason for the reporter’s death due to the presence of an unreliable narrator—Shizuko’s cousin, Takashi (Numata Yōichi)—who is shown to hold a bias against Shizuko and Sadako due to their psychic powers, being the person who contacted Ikuma and the media about Shizuko’s powers for financial gain. We see Sadako’s backstory from Takashi’s point of view through a shared vision between Reiko and her ex-husband—Takayama Ryūji (Sanada Hiroyuki)—and do not see Sadako at all until after she had been accused of killing the reporter by her mother, who was in a state of panic. These ambiguities work to humanise Sadako as an oppressed figure, mirroring mythologies surrounding the onryōwho are not ‘evil’ by nature, but rather have been transformed due to the violent nature of their deaths. This is further exemplified by Sadako’s victims, particularly Reiko’s niece, Tomoko (Takeuchi Yūko), who is implied to have become an onryōafter her death when she convinces Reiko’s son, Yōichi (Ōtaka Rikiya), to watch the cursed tape:
Ryūji: I was careless. I sensed something when I visited your house, but I thought it was the video.
Reiko: It was Tomoko.
Ryūji: She’s not Tomoko anymore.
(Nakata, Kawai, Sento, & Takahashi, 1998).
Such moral ambiguity is omitted from Verbinski’s adaptation in favour of a distinctly Western approach to the supernatural:
The religious legacy of the western civilisation has been primarily shaped by the interaction of Judaism and Christianity with Greek philosophy and Roman law. Judaism and Christianity entail faith in one supreme deity or God; one sacred Book which is Revelation of the will of God; more concerned with sin which is the violation of the deity’s will (Mukhopadhyaya, 1997, 485-86).
As noted by Poole, modern-day monsters, such as those in Hollywood films, are an amalgamation of Judeo-Christian notions of the devil, as well as medieval notions of the monstrous inspired by Roman, Greek and Norse mythologies; such entities simultaneously as “creator[s] of order and threat[s] to order” (2011, 7) in that they are ever-present, but always in opposition to God and humanity (2011, 7-8). Similarly, undead figures work to contradict the promises of Western religion; that is, unlike religions such as Buddhism, where death is considered a continuation of life, Western religions consider death to be a resolution to life as it exists within the physical or natural world. In this way, such figures “give form to the fear of death” (Kawin, 2012, 111) in that they draw on the consequences of a “bad death” (Preston, 2011, 8), or rather an “eternal lack of resolution” (Kawin, 2012, 111) promised by Judeo-Christian logic, with funerary rituals being used as a means for the living to provide the dead with this resolution (Cowan, 2012, 62). We see this shared mythology in Sadako and Samara’s deaths—with Sadako/Samara being thrown down a well and therefore denied a proper burial. However, what separates Samara from Sadako is that Samara seems to play a more active role in the psychological torment of her victims than her Japanese counterpart, such as through the use of psychic visions experienced by Rachel throughout the film. Sadako, on the other hand, does not make use of such methods and is only given access to the minds of her victims via a third party, such as through the shared vision between Reiko and Ryūji. In this way, The Ring“adopts a… perspective that sees opposites (e.g. supernatural/evil vs. natural/good) as competing for supremacy… [and] therefore, casts the supernatural in strictly negative terms, defining it as fundamentally evil and Other,” whereas Ringupresents an “acceptance of the unknowable, of mystery and ambiguity,” reflecting “a non-scientific mindset in which reason, logic and the rational are not accorded primary significance and value” (Wee, 2010, 79-80).
The Ringdoes not embrace notions of the supernatural as quickly nor with the same mythologies as Ringu, in part, due to a long history of conflict between the religious and the scientific. For example, the American Revolution (1765-83), which established the U.S. as an independent nation, was influenced by “the Enlightenment goal of applying rationality to politics” (Poole, 2011, 9) in opposition to systems of monarchy and religious authority held by England at the time, leading to the separation of church and state in U.S. society. While this separation did not end religious belief in the U.S., it did disempower the authority of religion and spirituality in mainstream society, and by the 1950s scholars were “broadly proclaiming the death of spiritual belief,” such as with Rudolf Bultman’s 1953 ‘God is Dead’ school of theology (Hufford, 1995, 16). In this way, “believing in the supernatural… [became] an act of rebellion against secular society by [individuals] left dissatisfied amidst the dilemmas of modern life” (Preston, 2010, 11). Therefore, in modern U.S. society, which “prides itself on scientific advancement, technological know-how, educational superiority, and computerisation of almost everything,” the supernatural “functions as a transcendental force,” one that “goes beyond the mechanical, the empirical, the quantifiable, the provable, and beyond the immediate and the practical” (Walker, 1995, 5). Similarly, Samara “refus[es] to respect borders and rules” (Wee, 2014, 96), appearing to hold agency in the physical world even when her form is outside of it, such as being able telekinetically to move objects such as the lid of a well and nails in the floorboards. Sadako, in comparison, seems to hold little power over the physical world until she crawls out of the television screen. In this way, Samara follows understandings of the physical evils as they exist within the Western cultural consciousness, as opposed to the morally ambiguous entities—the wronged spirits of the dead, such as the onryō—found in Japanese folklore and artistic forms (Hong, 2012, 14). It is because of this history of conflict that Samara’s existence as a malevolent supernatural entity is required to be more strongly defined and announced than Sadako, whose existence is more widely accepted and understood by her target audience due to the maintenance of spirituality through syncretism and onryōmythologies.
While religion and spirituality lay the groundwork for representations of the supernatural, horror films are known for gaining prominence during times of wider cultural anxiety, such as in the shifting of power relations. Ringumakes use of onryōmythologies as a basis for Sadako’s representation, with onryōbeing almost exclusively female in their depictions. As noted by Wee, a common cause of death for these spirits is that “the female victim… is brutally murdered by a man whose socially prescribed to protect her” (2011, 153), as influenced by Confucian teaching of order and personal and social responsibility, which “emphasises a harmonious society in which hierarchal structure is maintained… [asserting] men’s dominance over women and children” (Sugihara, as cited in Wee, 2011, 154). Since the end of World War II, Japan has experienced an ongoing shift in the wider socio-political and economic climate in ways that have worked against traditional societal structures, such as those of the family unit and the roles of women in Japanese society (McRoy, 2008, 80-81). After World War II, the U.S. occupied Japan (1945-52), introducing “Western democratic values” and “a new emphasis on capitalist individualism” (Richards, 2010, 20). Japanese gender and social hierarchies were destabilised, such as with the Japanese constitution of 1946, which shifted the legal authority of women in marriage and divorce, as well as granted women the ability to vote and own property (McRoy, 2008, 79). Since then, the changing economy and the gradual spread of feminism have changed the roles of women in that “marriage and reproduction… have ceased to represent a woman’s ‘sole option’” (McRoy, 2008, 81). As a result, more Japanese women began pursuing higher education and becoming more career-focused, particularly with the collapse of Japan’s consumer-export driven ‘bubble economy’ in the early 1990s, which caused a breakdown in the wider sense of security and social stability amongst the Japanese populous (Iles, 2005, para. 7 & 13; McRoy, 2008, 80). However, male dominance and patriarchal authority remain “an overwhelming reality in professional and public life” (Christopher, as cited in McRoy, 2008, 79), and the shifting roles of women and familial structures have caused what has been described as an “alarmist hyperbole” amongst the Japanese populous (McRoy, 2008, 81-95).
While Nakata’s feminist commentary is most blatantly depicted through the protagonist, Reiko, Sadako represents the frustrations of women to achieve autonomy in a historically patriarchal society. As noted earlier, Shizuko is accused of fraud by the reporters—most of whom are male—present at the demonstration, who are unable to accept Shizuko’s “possession of a knowledge that exceeds that of the patriarchal scientific community” (McRoy, 2008, 87). When one of the reporters dies suddenly, Shizuko pins the blame on Sadako, who was possibly acting out of fear for her mother’s life (McRoy, 2008, 83). Sadako is then killed by her father figure after her mother’s suicide as a breaking of traditional hierarchal and familial duty; that is, the duty of man/father to protect woman/child. As a result, Sadako is a more empathetic entity in that she is “a result of the society that seeks to repress her because of her difference from the norm… [being] both physically and symbolically exiled from patriarchal society” (Balmain, 2006, para. 13-14), and therefore her wrath is targeted on society as a whole, with victims only assuring their survival via the exclusively feminine act of reproduction; that is, of the tape and it’s legend. The tape is therefore symbolic of “the loss of tradition [such as in traditional gender roles] in the face of encroaching modernity,” as represented through “a series of implicit connections between technology, femininity and death” (Balmain, 2008, 170-75).
