hows and whys

In 2018, I was living in Tokyo, writing technical documentation for 3D graphics software. A friend forwarded me a job ad for a TV production company looking for English-language scriptwriters. There was no information, only a bland logo and an email address. My only professional creative writing experience was a stint on a video game that never came out, years earlier. But, I thought, what the hell. It might be funny.

I received a reply from someone called Sharon, who invited me to meet in a hotel in Roppongi, one of Tokyo’s glitziest districts. Sharon turned out to be a short, bald Israeli man in a suit. He took me to a table in the lobby where a smartly dressed Japanese woman was drinking tea. “This is Yuoko,” said Sharon.

Yuoko spoke good English. She’d lived in Los Angeles, she said, and though her family was Japanese, she didn’t feel Japanese. “I feel very awkward here,” she said. “In a way, I’m jealous, because you’re a white man, so it’s easy for you.” For all I know this was true in some ways, but I imagine Yuoko found it easier to file her taxes than I did.

Sharon spent the meeting tapping on his phone. I couldn’t figure out if he was Yuoko’s PA, bodyguard, business partner, romantic partner, or some combination of these.

Yuoko had two decades of television writing experience. (When I Googled her later, I found a string of credits on Japanese TV dramas and a few minor English-language productions.) She explained that she was recruiting writers for upcoming projects, including a Japanese adaptation of a famous American thriller series.

I made it clear that I had no professional writing credits, unless you counted documentation for source control systems and 3D graphics software. Yuoko was untroubled by this. She was impressed by the fact that I had studied creative writing in Canada, years ago.

“That means there is a chance you can understand stories,” she said. “Japanese don’t understand stories.” I’d have been more persuaded if she said anything about the writing samples I’d sent her, but nothing she said suggested she’d read them.

As a test, Yuoko wanted me to write an outline for a  TV series she had in the works: a dramatisation of the real-life murder of Lucie Blackman, which Yuoko said was going to be a co-production with the BBC. The outline was to be no more than three pages long. It was to include three protagonists: two Japanese detectives, plus a British private eye. It was to cover all the classic story beats: the inciting incident, the complication, the decision, the climax, the resolution. “Most important,” said Yuoko, “I want to see hows and whys.”

Our meeting was brief, and strange. There was no discussion of remuneration or contracts or anything like that, and I had no improved understanding of the work or this production company. Sharon and Yuoko struck me as odd characters, and the fact that they had wanted to talk to me at all was suspicious.

I expected the assignment to go nowhere. But I decided to take it seriously. I had nothing to lose. For a week, I immersed myself in the Lucie Blackman case. I watched documentaries, dug up news coverage from the time and listened to audiobooks as I walked along the Nakameguro canal.

Lucie Blackman was a 21-year-old Brit who went to Japan in 2000. She took a job working illegally at a bar in Roppongi, not far from where I’d met Sharon and Yuoko. Then she was drugged, raped and killed by a wealthy property developer called Joji Obara. 

Obara had drugged and raped hundreds of women before Lucie. He probably killed her by mistake — gave her too much sedative, as he had with at least one other woman, Carita Ridgway, a few years before. He’d told the paramedics that Carita had eaten bad oysters.

The Japanese police initially declined to investigate Lucie’s disappearance, just as they’d declined to act on reports submitted by several women who’d escaped Obara. Lucie had been working an illegal job of the kind girls ditched all the time. It was only when the British tabloids became interested, and Tony Blair leaned on the Japanese government, that they bothered to open an investigation.

The police found Lucie’s body buried in a cave near one of Obara’s apartments. She’d been dismembered and encased in concrete inside a bathtub. In Obara’s properties, the police found sleeping pills and chloroform; receipts for chainsaws, concrete and tents purchased in the days after Lucie’s disappearance; a receipt for Carita Ridgway’s hospital treatment; and hundreds of tapes of Obara raping unconscious women, though no tape of Lucie. 

What the police never got was a confession, which Japanese convictions disproportionately depend on. Obara insisted the women in his videos were consenting sex workers and that he’d had nothing to do with Lucie’s death.

