Remember Laserdisc? No, me neither. I'd heard of them but never seen one (as the format was extremely rare in Europe) until I went to Japan about five years ago. It's got this reputation as being a country in the future, and yes there is technology everywhere. Some of it cutting edge, but you're just as likely to find fax machines, toaster ovens, punch cards, floppy discs and indeed Laserdiscs.
In Osaka, Japan's second city, a giant megalopolis of epic overpasses and neon lights, Laserdiscs are even today readily available. In Den Den Town, the city's electronics and otaku haven, Laserdiscs line shelves alongside VHS and DVD. I was over there to work as an English teacher, but in my spare time I wandered around the multitudinous alleyways, subways and high streets. Exploring, walking, drinking sake OneCups and eating takowasa and gyoza at all hours.
In the district of Den Den Town, also known as Nipponbashi, there was plenty to interest the Western tourist. Maid cafés with young women in soubrette cosplay serving tea from bone china teapots in response to the delicate little bells placed on each table. Multi-storey manga and anime stores with seven feet tall Gundam guarding the doorways. I remember a strange unmarked doorway, the only information on the sign outside being a colourful drawing of an angry carrot with muscular arms wearing high-heels and stockings. I never stepped through that door, and probably never will.
Another thing you need to know about Japan as a whole, and Osaka in particular, is it has a homeless problem. There seems to be no support structure at all for people with social problems, unemployment, poverty, drug dependency, not even an attempt to sweep them out of sight. Alongside many roads, under bridges, on traffic islands, and in city parks people are living in tents, bivouacs, and semi-permanent shacks or sheds.
Some of these guys are in terrible states – I once saw an old man step out of his roadside shed in bare feet, his toes and toenails so mangled they looked like broken bones sticking out of stumpy raw flesh – others are fairly well-dressed, like salary men down on their luck. Even Osakajo-koen, the grounds to Osaka's famous castle (where Tokugawa defeated the Toyotomi in 1615 establishing the 250 year dominance of the Tokugawa shogunate), has inhabited shacks and tarpaulin strung up between the cherry blossoms.
Despite the number of people living homeless it is exceedingly rare to see anyone begging, or even busking for change. For that reason it drew my attention when, one night while out walking in Nakanoshima-koen (koenmeans park) I saw what appeared to be a rudimentary store. Outside a tiny wooden hut of scrap wood and metal, not big enough for one person to lie down in, sat an elderly bearded man in disgusting clothes. On his feet he wore plastic bags from 7-Eleven and in front of him, laid on the ground on a square of tarpaulin, was a random array of scrounged old tat. I glanced across as I continued walking.
It had passed midnight, but in a place like Osaka that means little. Restaurants and shops were still open and the park was full of life. Besides the homeless people there was also the drunk salary men sleeping off a skin-full of sake, the young lovers and the practising musicians. Because of the flimsy nature of walls in Japanese apartments a couple wanting time to themselves can actually find more privacy in a public park than they can at home. As I continued my walk I saw a young man practising drums, he'd set up a full kit with bass drum, snare, toms, hi-hat, the whole lot, and was bashing away on the grass under the heavy loaded bough of the cherry blossom. I walked around the path doubling back on myself and heading back the way I came. I was getting tired and had to be up early but was enjoying the sights and the moonlight.
As I walked passed the old homeless man for the second time we accidentally made eye contact, just for a second, and we both looked down at his arrangement of objects. I walked over to where he sat and stood before him. My Japanese was poor so when he spoke I couldn't make it out. Partly it was due to my lack of fluency, but also it was the tinny croak he spoke in, a fast staccato like an over-stimulated Geiger counter. I tried to mumble a few words in Japanese but soon settled with a “Sorry, I don't understand”.
'Sale, eto-o-o-o, cheap,' he said and pointed to one item which appeared to be a bundle of short electrical cables with the 2-pin plugs still attached. The appliances they once serviced were nowhere to be seen. “Gyohaku-en”. Five-hundred yen I figured, about five American dollars, two pounds and fifty pence British.
He pointed to another item, a rubber Anpanman doll's head which looked like it had been run over by a car. “Gyohaku-en”.