Both Ringuand The Ringare set within the context of historically patriarchal societies, with both films mirroring Kristeva’s notion of the ‘abject’ and Creed’s notion of the “monstrous-feminine.” Kristeva defines the ‘abject’ as “the place where meaning collapses… what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions rules,” associating bodily functions, such as illness and childbirth, with abjection (1982, 2-5). Similarly, Creed notes that “women are made monstrous… in relation to their sexual, mothering and reproductive functions” (2004, ix), strengthened through Freud’s notion of the “primal scene”—the “childhood fantasy about the nature of origins, specifically the question of birth” (Creed, 2004, 45). In the Ringfranchise, the ‘primal scene’ is that in which Sadako/Samara emerges from the well, and then again from of the television screen, with the entrance of the well (the ‘ring’) being symbolic of female genitalia from which Sadako/Samara is born into physical existence, contributing to the image of Sadako/Samara as abject. Similar is the use of the tape as a method of reproduction; the conception that leads to Sadako/Samara’s unnatural birth as “a hybrid monster of human and technology” (Ozawa, 2006, 5), working on anxieties of modernisation while simultaneously drawing on notions of the ‘monstrous-feminine,’ the ‘abject’ through “the inversion of traditional reproductive roles and… the loss of normative sexual roles and interaction” (Tomlinson, 2010, 165). However, as Samara exists in opposition to scientific rationality and Western religion, Samara holds a dual abjection in that not only is she crossing culturally-accepted borders regarding gender, but also Western understandings of death and the limitations of the natural world, as further exemplified through Samara’s adoption.
Unlike Sadako who was the biological daughter of Shizuko, Samara’s origins are only hinted at in a statement from Dr. Grasnik (Jane Alexander):
She [Anna Morgan] wanted a child more than anything.… They tried hard for years, but sometimes it’s just not meant to be. Then one winter they went away. When they came back it was with Samara. Adopted they said. Never did say from where. Said the mother had died of complications (Nakata, Kawai, Sento, & Takahashi, 1998).
After adopting Samara, Anna and Richard Morgan (Shannon Cochran and Brian Cox) experienced great tragedy, such as with the deaths of their horses and the deterioration of Anna’s mental health, claiming that Samara was making her experience horrible visions. Anna and Samara were then sent to Eola Psychiatric Hospital, where Anna was treated for depression and suicidal thoughts, and Samara’s psychic powers were observed and documented by the hospital staff. After being discharged, Anna killed Samara by throwing her into a well, committing suicide shortly after. In this way, Samara “is not and never has been a victim… she does not belong to a human family… and is not seeking to rest at all, but rather to be born” (Jackson, 2010, 148). Therefore, we are presented with two cases of reproduction as abjection; with Anna’s infertility, Samara is ‘born’ from “[t]he Morgans’ desire for a child to complete their ideal family” (Wee, 2014, 211) and therefore is representative of an unnatural or unsanctioned birth which results in death and destruction. Similarly, Samara’s death at the hands of her mother figure can also be interpreted as a rejection of the maternal—that is, Anna’s role as mother and protector—as a result of this unnatural birth. This further establishes the reproductive feminine body as abject via the rejection of traditional gender and familial roles in U.S. society.
Hollywood films have a long history of female-coded antagonists—that is, the ‘monstrous-feminine’ and female abjection—perhaps due to a longer history of feminist movement and resulting societal backlash, with the first wave of feminism emerging in the late-1940s; the successes of these movements then having been transferred to Japan with the U.S. occupation. In the context of the The Ring, however, Samara’s role as the ‘abject’ could be said to be inspired by return of ‘neo-Conservatism’ in the early-2000s, which worked to “fortify the border between male and female and to stress feminine difference as a dangerous threat to masculine domination and the restoration of the nuclear family” (Rawle, 2010, 105). The return of this ‘neo-Conservative’ attitude could be said to be the result of the increased focus on international terrorism and ‘otherness’ among the U.S. populous, compared to Japan which faced domestic struggles and anxieties which have radically altered the ways in which Sadako/Samara are represented as figures of horror.
Historical trauma and identification of the ‘enemy’
Horror as a genre offers the opportunity for an audience to confront a “hidden evil in the culture” (Kawin, as cited in Iles, 2005, para. 10). While the modernisation of Japan is a clear source of anxiety represented in horror narrative, historical traumas are also highly influential. The most blatant example of historical trauma in Japan is that of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S. in 1945, resulting in the kaiju (怪獣“monster”) subgenre as well as early kaidan films, as a reflection of national anxieties such as that of nuclear fallout in the post-World War II era (Richards, 2010, 19). However, in the 1990s, Japan experienced “an assault on its self-image, [and] its sense of security and social stability” (Iles, 2005, para. 13) with the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo Subway system in March 20 1995 by the religious cult and terrorist group, Aum Shinrikyo, described in The Japan Timesas “the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in the post-war era,” the victims of which “continue to suffer the physical or mental after-effects” (Ito, 2015). As noted by Iles, the members of Aum Shinrikyo were “young, intelligent, university educated people from stable, affluent families” (2005, para. 12); those who “were seen by many as in preparation to be the leading architects of Japan’s future recovery” (2008, para. 1). Similarly, the perpetrator of the Kobe child murders in 1997—one instance of kireru (“unmotivated fits of rage”) which were on the rise in primary and secondary schools—was “a normal young boy… from a ‘regular family’” (Iles, 2000, para. 12) and hence was “an assault on the sanctity, the sense of a close-knit family… and Japan’s ‘island mentality’ which saw it as a safe country in some way immune to the social ills of the outside world” (Iles, as cited in Balmain, 2008, 168). Such events shifted the idea of a criminal, and even evil itself in the Japanese public consciousness (Balmain, 2008, 168). As written by Iles, “no longer were the horrible crimes the exclusive perview of ‘criminals’, of the insane, or the pathological” (2005, para. 12), but rather acts of extreme violence could be perpetrated by normal people, much like how the ghosts of Japanese horror, such as Sadako—whose form is that of a young girl—can exist alongside the everyday and mundane. In a sense, the real fear of these events lay in their domestic nature; the fact that the perpetrators were not outsiders, and hence were not easily-identifiable.
In the twenty-year period between 1990 and 2010, both Japan and the U.S. were struggling with “a sense of what was previously familiar and ‘known’… being systematically undermined or dismantled” (Wee, 2014, 21). However, while Japan was faced with “the largely national, and thus internal, political upheaval, social destabilisation, and economic challenges” (Wee, 2014, 16), the U.S. was facing primarily international terrorism. Perhaps the most notable event of this period were the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC by Al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001 (9/11). Much like the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, 9/11 is considered to be a major turning point in U.S. history, as well as in horror. Wetmore observes that pre-9/11 horror “frequently allow[ed] for hope [and] there is almost always a way to stop the evil,” while in post-9/11 horror “nihilism, despair, random violence and death, combined with tropes and images generated by the terrorist attacks” (2012, 2) gained greater prominence. In this way, “the United States, which saw itself as ‘untouchable’ in terms of moral conduct, realised it was ‘touchable’ in terms of violence done against it” (Wetmore, 2012, 11), resulting in a heightened sense of social unrest, vulnerability and paranoia amongst the U.S. populous in that “identifying and containing ‘the enemy’ was becoming more difficult” (Wee, 2014, 18). We can draw parallels to these fears and the depiction of Samara in The Ring:
Rachel: You could almost draw a line through her life. On one side, there’s this happy woman who spends her time with her husband, riding horses, everything sheltered, protected and comfortable. Her face, there’s light, there’s pride. And then, one day, something happens and then she takes this hard corner and the light goes out, and then she ends up in Eola County Psychiatric Hospital (Verbinski, Parkes, MacDonald, & Kruger, 2002).
This quote is telling of Samara as a representation of terrorism and the social instability of post-9/11 America, albeit a highly simplified one. Richard and Anna Morgan live a stable and comfortable, ‘protected’ life. However, after adopting Samara, a “mysterious and unknown ‘outsider’” (Wee, 2014, 208), horses start going mad and dying, Anna starts having hallucinations which drive her insane, and so on. The Ring, as a product of post-9/11 America, follows a ‘traditional horror film narrative’ which “centres on a world organised around socially and naturally accepted norms that are disrupted and threatened by the arrival or appearance of a terrifying, horrifically destructive force” (Wee, 2014, 57), and therefore presents Samara as an unambiguously evil force who is ‘overtly and deliberately unexpected and disruptive, into the lives of unsuspecting, unprepared, and largely innocent individuals’ (Wee, 2014, 208).