In 2007 — to everyone’s astonishment — the judge presiding over Obara’s case ruled that the police had failed to provide enough physical evidence linking Obara to Lucie. (There is no jury system in Japan.) However, he found Obara guilty of the rapes of nine women and the manslaughter of Carita Ridgway. In 2008, Obara was convicted for Lucie’s abduction and the dismemberment of her body, but not her murder, for which police still lacked direct physical evidence — and a confession.

The Blackman case could easily become another tale of the freakish, depraved Japan that the British tabloids had so relished imagining in their coverage. But I thought there was potential for much more. It was already the stuff of a gripping thriller — I imagined something like Zodiac by David Fincher. But there was also a lot of room for sympathetic, human stuff about Lucie, a young immigrant trying to make sense of a foreign land, which I’d had some experience of. 

A dramatisation of the case could examine the machinery of the Japanese legal system, with its disproportionate need for confessions, ineptitude in investigating serious crimes and haste to blame women. There was even an intriguing seam of corruption: several sources suggested that the police had discovered Lucie’s body earlier than they let on, but had kept quiet in the hope that Obara would tell them where it was — the smoking gun that would guarantee his guilt. Underpinning everything — what with Obara’s property development millions — was something to do with the end of the so-called economic miracle that had catapulted Japan to wealth after the second world war, and the beginning of the lost decades, the popping of the economic bubble in the 1990s.

I didn’t back myself to pull all this stuff off. I was so inexperienced. Never mind: the whole thing was an experiment, I told myself. For my three-page proposal, I took the facts of the case and carved them into a shape that I hoped would create dramatic tension and the potential for subtext. I also took care to hit all the story beats Yuoko-had asked for: the inciting incident, the complication, the decision, the climax, the resolution.

It was a real-life murder case, so it took some sensitivity. In our meeting, I’d asked Yuoko what her expectations were about fictionalising it. “Don’t play too much with the fact,” she said. “So, for example, Lucie had a sister, so we cannot say that she did not have a sister. She was white, so we cannot say she was black.”

I worried I’d taken too much artistic licence. I’d beefed up the role of the British private eye, as Yuoko had specified that he needed to be one of the protagonists. In reality, the private eye had arrived in Japan, achieved nothing and gone home. But Sharon wrote back immediately, asking to meet at my earliest convenience.

We met in a Dean & DeLuca in another Roppongi hotel complex. Yuoko was running late, so I made small talk with Sharon. I asked him how many people they were looking to hire for this writing stuff. “As many as we can get, because we have a lot of projects,” he said. I was still trying to figure out how he fit into all this. He told me that he had several businesses and worked in IT and e-commerce.

Yuoko arrived, wearing a stylish winter coat. She thanked me for coming and for submitting my proposal, and went straight to business.

“You write strangely well,” she said. I wasn’t sure if that meant unusually well or if the quality of my writing was strange. “This part is good, this part is good, this part is good…” she said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“… but it’s not connected,” said Yuoko. “I think you don’t know what you’re writing. That means you don’t know what the story’s about.”

I was open to this. Perhaps I didn’t. “OK,” I said.

“A story is about how the life changes,” said Yuoko. “Does it make sense to you?”

“You’re saying that’s your definition of a story?” I said. “It’s about how someone’s life changes?”

She nodded. “How and why. A life changes. How the life changes. How and why. If you don’t have the hows and whys, you lose interest. For example, Harry Potter. Harry Potter’s life changed.”

“That’s true,” I said. “It did.”

“How. And why. It’s telling you hows and whys. How? Because he was courageous. Why? He was magic. How? Why? It’s always about hows and whys.” She clapped her hands. “Tell me first episode of Harry Potter. How, and why? Hows and whys.”

This threw me. “You’re asking me to recount the plot of Harry Potter?” I said.

“You are a UK person, so you grew up watching Harry Potter, right?”

“I read the books, sure. A long time ago.”

“It sold like crazy, right. Why? Because it’s about hows and whys. How, why — this little boy’s life changed. He had no friends. But then? Hows and whys. He became powerful. Hows and whys. He got respected by other people. Hows and whys.” Now Yuoko was speaking fast. “If you have a problem, a girlfriend problem, you talk to a friend with the same problem, who has the same experience. You have a delinquent daughter, you talk to friend with a delinquent daughter. It’s hows and whys you deal with the situation. The story is how my life should change.”

I was feeling a bewilderment coming on.

