Ryu Suzuki was bored out of his skull. Saturday nights were supposed to be fun – the usual clique piled into MJQ Karaoke Bar for a night of excessive drinking and bad lip singing. There was Nobuo and his drunken Yakuza associates carousing to the music and passing around shots, his good friend Naoyuki cuddled up with a girl whose name Ryu had never bothered to remember, and at the microphone belting out her best rendition of 'Kung Fu Fighting,' complete with exaggerated "hiyahs!" and chop socky arm flailing was the love of Ryu's life, his girlfriend Nozomi. She had even taken the liberty of changing up the lyrics, much to Ryu's chagrin.
"Ryu-san was Kung Fu Fighting/ his kicks were fast as lightning/ in fact it was a little bit frightening/ but he fought with expert timing! HIYAAH!"
Never mind the fact that out of his twenty years of being alive Ryu had dedicated fifteen of those years to the art of Shotokan Karate, not Kung Fu. Still they were his friends and he loved them, even if they did have a penchant for making fun of the martial arts.
After her enthused cover of the 70's song Nozomi plopped into Ryu's lap, her face flushed a pale shade of cherry blossom from drinking and her radiant brown eyes full of light.
"You're such a sour puss," she cooed. "C'mon let's sing!"
"Hey Karate Kid, how about you show us some dance moves!" Nobuo quipped, and they all laughed, even Nozomi.
Asshole. Ryu sighed inwardly.
"Better yet, let's drink every time Ryu complains of the appropriation of Karate by the Western media! Drink every time he breaths the air of a country oppressed by capitalism and hedonism! Drink every time he scowls!" And they all drank, even Ryu. And they drank again and again. The best parts of Saturday nights were making up new rules to drink by. The worst past was Ryu kissing Nozomi goodnight and taking the bus back to Dobuita to sleep in the same futon he had since he was five years old.
At five in the morning Ryu was up again and after the brisk walk to the dojo behind the White Dragon Restaurant mostly sober. Sensei Daichi could always tell when a night out had been had by his young pupil but he never seemed to mind.
"You'll sweat it out," he told Ryu every time and Ryu did. Here in the dimly lit spartan back room of the restaurant Ryu practiced the rhythmic stances of kata until his legs quaked and his lean body glistened with sweat. Daichi mirrored the movements with him and although he was in his sixties he moved with the grace of a man half his age.
In his younger years Daichi had been a soldier for the Imperial Japanese Army during World War 2. He had fought the Americans on Okinawa, braving the relentless bombardments and cave warfare in service to the Emperor. Once the war had been lost there was no dishonor, no slicing open ones belly to save face, only the promise of the next battle. Daichi had found his next battle not in war torn caves and sweltering jungles but in the dojo, his enemy now the ghost of the man he wished to leave in the past.
After performing katas until Ryu's muscles burned with fatigue they then began the drill of kumite, the application of strikes against one another. They started off slow, Daichi's wiry arms a delicate breeze through a forest of pine needles. Their movements became faster, a gust of feints and punches that made Ryu backpedal on unsteady legs. Teacher and student created poetry in motion, the attacks and counter attacks the brushwork of war. Daichi slipped a straight right punch from Ryu as elusive as mist and then surged forward, a tempest, a typhoon, his punch stopping mere inches from Ryu's throat. A killing blow.
Ryu willed the thudding of his heart to quiet. He stared at the calloused and battle worn fist before him, at the man who wielded such power and grace within his old bones in perfect harmony. It was that harmony that Ryu lacked inside, the balance of emptiness and fullness that could only be gained through real mortal combat.
"You seem particularly distracted today Ryu-kun, perhaps we should sweat out more of that hangover of yours?"
"No sensei, I'm sorry, it's just that I've been doing a lot of thinking lately."
"And what seems to be troubling you?"
"Well, you've always taught me that Karate was a life long pursuit, that it goes beyond the dojo. There are a million enemies outside of this dojo, I have to know if I am strong enough to defeat anyone who gets in my way!"
Daichi scoffed. "If you truly entertain such ridiculous thoughts then you have not been doing much thinking at all! I've always taught you to apply the way of Karate to all things, but Karate will always stand on the side of justice. You talk of a million enemies yet the one true enemy that matters in the end is yourself. Humility, respect, compassion, patience and the calmness of your inward and outward self are the only weapons you will ever need to face the one true enemy."
Daichi waited for a reply but Ryu knew better than to offer one.
"It seems as if you want to take on the whole world all of a sudden," he continued. "What has you so restless?"
"I've been watching a lot of Bruce Lee lately," Ryu said sheepishly. "He stressed the importance of real life combat and having no limitations to your style."
Daichi's stern expression melted into a look of amusement. He laughed, his merriment as sharp as a solid punch.
"An actor and charlatan!" he shouted. "You think he has any real skills!?"
Ryu shrugged. "He looks pretty good on screen."
"hmmm, I suppose he does look pretty good but what you see on the big screen versus reality is night and day. Whether we choose the Way of Budo or the Way chooses us, it is a path that must be walked with a pure heart. All my life I have fought, whether it was the young street thugs growing up, the gaijins on Okinawa and even my alcoholic father, and the one lesson I have always learned is calamity springs from carelessness. Make no mistake Ryu-kun, I teach you the ways of Shotokan Karate so you may never have to use it, is that clear?"
"Yes sensei." Ryu said begrudgingly.