As noted earlier, the post-9/11 period saw the return of ‘neo-Conservatism,’ presumably as a means of re-identifying threats to U.S. society, viewing race and ‘foreignness’ with suspicion (Rawle, 2010, 105). Balmain identifies Samara’s representation as Other in her “oriental alterity and her implacable foreignness” (Balmain, as cited in Rawle, 2010, 105)—presented in her physical difference to other major characters in the film, Samara’s ‘foreign-sounding’ name, and with her birth certificate which is written almost exclusively in Japanese kanjicharacters. This aspect of orientalism, as well as representations reminiscent of historical notions of the monstrous, provide both a sense of fear and comfort that the enemy as a ‘foreign threat’ has the ability to infiltrate but ultimately lies outside of ‘us.’ This aspect of the foreign Other is not present in Ringu, with Sadako being ethnically and, presumably, culturally similar to other characters in the narrative, as presented through her visible appearance, name, and confirmed biological relation to her mother. Even in regards to her powers, Sadako is not Other due to the existence of other characters with similar psychic powers, such as Ryūji. Samara, on the hand, is more distinctly foreign and Other, such as with her ambiguous origins via her adoption, as well as her foreign birth certificate which play on anxieties surrounding foreign terrorism. This is further exemplified through the exclusiveness of Samara’s powers, with no other character possessing similar psychic abilities, which could be said to represent anxieties regarding possible foreign possession of nonconventional weapons which were circulating in the post-9/11 period. In this way, Sadako could be said to represent fear of domestic or home-grown terrorism and the potential for ordinary people—people with similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds—to commit horrific acts, while Samara represents the growing fears of foreign terrorism and the unknown, as represented through her role as the foreign Other.
This exegesis has explored various cultural and historical factors which have influenced the differing representations of death and the supernatural in Nakata’s Ringuand Verbinski’s The Ring. The 1990s was a time of great change and challenge for the people of Japan, “confronting government inefficacy, economic recession, domestic terrorism, and broader social upheavals that undermined the country’s faith in tradition, its stability, and even its sense of self and national identity” (Wee, 2014, 16). In this way, perhaps the best way to describe the supernatural of Japan as reflecting anxieties regarding the human potential for evil, and lack of moral distinction and certainty in a society struggling to maintain tradition and cultural authority while embracing modernisation. The U.S., comparatively, is a nation which has struggled with modern rationality and traditional notions of spirituality for much longer, dating back to the American Revolution and continuing to the modern-day. In the 1990s and 2000s, discussions of racial and gender equality, as well as the rise of international terrorism, lead to anxieties regarding security, stability and the foreign Other. Looking at these influences, perhaps the best way to describe the ‘supernatural’ of the U.S. as reflecting fears of an intrusive, but inherently evil Other, and the power of said evil to defy culturally-accepted borders, and to infiltrate and destabilise otherwise safe and rational environments. As a result, Sadako and Samara as supernatural entities are distinct in their representations, as they reflect these unique cultural and historical contexts.
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Hanako-san in the Clouds
It was the rainy season. The air was like melted butter; thick, warm and sticky. The rain was pelting down on the roof of the old elementary school, loose tiles shifting and clanking together in the wind, water trailing off the roof in a long, singular stream. It was about an hour after classes had ended for the day, only a few umbrellas still hanging on the wall by the school’s entrance. Most of the students left in the school were attending after-school workshops on the lower floors. On the third floor, however, were a group of sixth grade girls, still in their school uniforms, laughing to themselves at the entrance of the girl’s bathroom.
“Come on Saki, you said you’d do it.”
“B-But what if the stories are true? I don’t want to.”
“Then why are you smiling so much?”
“Oh come on guys! Why do I have to?”
The girls’ laughter echoed through the halls, only accompanied by the muffled sound of the storm outside. After a moment one of the girls, Kanako Ogawa, stopped laughing as she felt eyes on the back of her head. Slowly, she looked to the end of the hall where a fourth grade student stood, watching them curiously, clutching onto the old heavy leather bag secured on her back. The girl, Naomi Koiso, looked small, her wavy bobbed hair falling into her eyes. The girls stared at each other for a moment, the silence between them deafening.
“Who is that?” Saki asked, her voice cutting through the air like a blunt knife, the sound like buzzing static in Kanako’s ears.
“You on babysitting duty again, Kanako?”
As more eyes turned to the end of the hall. Naomi lowered her head, her hair fully obscuring her face, and hastily walked away.
“Isn’t that girl an evacuee–”
“It doesn’t matter.” Kanako turned back to her friends, a cheeky glint in her eye.
“Now Saki, don’t think you’re off the hook; you still promised to knock on that door!”
The girls started laughing again as Saki walked into the bathroom, pursing her lips together in an attempt to look brave.
“O-Ok, I’m going!”
One of the girls noticed Saki’s phone still in her bag on the floor. She quickly grabbed the phone and called back to Saki who was now in the bathroom.
“Don’t forget to record it!”
Kanako and Naomi were standing outside of the school entrance taking shelter from the rain, a single umbrella remaining on the wall next to the tall glass doors. Kanako was leaning against the doorframe, scrolling through messages on her mobile phone, her backpack lying on the ground by her feet. Her white canvas shoes had been ‘decorated’ with permanent marker, a small dog having been drawn on the left foot and a sumo wrestler on the right. Naomi, on the other hand, stood silently with her head down and her hands clutching onto the backpack still on her back.
“What were you making that girl do?”
“You mean Saki?” Naomi nodded and Kanako shrugged in response. “We dared to her to summon Hanako-san.”
Kanako looked away from her phone and stared at Naomi. “You don’t know?”
Naomi shook her head and Kanako let out a low, almost judgemental hum. Naomi paid no notice.
“So did she do it?”
“No, she wimped out. Knocked on the door once and ran out. The video’s pretty funny though.”
“…Do you want to see–”
Naomi and Kanako turned to see Naomi’s mother, Heather, running towards them.
“Sorry I’m late; a lot of students had questions after the workshop today.” Heather took her umbrella off the wall by the main door. “So how was school today?”
“Kanako dared her friend to summon Hanako-san.”
Kanako sighed impatiently. “Look, it was just a dare okay, can we just go? It’s too humid out here.”
Heather frowned, but decided it best to hold her tongue as they walked to her car, huddled under the umbrella.
Two days later, Heather was preparing breakfast for herself and Naomi, half-watching the morning news as she waited for the toaster. Heather’s eyes wandered around the room, listing the day’s tasks in her head. The television was turned onto a news channel, and Heather froze in place as the face of a young girl in an elementary school uniform was brought onto the screen. It was a missing person’s report. Under the photo was a name: Saki Katayama.
Amongst the bones of giants
When I was little, I was obsessed with old Japanese monster movies. Back when they still had video stores, I would always run to the foreign film section to see if they had added anything new to their collection; if not, I’d just beg mom to let me watch ‘Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah,’ again. She never really approved of my love of monster movies, but she never said ‘No’ and even bought me the entire collection when I entered junior high school. Thinking back, it’s no surprise that I ended up where I am now, and no, I’m not surprised that my daughter’s asking for a Mothra plush for her birthday—I told her she had too many Godzillas; like mother like daughter. And don’t get me wrong, I’m still getting her the toy. I just don’t watch the movies anymore.
Heather and Naomi lived in an apartment building in the suburbs outside of Yamagata city, about a twenty minute walk from the closest train station. The apartments were some of the cheapest in the neighbourhood, occupied by single mothers, evacuees, and the occasional university student. There was no room for luxury; there was only one bedroom, which Heather gave to Naomi, settling for the fold-out sofa bed in front of the television. For some reason, she could never get used to a futon. Some would call it ‘cosy’; Heather would call it ‘cramped,’ especially when she had to suck in her gut just to sit at the dining table, which didn’t make it easy to enjoy a meal. On a corner table, tucked away at the back of the room, was a small makeshift altar with a framed photograph of Heather’s late husband, Keiichi, his goofy smile clashing with his pristine suit. Next to the photo was a small glass sake bottle from an izakaya bar they used to frequent, holding down a polaroid photo of Heather, Keiichi and their friend from university, Akane. On the other side of the photo, an incense stick was being burned, filling the room with the warm scent of sandalwood. In front of the photo was a small bowl of seasoned rice. Heather never really understood the need for the altar, and her mother, who had been quite the devout Christian, certainly hadn’t been fond of it. But her in-laws insisted and liked to leave small offerings when they came to visit; it kept them happy. Still, by that point Heather had grown accustomed to the smokiness of the incense; it added a warmth to the apartment that was desperately needed.
Heather sat on her folded-up sofa bed, drinking cheap beer she had bought from the local convenience store with her sister-in-law, Sayaka Koiso. Naomi was in her room, ignoring her homework and instead playing an old-fashioned Godzilla videogame. On the television was a news report, Saki’s face flashing on the screen as they scrolled through photos of missing persons in Japan.
“There are so many kids…” Despite being somewhat slurred, Sayaka’s voice went quiet as more young faces appeared on the screen. “Isn’t one of your students in there?”
“Saki Katayama. She was twelve.”
“Yeah, I can’t imagine what her parents must be going through.”
“Katayama… I heard somewhere that her grandfather was a butcher; a family business?”
“What has that got to do with anything?”
Heather pursed her lips together before shifting the conversation.
“One of her friends is the daughter of an old classmate of mine. I think you met her while we were in university; Akane Ogawa?”
“Oh, right.” Heather laughed nervously. “Yeah, before Naomi was born Keiichi and I watched her daughter, Kanako, from time to time. Even as an infant she was so boisterous; had a real attitude.”
“This all must be hard for her.”
