The city of Dobuita resembled a washed out water painting of deluged storefronts from behind the bus windows. Ryu stared at the rain slicked world beyond, at the hooded and umbrella clad figures who braved the storm – Americans, many of them sailors from the nearby naval base. When the Americans arrived in this country, they brought their own brand of consumerism in place of the more traditionalist aspects of Japanese society. Various "lifestyle" dojos lined the street, nothing but seedy establishments where the martial arts were reduced to holistic fitness programs and aerobic kickboxing. The forms and stances taught in those places were simply awful, nothing but the barest minimum of force and techniques done with no conviction whatsoever.
The bus made its way through the pouring rain, away from the Americanized decadence of Dobuita towards a destination from which there could be no coming back from.
Ryu recalled the phone conversation with Nobuo, how his heart fluttered with restless anticipation about news of the underground fight club taking place at the New Yokosuka Harbor. The rules were simple: no holds barred, fight until your opponent is unable to. A far cry from the rhythmic yet stilted teachings of sensei Daichi. Ryu didn't think too much of how Daichi would react if he found out what Ryu was doing. He didn't think too much about anything at all. His mind was a blank canvas, ready to paint the brush strokes of war by whatever means necessary. In the midst of one on one mortal combat he would not expect the unexpected…he would expect nothing and react accordingly.
The bus finally came to its final destination at New Yokosuka Harbor. A line of tired eyed and weary dock workers, security personnel and office workers waited patiently to board as Ryu and the other passengers filed out. The thunderhead above was bruised gun metal grey and relentless, fat droplets of rain assailing the world in a downpour. Ryu pulled the hood of his sweatshirt snugly around his head and followed a procession of workers into the harbor.
New Yokosuka Harbor was a sprawling complex of worn down warehouses and newly renovated office buildings. The ever present American influence was on full display as the harbor was the home of the Yokosuka U.S. naval base as well. American warships docked in the waters of Tokyo Bay were a common sight, a byproduct of begrudging submission from times long past. Out here on the coast of the Pacific Ocean the air was tinged by a salty breeze. Somewhere in the distance a foghorn blared through the early evening storm, signaling the end of the day shift.
No one paid attention to Ryu as he made his way to the old warehouse district of the harbor. The Nagaura Warehouse District was a derelict series of warehouses used by private corporations for storage facilities. Some of the buildings had seen better days, boarded up windows, gang graffiti and disarray plagued the structures. The perfect place to host an underground fight club.
Ryu recalled Nobuo's instructions. Warehouse number eight. Father's heaven. He came to a warehouse in dire need of a paint job, the large steel cargo doors so rusted Ryu could barely make out the faded number eight. Even in the rain four hoods were loitering outside of the warehouse. Their dingy and sodden clothing concealed intricate tattoo work upon their arms and torsos, marking them as Yakuza. Upon seeing Ryu, the hoods stopped talking and eyed him with unabashed suspicion. One of the hoods, a skulking lump of muscle wearing cargo pants and a tank top stepped in Ryu's path.
"You got business here boy?" He asked coyly.
"Father's heaven." Ryu replied. The hoods exchanged errant glances and whispers amongst each other. The one who stepped up to Ryu sized him up from head to toe.
"You don't look like much of a fighter." He said.
Ryu met his gaze, his posture unconsciously straightening. "Don't you know it's not cool to judge a book by its cover?"
The hood chuckled humorlessly. "We'll see my friend. Follow me." He led Ryu to the side of the warehouse. His buddies followed them – much too close for Ryu's liking. They came to a steel door that looked new to be a part of the original warehouse and was most likely installed to keep prying eyes away. Tank top hood pounded on the door once, then three times in quick succession and finally a last knock. A viewing grill slid open in the middle of the door, a pair of sharp eyes regarded Ryu like a hawk before the slot snapped shut. The sound of a heavy latch being undone echoed from the other side and the door swung open. Ryu was ushered out of the rain and into the dark confines of the warehouse. Dingy fluorescent light fixtures above illuminated a storage area that had been converted into a makeshift gym and under the stifling confines of the flickering lights other fighters prepared themselves in the proving ground.
