by Stephen Dedman
"Joy to the world," the balding man in the houndstooth jacket warbled, "Goodwill to men." Behind him, a holovid of the Chiba-Disneyland boy's choir moved their lips out of synch while neon subtitles in English and Hiragana ran across their robes. I tried not to shudder, and turned to watch Kinnison, the manager, toying with his teriyaki chicken. "Thank Christ for Christmas," he said. "Without it, I'd probably have gone under years ago."
"Suicide rate goes through the roof, you know? Especially when it's winter, too. Shortest days of the year, no sunshine..." He shrugged. "I hate it myself; I catch the same plane back home every January first and play golf 'til Easter."
"Where's home? Hawaii?"
"Queensland. Australia. Lots of Japanese tourists, and you'd be amazed how much more you can charge for fish and chips if you call it tempura - but don't quote me on that."
The man in the jacket - I can't call him a singer - put down the microphone, bowed, and picked up a knife and napkin. I glanced around. We were only a few blocks from Little Tokyo, but I couldn't see anyone who looked Asian apart from the waitresses and the tattooed swordsman. "Tourists," repeated Kinnison. "Where would we be without 'em, ay?"
I shrugged. I'd been a travel writer for about seven years, and if I had a dollar for every tourist trap I'd seen, I could buy the Sphinx and use it as a piggy-bank. The man on stage dropped to his knees and thrust the knife into his abdomen.
"Where did you get the idea for this place?" I asked, as the swordsman raised his katana.
"Chushingura? One of the cooks suggested it; it's a Japanese movie about forty-seven students who commit suicide because they can't get into a university, or something." The man in the jacket was grimacing horribly, but he was mercifully silent; the katana seemed to disappear for an instant, and then something was rolling across the stage. "It's supposed to be a true story, so I've never had any copyright problems - never seen it myself; don't get me wrong, I have a great respect for the Japs, but I can't sit through one of their films."
The swordsman wiped the blade clean, while one waitress picked up the head gingerly with a knife and two figures in black ninja suits carried away the body. "I meant the idea of hara-karaoke."
Kinnison grimaced. "Karaoke seppuku, if you don't mind. Well, I was running a karaoke restaurant in Queensland - probably the only one that served blowfish sashimi. Very ritzy, very popular with tourists and yuppies; we used to get lots of office parties. Anyway, someone got a piece of blowfish that hadn't been cooked quite right, and died. Coroner said it was fugu poisoning.
"Anyway, it seems there's this tradition among Japanese cooks that if your client dies of fugu poisoning, you're supposed to commit seppuku - and he did. Turned up to work the next night, came out onto stage in his whites, put a disc of 'Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word' on the karaoke machine and stabbed himself. Didn't even have a second to cut his head off. I thought I was ruined. Well, I was wrong. People started turning up just to see if anybody was going to die.
"For a few weeks, of course, nobody did; the new chef was being extra-careful about the blowfish, which was more popular than ever. Then one young guy turns up with his girlfriend; wanted to propose to her, even ordered blowfish to impress her. Anyway, he didn't even get sick. He pulled this ring out of his pocket and proposed to her, and she said no. So he asked the DJ to put on a disc, I can't even remember the song, and then he gets up there and sings. Second verse, he sees she's getting up and walking out." Kinnison shrugged. "There's no easy way to save face after making that big a fool of yourself in public, so he pulls out a Swiss Army knife and tries to commit seppuku. Made a horrible mess of it, but we managed to get him to hospital okay..."
"And people started coming back."
"Right. They knew they could make total idiots of themselves in front of their friends and not have to worry about it in the morning. I made sure there was always a sharp knife near the microphone - didn't want a repeat of that catastrophe - and put more TV screens in and started playing lots of anime and Japanese TV game shows for the quiet nights. Eventually, the Health Department found an excuse to close us down, but by that time, I'd bought this place and registered it as a Church of Ninja Buddhism. Haven't had any trouble since, as long as we don't play any heavy metal... except the place isn't doing as well as I'd like, of course." He glanced over his shoulder, where a middle-aged man was tapping the mike and waiting for his cue. "I hope your magazine sells well; there's no such thing as bad publicity, ay?"
"I'll send you a copy," I promised, as the man began wailing 'Only the Lonely'.
Kinnison nodded, and dropped his voice slightly. "I hate to do it, but if things don't pick up soon, I'll have to try some sort of gimmick. Do you think topless waitresses would help?"