“Yeah, her and Saki were close, I think. Kanako would stand up for her a lot; I’m not sure she would have made it into that friend group if she didn’t.” Heather paused, finally taking a swig of her beer. “Kanako was supposed to be watching Naomi after school, but apparently she was daring Saki to summon ‘Hanako-san’ a couple of days before she was reported as missing.”
Sayaka stopped drinking her beer mid-sip, staring at Heather for a moment. “Hanako-san?”
Sayaka’s face dropped and she went silent for a moment before letting out a small, quiet laugh.
“We used to dare each other to summon Hanako-san all the time when I was still in elementary school and a little bit into junior high school; I didn’t think kids were still doing that.”
“So, it’s a game?”
“Sort of? The story went that if you went to the girl’s bathroom on the third floor and you knocked on the third stall,” Sayaka made a knocking sound on the side of the sofa “and ask ‘Are you there Hanako-san?,’ then a girl’s voice would answer ‘I’m here.’”
Sayaka nodded. “You then have a choice, you see; you can either open the stall or you can walk away. If you choose to enter, then a three-headed lizard jumps out and eats you!”
“A three-headed lizard?”
Sayaka laughed loudly. “I know, I know it sounds silly. That’s just the version I grew up with. I think the ‘typical’ legend is that a young girl with bobbed hair will be the one to kill you by pulling you into the toilet? I don’t know, but either way it’s not how I’d want to go.”
“We had something similar back in the States. ‘Bloody Mary’? It’s been a long time, but that story would change a lot, too.”
“Yeah, all the girls at school used to dare each other to summon Hanako-san. None of us really believed the story, of course, but no one was ever brave enough to do it, just in case you know? Looks like things haven’t really changed.”
“Honestly, where do these stories even come from?”
“These stories get started when people die horrible deaths.”
“You think so?”
“I don’t know; I heard it in some movie.” Sayaka shrugged, downing the rest of her drink.
“You watch way too much TV.”
Sayaka laughed again, the alcohol clearly kicking in as she opened another bottle of beer. “Honestly, it’s probably more because elementary school bathrooms are creepy and gross.”
“Yeah, even as an adult I still avoid using public bathrooms.”
“I use the staff bathrooms, but even in meetings it’s obvious that that school would rather invest in computers and surveillance cameras than renovations; they’re only just starting to reseal the windows in the classroom.”
“Seriously? Why did they wait so long to start resealing?”
“No idea; maybe someone finally noticed the leaks. I just hope Saki’s photo doesn’t get damaged over the weekend…”
Sayaka pursed her lips together, unsure of what to say. “Look, I doubt this has anything to do with that girl’s disappearance; it’s just a story, after all.”
“I know. That’s not what I’m worried about.”
“Then, what are you–”
“A young girl has disappeared, Sayaka. A girl at her school.”
The room went quiet, the silence hanging over them like a dark cloud; and then Heather heard the pattering of rain.
Sayaka turned her head and looked to the front door. “It’s raining again…”
I never liked the idea of Keiichi working in a nuclear plant. Heck, I never liked the idea of nuclear plants to begin with. But we were newlyweds, not long out of university, and, despite my degree in International Relations, I could only get a job as an English teacher. And then Naomi was born, Japan slipped into a recession, and by then, there were just no other options.
Heather woke up to a dark room, beads of cold sweat rolling down her face. She had fallen asleep at the dining table in front of her laptop, her back and neck screaming as she lifted herself to sit upright, clenching and unclenching her jaw as she looked to the clock on the kitchen bench. 02:34 AM. She let out a sigh, slowly tilting her head from side to side as she moved her finger over the trackpad of her laptop, flinching back as the screen burst into life, light flooding into the deep bags under her eyes. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust as the mass of bright white light slowly formed into distinguishable colours, shapes, and words. She had LINE open; no new messages. Heather sighed again and closed the laptop, resting her elbows on the table and running her hands through her hair, damp from her sweat. She sat in the darkness and the silence, so close to sleep but unable to reach it.
After a moment she stood up and walked to the bathroom, a warm yellow light seeping through the gaps under and around the door. Heather waited in front of the bathroom door as she heard the toilet flush and the faucet turn on and off. Naomi opened the door, holding a Godzilla plush in one arm as she looked up at her mother, rubbing her eye with her free hand.
“Hey, what are you doing up sweetie?”
“I needed to use the bathroom…”
They stood in silence for a moment, until Naomi yawned, her eyes watering from the movement.
“Come on, we should get you to bed.” Heather took Naomi’s hand, leading her back to her bedroom and tucking her into bed. “Did you want your night light on? Not too old for it yet?”
“No, please turn it on.”
“Okay, okay.” Heather turned on Naomi’s night light and kissed her forehead. “Goodnight sweetie.”
Heather was about to leave when Naomi’s phone lit up, vibrating on the wooden desk as she received a message.
“Naomi, you know you should turn off your phone at night–”
Heather cut herself off as she looked at the message preview on Naomi’s phone. It was a LINE message; a jumbled mass of hiragana that Heather couldn’t translate in her sleep-deprived state, barely able to distinguish one word for another. A photograph was attached to the message. Naomi remained silent as Heather slowly picked up the phone and opened the message.
The rest of the message was like the preview; a wall of seemingly random hiragana with the occasional word in katakana or kanji character. She got a headache just looking at it, the characters seeming to shift and move the longer her tired eyes looked at the screen, as if the message had been corrupted. Heather was only able to make out a few words: ‘radioactive,’ ‘germ,’ ‘half,’ ‘bang,’ ‘bang,’ ‘bang.’ She opened the photo attachment, not wanting to pick out any more words from the wall of text. It took her a moment to process what she was even looking at. The photo seemed to have been taken from underwater, small bubbles frozen in time as they had been rising to the surface. The camera was faced directly upwards towards the ceiling where an old fluorescent light illuminated the room with a cold white glow. The edges of the photo were drenched in shadow, as if it had been taken from the bottom of a shallow well.
Heather felt a rising sense of unease, her chest and throat tightening with every passing second. She closed the photo and looked at the user ID; ‘Unknown User.’ Heather quickly forwarded the messages to her own LINE account before she switched off Naomi’s phone and placed it back on the desk, the screen facing down.
After a moment, Heather turned back to Naomi, who had been staring at her the entire time. Heather walked back to the bed, kissing Naomi’s forehead again.
“Goodnight sweetie. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Heather got up and left the room, closing the door behind her. Her hand lingered on the doorhandle for a moment before walking back into the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
She stood in front of the mirror, her short blonde hair sticking out in all directions from sleeping at the dining table, the bags under her eyes looking more like bruises against her puffy bloodshot eyes. She turned on the faucet and waited for the water to heat up before she put her cupped hands under the tap, splashing warm water over her face. Next to the sink was a packet of black hair dye; opened but unused. She stared at herself in the mirror for a moment, the slow dripping of the faucet echoing off the cold bathroom tiles. She silenced it before walking out of the bathroom. She then collected her jacket, keys and mobile phone before putting on her shoes and walking out of the apartment into the muggy night air.
The ground was still wet from the night’s rain, puddles scattered over the road and narrow sidewalks. In the suburbs, houses, roads and pathways spiralled out tightly from the train station like veins and muscle fibres around bone, tall stone walls towering over pedestrians like hungry giants. Heather and Naomi lived on the edge of the spiral, where it was quieter and there were more cars on the roads than they there would be otherwise. For the unaccustomed, even the more spacious neighbourhoods were labyrinthine, with small alleyways tucked away between the walls like dark hallways that could lead to next street over or the other side of town. But after a while, subtle cracks in the walls, manhole covers and vending machines became like grand landmarks, and you started recognising certain cars parked in the same places in the narrow streets; getting lost was near impossible. Heather had lived in that neighbourhood for about six years, so she had the landscape well mapped-out in her mind. Still, she always felt as though the world was looming over her, and even before their evacuation, Heather would always peer around every corner before turning it and would drive whenever she could with the doors locked; something which her friends never understood, no matter how many times she tried to explain it. It was as if there was a wall between herself and the rest of the world; a giant, reminding her that she was only the height of his shin.
She eventually stopped at the local convenience store. The store clerk looked almost as tired as Heather did, not bothering to greet her as she walked in, eyes transfixed to his phone. There were mostly teenagers around this time of night, stocking up for their late-night study sessions in preparation for their exams. Heather walked through the aisles, selecting an instant ramen bowl and a bottle of sweetened iced tea. As she went to pay, the clerk was watching a YouTube video about a ghost encounter, laughing loudly and mimicking the people in the video as they jumped and screamed. It would have been all too easy to underpay him, but Heather had worked those kind of jobs before and made sure to pay him the correct amount. She doubted that she’d see him again. She then walked over to the communal kettle and filled her bowl with boiling water, sitting at a nearby table once it was full, watching the clock so that she wouldn’t overcook her noodles. It was then that someone caught her eye; a small female figure, sitting at a table in the corner of the room, staring at her phone on the table, her hands clasped together on her lap.
Kanako jumped in her seat, her head snapping up to look at Heather. “Miss Koiso?”