A stained, wrinkled soft-core porn magazine, the cover star a young Japanese lady, a girl really, with painted lips and a black bikini. “Gyohaku-en”.
A hubcap from a Toyota. “Gyohaku-en”.
A carrier bag, 7-Eleven, containing a small pile of partially smoked cigarettes. “Gyohaku-en”.
A dead bird. “Gyohaku-en”.
A sodden pair of trousers looking like they had recently been fished out of one of Osaka's many rivers. “Gyohaku-en”.
A twelve inch by twelve inch cardboard square sleeve with a disc inside. “Gyohaku-en”.
I bent to get a closer look. The cardboard had once been white but had clearly been soaked and dried out once or twice and stored in damp conditions. It was wrinkled and peeled and scuffed with filth. In a corner I could make out the image of three eggs in a line, the initials NHK written across them, the logo for Japan's public broadcasting station. I picked it up and turned it over. On the back was some faded handwritten kanji which I had no chance of deciphering and the katakana アルフ, A-le-fu. I tipped the sleeve sideways to let the disc slip out into my hand and up to that point I had expected to see the shiny blackness of vinyl. Instead I saw the silver of Laserdisc catching the street light, shimmering veins of electric blue like motor oil on water. Even so, there was significant scratching and the odd patch where the aluminum surface had peeled revealing the plastic beneath.
I didn't know what the disc was, and wasn't convinced it would play at all, but it was significantly curious and the old guy obviously needed the money. I paid him a five hundred yen coin and thanked him too politely, “Thank you, domo arigato gosaimasu”. He bowed his head a little and I set off walking, the Laserdisc tucked under my arm. A few hundred feet away I heard him muttering and yelping and when I glanced back saw he was looking in my direction. I couldn't understand any of what he said, and the wind blew gently taking his words away into treetops and high-rise apartment blocks and the light-polluted night sky.
I didn't own a Laserdisc player,so the disc was forgotten for a couple of weeks. It spent some time on the coffee table, on the floor under the sofa, propped up beside the TV, anywhere it could be ignored. I had no intention of ever doing anything with it and certainly wasn't going to buy a Laserdisc player just to find out the disc was damaged beyond repair.
An American friend was over one day and noticed the disc. He asked about it and I told him how I had acquired it. He agreed it looked unlikely to play, and also couldn't read the handwritten kanji on the sleeve, but said he knew a Japanese technical expert with the equipment and know-how to potentially salvage it. He contacted him and a couple of days later when he was available we visited him at his apartment.
Most Japanese living rooms have the usual stuff, seating, TV, dining table, etc, but in this apartment the living room was full of sound and video equipment, computers, digital and analogue tape decks, wires stretched and tangled everywhere, monitor screens and speakers in stacks. He took one look at the Laserdisc and agreed there wouldn't be much surviving data but what there was he could salvage. He had a high-end player called MUSE Hi-Vision which he said could read through defects that a normal player couldn't. That ran through a processing amplifier into the capture card of one of his many PCs and the specialist software it contained. He told us he would need time to clean it up and encode it and we should leave him to it as it would be boring to watch.
We agreed and went to a nearby bar for a few beers and a couple of rounds of yakitori, grilled skewers of different parts of chicken – breast, neck, crispy skin, meatballs, heart, liver, cartilage, it's great beer food. Our technical expert friend knew where we were and said he would be round to collect us when he'd finished. A couple of hours later when we were nicely drunk and our bellies were full we began wondering if he would be much longer. Just as my friend was about to make a call our technical expert was suddenly standing there beside our table. His face was white and gaunt, whiter and gaunter than you'd expect from someone with such a dedication to digital technology, and he placed the Laserdisc with its sleeve and a black DVD box on the table. Without saying anything he turned to leave. My friend and I looked at each other and he grabbed the techy's sleeve with a “Wait!”
Despite his reluctance we got him to sit with us and had a drink brought over for him. He drank quickly like he couldn't wait to be out of there and wouldn't answer any questions about what he'd found on the disc. He said it was all there on an .avi stored on the DVD and we should take it and go. He repeatedly warned us off watching it. He'd deleted it from his computer and we would be well advised to destroy both discs and forget about them.
