The more valuable you become as a human being, the more people start asking for a piece of your time. On Friday, I help Shiga edit his speech for a contest, help a new English Club member (our kouhai) with his pronunciation for a recitation contest, and then jet off into the southern reaches of Kyouto, where I will be meeting an American couple and interpreting for them over the weekend.
The assignment fell to me in kind of a weirdly indirect way. The guy, Deranged Dave, is currently regarded as the best In the Groove player in the US (and also the world), and has been invited by the Japanese DDR community to come hang out with their top players. The language barrier was significant, but Soymilk, a personal acquaintance of Deranged Dave, was able to facilitate much of the planning and scheduling, and even acted as interpreter and guide for the Toukyou leg of their visit. Alas, despite his deep desire to continue on to Kansai, he was simply too busy and too poor, but, as I was once a somewhat ok ITG player myself, he tapped me to pick up the slack. We determined that I would meet up with them at the station near their hotel. The conversation went something like this:
Rude Boy: My class ends at 2:30, and it takes a bare minimum of an hour and a half to reach their station.
Soymilk: So you won't be there until 3:30?
Rude Boy: Um, no, because I don't instantly teleport to the station the instant my class finishes. I'll need at least half an hour to deal with my own shit. So, if I rush and get somewhat lucky, I might be there before 4. But I wouldn't count on it.
Soymilk: 4 is too late. I'll just tell them “around” 3:30.
Rude Boy: Don't do that. It'll probably be more like 4:15, or even 4:30 if I get held up.
Soymilk: It'll be fine. Actually, do you think you could get there by 3?
And so on. Luckily we managed to work things out, and I meet up with them at 4:10 on Friday. They've been walking around all morning and they look about ready to die. Fortunately, we're going all the way to Umeda, so at least they have a chance to relax. We're working through a system of stations and lines that I never ride, but I manage to point us in the right direction. Which is good, seeing as that's my one job.
Once aboard the train, the three of us have a chance to get to know each other. I quickly decide that both of them are awesome and I like them. That's a plus right there, since I was worried I might not, and that the entire weekend would be awkward as piss. Deranged Dave is a little bit shorter than I, with a famously long ponytail; his girlfriend, Bank, has like nine different colours in her hair. Both of them are fun to talk to and have interests outside of rhythm games, which is more than I can say for many of the ITG players I've met. They also have what I often call a “good attitude” about Japan, that is, going in without expectations, nor straying too far from the centre of the sliding scale of kimono to anime.
Prior to a few days ago, I'd heard his name but didn't actually know anything about him. He makes stepfiles, like all of the big names, though he's never made anything I liked. Soymilk informs me that he has an ITG machine in his house, which isn't uncommon, and that he's the most famous player, although I learn later that his overspecialization in speed over technical skills has created some controversy over who the “best” really is. Either way, if any lower-ranked ITG players ever find out that I spent a weekend in Japan interpreting for him, they're going to lose their shit, but I look at him and see just another guy. The Japanese community is wild for his YouTube videos, and indeed they will bring them up time and again, asking him to explain the details of what exactly he does in various situations. Also he's a particle physicist.
We have a few hours to kill before we can meet up with Plumfield, who'll be putting us up for a few days, so I walk them around Umeda, just so they can see. Fortunately we're still in an area I know decently well, which will change as soon as we venture beyond it, but by then we'll be with our actual guides. We speculate as to Plumfield's identity. We figure he's probably around 30. When he messaged me he said that his “work,” rather than his “part-time job,” went until evening, so he's probably a shakaijin. Plus, he offered to straight-up pay for their plane tickets, on top of which he'll be driving us around and boarding us for four days, so he's obviously got money.
When we finally meet him, it turns out that he's 26, a policeman, and has his fucking adorable 20-year-old girlfriend with him. Introductions are awkward and nobody's quite sure what to do. Why? Looking back, I will say that it's probably because, in addition to the strangeness somewhat inherent in meeting someone new for the first time, we haven't gotten used to communicating through translation yet. Nobody's sure who they should be looking at (answer: whoever you're addressing), or what language they should be attempting (answer: your own). We also haven't found a good translation rhythm just yet. You see, generally speaking, you have to sort of pause every paragraph or so for the translation to go through, even if you aren't expecting a reply yet, because otherwise I am going to start to forget details from the beginning, or get confused about what your real point is. Learning to recognize those natural breaks takes a bit of practise, when you aren't yet accustomed to international communication.