Heather carefully brought her bowl and her tea with her as she moved to Kanako’s table.
`“Do you mind if I sit here?”
Kanako shrugged. “Go ahead.”
She tried to seem casual, nonchalant, but the slight stutter in her voice gave her away; she was scared. Heather smiled, opening her ramen and breaking apart her chopsticks.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell your mom that you’ve been sneaking out.”
Kanako laughed nervously, her eyes shifting to her phone every now and again. Heather put down her chopsticks so they were resting across the plastic bowl.
“Is something wrong, Kanako?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re– …you haven’t been yourself lately.”
Kanako went quiet, biting her lip slightly, trying to come up with a response.
“I know that you’re probably sick of hearing this,” Heather continued, “but if you need to talk to someone about… Well, I’m here to talk if you need me.”
“Saki isn’t coming back.”
Heather was taken aback by Kanako’s sudden response; she had spoken so quickly that she nearly missed what she had said.
“What do you mean she–?”
“Saki isn’t coming back, she’s… she’s gone. I don’t know how, or what, but… Something happened when she was in that bathroom; she was different, and no one will believe me, but–”
“Kanako, it’s okay. Breathe.” Heather hushed Kanako, noticing people staring at them.
Kanako was breathing heavily, seeming to be on the verge of a panic attack. It took her a moment to steady her breathing, taking slow, deep breaths.
“Good… Now, tell me what happened.”
Kanako was quiet for a moment, still breathing deeply. “When we… dared Saki to summon Hanako-san, she couldn’t do it; she wimped out, we all had, none of us ever went through with it. But, Saki, she… she went back and tried again, and…” Kanako trailed off, not wanting to continue.
“Kanako… how do you know all of this?”
Kanako went quiet again, looking down at her phone. “She told me…”
Heather was speechless for a moment, unsure of what to make of Kanako’s statement. “She?”
“Saki… Hanako… I don’t know exactly, but–”
The phone screen illuminated and a preview for a LINE message appeared on the screen. Kanako stared at the screen, eyes wide and pupils dilating as her whole body began to shiver. Heather looked at Kanako, pursing her lips together before reaching for her phone.
Kanako was silent, but didn’t object as Heather took the phone. It was protected with a passcode.
“May I know the passcode?”
Kanako didn’t hesitate to answer, clasping her hands together more tightly as Heather unlocked the phone. The user ID was ‘Saki.’ Heather’s eyes widened as she was met with the familiar sight of jumbled characters. Once again, Heather was only able to make out a few words: ‘Kanako,’ ‘hot,’ ‘curry,’ ‘homework,’ ‘cute,’ ‘bathroom,’ ‘Hanako-san.’ Just like the message on Naomi’s phone, there was a photo attachment. Heather opened the photo attachment and saw what she could only assume was a crack in a door. The room was dark, the room only being illuminated by what Heather assumed was moonlight. Though it was a little difficult to see, she thought she could make out a mirror and sink on the other side of the door.
“Is this a joke?”
Heather scrolled up, looking through the previous messages, masses of incoherent characters flooding her eyes. The messages were all the same; walls of text that seemed to form words almost incidentally, most of which had photo attachments. After she scrolled past June 13—the day before Saki was reported as missing—all the messages seemed normal:
Hey Kanako, did you do your homework last night? What was the answer to question 5?
Why is your mom making curry? It’s too hot for curry!(;・ж;・;)
Look at this puppy I saw on the way home; isn’t he cute~!! <3
So, at the bathroom after school?
“Have you told the police about this?”
Kanako nodded, her eyes fixed to her hands in her lap. “I did, but I think they’ve brushed it off as a hoax…”
Heather frowned slightly and put the phone onto silent mode, forwarding as many messages to her LINE account as she could before passing the phone back to Kanako.
“It’s probably just one of your classmates playing a sick prank. I suggest that you block the user and don’t try and engage with them. You don’t know who’s on the other end.”
With a shaky hand Kanako took back her phone, letting it linger in her grip for a moment. She went to her friend’s list and selected ‘Saki.’ She hesitated for a moment before blocking the contact, her chin quivering as she tried to hold back tears. Heather stared at her sadly before picking up her bottle of green tea and passing it to Kanako. Kanako smiled up at Heather, tears trailing down her cheeks as she took the bottle.
That night, Heather walked Kanako home, leaving her soggy ramen on the table.
When I was in elementary school, my friends and I would always dare each other to say ‘Bloody Mary’ three times in front of a mirror, especially during sleepovers. Nothing ever happened of course, except one time at school when someone decided to turn off the lights after the third ‘Bloody Mary.’ We all screamed and, of course, we all got in trouble, but since it was during recess, we were let off with a warning. Mom was pretty upset with me though, so I didn’t play ‘Bloody Mary’ very much after that. My old friends would play it again in college once it became ‘nostalgic,’ but by then I was already in university in Japan, and we had all gone our separate ways; the most I ever see of them now is through the occasional Facebook post. I wonder, if I had stayed in America, how different would my life be now?
“Ok class, thank you for attending today’s workshop. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Thank you, sensei.”
The students in the workshop collectively bowed before rushing to collect their things, everyone wanting to be the first one out the door. The workshop had been on the third floor; some of the windows on the lower floors having leaked and flooded the classrooms over the weekend. A lot of classes had to be moved to different rooms which recently had their windows resealed. Heather had no clue why they didn’t reseal all the windows at the same time; probably an attempt to save money. The school board were hoping to have the leaks and any water damage fixed by Friday, but it was unlikely.
Once the final students had asked their questions and left the room, Heather sighed deeply and allowed her posture to slacken as she leaned on the edge of her desk. She looked out the window at the heavy rain outside, the window rattling in its frame, her mind wandering. She felt a vibration in her book bag and took out her phone. There was a message from Kanako:
Hey, have you seen Naomi? She wasn’t waiting by the school entrance.
Heather stared at the message for a moment, processing the words on the screen before hastily collecting her things and running out the door, her phone pressed to her ear as she tried to call Naomi. She almost didn’t hear Naomi’s ringtone through the door of the girl’s bathroom. Heather stopped and turned around to face the door, the tightness in her throat and chest returning to her as she pushed the bathroom door open.
The air in the bathroom was dry and dusty, like the air you’d breathe in a nursing home. The lights were old, flickering a dull white light that washed out any colour the room possessed, dead bugs gathering in the plastic casing around the bulbs. The sinks were white ceramic and had lost much of their shine due to a lack of maintenance, as did the silver taps, which stuck out of the sinks with a ring of damp blackened grime. The mirrors were chipped and rusting around the edges. In the corner of the room, a small gecko was climbing up the wall and onto the ceiling.
Heather’s voice bounced back at her in a shallow echo as she looked at the stalls. In the third stall, in the gap between the door and the floor, Heather saw a small pair of feet, clad in white socks with lace trimmings, and a single black loafer. Heather approached the door slowly and was about to push open the stall door when she heard a toilet flush, stopping her in her tracks as she shifted her attention to the second stall. Naomi came out of the stall, her eyes puffy and cheeks red. She had been crying again.
“Is something wrong?”
Heather looked back at the third stall. The girl’s feet were gone.
“No, nothing.” Heather smiled nervously, alarm bells ringing through her skull. “Come on, let’s go find Kanako; she messaged me because you didn’t meet her at the school entrance. She was worried about you.”
“Sorry, mommy. Can I wash my hands first?”
“Of course sweetie.”
Naomi turned on the faucet and washed her hands, having to go up onto her toes to reach over the sink. Heather shifted nervously on the spot as she felt a prickling feeling beneath her skin; as if someone was watching them through the walls.
Naomi turned off the faucet and wiped her hands on some paper towels which lay in a single roll on the sink, resting against the bathroom wall.
Naomi nodded and Heather quickly took her hand, almost dragging her out of the bathroom and through the halls of the school. From the corner of her eye, she noticed a camera bolted to the ceiling of the hallway, its cold lens staring blankly down on her.
Later that night, after Naomi had gone to bed, Heather logged onto LINE for the first time all day, having busied herself with household chores and unnecessary paperwork, the messages on Naomi’s and Kanko’s phone having left her paranoid about what she might receive. When she logged on, she found an unread message from an unknown user. Her fears were met when she opened the message and saw the familiar sight of random characters and a single photo attachment which she quickly opened, not wanting to read meaning into the jumbled mass of text.
The photo was taken from inside a toilet stall, the colours washed out from a dull white light. Through the gap between the stall door and the floor, were two pairs of feet; one clad in black tights and a pair of black heels, the other balancing on their toes, wearing white socks and black loafers.
When I was still a student, a man from my class followed me home. He tried to be discrete about it; he would fall back a few steps every time I looked back. As you can imagine, I looked back frequently, not wanting to walk too fast in case he started running. When I got back to my apartment, I made sure to lock all the doors and windows and hid in my room with my covers wrapped around me until Keiichi got home. From that day on, Keiichi always came to pick me up after classand I started taking self-defence classes twice a week. I never saw the man again; he stopped turning up to classes. I’m not even sure if he was really a student. And yes, some people called me paranoid—after all, he didn’t try to grab me or force his way into my apartment. But sometimes, just someone watching is enough to take away your sense of security.