Shirtless, muscle bound fighters lifted heavy steel weights while others sparred against one another. The air reeked of dust and sweat, of raw machismo and unrelenting testosterone. Through the throng of hulking bodies, a familiar face swaggered through the crowd towards Ryu. Nobuo grinned from ear to ear and clapped Ryu on the shoulder.
"Didn't think you actually had the guts to show up Karate Kid." Nobuo said.
"And miss all the fun? Wouldn't dream of it." Ryu's cocksure façade belied a fluttering in his gut. An icy sweat broke out from beneath his sodden clothing, less from the dank heat of the storage area and more from the beady eyes of several of the other fighters watching him closely.
"Yo, Yujiro, c'mere!" Nobuo motioned to a lumbering mountain of a man who looked as if he belonged in a sumo ring. The man, Yujiro, towered over Ryu by nearly a foot. He seized Ryu by the shoulders with his catcher's mitt like hands and began to forcibly pat him down.
"What the hell are you doing?" Ryu protested.
"Searching for contraband, everything out your pockets now!" Nobuo said.
Reluctantly, Ryu complied. Not that he had much to part with anyway: a bus pass, expired coupons from the White Dragon restaurant, his wallet (nearly empty) and house keys. After the pat down Yujiro grasped Ryu by his head and wrenched his neck back and forth.
"Time for medicals!" Nobuo quipped.
Fat sausage fingers probed at Ryu's mouth, peeled his eyelids open and pinched at his nose, all the while Yujiro's sagging face looking every bit the medical professional he supposedly was.
"You sure this cat has any fighting skills? He barely looks like he's out of school." Yujiro said.
Nobuo waved him off. "Me and Karate Kid go way back. If it's two things I know about him, it's he can throw a punch and he has a hard head."
After more prodding Yujiro nodded and grunted in approval, seemingly satisfied with his examination.
"Alright, time to get those money makers wrapped." Nobuo said. Yujiro proved to be much more competent at hand wrapping than he was at being a medical examiner, and soon Ryu's wrist and knuckles were bound in gauze and tape. Ryu flexed his wrist and clinched his fist to get a feel for the foreign material about his hands. They felt just right.
"Show starts in twenty minutes. Remember, this ain't no Karate dojo, this is no holds barred street fighting. You do whatever it takes to win!" As Ryu listened to Nobuo the fluttering in his gut grew into an oily pit of anticipation. He felt restless, as if lightning were coursing through his veins. He stretched his muscles, practiced his form, but Ryu knew nothing would prepare him for what lay ahead.
The one thing that motivated Ryu beyond his own doubts was seeing the look on sensei Daichi's face when he was presented with the money to pay off his protection debt. As wise as his teacher was, Ryu could not help but think that the old man was holding him back from his true potential. Ryu was not afraid of the storm of the Yin and Yang raging inside of him, he was afraid of never facing the storm, at the fifteen years of his training turning into fifty years and he still being left with the burning question: what it?
Ryu could hear an audible current coursing throughout the warehouse like a faraway ocean, the sound of a restless crowd hungry for blood. Nobuo paced back and forth before Ryu, seemingly counting down the seconds.
"Remember when you saved me from those assholes in elementary school?" Nobuo asked suddenly.
Ryu was taken aback from his sentimentality. "Yeah, I remember getting my ass kicked too."
"That's not the point. Well, not really. The point is you stood up to those guys when no one else would. If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't have been able to run away. Doesn't matter if you got your ass kicked then…I'm just gonna need you to try a little harder tonight."
Ryu scoffed. "And here I was thinking you actually gave a shit about my wellbeing."
Nobuo feigned shock. "Of course I care about my dear buddy ol' pal, it's just that I got a lot to lose if you don't win."
"Yeah…you got a lot to lose." Ryu muttered.