I asked him if he could read the scrawled kanji from the Laserdisc's sleeve. It means nothing, he said, nothing he could understand anyway. He said it was an ancient character set and compared it to me trying to decipher Old English written in the densest Gothic script. He didn't want payment for his work, he just wanted to forget about it, but I managed to force three 1,000 yen notes into his hand. He thanked me repeatedly, graciously bowing his head, and asked pathetically if he could go now. We said sure and he got up and basically ran out of the door without another word.
At this point we could not understand his reaction at all. He was either a very eccentric and nervous man normally, or he had seen something terribly unsettling that he was struggling to come to terms with. We, of course, had had a few drinks so we dismissed him as a weirdo and laughed about it.
But in retrospect I know his behaviour had been understandable, in fact I think he held it together well just by bringing the discs to us. Had I been in his position I may have disappeared from contact, turned off my phone and ignored the doorbell until we went away. I may have called the police and reported us for suspicion of committing insane and terrible crimes. I may have babbled and drooled my way into a secure mental institute where I could bang my head against soft walls until I died old and alone except for the insects in my mind and under my skin.
Soon we left the bar, excited to get back to my apartment and watch the disc, and much to my regret that is what we did. With a few cans of chuhai to keep the drinking mood going, I stuck the unlabelled DVD into the drive of my laptop. There was one file on the disc, an .avi with a random alpha-numeric name, something like 000-a54h4.avi. I double clicked it and full-screened the video.
It troubles me to think back to what we saw, those terrible sights that sobered us up and kept us from finishing our drinks, that has kept sleep away for most of the last five years and effectively ended our friendship, that ruined our night and troubled our lives. Regardless I will try to remember all I saw of that video, a disgusting nightmare vision of what appeared to be the lost final episode of the 1980s American family sit-com ALF, the conclusion to the cliffhanger which saw him captured by the Alien Task Force...
The video began with a loud high-pitched squealing sine-wave tearing through our ears. On screen was a test card pattern, vertical bands of bright colour at the top half, blocks of black, white and grey at the bottom. This remained on screen for about a minute occasionally broken up by pixelated blocks of digital distortion, the whole while accompanied by the high-pitched sine-wave.
Suddenly nothing. Black screen and silence. After a wait, which felt like minutes but could just as easily have been seconds, the screen flickered like an old video cassette presumably from an earlier analogue to digital transfer, and still the occasional explosions of digital distortion from the corrupted Laserdisc. The NHK logo began fading into the black background but suddenly glitched out, the screen breaking up into pixelated blocks and shouting out with a burst of white noise that disappeared as quickly as it appeared. What remained on the flickering screen was a view down a dirty, dimly lit corridor. The floor and walls appeared tiled like some sort of hospital, but filthy and damaged everywhere as though it had been the scene of floods and massacres. Most of the lights were out and the ones that worked flickered intermittently. The only sound was the occasional electronic buzz of the lights, almost too quiet to perceive. All down the corridor into the distance were double hospital doors with small windows in at eye-level.
A quiet pathetic whimper or groan of pain and defeat emerged slowly through the electronic buzz, a tearful sobbing of someone reduced to helplessness by torture and humiliation. Suddenly digital distortion ripped away the image and brought it back with the camera moving down the corridor and screaming guttural roars. Someone in one of the rooms was evidently being subjected to an heinous ordeal which words could not express, only the scream of unanaesthetised cutting and tearing.
Up until this point we had been fairly good humoured about the video, but something about the screaming and sobbing unsettled us. This was not the sound of acting, more the sound of real agony, the sound of someone or something being maimed and mauled by hands trained in the art of cruelty.
As the camera continued down the corridor and the screaming grew worse and worse other voices joined in. Various desperate calls and screams in a range of pitches and bizarre alien languages tore out as if from beings imprisoned in the rooms leading off from the corridor, they howled in response to the pain of their fellow inmate. The screams built and built to a crescendo and the flickering video distortion worsened to the point the picture was completely obscured, and just as the noise was so bad I thought I would cry more digital distortion and white noise ripped through everything.
The picture returned with an image that shocked us, made us cry out in horror and surprise, and almost an absurd burp of laughter. The chorus of screams was silenced and the image on screen was so unexpected to us, the collision of the familiar childhood image with such unspeakable viciousness, a contradiction that broke our minds.