I know that the other kids have been bullying Naomi; for being an evacuee, for being half-Japanese and Lord knows what else. I’ve tried talking to her teachers about it, but they don’t feel like it’s their responsibility to get involved. That’s when I realised that if people can sweep an issue under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist, they will, without hesitation.
Once again, Heather and Sayaka were drinking on the couch. Sayaka, unsurprisingly, opted for cheap beer they had left over from the last time she came over. Heather, on the other hand, had drunk almost none of her iced green tea, not being able to stomach food, let alone alcohol. Sayaka was scrolling through Heather’s phone, flicking between her LINE messages—those from the unknown user and those she had forwarded to herself from Naomi and Kanako’s phones. Heather had now received over one hundred messages from the unknown user, each new message near identical to the last.
“Well, I’m no expert, but it looks like someone’s hacking people’s LINE accounts.”
“Well, that would make sense.”
“Yeah, look at this.” Sayaka leaned over so Heather could see the phone screen as she scrolled through Heather’s messages. “These characters seem random, but if you look back,” Sayaka flicked back to the messages from Kanako’s phone, “some of the characters appear in Kanako’s conversations with Saki before she disappeared; sometimes even whole words are repeated, you see: ‘Kanako,’ ‘hot,’ ‘curry,’ ‘homework,’ ‘cute,’ ‘bathroom,’ ‘Hanako-san.’”
“So you think someone got hold of Saki’s phone and is using it to prank people?”
“Maybe, but if they were just doing that you and Naomi wouldn’t be getting any messages; hence the ID is coming up as ‘Unknown User.’”
“So, what does that mean?”
“I think whoever’s doing this is hacking into LINE accounts via Saki’s phone; that’s why Kanako started getting these messages first—she was a direct contact—but then they’ve hacked into the cloud and got hold of contacts from the accounts of Saki’s contacts.”
“People can do that?”
“Yeah, Google and big companies like that do the same thing; they hold onto your search history even after you delete it. It’s how you get personalised advertising on every website you’re on.”
Heather paused for a moment, thinking. “There’s just one problem with your theory.”
“It doesn’t explain the photo.”
“The photo of me and Naomi in the bathroom.”
“That photo was only from the knee-down; almost every teacher wear tights and heels like those, and most female students wear white socks with black loafers as part of their uniform. That photo could have been taken from anywhere at any time.”
Sayaka frowned slightly, knowing that Heather wasn’t convinced.
“Look, we’ll go and deliver this information to the police station tomorrow. It may just be an elaborate prank, but you never know.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
Heather’s mind wasn’t being rational, her thoughts going back to stories of ghosts in toilet stalls and three-headed lizards, her throat tight and dry as she took a swig of her now lukewarm green tea.
“Anyway, I better be going.” Sayaka chugged down the rest of her beer, letting out a sigh as she finished her last drop. “I have a date tomorrow.”
“What’s wrong? Do you not want to go?”
“Mom set it up. The guy’s apparently some big-shot at a local cyber security company; Serano Security… Solutions? I don’t know, but he’s lined up for a promotion and everything.”
“Yeah, but you know how successful men can be. Besides, I was going to apply for a job with that company; I dyed my hair and everything!”
“They’re not all like that, you know. Besides, there are plenty of cyber security companies out there, and Keiichi never had a problem with–”
“You just don’t get it, do you?”
Heather went silent and a look of guilt swept over Sayaka’s face.
“I’m… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean–”
“It’s okay, Sayaka.”
Sayaka was quiet for a moment as she collected her coat. “I’ll see you soon then?”
Heather smiled slightly. “Yeah, I’ll see you soon. Feel free to come over anytime.”
Sayaka hesitated before walking out the door, Heather sighing and letting her head hang over the backboard of the sofa as she heard the gentle ‘click’ of the door. At the back of the room, she could see Keiichi’s photo, his eyes smiling at her as the incense stick slowly went out.
Heather woke up to the sound of her ringtone, the time on the clock reading 01:45 AM. She waited, hoping whoever was on the other end of the line would give up. 01:46 AM. The ringing persisted, and Heather finally picked up.
“Heather, I– it’s– I…I just can’t–”
It was Kanako’s mother.
“Akane?” Heather sat up in her bed, her voice stuttering slightly at her friend’s panic. “Akane, what’s wrong? What happened?”
“She– She didn’t come home last night!”
“We’ve been looking everywhere, she’s… She’s gone…” Akane almost screamed, her cries being distorted through the phone. Heather could almost smell the salt in Akane’s tears as realisation hit her, her eyes widening and body going numb as her friend cried into the phone.
Kanako was gone.
When Naomi was three years old, we took her to a local playground. We had just moved to Fukushima and were still in the process of moving into our new home. Naomi was getting bored, what with all her toys still packed away in boxes, so we decided to take a break and took Naomi out to play at a local park. Keiichi had gone to get us all some ice-cream. I turned my back for just a moment, and when I looked back, she was gone. My heart stopped and I was holding my breath as I searched the playground, screaming her name. Keiichi dropped the ice-creams and ran to me, trying to calm me down as he called out for her. It’s horrible, but I couldn’t help but notice other mothers staring at me disapprovingly as they pulled their kids away from me. Keiichi noticed Naomi’s shoe lying next to a tree, but I managed to run to it before he did. And there she was, crouching next to a hydrangea shrub, talking to it. The next thing I knew she was in my arms, confused, her father scolding her for running off. She waved goodbye to the hydrangeas as we carried her away. A week later, I saw a news report about a girl who went missing from that same park, near the hydrangea shrub. I never turned my back again.
The next morning, Heather was just about to call Akane when there was loud, forceful knocking on her door. She didn’t get a wink of sleep after hearing about Kanako’s disappearance, and wasn’t able to join the search party since she didn’t have anyone to watch Naomi. Her stomach sank as she opened the door to see two police officers looming over her.
“May we come in?”
The man’s voice was as stern as his gaze. After a moment’s hesitation, Heather stepped aside to let them in.
“Is this about Kanako Ogawa?”
“We just need you to answer some questions. May I see your Residence Card?”
“I’m a citizen. I don’t have a Residence Card.”
“Miss, I need to see your Residence Card.”
Heather went quiet, knowing there was no point in arguing as she sighed and got up, getting her purse off the couch and taking out her ID and her teaching license.
“You see, my last name is ‘Koiso.’ I became a citizen after living in Japan for five years and marrying my late husband, a Japanese national; I am the mother of his child. I’ve lived in this neighbourhood for six years now, and I am an officially licensed elementary school English teacher. Now, please, ask me what you need to ask me.”
Heather’s voice was firm as she desperately tried to hide her fear. The policemen stared at her coldly.
The eldest of the two took out a notebook and a pen. Heather was shivering as the policemen continued to stare her down.
“You were Kanako Ogawa’s English teacher, correct?”
“Yes, I am– …was.”
“And you knew her mother?”
“We were classmates in university.”
“And where were you on Friday night after 3:00 PM?”
“I was holding a workshop for students who needed extra help in English.”
“And then I picked up my daughter at the school entrance and drove her home.”
“Naomi Koiso is your daughter?”
“Yes.” Heather was getting worried now, the policeman’s voice getting sharper with every question he asked her.
“According to the girl’s mother, Kanako Ogawa normally watches your daughter and then you drop her home from school. Is that true?”
“Y-Yes… but Kanako sent me a message that day saying that she was meeting up with friends–”
“Can you prove that?”
Heather flinched back at the policeman’s accusing tone. She hesitated before walking over to the sofa and picking up her phone, opening her LINE conversation with Kanako, ignoring the hundreds of new messages from ‘Unknown User.’ Heather then passed her phone to the policeman.
Meeting up with friends tonight. Don’t worry about picking me up.
The policeman frowned, looking back at Heather with suspicion. “So, you’re in contact with Kanako Ogawa on social media?”
“O-Only because she looks after my daughter; we need to be in communication.”
The policeman scrolled up, looking through Heather’s conversations with Kanako; most of them were related to Naomi, but his frown deepened as he saw the messages Heather forwarded from Kanako’s phone.
“A woman was reported to have been seen with Kanako Ogawa at a local convenience store around 3:00 AM last Saturday. Was that you?”
Heather hesitated. “Y-Yes. I had woken up in the middle of the night and went for a walk. Kanako was already there, you can see it on the store security cameras–”
“It was also reported that a gaijin– … a woman left the convenience store with Kanako Ogawa. Was that you, also?”
Gaijin. Heather was sick of hearing that word, but somehow hearing it from a police officer made it worse. She felt a burning in her throat, the taste of iron and acid filling her mouth as she bit down on her tongue.
“Yes, I was walking her home. It was late and I wanted her to be safe–”
“That’s quite enough.”