Despite their bickering Ryu's anxiety began to melt away along with the minutes and before he knew it was time for battle. Ryu felt loose, spry even, but a pent up aggression coiled in his very soul, ready to strike out at anyone who stood before him. Nobuo led Ryu from the storage area down a darkened corridor. He could hear the roar of the crowd clearly now, their collective voices an electric current that buoyed Ryu. They came to a partitioned curtain which led to the fighting area beyond.
"Oh yeah, before I forget, you're gonna need a nickname for when they introduce you." Nobuo said.
Ryu cocked his head. "A nickname?"
"Yeah, every fighter needs one, gives the festivities a bit more flare and makes you seem more interesting."
At first Ryu scoffed at the idea but the more he thought of it the more he saw the appeal of separating the entities within him. In the fighting pit he wouldn't just be Ryu Suzuki, the karateka and part time dish washer that still lived with his mother, he would be something more. He would be…
"Tetsujin." Ryu finally said.
Nobuo rolled his eyes nearly to the back of his skull. "Leave it to you to name yourself after some kids manga. Should've went with Karate Kid."
"Alright, alright! Wait here until you hear your name called, then you come out guns blazin'! Just keep your chin down and hands up and you bury whoever they throw at you!" With a final nod of determination, Nobuo disappeared behind the curtain, leaving Ryu alone. He thought of nothing in particular as he waited, let that nothingness flow from his mind down into his limbs, his very bones. His arms swayed gently at his sides and his head hung in almost somber reverence at the impending battle. Beyond the curtain and announcer addressed the crowd with unbridled enthusiasm, his voice hyped to the max.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we've reached your featured bout of the evening! Introducing first, fighting out of the blue corner, making his debut within these hallowed halls…Ryu Tetsujin Suzuki!"
The reception Ryu received as he emerged from behind the curtain was as lukewarm as untouched tea. Through the haze of neon strobe lights that pulsed in front of his eyes he saw scores of people – men and women, many Japanese but also gaijins in sailor uniforms and darker skinned Asians from the South East congregated in the staging area turned fight pit and roosted in the catwalks above, all welcoming Ryu with the same tepid reaction. There were scattered cheers here and there, even louder jeers and even a snarkily shouted "what the fuck is a Tetsujin?"
Ryu didn't mind.
He kept his gaze stoic as he made his way to the fighting pit. Cheers or boos, it didn't matter. Ryu was not looking to entertain, even the money had become a dim after thought in the back of his mind. All that was left now was the impending conflict, fifteen years of lessons coalescing into this moment. Under the gaze of hundreds of eyes Ryu took his place within the fighting pit which was little more than a circle surrounded by revelers. The announcer, a lanky guy wearing a garishly trimmed suit and sporting a ridiculously fake afro brandished his microphone with unabashed flare as he addressed the audience.
"And now…ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the man of the hour, the reigning king of the ring with a record seven knockouts, he is the former WBA cruiserweight title challenger, hailing from Los Angeles, California U.S of A, please welcome Drederick D-Train Taylor!"
If the reception Ryu received was tepid tea, then the crowd boiled over in an effluvia of manic cheers and unbridled passion for the king of the ring. Pulsing red strobe light heralded D-Train's entrance amidst a chorus of cheers. Despite his composure Ryu's stomach began to shift like floating ice. He spotted Nobuo in the seething crowd and glared at him. Hard. Nobuo offered him nothing but a sheepish grin and a thumbs up.
D-Train took his spot within the fighting pit, his muscular arms raised embracingly as he soaked in the ovation. He was a physically imposing man, as solid as if he were carved out of a block of pure onyx. His torso bulged from his dangerously tight tank top, thick legs jutting from beneath his low cut boxer shorts and fists that were the size of bricks were bound in dark hand wraps. He smiled, sugar cube like teeth gleaming white as he turned his attention to Ryu.
"Look at this little boy standing on my tracks!" D-Train exclaimed. "Better get out of my way 'fore I run you over, the train stops for no one!"
