Kosaku Tokita lumbered into the Senior Staff Room. He must have weighed at least two hundred fifty pounds. The air in the room grew hot and stuffy.
The Senior Staff Room of the Institute for Psychiatric Research had five desks but only two regular occupants – Kosaku Tokita and Atsuko Chiba. Their desks jostled for space near the window at the far end of the room. The Senior Staff Room was separated from the Junior Staff Room by a glass door, but as the door was always left open, each just felt like an extension of the other.
The sandwiches and coffee she’d brought from the Institute shop were still sitting on Atsuko Chiba’s desk. She had no appetite today; it was always the same old thing for lunch. The Institute had a canteen, used by staff and patients alike, but the meals it served were like horse feed. On the bright side, Atsuko’s lack of appetite meant she never had to gain weight or compromise her good looks – looks that had TV stations begging for her on an almost daily basis. But then again, barring their merits when treating patients, Atsuko had no interest at all in her own good looks or her TV appearances.
“The staff are having kittens,” Tokita lisped as he lowered his bulky frame next to her. One of the therapists had gone down with paranoid delusions. “They say it’s contagious schizophrenia. None of them want to touch the scanners or reflectors.”
“That is a worry,” said Atsuko. She herself often had such experiences. After all, psychiatrists had always been afraid of catching personality disorders from their patients; some even claimed that mental illness could be transmitted through the mucous membranes, like herpes. Ever since psychotherapy or “PT” devices had first come into use – particularly the scanners and reflectors that scanned and observed the inside of the psyche – this fear had come to assume an air of reality. “It’s the ones who don’t like identifying with their patients, the ones who pass on, who tend to worry about that kind of thing. Pff. You’d think an experience like that would give them a chance to self-diagnose as psychotherapists.”
“Passing on” meant blaming it on the patient’s mental disorder when a therapist was unable to forge human bonds with a patient. It had been at the very root of schizophrenic diagnosis until just two decades earlier.
“Oh no! Not chopped burdock with sesame and marinated pan-fried chicken yuan style, AGAIN!” Tokita thrust out his thick lower lip in disgust as he opened the lid of the bento lunch box prepared by his mother. Tokita lived alone with his mother in one of the Institute’s apartments. “I can’t eat that!”
Atsuko’s appetite was duly aroused when she peered into Tokita’s sizable lunch box. For this was surely a nori bento – a thin layer of rice at the bottom, topped by a single sheet of dried nori seaweed moistened with soy sauce, with alternating layers of rice and nori on top of that . . . A classic nori bento from the good old days! To Atsuko, the box was crammed full of the home-cooked delights she craved, the taste of her mother’s food. She hadn’t always been one to skimp on meals, after all. In fact, she actually felt quite hungry now.
“All right, I’ll eat it for you,” she said decisively, her hands already stretched out to receive. And with both of those hands she went to grab Tokita’s large bamboo lunch box from the side.
Tokita’s reaction was equally swift. “No way!” he cried, pinning her hands down on top of the box.
“But you said you didn’t want it!” Atsuko protested as she tried to prise the box from his grasp. She had a certain confidence in the strength of her fingertips.
Apart from this lunch box, there was nothing at all in the Institute that could satisfy Tokita’s appetite or suit his palate. He too was desperate. “I said no way!”
“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.” Torataro Shima, the Institute Administrator, stood before them with a frown. “Our two top candidates for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, fighting over a lunch box?!” he said with a hint of sadness.
Torataro Shima had a habit of getting up from his desk in the Administrator’s Office, casually strolling around the Junior Staff Room and speaking to anyone he found there. Some of the staff would jump up in fright when he suddenly spoke to them from behind; some pointed out that it was not terribly good for the heart.
Even addressed thus with such distortion of mouth and such heavy sarcasm by the Institute Administrator, the pair refused to relinquish their grip on the lunch box, and merely continued their struggle in silence. For a few moments, Shima simply stared at the spectacle with an expression of pity. Then he gave two or three little nods of his head in resignation – as if he’d just remembered that genius always goes hand in hand with infantile behavior.
“Doctor Chiba. Please come to my office later,” he muttered, then clasped his hands behind his rounded back, turned and started to walk aimlessly around the Junior Staff Room as usual.
