Yog, Monster from Space. I can't get the 1970 Toho "classic" out of my mind. Suddenly it doesn't seem like "the most fantastic science adventure ever filmed," but rather a warning, a cautionary tale. There was that scene where an enormous mutant squid climbed ashore and stomped an entire village just because some Japanese guy went fishing too close to where he was taking a nap. What's he going to do to ME? I'm about to whack one of his cousins with a plastic prod.
It's squid-racing season in Shimofuro, a two-road fishing town in the northernmost reaches of Japan's main island of Honshu. We're close to a thousand kilometers north of Tokyo and it'll take precious minutes to scramble the F-18s... Maybe I can call in a napalm strike from the US Air Force base at nearby Misawa. That's the ticket. Tell them an American's about to be targeted by terrorist cephalopods... Whatever. No time for worrying about that now. I've got to focus. Hiroko and I toured the "paddock" a few minutes ago, selecting a likely winner from the massive cylindrical tank of lethargic squid, obviously the leftovers from a recent fishing haul. Now I'm crouched at the side of the track, a massive water-filled oval easily thirty feet long and ten wide, along with five other lucky contenders. At the urging of the emcee, we're all wearing plastic smocks buttoned up to the neck. ("When they start spittin' ink, you don't want to get any on your clothes," he'd advised in his charming northern accent.) The starting bugle sounds... The plastic wall holding the racers back lifts... And they're off!
The point is to shoo your squid around the oval with the help of a plastic "riding crop." The elderly guy on my right is a natural-born squid jockey, whisking the water a few inches behind his charge exactly the way the emcee demonstrated a few minutes ago. And the ten year old on track three has a winner on his hands: his squid rocketed out of the gate in an apparent bid for escape without any prodding at all. Meanwhile, I've got a mean bastard. His (?) chromatophores pulsate through a cycle of angry purples and reds as he furiously attacks the crop, balling his little tentacles around it like a tiny alien fist, drawing it into his angry little beak. I concentrate on shaking him off and that's when it hits me: I'm paying money to whack a squid with a stick. Good lord, what have I gotten myself into? Not for the first time in my travels through Japan, I'm struck by the thought that this is either the single greatest moment of my life or the single silliest, and I'm not sure I'll ever figure out which.
Halfway there. The other racers are nearing the finish line. I'm still tussling with my squid. He must be buying time. Has he transmitted the neuro-kinetic signal to his hulking radioactive buddy slumbering off the coast by now?
The race ends. I'm dead last. Just as I'm about to tell Hiroko I've decided to buy or break my tentacled pal out of the paddock, the emcee (bravely, it seems to me) thrusts a bare hand into the water from his seat inside the track. He quickly retrieves the furiously evasive squid, dropping him into a newspaper-lined plastic bag that he hands across the lanes to me. I hadn't expected this. Apparently every contender gets to take their squid home. I look up at the emcee blankly. "What am I supposed to do with this?" I ask. "Sashimi," comes the reply. Aha.
Well, no sense wasting the opportunity. He's going right back into the town's tiny bay, no more than a minute's walk from the track. And when I'm done I'm dropping to my knees and burning some incense to make sure Yog doesn't make a guest appearance this evening. Problem is, we've got to pay at the register first. There's a big line, and the bag is already starting to thrash wildly. No more than ten seconds later, its occupant raises a rapid, piercing screech -- I wasn't even aware squid had a "cry" -- and falls silent.
Can one give artificial resuscitation to a squid? And more to the point, how would one go about it? I'm not sticking my mouth in that same maw that was grinding plastic to ribbons just seconds ago. And don't they breathe water, anyway? I look around desperately for a funnel, a pump of some kind. Or maybe I can just spit saltwater at it? Then again, the cloudy water in the track doesn't look fit for squid consumption, let alone human lips. Mucous-like tendrils of ink float down the empty lanes like tiny storm clouds. It's too late. I've got to let him go.
Hiroko returns from the register. I hold up the bag.
"He's dead." I say.
"Sashimi," replies Hiroko. You can take the Japanese out of a fishing village, but you can't take the fishing village out of the Japanese. We head back to our hotel, where the kitchen staff are only too happy to gut, cut, and serve Mr. Squid as an addition to our dinner course. Chewing thoughtfully on the waxy strips of my once-proud steed's flesh, I ponder a parallel universe where Kentucky Derby winners are grilled and served with a nice salad and a side of fries.