Story: Patrick Macias, Art: MITSUME
Mary stood on the corner of Omotesando and Meiji Dori, just across the street from the shop display window she was going to destroy.
The V.M. was on the giant LED screen just behind the store glass: a pretty face at least 12 feet high framed by blue hair in a bob cut. The cold and neutral expression seemed to be staring back at Mary, mocking her for what she’d become.
It was late February; bitter and chilly. The full moon came down through a fabric of scattered clouds. Mary had been waiting around for nearly twenty minutes, wondering if anyone would show up for what she had planned tonight.
Only a few people, very few, milled around on the sidewalks of Harajuku. Most chose to stay at home after dark these days. There were fewer foreigners in Tokyo now, which meant that Mary — in her distressed designer clothes (a denim Southpaw Cathy overcoat from their F/W 2020 collection) and shock of blonde white hair — stood out. But like everyone else, she wore a cold mask to protect her from the virus. Now she hoped the mask would also keep out debris and broken glass.
There was more waiting, and more looking at her phone in case there were last minute messages from anyone. The event looked like it was going to be a total no-show.
She’d half expected the others to flake, but it was surprising that even Shozo — who was supposed to bring a baseball bat for her — was nowhere in sight. Mary needed a weapon of some kind. There were probably lots of things she could use at the sporting goods place nearby — if it was still open for business — although buying something now meant less money for food later.
Mary was broke after being in Tokyo on her own for nearly a month. She was living on food from the convenience store: packaged sandwiches and instant foods. She used to carefully watch what she ate — or rather her agency did — but now she could do as she pleased. It was the best part about being an unemployed model.
Mary had come from St Petersburg to Japan, along with a dozen other girls, for brand campaigns and runway work during Tokyo Fashion Week 2021. But the virus had come back again, even worse this time, and all her jobs were cancelled soon after she’d arrived. Things began to shut down. The president of the agency sent out a lame message saying they couldn’t afford to pay anyone, he was sorry, and thanks for everyone’s support. Mary didn’t take it well. She wrote FUCK YOU back to him and forwarded it to everyone on staff.
The next few days were bad ones. Mary had to move out of the agency’s share house and find a new place to stay. She got lucky with a room for rent in an old office building in Shibuya that had been converted into tiny apartments. It smelled like tobacco and hair tonic inside. It cost almost all the money she had.
Mary spent days in her room alone with her phone, counting the days until her return flight back home. But that was still two months away. With so many travel bans taking effect, would planes even be flying back to Russia then? Some of the foreign models came down sick and vanished. Her head was full of anger and paranoia.
One day Mary decided she needed to go out and get some air. She promised herself to avoid crowds, to not touch anything, and to try and keep moving.
She headed to nearby Harajuku. The SIF flagship store was there, and it was one of the brands she had come to Japan to model for before the state of emergency, so she wanted to see what she was missing out on.
She had never seen the area near the station so deserted. There was little foot traffic surrounding Takeshita Street. The restaurants and shops along the sidewalk that used to be packed now sat deserted. A few were open, but no one was dining out these days.
A huge video display, made up of multiple LED screens synced together, took up the entire front of the SIF store. It showed a brand video that looked like it had been shot on an observational deck somewhere high up in the Tokyo skyline. A long-legged girl clad in red and yellow SIF tech wear (a cross between jogging clothes and a swimsuit) was posing on the screen in a montage of closeups and medium shots.
That was supposed to be me, Mary thought to herself. It was not a good feeling to see herself replaced like this, but she wanted to see the video to the end.
She waited a few minutes for the footage to loop and repeat, the way store ads always do, but it never happened. The screen continued to produce new images without stopping.
Something was off. The girl on the screen seemed stranger and stranger the more Mary looked at her. Her eyes were both too sharp and too large for the head they had been placed in. Her hands moved at unnatural angles. Skin textures were inconsistent from shot to shot.
Mary wondered who the girl was. She looked up “SIF Japan” on her phone. The first hit was a photo match for the girl on the screen: “Meet V.M. — Japan’s Virtual Model Who Never Get Sick or Tired.”
It sounded like her worst nightmare.