“Anyway, it can’t be good for people who are supposed to be treating patients to have the same disorders as them, can it,” Tokita continued after reluctantly portioning out half of his lunch into the lid of the box. “Tsumura misunderstood the patient’s attempt at transcendental independence as an attempt at empirical independence. It’s not uncommon for a patient’s family to have the same delusions as the patient. This is similar, I think.”
In that case, the danger was even greater. Because, in the eyes of the patient, it would certainly have been seen as an attempt to deceive – just as patients feel tricked by family members who express understanding of their condition. Atsuko realized she would have to analyze the therapist called Tsumura.
Atsuko only ever went to the Senior Staff Room for her lunch. Her laboratory was so full of PT devices as to resemble the cockpit of an airplane; she couldn’t relax there, with assistants incessantly walking in and out. The same was sure to be true of Tokita’s lab.
As she made her way back, Atsuko could see, through the open door of the General Treatment Room, four or five staff members clamoring loudly as they stood around Tsumura. This must have been what Tokita meant by “having kittens” – and it was a fair description of their appearance. Tsumura had his right arm raised as if in a Nazi salute, and some of the others who surrounded him in altercation also did the same. Atsuko felt sure that there would normally be nothing to make such a fuss about; something unnatural was going on.
Back in Atsuko’s lab, her young assistant Nobue Kakimoto was peering at a display screen with a helmet-shaped collector attached to her head. She was monitoring the dream of a patient who slept in the adjacent examination room. Nobue’s expression was vacant; she was quite unaware that Atsuko had returned.
Atsuko quickly stopped the recording, then pressed the “back-skip” button two or three times. Switching the machine off altogether could have been dangerous, as Nobue might then have been trapped inside the patient’s subconscious. The picture on the screen started to flip backward through the patient’s dream.
“Oh!” Nobue came to her senses and removed the collector with some haste. Noticing Atsuko, she stood up. “You’re back!”
“Do you realize how dangerous that could have been?”
“Sorry.” Nobue seemed unaware that she’d strayed into the patient’s dream. “I only meant to be an objective observer . . . ”
“No. You were being counter-invaded. It’s dangerous to wear the collector for long periods when monitoring dreams. I’ve told you that before.”
“Yes, but . . . ” Nobue looked up at Atsuko with an expression of discontent.
Atsuko laughed aloud. “You were trying to copy me, weren’t you! Going into a state of semi-sleep?!”
Nobue reluctantly returned to her seat and began to watch the reflector monitor. “Why can you do it, but not me?” she said dolefully. “Is it because I haven’t had enough training?”
The truth of the matter, quite decidedly, lay not in training but in Nobue’s lack of willpower. Some had the willpower to become therapists, for sure, but were not adept at time-sharing patients’ dreams or transferring emotions into their subconscious. If they were to attempt this, they would merely become trapped inside the patient’s subconscious, unable to return to the real world.
“Perhaps. Anyway, please be careful. Tsumura was affected by a patient’s paranoid delusions just by looking at the reflector. You must have heard.”
“Yes. I heard.”
The patient in the examination room was a man of about sixty. He was dreaming of a busy street reminiscent of central Tokyo some decades earlier. The street in the patient’s dream was vulgar, charmless, desolate. By transferring emotions to the patient using the collector, that busy street could be turned into a pleasant, desirable place, one that could be linked to the innocent erotic desires of his youth. Or the scene could take him back to a past time when he’d enjoyed a positive relationship with society, symbolizing his need to reforge bonds with the people around him.
Atsuko was about to ask Nobue to call Tsumura when young Morio Osanai walked in. Dangerously handsome, unmarried, and already a Doctor of Medicine, he was the target of fervent gossip among the Institute’s female staff. But he had a poor reputation, for all that, as he tended to neglect his research in favor of politics. Nobue appeared to dislike him.
“Doctor Chiba,” he started unceremoniously. “About Tsumura. I wonder if the problem isn’t Tsumura himself, but lies rather in the reflector?”
“Of course it does. Tsumura would never have gone that way if he hadn’t messed about with the reflector.”
“Right, right. So there are some therapists who aren’t affected by a patient’s paranoid delusions, even if they mess about with the reflector?” Osanai answered with a smile, as if to say “I knew you’d say that.”
“You know that already, so don’t bother saying it,” Nobue spat out with venom. She had almost complete faith in Atsuko.
But Atsuko had no desire at all to become embroiled in such a low-level debate. “You won’t be forgetting the governing principle of our research here, will you,” she said, measuring the words out slowly and deliberately.