As the hour-long drive to a Hyougo Round 1 goes on, though, we start to catch it. The perfunctory questions start to lead into more interesting territory, and soon we have a bit of an actual conversation going on. I quickly realise that this is going to be very different from my usual responsibilities; most of the people I deal with regularly speak either English or Japanese and then some of the other, and on top of that are usually trying to learn, so I'm only called in when the conversation grows too complex for them to carry on their own. Here I'm the only one who can bridge the gap at all, so I have to start killing the instinct that tells me I don't actually need to translate stuff like “let's go” or “yes, I think so too.” For that matter, I even have to provide context for things that have nothing to do with language, like when Plumfield joked that we'd end up in Hokkaidou if he took a wrong turn and Deranged Dave merely said “That's ok, as long as we get there eventually.” Both Plumfield and Bank comment several times that holy shit are they glad I'm there, because this would not be happening otherwise. What can I say? I solve problems.
A bunch of the Hyougo and Oosaka people receive us at the Round 1, and as one after another wanders over and realises Deranged Dave has arrived, freakout after freakout ensues. Everybody wants to stand with him and take multiple pictures in multiple poses from multiple angles. Every time a game ends somebody else scrambles up and announces that they want to play with him next. Deranged Dave has gotten used to it by now; basically the exact same thing happens in the US, and, he says, he might as well make them happy, since they've brought him all the way out here.
“Though to be honest,” he admits, “I'm kind of bored.”
Nobody can play anything higher than about an ITG 12, whereas Deranged Dave punches 20s in the face on a good day. But he bears with it. Since I have two charges, I practise my positioning and observational skills, which I'll be making use of a lot. The only grain of sand in my eyes is Millimetre, some American guy living in Kyouto who basically everyone makes fun of.
Bank: I just don't like his attitude. Like he went on some forum and asked how to say stuff in Japanese, but it was all asking how to say stuff like “I got this score on this song” and “I can pass this.”
Deranged Dave: But nobody cares about him.
Bank: He wants so badly to be like a DDR celebrity, but he's always complaining about how the Japanese don't acknowledge him and whatever, and he gets all pissed off about it.
Rude Boy: So the name is a reference to the length of his penis?
Deranged Dave: It's a reference to the length he aspires to.
Indeed, he spends much of the night trying to enter pictures uninvited, as though anybody cared that he was there at all. (His Japanese is pretty awful, as well, but he doesn't quite realise it.) To his clear frustration, nobody actually wants to take a picture with him, they just keep swarming around Deranged Dave and sometimes Bank. What's really funny is when a bunch of them decide they want some shots with me. I didn't even play! The red carpet has clearly been rolled out for Deranged Dave, and judging by the looks of admiration people are shooting me, it seems like I, as the conduit through which he speaks, have had some of his coolness rub off on me.
When we go to yakiniku for dinner, I get to sit with Deranged Dave, Bank, Bolognese, and a couple, 8nee and 8nii. The conversation is dominated by Bolognese and Deranged Dave discussing cultural differences between the American and Japanese rhythm games communities, and various tournament structures that have been attempted. Bolognese – an Oosaka man, I might add – is the undisputed DDR/ITG champion of Japan, and so they make plans for a challenge match the following day. 8Nee and 8nii have been dating for eight years, since he was 15 and she was 17. They met at an arcade, through Initial Dick. She's quiet but sweeter than diabetes itself, and looks like Mayuyu from AKB. President would die instantly if she met her.
I've interpreted at many an event before, but it's never been my main thing, nor have I been the only one. Usually, it's part of what I'm there to do, but only as an accessory to the more important, concrete task I'm there to accomplish. Here, it is specifically the task for which I have been engaged, I am the only one capable of doing it, and I am constantly in the thick of the action. I'm used to being just on the outside, steering the conversation as needed and doing other things in the meantime, so I keep trying to make sure everything is being taken care of, only to be assured, no no, Rude Boy, you are doing exactly what you need to be doing, in fact don't go anywhere because we need you here. It was a pretty nice feeling, actually. 10/10. I've watched interpreters before and felt a little sorry for them; they they do a ton of the legwork and make my father's job possible, but they are treated like furniture, they sometimes don't even get thanked, they are often excluded from official photos, and they might not even get fed properly. Exactly the opposite is happening with me. People want my signature right underneath Deranged Dave's, and Bolognese flatly refuses to let me pay for my own meal.