Mary had seen stills of lifelike CGI models used in brand campaigns before, but never in full-motion video. Now, a V.M. had taken her job. The last few weeks of Mary’s life had been blow after blow, setback after setback. She could sense the future constricting around her, being swallowed up by indignation, outrage, anger, and loss. It had to stop somewhere.
When Mary got back to her apartment, she started a chat groups with the remaining foreign models. They agreed being replaced by fakes and computers was a bad thing, especially now, but what could they do? Like her, they were stuck in Tokyo and just wanted to play it safe until they could get home.
So, Mary reached out to practically everyone she knew from her previous trips to Japan, which wasn’t a lot of folks; just kids from parties and random people she’d met at live shows.
Shozo, a drummer in a punk rock band who did some modeling on the side, agreed to help Mary with her plan, whatever it wound up being. Maybe he was doing it just to hit on her? She’d have to take the risk. But it turned out he was dead serious and wanted to do something dangerous. He’d just lost his job working at a karaoke parlor and felt he had nothing to lose. Mary and Shozo started to share videos of protests and riots in Hong Kong with each other for inspiration. The plan they came up with wasn’t going to be anything on that scale, but it was fun to think it might be.
It was partially a joke between them. It got more serious the more it went on. Either way, Mary thought they needed a symbol of some kind to stand for their cause. She came up with the slogan “RM vs VM” which stood for “Real Models vs. Virtual Models”. Shozo found an artist to design an “RM vs VM” logo in the colors she wanted, green and red, and Mary used it on new SNS accounts she created.
About five days later, they were finally ready. Mary messaged everyone she knew to come to Harajuku at the specific date and time; to protest and participate, or just film the event from afar if nothing else. There were no positive replies. She counted four maybes. It would have to do.
Saturday night in Harajuku. Mary found herself alone across from SIF building, and that fucking video huge screen of the V.M. that would not stop. Until now. Mary was determined to make it stop.
And what would be the fallout? Arrest? Deportation? Maybe. But there was no reason to be here anymore. It just meant she would be sent back to St. Petersburg faster.
8:50pm. SIF would close the store in ten minutes and turn off the video screens. Mary would have to take action alone, or just try again some other day, which was a depressing thought. But she was alone. Even Shozo had deserted her.
Just as she had given up, she saw him coming out from an alley between a crepe stand and the ABC Shoe Store, his bald head hidden under a black hood, taking big swinging steps in leather derby combat shoes. He carried a shopping bag. As soon as she was in reach, he showed Mary: inside was a stainless-steel bat with handwritten slogans he’d written on it. She was so happy she gave Shozo an immense hug.
Neither of them had touched another person in what felt like forever. It was awkward for a moment.
‘Mary and Shozo took a quick walk around the block just to see what they would be up against. As expected, barely anyone was out, including it seemed, cops or security guards.
Mary told Shozo this was it: now or never. She told him that if things got too crazy, he could run away, and she wouldn’t be mad about it. Whatever was fine as long as he took video of the main event. Shozo said no no no, don’t worry, and handed Mary his bat. Once she confirmed he was live streaming with his phone, she walked over to the video screen… where it seemed like the immense V.M. head might swallow her up.
Mary gripped the bat with both hands. She did not hesitate and swung hard in a sideways arc. Glass flew and flashes of sparks filled the air. The terrible sound of the impact made her close her eyes.
When she opened them again a second later, she could see through a hole she’d made in the monitors.
There was a man on the other side.
He was slight and gaunt, maybe in his late fifties or early sixties. Graying hair was combed over to cover a bald spot on top of his head. He wore a sickly pink sweater over a shirt and tie. Mary could see his room slippers poking out just below the office desk he was standing at. It was covered in PCs and laptop computers. He was trying his best to detach USB drives, hard drives, and stuff them in his pockets.
Mary thought this must be the person creating the footage of V.M. in real time. Maybe he’d even invented her? She motioned for Shozo to quickly come over and get some footage of this strange person. But the little man, who was now sweating, was covering his hand with his face. He made a quick exit, disappearing into the back to the SIF store.
Mary was so shocked by what she’s seen that she hadn’t even noticed the burglar alarm and the police sirens.
The rest happened fast.
Mary heard footsteps running up the sidewalk behind her. Shozo made a break for it and ran, only to be tackled and forced to the ground by two cops.