“To . . . develop . . . PT . . . devices. Why, yes. I know all about that,” Osanai said slowly and deliberately in imitation of Atsuko, completely ignoring Nobue. “What I’m talking about is the actual effect of us observing the subconscious of a schizophrenic as an image on a screen. Schizophrenics make no attempt to disguise their subconscious, as psychopathics do. On the contrary, they express their subconscious as it is, in loud and sonorous voices. They play it out as it is. And in any case, I can’t see there’s any great value in peeping into their subconscious.”
“Their subconscious is the subconscious of the schizophrenic. Surely we have to investigate the abnormal way in which they associate signifiant with signifié? As you say, these patients are expressing their subconscious as it is. Therefore, we won’t know what meanings are tied to their words unless we ‘peep into their subconscious’, will we.”
Atsuko was getting serious now. Having had his say, Osanai merely looked out of the window with a smile, pretending not to listen at all. Outside the window lay about an acre of lawns, beyond them a plantation of trees designed to hide the Institute’s perimeter fence, and beyond that, clusters of high-rise buildings in the center of the metropolis.
“Well, that’s your theory,” said Osanai, with the implied addendum “and I think it’s rubbish.”
“Now wait a minute,” said Atsuko, controlling her anger. Controlling anger was part of Atsuko’s self-training as a top-grade psychotherapist. “It’s not just a theory, it’s the very foundation of our work. It’s a theory that’s been proven and certified. I don’t see why I should have to stand here and explain it all to you. That’s it. Now please bring Tsumura to me. I’ll treat him.”
Osanai straightened his face. He seemed to have remembered that no one could better Atsuko when it came to ironic repartee. “No, no. It’s not so serious that we need bother you. Hashimoto and I will cure Tsumura. We’re his friends, you see.”
Osanai hurried out of the room. Atsuko felt sure that it was he who’d spread the rumor about schizophrenia being contagious. But his intention in coming all the way to her lab and circulating it there, when he knew very well that the dangers of the reflector could be avoided, was still unclear to her.
“Curing him alone won’t do,” Atsuko muttered. “I’ll have to analyze him properly.”
“He seemed awfully scared that you would easily analyze and cure Tsumura, didn’t he,” said Nobue.
Rising from his desk in the Administrator’s Office, Torataro Shima invited Atsuko to sit in an armchair in the reception area. He himself sat at one end of a sofa diagonally to her right, where he reclined backward with his body almost supine. The result was that Shima’s face became positioned diagonally next to Atsuko’s, only a little below hers. Then he merely had to lift his face to find himself gazing at the beauteous visage of Atsuko Chiba from very close quarters. Shima made no secret of his admiration for her.
“So you had a visit from young Osanai, then?”
“What? You mean he came here too?” Atsuko was decidedly unimpressed with Osanai’s sense of priorities.
“He said our researchers needn’t all subscribe to your theory and help you win the Nobel Prize,” Shima said with a chuckle.
“Just as I thought. He came about Tsumura, didn’t he. I suppose he yapped on forever with his doubts about the PT devices?”
“Yes, he opposes them. But who cares? The simple fact is that they’ve cured some patients. That’s good enough for me.” Shima furrowed his brow ever so slightly. “In fact, half of the patients have even gone as far as remission. That’s something we could never have dreamt of until now, anywhere. Isn’t that right, Doctor Chiba? So your theory must be correct, mustn’t it.”
“Well, it’s mostly down to Tokita – he’s the one who develops the devices. All I do is use them. Oh, and by the way, about two-thirds of the schizophrenics are already in the remission phase. Not half.”
“Oh yes. I remember. Well, that’s wonderful of course . . . ” Shima pulled a sour face. “But why is it that so many patients in the remission phase identify with the head of their institution like that? Some of them mimic me most grotesquely, without a hint of emotion. Just seeing them makes my skin crawl.”
“Those are patients in the so-called malleable-vulnerable phase,” said Atsuko, laughing with abandon. “All they’re looking for is transcendental independence. Anyway, doctors and nurses are often mimicked by their patients.”
Momentarily transfixed by Atsuko’s laughing demeanor, Shima finally recovered his composure. “Osanai didn’t say anything unpleasant, did he?” he asked somewhat anxiously.
Excerpted from Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui. Copyright © 2013 by Yasutaka Tsutsui. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.