Bank and Deranged Dave pass the ensuing drive with Pokemon Black/White (respectively), StreetPass Quest, and asking me about Japan. Something's happened with Plumfield and his girlfriend and they're fighting quietly up front, I guess because he didn't pay enough attention to her at the arcade. They live in the far reaches of Hyougo, over an hour's drive from where we are. I guess you could call it Koube, since the city never actually stops, but I would just about kill myself if I had to live there. Their house is gigantic for Japan, which is to say it has a kitchen, living room, another room, and a bedroom. He's got a TV as wide as my legs are long, and décor that would make the narrator from Fight Club grimace with jealousy. On top of that he's going to marry his girlfriend and she's going to become a housewife, and is currently a NEET. I'm pretty sure beat cops don't bring in money like that, so I can only assume his main source of income is taking bribes from the yakuza.
He puts the three of us in his own room, which is...fine, really. When I wake in the morning, several guys have arrived from Nagoya, and Deranged Dave is in the living room talking with them, or rather, attempting to. I jump to action and go out to meet Shinpachi, a 27-year-old clean-shaven yeti. Official delegations usually have a “delegation leader;” in the case of civic delegations it's the mayor of the visiting city, and so of course here it's very obviously Deranged Dave. But it's difficult to say who's the official receptionist. You would think Plumfield, because he did much of the organization and is providing home base. Bolognese is another candidate, as the Number One Japan Player. But then there's also Shinpachi, who's one of the oldest of everybody, the most physically intimidating, and the clear leader of the Nagoya faction. All three are cool as shit, as well, though especially Bolognese.
“We're at Plumfield's now,” Shinpachi says into his phone. “They've got a splendid interpreter with them, apparently he'll be with us all weekend. His Japanese is incredible. I can't believe this, we're saved.”
通訳者。That's an awesome epithet to be known by. I like it. And that is my whole job and actual function this weekend? I could totally get used to this.
Today we head to a slightly less shitty part of Hyougo where, at a small non-chain arcade, there is a DDR machine running Stepmania. Both ITG and modifications of this kind are strictly controlled by Konami, so this is expressly forbidden, but the owner of the machine has kept it a secret from management, who know nothing about the actual game. Both Deranged Dave and Bank have a lot of experience modding, and they teach the players there a few new tricks for making a DDR cabinet more ITG-like.
“Hopefully they'll take what they learn back to where they came from and the knowledge will spread,” Bank remarks.
When we arrive, we meet Chappy, a manic pixie dream girl and one of the top five girl players in the country. I can't help but immediately notice that she has a really nice body, at 25 years old and under 5 feet, with tiny little breasts, a tight round bum, a waifish waist, thin muscular legs, and biteable clavicles. Her face is a little bit fucked up, but she talks constantly, which makes up for it. I already have aJapanese older sister but I start calling her neesan anyway. So yeah, the second the car touches down she just about swallows Deranged Dave whole.
Deranged Dave walking into a room full of rhythm game fans is like Sean Connery walking into a room full of...Sean Connery fans.
Everyone gets to work on the machine, and within seconds someone has pulled out a video camera to make an instructional recording. Deranged Dave explains all of what he's doing and why, and I translate, so possibly there is now a video out there somewhere where a skinny white guy explains how to do ITG maintenance in Kansai-ben. If you're wondering, the point of the exercise is to use tape to raise the panels slightly, so that there is relatively little difference in height between the bracket and the panel, as opposed to DDR, in which the panels are significantly lower. (This is why early-generation DDR players, who started when the difference was even more pronounced, started playing on the balls of their feet, i.e. it is why they look so stupid when they play.) He can't quite get it perfect – partly because he's worried that if he makes an incorrect guess on one of his calibrations he won't be around to fix it, so he's erring on the side of caution – but he manages to make it much, much better than before, at any rate.