Daichi smiled. "I can sense the yin and yang inside of you raging like a fierce storm. One cannot survive without the other but you must never allow the darkness to take control. Let them flow in perfect harmony, the balance that gives rise to ki. The heart yearns to be set free but if you remain constantly mindful, diligent and resourceful in the pursuit of the Way your journey will prove worthwhile."
After training Ryu took a quick washup in the dojos restroom, changed into his white jacket, black trousers and apron and began his day job as dishwasher at the White Dragon. Japan in 1986 was a far cry from the country nearly fifty years ago and in the bustling dining area of the restaurant it was not uncommon to see American tourist enjoying themselves to savory miso soup and spicy curry rice. Daichi commanded the kitchen staff as diligently as a wartime general, barking orders and ushering out fresh dishes while Ryu collected dirty plates on a push cart. After all the meals were served and the carpet swept and tables cleaned after hours Ryu was exhausted. The restaurant was empty save for Ryu and Daichi who always stayed late to organize the kitchen. As Ryu was putting away cleaning supplies the door to the restaurant burst open and Nobuo along with his two associates from last night swaggered in like they owned the place.
Nobuo was the son of a prominent local boss of the Yakuza. When they were little Ryu and Nobuo shared a childhood of rebellious antics and carefree adventure. Fate had set them on different paths of their lives, Ryu leading the Way of Budo while Nobuo chose a more extreme path. Still they maintained a congenial if not reserved friendship. When Nobuo saw Ryu his face broke into a shit eating grin behind his dark sunglasses.
"Hey Karate Kid, nice apron!" the three of them laughed as if he had just told the funniest joke ever.
Ryu smiled and rolled with the punches. "Sorry boys, we're closed."
Nobuo waved him off. "Save it, my grandma makes better sukiyaki and she's been dead for ten years! We came here for the old man."
Whatever business the three hoodlums could have had with his teacher eluded Ryu. Before he could inquire further the trio rushed past him, one of the Yakuza conspicuously bumping into his shoulder.
"Don't worry, we know where he is," Nobuo sneered.
They made their way to the kitchen area and disappeared behind the swinging doors. The curiosity getting the better of him, Ryu crept to the kitchen entrance and tried his best to listen in. Muffled voices flowed from the other side, the jeering tone of Nobuo underscored by the unexpectedly defiant tone of Daichi. After several minutes of back and forth the voices ceased and Ryu resumed his task of storing supplies non the wiser. The trio exited the kitchen more smug than when they entered. Nobuo was pocketing a manila envelope when he saw Ryu and his face erupted into that smarmy grin again.
"I don't see how a guy with your talents can waste away in a dump like this," Nobuo said. "When you want to make some real money give me a call Karate Kid, put those skills to good use."
"What did you want with Daichi?" Ryu asked.
"We were just discussing business, nothing to worry about. Like I said if you want some real money you know who to call."
With a final glare from his goons the three of them left the restaurant. Ryu entered the kitchen, an inkling of the conversation between Nobuo and Daichi playing in his mind. He found Daichi hunched over the table, his shoulders slumped and head bowed in defeat. When he saw Ryu he tried to retain an ounce of the composure he was known for. "What are you still doing here Ryu-kun? I don't pay you overtime to still be on my clock."
"Are none of your concern."
Usually Ryu knew when to not talk back to Daichi but the words came out recklessly. "How long have they been extorting you?"
It was a blow Daichi could not evade.
"I am an old man Ryu-kun. This restaurant is all I have left and if I have to pay the price for just one more day of security then so be it."
"But sensei it's not right. Let me talk to Nobuo, I'll straighten this out."
Daichi smiled, looking every bit his age now. "As dubious as the friends you may keep are I know you have a good heart Ryu-kun, and I intend to keep it that way. Remember, we walk the path of Budo so we may never have to use it. A confrontation will corrupt your Ki and send you down a path from which there will be no coming back."
Defeated, Ryu sighed. "Ok sensei."
Ryu took the bus back home late Sunday night and slept well into Monday afternoon. His slumber did not come peacefully however and he found himself dreaming of the yin and yang, of a great maw of darkness that consumed everything in its path and extinguished the light.
The days bled together like the running of ink.
The following Saturday the gang met up at Naoyuki's apartment for an evening of pot smoking and Bruce Lee movies. Nobuo was there, his smug demeanor placated by a haze of smoke. Ryu still had not confronted him about the extortion of Daichi. Or his enigmatic offer. Ryu watched as Bruce tore through waves of enemies, nunchaku in hand. He was so fast, so stylish, his power and grace perfectly aligned in a tidal wave of pure, poetic violence. He was everything Ryo wished he could become.
Nozomi lay asleep on his chest, her head resting on a heart that raged for the thrill of battle. After the movie it was time to kiss Nozomi goodnight but this time it felt less intimate, as if he were just going through the motions, his mind clouded with strife. Ryu traveled back home only to have his mother lecture him on his lack of a decent job, his low life friends and "con artist" teacher. After five hours of sleep he was up and ready to begin another day of kumite and dish washing.
Daichi did not talk about the encounter with Nobuo, his silence only fueling the growing restlessness within Ryu.
Ryu was lost within the endless cycle of the yin and yang, his soul trapped between the Way of Budo and chaos. He lay in bed, the darkness congealing around him like a living thing. After what felt like an eternity of internal contemplation Ryo did in his heart what he felt was right.
It was well past three in the morning but Ryu knew Nobuo would still be up. The line rang twice before his smarmy voice crept onto the line. "I thought you'd never call Karate Kid."
"Nobuo, we need to talk."