“So you’re saying that my story is lacking the hows and whys,” I said.

“Yes,” said Yuoko. “Don’t get me wrong. You write well. I was telling him” — she meant Sharon — “you write so interestingly. This part I was so engrossed. Next part I was confused. It’s not connected. So if you learn this technique, the nature of writing. You educate yourself by watching hundreds of movies. There’s no shame in not knowing how to tell the stories.”

I think Yuoko was trying to say I lacked a central character who went on a journey and learnt something —  that she wanted less of a crime procedural and more of a traditional character arc. If she’d said that, in straightforward terms, I think I would have understood. But instead she was rambling about Harry Potter and delinquent daughters and girlfriend problems.

“Whatever I say, you can check it out,” said Yuoko. “You can Google it. For example, you can find inciting incident. Even teenagers talk about inciting incident.”

“Well, I tried quite hard to make sure I had an inciting incident,” I said.

Yuoko smiled at me. In Japan, this is often a sign that you’re having an argument. “You lack inciting incident.”

“You didn’t think that Lucie going missing was the inciting incident?” I said.

“Inciting incident for who?”

“For Louise.”

“Louise is the mother?”

“No, Louise was her flatmate, who Lucie was living with,” I said. “She’s the one who called the police.” Didn’t Yuoko know the case?

“So Louise is your protagonist?” said Yuoko.

“No, I imagined three protagonists,” I said. “The protagonists would come in after that inciting incident.”

Yuoko beamed. “You can’t have several protagonists.”

In our first meeting, Yuoko had told me I needed three protagonists. I’d written that down. It would have been a lot easier to only have one.

“But don’t lots of TV series have several protagonists?” I said. “Like The Wire.”

“Who was the protagonist in The Wire?” asked Yuoko. I was about to suggest some candidates — McNulty, or Stringer Bell — but she went on: “In The Wire, whose life changed? The little boy. The boy’s life changed. The little boy can’t go back to his family. The boy’s life changed forever.”

I couldn’t remember any little boy in The Wire. I think she might have been thinking of Harry Potter again. But I wanted to appear reasonable, to show I didn’t just take a superficial view of storytelling. I brought up a post by a film critic blogger I’d read years ago. It was about The Phantom Menace, which critics argue lacks a clear protagonist. The blogger argued that, in a funny sort of way, the infamous Jar Jar Binks was the real protagonist. It was tongue-in-cheek and provocative, but really the post was making a bigger point about narrative perspectives and audience blindspots, and it had stayed with me.

“No, no,” said Yuoko. “The boy is the protagonist. Luke Skywalker.”

“Well, that’s actually a different film,” I said. “This was The Phantom Menace. Luke Skywalker isn’t in The Phantom Menace.”

Yuoko tossed my talking point aside. “You haven’t decided what the story’s about,” she said. “Hows and whys. Lucie Blackman. She ended up dead. Chopped down to ten pieces. We know how her life changes.”

I thought of the bathtub in the cave. “We sure do,” I said.

“You don’t know how to watch movie, TV show,” said Yuoko. “As a writer, you don’t have the luxury.” She pointed to Sharon. “The way he watch TV show, the way I watch, it’s completely different.”

Then Yuoko spoke for a while about the film Black Rain and its hows and whys. I hadn’t seen it and it was difficult to follow her point. She didn’t understand the film at first, she said, but on the fifth viewing, she was crying, because now she understood it. “As a writer, you can’t understand what you are watching,” she said. “So no more innocent day of ‘I like this, like that’.”

I wanted to go home.

“Forgive me,” I said, “but I’m having trouble understanding what this is all about. If you didn’t like my story, believe me, that’s fine. Honestly. But I don’t understand this hiring approach. I’m sure Japan has plenty of experienced TV writers. Why are you talking to me?”

“Being professional in Japan doesn’t mean you can understand stories,” said Yuoko. “You’re giving them too much credit. If you are born with storytelling talent, you can write better.”

“So you believe in the power of naivete?” I said. I’d meant it sincerely. I thought she was saying that talent could be destroyed by formal education, or industry formulas, or something like that. But Yuoko said: “You don’t need to be sarcastic.”

Sharon looked up from his phone for the first time. “You know,” he said, “you can take it as constructive criticism.”