Everybody wants to play with him again, of course, and the videos keep on coming. I can only assume they're more for the memories, because he's not even playing anything particularly impressive. I'm finding I have my hands quite full with the hundreds of millions of things both of my charges are having said at them at any given time, and am quite enjoying the challenge of managing everything required for general comprehension on both sides of the language barrier. I do manage to get one game in myself, and it plays pretty well (although the up arrow gets a lot of pad), but I almost fail a 9. I do pass a couple of 12s but they're not even hard 12s. Apparently if you don't do something for eight months you get worse at it.
Then it comes. Bolognese and Deranged Dave square off, and the battle of the century is on. Actually just kidding, it's not that exciting. Neither is warmed up, but Deranged Dave beats him in three songs out of four – two by a narrow margin and one by quite a large one, although, interestingly, in the final one Bolognese absolutely destroys him on his own pick. He approaches us afterwards, complaining of back pain.
“My back has never felt like this before,” he tells us. “I really think I should go to the hospital. Shinpachi's going to drive me. Don't worry, I'll be back soon.”
Bank: Well that's scary.
Deranged Dave: Shit, I can't believe I did that. I hope he's ok.
Rude Boy: I wouldn't worry about it just yet, you know?
Bank: It's just like the word “hospital,” it's pretty, like, WHOA.
Rude Boy: That's just the Japanese system. You get a cold, you got to the hospital. Need to refill a medication, you go to the hospital. It doesn't have the serious feeling like in English.
Bank: Yeah, I hope you're right.
Bank wants to try real Japanese okonomiyaki, so we find a place and Chappy sits at our table. Yay! We start getting close, and she grills Deranged Dave on various aspects of his ITG playstyle. It was his videos, you see, that originally got her into DDR, and she's always tried to imitate him, though she can't yet pass a 13.
“You'll pass me by soon enough,” he assures her.
Bolognese hasn't returned by the end of the meal, but we've set some okonomiyaki portions aside for he and Shinpachi to eat later. We have them bagged up and Plumfield phones in for an update, which he then has me relay to Deranged Dave and Bank.
Rude Boy: Um, ok. So it turns out, he's bleeding inside his back. And they have no idea what caused it, it could happen to anybody at any time, and sometimes it just happens. So they've got him in a brace, and he won't be able to play for a month. And uh, he won't be able to walk for several hours.
Bank looks like she's plunged her face into a fishbowl. They both feel terrible.
Bank: I can't believe we broke Bolognese.
After a goofy purikura session at Aeon, we head back to Plumfield's, where about 15 people will be staying in a home built for two. That's always fun. Nobody from the Nagoya group has slept, but me, Chappy, and Plumfield's girlfriend stay up until 4 in the morning talking about all kinds of things, while Chappy's shy boyfriend looks on quietly, taking in the conversation and occasionally offering an opinion. Chappy and her man have already been going out for four years. I can't even imagine a relationship that long. They ask why and I give a condensed version of my personal history, leaving out my Mother Russia drama, with an explanation on why I've pretty much given up on relationships as a concept. “You can't think like that!” Chappy exclaims. “Nobody's gonna show up,” I shrug. “There will! Eventually you're going to find someone perfect for you,” Plumfield's gf assures me, seemingly desperate to make me trust her. For once, I almost believe that I actually might. Talking to these two cute girls for hours has opened some kind of pressure valve in my chest, and I feel better than I have in a long time.
Sunday is mostly a day of relaxation in Nara. We take a leisurely wander around the vicinity of Toudaiji and do Toudaiji type things, like squeezing through the pillar that's the same size as Buddha's nostril. Deranged Dave badly wants to climb the statue and clamber inside his actual nostril, and is convinced that he'll arrive in Nirvana if they'll only let him try. 8Nii lends me his girlfriend for the day, and we take some pretty great pictures together. She was born in Shizuoka so she's not as loud as Kansaijin and doesn't tsukkomu me no matter how obvious an opening I leave, but she's really nice. Doesn't talk much, but listens like a motherfucker.
Chappy proves surprisingly well-versed in Nara history and Toudaiji in particular, and I am employed largely in tour-guide style translations, which is definitely a first for me. When not interpreting, I spend most of the day chatting with Chappy. She's great. Although, when we see a steering wheel sticking out of the water and I want to pretend to drive the lake, she won't let me, because a nearby sign warns that a pervert has been sighted in the area.