The crowd roared a deafening crescendo. The announcer wielded his microphone and exclaimed at the top of his lungs…
"C'mon put yo hands up chump!" D-Train said as he assumed a southpaw boxing stance, his body bladed at an angle and guard held high. He stalked towards Ryu, his footwork as rhythmic as a rushing stream. Ryu adopted a modified Shotokan stance, hands up and front leg forward, his back slightly bent as if coiled to strike.
It was on.
Ryu struck first, a tempest, a typhoon, all the strength and speed he could muster forged into a straight left hand –
-only for D-Train to effortlessly slip the punch, his sugar cube grin brighter than ever.
The crowd roared with laughter. Ryu stayed composed, his eyes trailing D-Train's fleetfooted motions. There was a controlled chaos behind the boxer's movement, a method to his madness which left almost no room for counters. Ryu was reminded of another black pugilist who shared a similar style; Muhammad Ali. Like the former heavyweight champion, D-Train thrived off show boating as well. He circled Ryu, his guard lowered and mouth spewing all kinds of trash talk. Ryu tried to match his rhythmic footwork, his punches coming up just short of his target. D-Train returned fire with a trio of rapid fire jabs, the punches solid and all too real against Ryu's face.
Adrenaline pulsed through Ryu's veins, dulling the blows, the lights, the seething crowd until all that was left was his opponent. D-Train's lead hand was viper swift, swaying in the air between them before striking with lethal precision, snapping Ryu's head back like a bobble head. Ryu returned fire only for his punches to be easily evaded. D-Train countered with a one-two punch combo, the straight right exploding against Ryu's jaw, sending his world reeling in a haze of encroaching stars and double vision.
Somewhere in the distance the crowd roared like a faraway ocean. Ryu licked his lips and tasted the bitter iron tinge of blood in his mouth. Unlike the controlled katas of sensei Daichi's teachings, the fight Ryu now found himself in was the brushwork of chaos, vile, angry etch marks upon the thinnest of parchments. Despite himself, Ryu smiled. He could feel the adrenaline sluice through his body and into his limbs like currents of electricity, his vision focusing on the enemy in front of him. D-Train went low and delivered a clubbing hook to Ryu's ribs. Ryu managed to absorb much of the blow off his elbow and fire back, his punch slipped by D-Train but in that moment, Ryu saw his opportunity.
It was the slightest of motion in his dodge, D-Train's right hand dropping ever so low as he ducked away from the punch. Effective in a boxing bout, but the tell tell dip of his hand left him vulnerable to a high kick. The combatants circled each other, Ryu studying D-Train's footwork. He would only have one shot to strike, as any telegraphed or wasted motions would tip his opponent off to the attack. D-Train was an arrogant predator however, not content to finish off his wounded prey as he show boated for the crowd. Ryu pawed with a jab, a diversion to get D-Train to react. The boxer slipped to his left, his rear hand hovering slightly below his face as Ryu shifted his hips, his right leg soaring upward in a perfect arch.
The impact of shin against bone was like the crack of a baseball homerun.
D-Train collapsed in a crumpled heap, the mirth extinguished from his eyes and sugar cubed grin erased from his lips. A palpable shock wafted throughout the fighting pit crowd as thick as a swarm of bees, disbelief melting into begrudging acceptance as the king of the ring lay defeated before them. Nobuo was the first to cheer, his merriment infectious as others joined in. Soon, a deluge of applause washed over Ryu along with cries of "Tetsujin! Tetsujin!" Ryu allowed the pent up rage and aggression within his bones to soften, the years of unanswered questions washing away in a tide of victory. Ryu raised his arms triumphantly and soaked in the admiration of the crowd as the announcer addressed them one last time: "ladies and gentlemen, your winner by way of knockout…TETSUJIN!"
After the battle was over and adrenaline drained, Ryu hurt like a bastard. A livid bruise began to blossom under bis right eye, his jaw ached in a thrum of dull pain and he even felt one of his back teeth loosen with his tongue.
He also had never felt more alive.
Ryu rested in the gym area of the warehouse along with Nobuo who was busy counting a stack of banknotes and smiling from ear to ear like the cat that got all the cream.