Yuoko nodded. “I think I’m giving him the nicest comment we have, out of everyone.”

Before I could respond, Yuoko launched into another strange story. It was about a homeless man who had asked her for help. Most people, she said, would simply give the man a 100-yen onigiri. Not Yuoko. She and Sharon had taken the man for dinner at an expensive restaurant. Now whenever she saw this man he was wearing a suit and tie.

“You see,” said Yuoko, “I gave him his inter-gritty.

I said: “His integrity? You mean like his dignity?”

“His inter-gritty,” said Yuoko.

I don’t mean to mock her English. It was better than my Japanese by a factor of a billion. But she was completely unresponsive to my attempts to understand. She didn’t say: “Right, that’s what I mean.” She just repeated herself, as if I were the one who needed to check a dictionary.

“Hows and whys,” said Yuoko. “How his life was changed. This is a story.”

After our meeting I sent Yuoko an email.

Hi Yuoko

Thanks for meeting me today. I thought a lot about all your feedback, but I came away not sure what to do. Forgive me, but I found most of what you said quite difficult to follow.

I suspect, based on our conversation, that I'm not the person you're looking for.

I wish you all the best with your projects.



I thought that would be the end. But Yuoko wrote back immediately, asking to meet the next day. She attached the Lucie Blackman pitch she had written for the BBC. “I would like you to get familiarised with it,” she wrote. “You can tell me your feedback.”

Yuoko’s synopsis was titled Tokyo, Dark and Scary River (Never Stops Flowing): The Last 100 Days of Lucie Blackman. The protagonist was Lucie’s sister Sophie. In reality, Sophie had no involvement with the investigation. But in Yuoko’s treatment, Sophie went to Japan to search for Lucie with a completely invented character, a British private detective, who happened to be Lucie’s ex-boyfriend. This character was called Eugene MacGregor. I suppose Yuoko already had the casting in mind.

Sophie and Eugene begin a mad, dangerous romance. Then Eugene has Sophie pose as bait for Obara. Obara is about to rape her when the police burst in and shoot him. At last the twist is revealed: Eugene has been working for the yakuza the whole time. Obara was just a pawn. Eugene MacGregor is the real killer of Lucie Blackman.

After an action-packed motorbike chase through Tokyo, the police capture Eugene. Come the morning he is dead. Suicide? Or something more sinister?

Sophie realises that Tokyo is a dark and scary river that conceals a vortex that leads always to Obara. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. She leaves Japan “with a sense of closure”, which I felt was extremely generous of her. The synopsis ended on a chilling note, with the Japanese detective’s daughter chatting to someone online. I think it was supposed to be Obara, up to his old tricks.

The whole thing was amateurishly formatted and full of gently surreal sentences. I reminded myself that English wasn’t Yuoko’s first language. For all I knew, she was Shakespeare in Japanese. But it rankled that my writing was being critiqued by someone who hadn’t quite figured out when to use the word “the”.

“I have to say,” I told Yuoko as carefully as I could, “I’m surprised that the BBC went for this.  I mean, what’s the family going to think?”

“What do you mean?” said Yuoko. We were back in Dean & Deluca.

“Didn’t you tell me not to play around with the facts?” I said.

“No, no,” said Yuoko. “For example, if we say Lucie was black, that’s not right, because she was white, we can’t change this. But we can invent a character.”

“But,” I said, “attributing Lucie’s murder to someone else — someone who didn’t exist — that’s a bigger change than just inventing a character, isn’t it?”

“The judge sentenced Obara to innocence,” said Yuoko. “So by definition, we do not know who killed her. By definition, it is a mystery.”

“But that isn’t the definition of a mystery,” I said.

“It’s a mystery, so maybe the detective did it,” said Yuoko. “We can say that, because it is a mystery.”

“But how can you say this detective did it when he didn’t even exist?”

“This is Japan,” said Yuoko. “In America, you find the body, it’s the smoking gun, he’s the killer. In Japan, if you say, I didn’t do it, I’m not the killer, they can’t do anything. They need confession. In Japan, we can say: it’s a mystery.”

“But it isn’t a mystery,” I said. “Obara killed her.”

“Officially, it is a mystery,” said Yuoko.