Unfortunately, I realise that I have a class early the next day that I absolutely cannot miss, because while most of my teachers will let it slide once in a while, this guy simply does not accept absenteeism. Chappy and I devise a plan in which I stay the night at Plumfield's, help the Americans get set up with a hotel for their last night, and leave early in the morn'. I wake up at six and leave as discreetly as possible, though a few people stir in the living room. The journey, from Himeji all the way to my university in Kyouto, is relatively arduous considering the main activity therein is sitting in a chair, but you see, the sleep deprivation and the travel fatigue weigh heavy on my shoulders, and heavier on my eyelids. With my class complete and my sexual harassment meeting behind me, I rush back down to Oosaka.
Chappy badly, badly wants to take Bank shopping in Nanba. Bank isn't super into it, but she's not against it either, and it's certainly more interesting than sitting at the arcade watching the boys play DDR for hours upon hours. Chappy wants to bring some of the other girls, too – specifically, she recruits Plumfield's girlfriend and another guy's girlfriend, her own age. But wait! She wants there to be an interpreter on hand – in fact she specifically requests me. Trying on clothes is one thing, she says, but then there are the more detailed and specific aspects of shopping, like explaining why something is or isn't good, and what kind of thing might be closer. And, she points out, I'll get to spend the day with four girls, so there's that.
We move from store to store, fortunate to have this other girl with us because she goes to school in the area and knows it well. Bank, sadly, doesn't find a lot; she has trouble finding her size, and more than that, the current fashion in Japan is pretty baggy, which with her body type just has the effect of making her look fat rather than cute. It's not a total loss, though, and she manages to find a pin for her hair, a shirt-tank top combo, and some stretchy pants. She fails to find anything Engrishy that suits her style, though. Throughout it all, the other three girls – mainly Chappy – troop through with constant suggestions, comments, and questions, all in the name of ensuring Bank has at least one enjoyable shopping experience in Japan before she leaves.
I find out very quickly that my vocabulary has a few gaps when it comes to shopping for women's clothing, since for some reason I've never gotten around to doing that in Japan, but it was mostly stuff like talking about colours, patterns, and fit, so that was well within the bounds of my everyday abilities. I know fuck all about most of what they're saying so mostly I just pass their words straight across the board, but do interject my own reactions from time to time. Over the course of the weekend I've been pleased to find that I've actually reached another level in interpretation – I can now often translate somebody's words into one language while simultaneously listening to them, rather than needing them to pause so I can do it paragraph by paragraph. Damn does that feel cool. That's a great milestone right there.
If you think it must have been boring for me to follow four girls around while they shopped, you severely underestimate how badly I require female attention.
After this, there's not a lot of time left. After a brief visit to the Pokemon Centre, where I buy a ton more stupid shit that I don't need, we go back to the Umeda Round 1, where the guys have spent most of their day, and I unsuccessfully attempt to steal 8nee permanently. Next time! No, I'm totally kidding. I stole a girl once before, but even if I could steal 8nee I wouldn't do it. The two of them are too adorable together.
We don't have time for a proper meal, so we gather at a crepe stand, which is sold out of everything I actually want, but blueberries are ok, I guess, even if maccha and cheesecake would have been better. Not together. I wanted one maccha thing and one cheesecake thing. Not together. That wouldn't be very tasty. Actually, maybe it would be.
The Nagoya group has already gone, but I'm sure I'll see them again, someday, since I have friends over there anyway. 8Nee, 8nii, and Bolognese all live in Oosaka, so really I can go see them anytime I want. Plumfield is a little farther a...field, but he's collected the best photos from the conference and is putting together albums for some of the people involved, and he's promised to hand over mine “the next time we meet,” so that'll happen.
It's Deranged Dave and Bank that I'm sad to see go, since I may never see them again. Maybe if they come back in a few years, or if somebody wants to pay my ticket to America for when the Kansai players go to see their home. That would be cool. But having spent a very short time rarely more than 20 metres away from either one of them, I feel like we've become friends, after a fashion. We walk to Oosaka Eki and the group slowly drops members until only Bolognese, Plumfield, and their respective girlfriends are sitting on the train with them while 8nee and I wave goodbye. Then they're gone.
What a great weekend.