"That was a helluva fight." Nobuo said. "Damn near gave me a heart attack at first but I knew you could do it!"
Ryu tried to force a smile and winced at the pain in his mouth. Even though the fight was well and truly over, Ryu still felt a pang of restlessness within his heart, the desire for another battle still raging in him like a storm. As Nobuo finished divvying up the yen and placed Ryu's cut inside of an envelope, he could not help but think of how sensei Daichi would react. The man was as stubborn as a mule and as hard nosed as they come, but he was the closest thing that Ryu had to a father, their relationship forged not by blood but by the tradition of Karate. What could possibly be said about a young man wanting to explore his potential? Ryu had stared into the storm and come out unscathed along with the money sensei Daichi needed to pay off his "protection". A win-win.
Nobuo handed the plump envelope to Ryu. "Don't go spending it all in one place."
Ryu took the envelope and peered inside. He had never held so much yen in his life, a stack of light olive green banknotes emblazoned with long since dead philosophers and poets. The envelope trembled in Ryu's hand. "This money is going to sensei Daichi, this should be more than enough right?"
Nobuo rolled his eyes. "You honestly think he'll accept that? He's gonna take one look at your face and put two and two together, he'll know how you got the money."
Exasperated, Ryu said, "I'm sorry, maybe if you and your "associates" weren't extorting his restaurant then maybe I could enjoy this yen I just fought my ass off for!"
"Ah, c'mon man, you know the way we do things, it's never personal until it is. Daichi always made his payments on time, no complaints."
"I don't know, he didn't sound too excited to make a payment the last time you guys shook him down."
Nobuo narrowed his eyes. "We got a good thing going with our protection racket. Don't fuck it up, for Daichi's sake…"
"He'll take the money." Ryu said. "And I'll keep fighting for it, because that's what family does for one another."
Nobuo's hard glare melted into a smug smile. "The old man gets to keep his restaurant, you get to keep playing Tetsujin and I get my cut from BOTH the protection racket and the fighting pit. Everyone wins!"
It was Ryu's turn to glare at his friend, at the shy little boy who had turned into the gangster under the tutelage of his father. "Everyone wins." He said.
"That's the spirit! You coming to the after party! Yujiro got us some of the best cocaine all the way from Miami!"
Nobuo waved him off. "Suit yourself, nothing like a good bump to take the edge off. I'll be seeing you Karate Kid – I mean, Tetsujin."
Ryu couldn't leave the warehouse fast enough. It felt good to be out of the stifling heat, away from the stench of sweat and oil. It had finally stopped raining, the velvet night sky leaving behind the scent of salt and pure ozone. Ryu breathed deep, relishing in the fresh air. For a while he wandered aimlessly, mind buzzing and muscles taut. He finally came to a stone pier overlooking the dark and roiling waters of the Pacific Ocean. He stared at the vast body of water, towards the horizon where the vestiges of the thunderhead bulged against the darkened sky. In his clouded mind sensei Daichi's words echoed like a stark breeze through pine needles.
"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…"
Although Ryu had faced the storm, he still felt unfulfilled, as if a piece of the darkness had wormed its way into his very soul, leaving him wanting for the next battle. Pulses of lightning flared across the far off thunderhead, a tremulous growl of thunder barreling across the water that undulated through Ryu's very bones. The sky roared again like the beating of a distant taiko drum and Ryu roared back with all the angst and passion and fury in his soul. There was a terrible cracking, like the world being split in two and the sky became still.
No, not still…
Something floated from the night air towards Ryu. At first, he thought it was a bird, but as it got closer the silhouette of flapping wings became a scroll parchment languidly drifting in the wind. Ryu watched in wonder as the parchment floated precariously above the water before swooping upwards and landing at Ryu's feet as if it were compelled by some invisible force. Ryu bent down and retrieved the scroll. It was as course as sandpaper and Ryu's eyes widened as he stared at the illustrations etched onto its mottled beige surface.
What the hell is this?