Sharon put his phone down. “I’ll tell you what is our impression of you.” Oh good, I thought. “We think you are very smart, and you write well. But you have an attitude.” 

Too damn right I have an attitude, I thought.

“You think you know everything. And it’s not the case. We have a lot of candidates. They are young, they don’t know how to write yet, but it’s OK, they might get better. But they’re open-minded. We feel it’s OK to raise questions, but you have to give Yuoko some credit. Try to tolerate other ideas from people who are more experienced. I think that would be the best. If you would be a bit more humble. We feel you always resist.”

I let all this sit for a moment. Then I asked: “Why did you want to meet me again today?”

Yuoko said, “To see if you’re willing. If you really want to be a writer, I think this is the kind of opportunity you wouldn’t get in the UK. To be honest, I don’t think anyone is approaching you right now in the UK.”

She was right. I wasn’t getting emails from British TV producers inviting me to meet them in the lobbies of five-star hotels. If I were, I’d be deeply suspicious. This is what Yuoko and Sharon were missing: their proposition seemed too good to be true. They seemed like a pair of crackpots.

“Maybe you are not hungry enough,” said Sharon. “The other writers, who we are interviewing, they are all young and inexperienced, but they are hungry. They have the fire inside of them. You have to ask yourself: are you hungry?”

This kind of talk reminded me of how cults bully and indoctrinate people, with mysterious questions like: “How are you going to start making money if you don’t change how you think about money?” And: “What is the downside of no longer being weak?” 

Well, I thought, maybe I’m not hungry. Not for this.

I thought we were finished. But that weekend Yuoko emailed me again. To demonstrate that I had what it took to be a TV writer, she wanted me to watch a series of films and send her my analysis.  She asked me to identify “WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT” and “STRATEGY OF THE MOVIE, NAMELY HOWS AND WHYS IS THIS FILM BEING EXPRESSED TO REACH TO ‘WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT’”. If I did this, she wrote, “Anything you watch or read, you can only see it that way even your own creation, then you can immediately realize what is missing in your own writing.”

I deliberated for a while. In the end I decided to do it. I like watching movies and I like thinking about them. If Yuoko didn’t like my analysis, I could walk away from the episode without regret, knowing I’d tried my best. If I quit, I’d always wonder about the parallel universe in which I wrote terrible Japanese television dramas.

I watched the movies, typed up my thoughts and sent them off. Yuoko replied the next day. “Your analysis was very good,” she wrote. “Unfortunately though, while we didn’t hear from you for a while, the positions for this time were all filled up.”

Well, thank God, I thought. I had a feeling they hadn’t hired anyone at all.

I Googled the names of Yuoko and Sharon one last time. There was something new: a blog post by someone else they’d interviewed, an African woman. According to the blogger, Yuoko said her treatment was too long, “insulted her experience”, and asked her to do it again. The blogger wrote back angrily, saying they’d wasted her time.

Sharon emailed back. The blogger pasted his reply in full. “Your poor communication skill closed the door to us,” Sharon wrote. “All the other candidates DELIVERED what Yuoko asked and UNDERSTOOD HER INSTRUCTIONS for NO PROBLEMS! Our projects have all ready been GREEN LIT and we have a TEAM of HUNGRY writers who are ready to go! Now you have no job, no surprise, you can have plenty of time to think about our success.”

The blogger, who did not strike me as the coolest of cucumbers herself, did not take that lying down. She identified Sharon’s “white male ego”, accused him and Yuoko of racism, and told them: “Thank fuck I didn’t wind up stuck with you primitive assholes.”

Here is Sharon’s response:

Wow, what a class. I think your talent is maybe actually in comedy so switch to that. It is very funny to us to hear your insults from a person who’s name sounds more like a disease than human person. Now it makes sense why president trump called your country a shit hole. lol. 

We are the primitives? lmao, having internet connected by cans and tins and string, allowing not even 1 sentence that can be understood, but we are the primitives not you? Maybe you are the coolest writer in your tribe but thankfully the world is not your whole tribe. 

You only deserve to get paid in banana.

Yuoko and Sharon never contacted me again. Four years on, no dramatisation of the Lucie Blackman case has emerged. In fact, nothing new has been added to Yuoko’s IMDB credits at all. Of course, I still don’t even have an IMDB page. Whose life changed?