Filling the screen was ALF, the Alien Life Form from the TV series of the same name. The shot was close up, showing his head and shoulders from above as he lay strapped to a stainless steel dissection table. White light poured down on him from out of shot making the image stark and overexposed even through the flicker of worn-out video.
He lay with his head to one side, his fur matted with dark blood, and various wires and electrodes penetrating the top of his head. He sobbed gently. His pain was unbearable, genuine suffering which made us desperate to reach out and help a fellow living creature. His expression of pain was both human and animal.
He began to turn his head, the effort was clearly about as much as he could muster, and after a few failed attempts and tired whimpers he faced the camera with closed eyes. More digital distortion and white noise then ALF opened his eyes, beaten and bloodshot, strangely human eyes as though a person were trapped beneath ALF's skin. He tried to speak, “Please … I miss you”, he croaked. “I miss you.” His words were translated into Japanese subtitles.
And as the title, the word 'ALF' in the big white letters of that familiar font and its katakana Japanese subtitled translation アルフ, appeared on screen ALF let out an horrendous blood-curdling scream, out of breath and panting and screaming and screaming until his voice was hoarse and he could scream no more, but still between sobs and desperate gasps for breath he screamed and screamed and screamed. He stared into the camera, with those teared-up dying pleading eyes, staring at us, at me, as he screamed and screamed. This must have gone on for a few minutes at least and just when we thought we could take no more, just when the constant screaming was eating away at our very souls, that terrible saxophone music started. We couldn't believe it, along with the continued screams the saxophone-led theme song from the third and fourth seasons of ALF began to play. It was that same music but somehow rawer, as if pushed through overloaded speakers and rerecorded onto a wax cylinder, then blasted out again at ear-splitting volume.
And between interspersed cuts of jolly scenes from the past, shots of the Tanner family, credits – 'Starring Max Wright … Anne Schedeen … ' - and random rips of analogue and digital distortion increasing in severity all the time, were images of terrible torture. A close up of a hand being drilled, a leg being hobbled with a sledgehammer, and all the while that hideous screaming and panting and screaming and crying. The quality of the footage was deteriorating still, and as the happy memories and torture and miserable wails and distortion and saxophone music and white noise coalesced I began to feel sick. All those terrible experiences built up to a roar and suddenly the video jumped and stuck on a loop, a split second of smiling Willie Tanner with 'Starring Max Wright' emblazoned across, a full-body shot of ALF strapped to the tabletop with his torso peeled open revealing the beating bleeding insides of his alien anatomy. These two hideous images jumping, cutting, looping between each other at irregular intervals, all the while the screaming, the white noise, the distorting lumpen saxophone stuck stuck stuck. And I swear under all the clamour I could hear the maniacal laughter of ALF himself.
These two images looped for so long that I began to think it was the actual .avi that was skipping somehow, but checking it I saw the VLC time slider moving along naturally. The looping continued until more serious distortion obliterated all sound and visuals replacing them with pixelated blocks and indistinguishable noise. When the picture returned it was of a lower quality still and the scene had changed. The camera, now camcorder quality, seemed to be lying slightly over to its side on a table top looking across the room to the autopsy table where ALF lay strapped down. Lighting was dim and a green tinge to the picture suggested night-vision.
The scene was obscured by someone stepping in front of the camera, a person in doctors scrubs, gloves and apron all heavily stained with blood and feces. They adjusted the camera slightly and stepped back out of shot. ALF, who may have being lying unconscious, seemed to come to and began mumbling and whimpering and begging 'no, no, please, no', his head moving side-to-side slightly. He appeared delirious, distressed, and barely alive.
The doctor walked back into shot and stood with his back to the camera beside ALF and the autopsy table. His features were covered with a grey surgeon's hat and face mask. He stood over ALF looking down on him and appeared to be talking. We couldn't hear a word he said, just the occasional calm consonant penetrating through ALF's sobbing and pleading, and the slight movements of head and shoulders.