Heather’s eyes widened, unable to comprehend the situation. “You… can’t seriously suspect that I–”
“We do not have enough evidence to bring you in. But at this point, Miss Koiso, you are the only suspect.”
The breath left Heather’s lungs, her whole body freezing in place as the policeman put away his notebook and pen.
“A-Akane Ogawa can vouch that she got home safely. The school has surveillance cameras and my workshop is approved by the school board, I can prove my alibi–”
The policemen shut the door before Heather could finish her sentence. For a moment, she just stood there before backing away from the door and dropping herself onto the couch, her breath short and shaky as her stomach dropped to the floor as she tried to process the situation, tears forming in the corners of her eyes.
Naomi’s voice snapped her back to reality, as she shook her head and wiped her eyes.
“Who were those men?”
“They… They were just policemen, sweetie. They were just asking Mommy a few questions.”
Heather was speechless as she realised that Naomi had been listening in on the conversation.
“Did Kanako disappear like that Saki girl did?”
“Oh sweetie, come here.” Heather shakily pushed herself off the couch and crouched down to Naomi’s height, wrapping her arms around her. “They’re going to find her sweetie. They’re going to–”
Heather stopped herself, noticing her phone, which she had thrown onto the couch, light up. She watched the screen as message previews began piling up on top of each other; the user IDs: ‘Unknown User,’ and ‘Kanako.’
Whispers like footsteps
Keiichi had nightmares and would always wake up in the early hours of the morning. He would walk to the local convenience store and get something to eat or drink, and he’d usually sleep fine after that. When we first moved in together, I woke up to find that he wasn’t in bed. I panicked but didn’t bring it up over breakfast; and then it happened again, and again. For months I was convinced that he was out with another woman; something my mother had warned me about when she learned that I was in an ‘interracial relationship.’ So, one night, I woke up and he wasn’t there, and I decided to wait; I put on a Godzilla movie and just sat there until he got home. I had a whole speech planned out in my head; a whole argument. But then he came home and was still wearing his pyjamas, holding a bag full of cup noodles and soda. I started laughing and crying, both relieved and almost disappointed. He stayed up with me that night, watching the last half of Godzilla and eating cup noodles; and that’s when he first told me that he loved me. After that night, I never worried if I woke up alone in bed and sometimes I would wait until Keiichi came home and pretended to be asleep when he crawled back into bed. Still, in all our years of marriage, he never told me what dreamed about.
Heather struggled to get through the day. That Monday was probably the worst of her life. Her colleagues would whisper about her in the halls, as if she didn’t understand Japanese anymore, and some students had even been pulled out of her class by their parents. She didn’t know how word got out, but obviously someone had said something. If anything, her students bowing and thanking her after her workshop, even if done out of formality, put a smile on her face that had otherwise been absent all day. Once again, she stayed in the classroom until everyone else left the room, sighing and leaning on her desk once she was alone, running her hands through her hair. In the corner of the room was a photo of Kanako, flowers engulfing the table. Saki’s photo, which had been there over two weeks, had very little in comparison, only a few flowers having been laid out by her friends. Heather could still pick out the flowers that Kanako had left out; a small bouquet of blue hydrangeas. Sayaka was right; being the granddaughter of a butcher did matter. She allowed herself to linger for a moment, starring at the photos as raindrops started falling on the classroom window.
Heather sighed again, collecting her things when her phone lit up again; a message from ‘Kanako.’ Heather stared at the phone screen as message previews continued to pile on top of each other; and then one message caught her eye. Heather quickly unlocked her phone and opened the message; jumbled characters, as per usual. She opened the photo attachment and froze in place, once again feeling her stomach sink and bile rising into her throat.
Still in her heels, Heather ran to the bathroom and was about to push open the door when she heard something; the muffled sound of a girl crying, coming from the other side of the door. She hesitated, but was still determined to go in, until she noticed that the sound was skipping, as if it were an audio file. Heather slowly backed away until her back hit the wall, not taking her eyes off the bathroom door. She raised her phone and looked at the photo on the screen: the photo was taken from inside a toilet stall, the door taking up most of the photo with visible water droplets on the camera lens. In the gap between the door and the floor, was a pair of feet, clad in white socks and a pair of white canvas shoes, scribbled with permanent marker: on the left shoe was a drawing of a small dog, and on the right, a sumo wrestler.
The great contamination
Mom never liked travelling; she rarely strayed from the Seattle area. So when I moved to Japan, I didn’t see her very much aside from the occasional Skype or Facebook call. The few times she did come over to visit, however, she made it very clear that she wasn’t comfortable. During our wedding, she would shift in her seat whenever people started talking in Japanese instead of English. When Naomi was born, she insisted that she be christened, which I never intended on doing, but did anyway to keep her happy. When I told her that I had applied for Japanese citizenship, she barely talked to me for the rest of her trip. Now, don’t get me wrong, my mother wasn’t a bad person or even an uneducated person; she was a pacifist and a feminist, if that means anything, and though she never got the chance to go to college, she tried to stay as well-read as possible. But she was still a product of her time and as she got older, I noticed that her views started to change for the worst and she started sharing some more extremist articles on her social media accounts. I think she was getting scared; scared of the wrinkles and the constant trips to the doctor’s office, of news of bombs going off in the street. Still, it made me angry. When she passed away, I could only go back home for about a week for her funeral and when I got back, I still hadn’t really processed that she was gone. I was back at work the next day and life just kept going; there was simply no time to grieve. I don’t think Mom would have wanted that anyway. Still, I think about her all the time; about the things I would have said if I knew that last Skype call would, in fact, be the last, and even now it’s hard to think that she isn’t just there, waiting on the other end of a webcam.
Heather opened her eyes, recoiling as she was blinded by the light of the computer screen, illuminating the otherwise dark room. It was just before 2 AM, from what she could make out on the bright computer screen. Heather sighed, blinking her eyes repeatedly so she could adjust to the harsh light. LINE was open, Heather having fallen asleep in a conversation with Sayaka:
Are you sure you’re not just overstressed?
I’m not hearing things, Sayaka. I don’t know what it was, that’s just what I heard, and those shoes were definitely Kanako’s.
Look, you’re probably just stressed, and that story I told you might have got to your head. This is just your way of coping with things.
You don’t really believe that, do you?
I believe that you’re overstressed and you’re not thinking clearly.
Those were Kanako’s shoes, Sayaka. You can’t seriously still believe that this is just some hacker.
I don’t know, okay.
I’ve started getting messages, too. But neither of us have the time to worry about this; we just need to block the user and get on with it.
Anyway, I’ve got to go, I’ve got another date tonight.
With “Mr. Big-shot”?
He has a pretty lousy personality, but he keeps my parents off my back.
Are you okay with that?
The last thing I want is to be some parasite single.
Okay, have fun.
There were over two hundred new messages from ‘Kanako’ and the ‘Unknown User.’ Despite what Sayaka had said, she didn’t dare block them, nor did she try to delete any messages. After all, the police would be calling her in in the next few days, and those messages may be her best hope of proving her innocence. She watched as previews piled up on top of each other faster than her computer could even process them, and she knew that there was no way a person could be sending such long messages at that speed. After a moment she picked up her phone, which had been lying next to the computer, and turned on the screen; the same message previews filling up her phone screen. She closed her laptop and used the light from her phone to navigate her way to the bathroom, flicking on the bathroom light.
Heather stood in front of the mirror, placing her phone next to the bathroom sink before turning on the faucet and splashing her face with water. She was a mess, her eyes puffy and bloodshot, her skin pale and dry, lips cracked, and hair stiff and wiry; barely human. She splashed her face again, trying desperately to bring some life back into her face as she felt salty tears gather in the corners of eyes. She took a deep breath, her eyes lingering on the creature in the mirror before turning away and walking out of the bathroom. She went to reach for her coat, but stopped herself as she heard a whispering; a hushed voice coming from Naomi’s room. Heather hesitated before slowly and quietly making her way to Naomi’s door which had been left slightly ajar, warm light pouring out from inside the room and onto Heather’s face.
“So, you’re still in the bathroom at school? Isn’t it dark in there?”
“Yeah, I’m in the bathroom with Saki and Hanako!”
Heather stifled a gasp, recognising Kanako’s voice through the phone. But something was off; she wasn’t talking like herself.
“She was lonely all by herself. You should come and join us; it’ll be fun!”
“But, it’s really late.”
“It’ll be– It’ll be fun!”
Her voice skipped and Heather’s eyes widened. Without thinking she burst into Naomi’s room and a scream like static erupted from Naomi’s phone. Naomi screamed, covering her ears as Heather ran to the phone and threw it against the wall. There was a loud ‘crack’ as the phone hit the wall; then silence. Heather was breathing heavily, her eyes fixed on the phone which had fallen onto Naomi’s bed, lying still and broken. After a moment she steadied her breathing and turned back to Naomi with tears in her eyes. Naomi stared at her mother, eyes wide in shock.
“Naomi, who were you talking to?”
“Who were you talking to?!”
Naomi flinched back and Heather’s eyes widened, realising how harsh the question had come out.