An officer screamed at her in Japanese. Mary dropped the bat and gave up. When they put her in the back of the police car and drove away, she could see Shozo’s phone on the sidewalk. She hoped it was still broadcasting.
Mary spent a few days alone in a jail cell in Shinagawa. Before, this would have broken her spirit. But after a few weeks alone in her crappy apartment, it didn’t seem so bad. The hard part was the constant stream of police interviews, interpreters, case workers, phone calls to embassies, and lots and lots of paperwork.
A reporter from a newspaper called and wanted to know why she had targeted V.M. Did she know that similar events against ad campaigns were now taking place elsewhere? Mary simply said “RM versus VM” and hung up. The rest, she wanted to keep it all to herself. For now. She wondered where Shozo was and if he was OK.
Mary sat in the immigration detention center at the airport waiting for her return flight back to St. Petersburg to board. There were two other foreigners in there with her, but no one interacted or spoke. Broken mannequins had been placed in chairs to ensure proper distancing. The only noise came from a TV playing Animal Planet. Tonight’s show: “The Impact That Killed the Dinosaurs.”
She imagined it must have sounded like glass breaking.
Thanks to MITSUME, Tokyo Fashion, T&M, Mary, Shouta, Esme, Octas Inc, Sam, Dara
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Invisible Cures for Virtual Problems
By Patrick Macias
Oh yeah. I remember February 2020… the good old bad days.
There was a lot of anxiety in Tokyo as the pandemic came to town, and it would get worse in the months ahead building up to the national state of emergency. The story and characters in THERE’S NO MORE TOMORROW (TODAY) were directly inspired by my last night out with before going into self-quarantine, where I still am (at least as of this writing).
There is a real Mary… a model from St. Petersburg who got stuck in Japan when Covid-19 hit. There is a real Shozo (although he’s actually named Shouta) who plays drums in a band and does some part-time modeling. And of course, there are are virtual influencers, as Tokyo Fashion explains:
“These are two virtual fashion models we’ve been seeing on giant ads around Harajuku for the last year or so. The brands use them for ad campaigns and other work that real models used to do.”
On that night in late Feb, we were walking past the were passing by the SHELTER building and it was suggested, well… what might happen if real models got mad and smashed the window display with the virtual models. What would be on the other side? What if a protest movement sprang up to stop virtual models and fake influencers?
March 2020: As Tokyo began to shut down and anxiety around the world began to skyrocket, I started to bang out some first draft text. Meanwhile, I had been talking to MITSUME on and off over the last few months about doing a new story collaboration; something we hadn’t really done together since we made the HYPERSONIC music club manga for Crunchyroll in 2015.
MITSUME and I been brainstorming on several ideas over burgers whenever he came to Tokyo from Nagoya, but when I presented the “Real Models vs Virtual Models” concept to him in person at a café whose staff was suddenly all wearing masks, this was the one he wanted to go ahead with.
Next, I sent MITSUME some reference for how I wanted the characters to look: Mary and Shouta (Shozo’s) Instagram, some Neo-Chimpira fashion ideas, along with a few SNS accounts that belonged to virtual influencers. He came back with a handful of sketches. In my original text, there were going to be two virtual models: a boy and a girl, like the ones at SHELTER in Harajuku, but for whatever reason, MITSUME cut it back to one. It was also his idea to base the look of the computer programming OYAJI on longtime Japanese celebrity and comedian Tamori. I don’t know where the pink bunny sweater came from, but I want one pretty bad.
I took MITSUME’s images and did a second rewrite of the story, incorporating new elements from his artwork. Then, I sent the whole darn thing over to my agent Dara who did line edits and made suggestions.
Now, just as THERE’S NO MORE TOMORROW (TODAY) has gone online, Japan has finally lifted the state of emergency and is just beginning to reopen. Yet over the last few days, new clusters starting to emerge and the numbers are slowly ticking up again. It’s like that the new normal will be a never-ending story.
Does Mary ever see Shozo again? Have the forces of evil and oppression won, or do the real models of the world rise up to kick virtual model butt? I don’t know… I have ideas for what might happen next, but this is a project where current events, and five minutes into the future, can suddenly change everything.
Either way, the real Mary is still in Tokyo, but I haven’t seen her in a while. This photo of her was posted just the other day. Let’s see what happens next in the year 202X.
- Patrick Macias
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