The 20th of August is the Senzoku Shrine festival: floats adorning every street, crowds up on the banks, almost spilling into the Quarter; the young ones are prepared. Children though they be, it's best to stay on guard around here: their matching yukata are unremarkable, but if you heard the whole of the mischief they coördinate, it would chill your blood.
The side-street gang was led by a proud hoodlum and delinquent ringleader called Chō, the head builder's boy: sixteen, with a terribly swollen head ever since he'd taken up the steel rod to fill in for his father on Niwaka night watch. Obi low-slung 'round his hips, backtalk on the tip of his tongue: this was how he'd decided to live his life, an ugly manner though it be, and you could hear the other builders' wives whisper when he wasn't there: If he weren't the head man's boy.... Whatever he wants, he expects to get: he throws around more weight than his age should allow.
But on the main street lived a boy named Tanaka Shōtarō, three years younger but with money and charm, beloved by all: a natural enemy.
Chō went to private school, Shōta to public. Even when we sing the same chorus songs, he looks as smug as if he owned the damn things. Last year and the year before, with help from grown-ups, he'd outshone Chō at the festival. Hard to raise a fist against him, things set up like that. And if this year Chō should yet again be beaten, Who do you think I am? I'm g_______d Chōkichi from the side-street gang! will go from reliable threat to empty air—and when the Benten Pond swimming season comes around again, who'd be seen with a loser like that?
Chōkichi had the advantage in brute strength, but the Tanaka kid's nice-guy act had taken in some side-street kids—what, because he could answer a question or two at school?—and Tarōkichi and Sangorō have already switched sides. They did it quietly, but it still stung.
―The festival's two days away. If it starts to look grim, I'll tear it up, run wild, leave a mark or two on his d____d face. Should be able to do it if I'm prepared to lose an eye and a leg myself. Who'd be with me? The rickshaw-man's kid Ushi, Bun from the hair-tie makers, Yasuke from the toy shop; if they're with me, we won't go down easy—ha, wait, better yet, that other kid, what's his name? Fujimoto! He'd have some great ideas!
And so, near evening on the eighteenth, Chōkichi set out. Batting away the mosquitos that buzz at the eyes and mouth of anyone who speaks, he crept through Ryūge Temple's yard, thick with clumps of bamboo, to Shinnyo's room, and poked his face in: ―Nobu, are you there?
―People say I make trouble. Maybe that's true, but a man's got to do what a man's got to do. Listen, Nobu: last year my baby brother and some pipsqueak from Shōtarō's gang got into a box-lantern fight, then suddenly someone says, Get him! and the b_____d's buddies spring out from all over—What do you think of that? They broke a little kid's lantern and started throwing it around, saying, This is what we do to side-street trash—then that ox with a face like an old man—Tonma from the dango stall—says: Your pop's not the head of anything! He's the tail! The tail! A pig's tail! I was parading down by Senzoku Shrine at the time; when I heard about it I vowed to pay them back right then, but pop bawled me out and I had to let it go. And you remember the year before? You must, remember how those guys from the main street got together at the stationer's to put on their chaban? When I went to go watch, they said Surely the side streets have their own forms of entertainment, uppity b______ds, only let Shōta in, and don't think I've forgotten that either. I don't care how much money he has, he's still just the no-good son of a loan shark pawn shop clan. The world'd be better off with him beaten the H__l out of it. So this festival I'm gonna pull something, you can count on it—stir up some trouble and get him back. So, Nobu, be a friend. I know you hate this kind of thing, but just stand behind me, just for the sake of the side-street gang's reputation, right? come on, what do you say? Don't you remember how he smirks when he sings, like those songs belonged to his family too? Don't you want to take him down a notch? When he sneers at me for going to public school, he's looking down on you too! I'm begging you, please, come swing a big box-lantern—I need to get him like you wouldn't believe—if I lose this time there'll be nowhere else for me to go! By now he was shaking Shinnyo by the shoulders, in a desperate state.
―But you know how weak I am, said Shinnyo.
―It doesn't matter how weak you are.
―I can't swing a box-lantern.
―You don't have to. Forget the box-lantern.
―If I get involved, you'll lose this fight. Is that what you want?
―I don't care if I lose! I'm resigned to it, no way around it, so I won't ask you to do anything except say that you're in the side-street gang—brag about it—that's plenty! I'm just a dummy, but you know all kinds of things; if they try to psych us out with Chinese or whatever, you can yell something right back—oh, yeah! imagine how great that'd be! I feel better already! If you just agree to help me out, that'll be like a thousand men joining my side! Thank you, Nobu! Rare to hear such warm and generous words from him.
One in tight-wound obi and hard sandals, a builder's son; the other in a priestly get-up, blue-green calico haori and soft purple heko-obi; their thinking at odds, their conversation never quite meshing; but Chōkichi, as a child who'd raised his birthing cries before the temple gates, was in that sense a favorite of the head priest and his wife; and sharing a school as they do, the idea of the jeers of "private school, private school" was far from pleasant; not to mention the pathetic fact that Chōkichi was so devoid of charm that no-one would join his side for friendship's sake, while on the other hand all the kids in the area are happily backing Tanaka up: if Chōkichi should lose, it wouldn't be sour grapes to say that it was just because of Takana's family. And having been sought out and begged like this, Shinnyo felt a sense of duty; so, unable to say no, he said instead:
―All right, I'll join your gang. I'll join, no lies, but the less I fight the better off we'll be—still, if they do start something, there'll be no choice, but so what? Worst comes to worst, Tanaka Shōtarō's nothing, the tip of a little finger.
His weaknesses thus forgotten, Shinnyo opened a drawer in his desk and pulls out something he got as a Kyōto souvenir: a kokaji dagger.
―That looks like it'd really cut. Chōkichi peered at the blade. Beware! It may be wielded yet!