“I… I’m sorry sweetie.” She walked over to Naomi and got onto her knees before wrapping her arms around her. “I’m sorry.”
Naomi hesitated before hugging her back, burying her face into her mother’s shoulder. For a moment, they stayed like that, with nothing but the gentle sound of the rain.
“What did they say, Naomi? I need to know what they said to you.”
Naomi bit her lip slightly, hesitating before answering, as if she were saying something she shouldn’t.
“She’s in the bathroom.”
The next day, after her workshop had ended and her students had all gone home, Heather stood in front of the girl’s bathroom on the third floor of the school. She had been standing in front of the bathroom door for almost ten minutes, well aware of the surveillance cameras watching her from the corner of the room. She had come to work this morning so determined, but now she was second-guessing herself. She was standing still, but her mind was pacing, battling to keep out thoughts of dead girls and reptiles, but not wanting to think of the alternatives; of hungry grinning giants in bathroom stalls. She had to know. She took a deep breath, as if she were about to plunge into deep, crushing water, and pushed open the bathroom door.
The bathroom looked just as it did the last time she had gone in; the air was dry, a layer of dust coating the inside of her lungs, rust and grime climbing up the faucets and the mirrors, and white ceramic chipping off the sinks. There was a gecko on the ceiling, trying to eat the dead bugs lying in the plastic casing of the flickering white light. Heather stood there, unmoving, not wanting to lower her gaze. The silence was broken by the soft, crackly sound of a girl crying, coming from behind the door of the third stall. Heather finally lowered her eyes, and there was the familiar sight of small feet. She walked towards the door of the third stall, lifting her hand to knock on the wood, when she stopped herself, her body shaking slightly; shivering as beads of sweat rolled down her face, smearing her makeup. The crying got louder, sounding more like static than something organic.
After a moment Heather backed away from the door and instead went into the second stall, locking herself inside. With the toilet seat down, she sat in the stall, listening to the sound loop over and over, trying to figure out what to do next. Slowly, she lifted herself so she was standing on the toilet seat, resting her hands on the walls of the bathroom stall to steady herself. She took another deep breath and leaned over to peer over the wall, catching only a glimpse of oily, black hair when her foot slipped. She screamed as she fell backwards, hitting her head on the wall of the bathroom stall as she fell onto the sticky, grimy floor. She looked on the toilet seat and there was the shed skin of a gecko. Heather sighed in frustration, rubbing the back of her head and extended her legs; nothing seemed to be broken, but she could definitely feel something swelling.
The crying continued, looping like a track on repeat, and Heather froze in place as she noticed how close her foot was to the girl’s feet in the stall over. Her phone had also slipped into the next stall, just out of reach. The girl, or whatever she was, hadn’t seemed to notice; Heather wanted to stay that way as she slowly brought her leg back towards herself, her snapped heel scrapping across the bathroom floor. It was then she heard the bathroom door open and she quickly brought her leg back to herself, holding her breath and making herself as small as possible.
Heather stifled a gasp as she heard a young girl’s voice; Naomi’s voice. The crying continued.
“Kanako? …H…Hanako-san? Are you there?”
Heather noticed the feet in the other stall twitch at the sound of ‘her’ name, shifting in place like a paused image on an old video tape. There was a knock on the door.
“Hanako-san?” Naomi’s voice echoed throughout the bathroom as Heather saw the feet twitch more violently. There was a second knock.
“Are you there, Hanako-san?”
Ignoring her injuries, Heather shot up and slammed open the bathroom door, grabbing Naomi before she could knock again. Then the screaming started; a loud, ear-piercing scream that distorted in the air like white noise. Naomi covered her ears, screaming and crying as Heather hastily backed away from the bathroom stalls. She hit the back of the sink and turned around, jumping at the sight of her reflection in the mirror. Her face was frozen in fear, her eyes wide and unblinking as her chest heaving as she struggled to breathe. The lights of the bathroom flickered violently as the door of the third stall started slamming on its hinges; the door must have been locked otherwise it would have swung open.
For a moment, Heather stared at the door in the mirror, her mind going numb and her thoughts distant. She could still hear Naomi crying and feel her clinging to her leg, but the sound was muffled in her ears, her body going numb as she retreated further into herself; sinking.
It was then that the lights overloaded and burst, shrouding the room in darkness as the door continued to slam violently, the wood cracking under the force of each blow. The lock broke and everything went quiet as the door slowly began to creak open.
Heather snapped out of her trance, grabbing Naomi’s hand and running for the door, a sharp pain shooting through her ankle as she tripped and fell out into the hall. For a moment, she just lay there on the cold, cement floor, her stomach turning like the sea during a storm, wanting desperately to throw up as she tried to make sense of what had happened. There was a prickling sensation underneath her skin, as if she were being eaten alive by bugs, only soothed by the beads of sweat rolling down her face and torso.
Slowly she pushed herself up, struggling to steady herself. She looked at Naomi and was relieved to see that she came out unscathed, staring in the direction of the bathroom with eyes wide and unblinking. Heather turned back to the bathroom door, the light of the hall seeping into the bathroom. The last thing she saw as the door closed was a dead gecko on the floor and an empty bathroom stall.
I was right. The messages were my best hope for proving my innocence. I had left my phone somewhere in the bathroom, but there was no way I was going back in there. Thankfully, my messages were archived on my LINE account so I just had to log into a computer. At first, the investigators thought they were fake; that I had either made them myself to try and clear my name, or they were made by some hacker. Then other people started coming forward, saying that they or their kids had been getting these messages too, and they started paying attention. When they started investigating the third floor bathroom, some of the investigators didn’t come out. They then looked in the sewers and found my phone and the phones of the missing girls, as well as some equipment that the missing investigators had been carrying. I never did find out if they could recover any of the data from the phones or the equipment, but there were rumours and photos circulating on the internet. Still, my name was cleared. After being treated for a sprained ankle and mild radiation sickness, I was out of that town; I bought the cheapest apartment I could find, packed up our stuff, and we moved all the way out to Nagasaki. It took a while, but I got a job at an International School; Naomi quickly made friends and she’s much happier now; much more ‘herself.’ Things still aren’t ideal and we still have a long way to go, but it’s good, for now.
Heather was sitting in Nagasaki Peace Park, watching as Naomi played catch with a group of friends from school, a Godzilla cap on her head and her father’s grin on her face. Heather sat on a nearby bench, one hand running through her newly-dyed black hair, making sure to stay close as she talked on the phone with Akane.
“A lot has been changing since you left. The new English teacher is pretty useless.”
Heather laughed slightly. “Oh, come on, they can’t be that bad.”
“You have no idea. Um, let’s see, Sayaka’s getting married.”
“Yeah, I got her invitation; she wants me to be maid of honour.”
“Are you going to come back to Yamagata for that?”
“Her fiancée’s got a job in Tokyo; they’re probably going to have their wedding there.”
“Probably for the best, I can’t imagine you’d be wanting to come back here. A lot of people have been leaving.”
“What about you?”
Akane was quiet for a moment. “I can’t. Kanako could still be there out there somewhere.” Akane’s voice was small, not really believing what she was saying. “Anyway, they’ve bricked up that bathroom now. The whole thing’s been kept very hush-hush.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.”
“It doesn’t surprise me either; it still doesn’t feel right though.”
“Anyway, I best be going; I’ve had to bring my work home with me again. I’m hoping to get it all done tonight so I can have the day off tomorrow.”
Heather chuckles slightly. “Good luck.”
“Yeah, talk to you soon, okay?”
“Yeah, talk you soon.”
Heather ended the call, still holding her phone as she let her hands rest on her lap. For a moment, she just sat there, watching Naomi play with her friends and enjoying the warmth of the sun on her skin. Heather put her phone in her handbag, throwing the strap over her shoulder as she stood up.
“Naomi! I’m just going to the bathroom okay. Don’t go anywhere.” Heather called out.
“Okay!” Naomi called back, not looking back at her, keeping her eye on the ball as it was thrown around the group.
Heather laughed softly, shaking her head slightly as she walked into the nearest public bathroom.
The bathroom was surprisingly pleasant for a park bathroom; clean and well-kept. Still, something about the air unnerved her and she found her eyes scanning the room. The bathroom was washed in soft, white light, as if she had walked into a world without shadows. Her footsteps were shallow and damp as she stepped into the second stall, breaking through the gentle hum of the ceiling light above her for only a second before dissipating into the thin, bleach-stained air. As she sat in the stall, she felt a familiar prickingly beneath her skin. Someone was watching her.
Heather quickly left the stall, walking slowly, her eyes flicking around the room as she made herself as small and silent as possible. She turned on the tap and ran her hands under the ice cold water. It was then that she noticed the shed skin of a gecko lying on the edge of the sink. Heather stared at it for a moment, feeling her phone vibrate in her bag as she slowly lifted her head to look at herself in the mirror. In the corner of her eye she saw a pair of small feet, clad in white socks and a single, black loafer.
Article copyright Maia Sharrock Churchill.