The scene remained unchanged, except for the persistent random interference of distortion, for maybe five minutes. Five minutes of inaudible calm speech. Unchanged except for occasional sudden jump-cuts to the smiling faces of Kate, Lynn and Brian Tanner, who seemed to be looking on in curious glee. It was as though the surgeon, the torturer, was explaining matter-of-factly exactly what he was going to be doing to ALF. The sobbing and pleading continued throughout, then a brief flash of distortion and white noise leading suddenly to blackness.
I don't know how long the blackness here lasted. It may not even have been on the video. Perhaps I passed out momentarily or shock has just left a blank hole in my memory. Whatever really happened when the picture came back the scene had changed yet again. The camera was on the move, held in the hand of someone I presumed to be the surgeon, not pointed at anything but swinging about wildly with the movements of the arm. This was dizzying, producing blurred effects of bloodstained walls and spilled gore like an abattoir floor. Soon it steadied and swung around to the autopsy table where lay the mutilated headless corpse of ALF – jumpcut to Kate, Lynn and Brian in happy conversation – camera panned along the body and upwards towards the ceiling, towards the source of an arrhythmic drip drip of dark liquid.
There, hanging by cables and wires, was the severed silenced head of ALF, his scalp shaved and ears snipped off to allow access for the multitudinous penetrating electrodes. Below the stump of his neck hung the spine pulled from his body, and although I didn't notice at the time in retrospect it occurred to me there was something wrong. Well, obviously it was all wrong. I mean there was something not as you'd expect about the spine. Rather than being the repeating structure of small separate vertebrae, the spine began at the neck as two long thin parallel bones which ran half the length and terminating at a joint where they connected to a single thicker bone running down the rest of the way. Thinking back, I have become convinced over time that ALF's spine was not a spine, but the bones I saw were the radius, ulna and humerus of a human arm.
As the camera held on this scene for a moment and the words 'Created by Paul Fusco' faded onto the screen, ALF's eyes blinked open and he looked directly into the camera. The voice of the cameraman sounded, the voice of the surgeon, the voice of Willie Tanner saying “Good morning, ALF”.
ALF screamed a scream of guttural anguish and the credit sequence rolled. Humorous pictures of ALF drinking from the toilet, trying on glasses, peaking through the blinds, wearing headphones, all that stuff, but instead of the theme tune playing was just that screaming, desperate panting and crying.
Immediately as the video ended I turned and was sick over the arm of the sofa onto the wall. Sick, and sick again. I rested against the arm trying to recover my strength for a minute or two and eventually looked over at my friend. He sat motionless, mouth clamped shut and eyes wide open and empty, hands held out in what could have been a shrug or begging or even praying. I called his name and got no response. I shook him by the knee, then the shoulder and called his name again and again. Suddenly he snapped out of it and a bit of life came back into his eyes, just a bit. He looked around the room, as if wondering where he was, and over at me.
We looked at each other, shocked and disbelieving, and I felt the rise of more vomiting. I rushed to the toilet and heaved and spat and sobbed through my mouth and nose. As this was going on I heard the front door close. When I came out of the bathroom my friend had gone, so had the Laserdisc and so had the DVD from my laptop. The disc tray was open and VLC was open on the desktop, but the file was gone. Had I wanted to play it again, which I definitely did not, I wouldn't have been able to.
After I had cleaned up my vomit, and failed to contract my friend (he wasn't answering his phone), I went to bed and failed to sleep. I lay for hours staring at the ceiling with terrible images running through my mind. At one point I thought I heard a voice somewhere in the apartment and managed to buck up the courage to investigate and find nobody. I returned to bed with the lights on and drifted off eventually to fits of terrible indefinable nightmares. I woke up wet with my own urine. I can't remember ever having done this before.
I didn't see or hear from my friend again and over time grew more disinclined to contact him. Now if I saw him in the street I think I would turn and walk the other way for fear of what might happen should our shared memories get together again. Since watching that video I have suffered severe sleep disorder and been through therapy to try to quell the constant obsessive repetition of unwanted extreme mental imagery.
A few months after watching the video I returned home to England and haven't returned to Japan since. Although it was five years ago and six thousand miles away I still cannot get away from it. I carry the imagery with me in my head and I suspect my old friend does too. I don't know where he is or how he is doing, but last week I received an email headed 'ALF Autopsy' from one of those anonymous temporary accounts. I deleted the email, and powered down my computer.