I might never have got into the stranger's taxi if it weren't for video games. It was September and, earlier that evening, I'd met a journalist friend who lives in Japan for a catch-up drink. He took me to a themed Irish pub just off Shibuya crossing, the sort of establishment you'd never darken in Spain, but which, when transported to Tokyo, is transformed from blight to curio. The place didn't disappoint. Everything was slightly off: We drank pints of Guinness, each one laced with a shot of red wine. American sports blared on the overhead TVs. Most implausibly of all, one tidy queue trailed up to the bar: Dublin through a glass darkly. We caught up. Finally, we said goodnight. It was still early, the Autumn air muggy and electric. I muffled my ears with headphones and began to walk around Shibuya. And then I met Brad.
Most people, stepping onto the daunting expanse of the Shibuya crossing for the first time, call to mind that scene in Sofia Coppola's film Lost in Translation where Scarlett Johansson cuts a path through a Serengeti of salarymen, her mouth pulled slightly open as she takes in the panoramic expanse of the bordering advertising screens above her. You'll always see a tourist snapping a hurried selfie in that same spot, where all of the city's energy seems to be focused, the centre of everything. For video game players, however, Shibuya promises much more than a mere photo opp. Shibuya is no mere cinematic backdrop. Shibuya is where you come to find adventure.
My legs were weary. Jetlag had quickened the alcohol's effects and, apart from anything else, I needed a piss. I entered a claustrophobic bar and joined the queue for the bathroom. The young man in front of me was taking vigorous selfies, zigzagging his phone through the air, striking a fresh pose with each jerk. He noticed me, smiled, put an arm around my shoulder and snapped a shot. In bewilderment, I shook his hand and introduced myself. "Fuck off, you're English?" he said, before throwing his arms around me. What are you doing here, I asked. "I'm a model," he said, and I laughed, not because I thought it implausible (Brad was beautiful: a gauntly tidy face, a razor jawline, are-you-shitting-me-blue eyes) but because I didn't know how else to respond. Information came quickly now: Brad grew up in South London and now worked for an enviable clutch of celebrated fashion clients. He spent most of his time in Paris and Milan. And now, Tokyo. "Do you like dancing?" he asked. "You should come dancing. I have a taxi coming."
In Jet Set Radio I have ground the rails outside Shibuya railway station while being chased by policemen. In The World Ends With You I've roamed Shibuya's fashion district, which stretches all the way down to Harajuku, solving crimes and buying outfits. In Persona 5 I've schemed with my high school friends inside Shibuyan diners, watched films in Shibuyan cinema, bought smoothies in its hectic subway station. In Yakuza, I probably broke a man's knees in some grubby avenue, by bins round the back of Shibuya's McDonalds. For Japanese game designers, this small patch of city seems to hold an irresistible charm, its combination of a youthful population, high-fashion stores and, somewhere beneath the surface, a rumour of organised crime providing the ideal locale for virtual hijinks. In video games, you always have to say yes to the world. Fail to do so and everything grinds to a halt. "Yeah," I said. "I'll get in your taxi."
Brad, flanked by a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl called Salina who looked thoroughly nonplussed by my presence, led us out of the bar. Within ten seconds of emerging into the LCD night, a squirrelly Chinese man approached, a deck of business cards in his hand. "Are you interested in modelling," he asked Brad. Brad explained why he was in Japan and which agency represented him here, then took the card anyway. Then he gestured at me. "But my friend here doesn't have an agency." Oh god, I thought. The Chinese man looked up at me. Then, while looking me straight in the eye, said: "Sorry."
In the taxi I learned a great deal about professional models. Brad, it turned out, is contractually prohibited from visiting a gym ("Nobody wants muscles in this game"). He is contractually prohibited from getting a tattoo, or from losing or gaining anything more than a bumblebee's worth of weight. He is not allowed to post drunk selfies on Instagram, even though he is certainly allowed to get drunk. Brad had been in Tokyo for two weeks now. When his jetlag had cleared, he told me that he went out drinking with two Australian men he'd met at a bar till 7am the night before his first shoot. He slept through both his alarm and the frantic calls from his agent. "That's nuts," I said, feeling a pang of parental concern. "It's fine," Brad countered. "When it comes to no-shows, you get three strikes."
The taxi pulled into the main street in Roppongi. Tokyo's notoriously sleazy district looked almost beautiful. A constellation of red and white lights blinked in the traffic. Salina, a literal child, paid for the taxi and Brad strode past the lunging strip club touts, with their "Hey, how you doing tonight?" opening gambits. "Where are we going?" I asked. Brad didn't answer. He turned a corner and led us toward an imposing club. Fat bouncers stood by velvet ropes at its entrance. Brad ignored the main queue, and walked up to a brightly lit hatch to one side. "Hello, I am a model," he said. "Oh, and so is my friend." I looked at the ground, feeling ashamed for my face. (A woman at a bar once told me that I look like a bargain-basement Julian Casablancas, a compliment so barbed I've never quite been able to shrug it off). The man in the booth handed Brad a green plastic tumbler, inexplicably. He went to give me the same, but hesitated at the last second. "Which agency are you with?" he asked. Before I had a chance to make up a lie, or simply flee, Brad answered for me. I took my tumbler, and we went inside.
Club owners like to have Western models in their clubs, Brad explained, as we climbed the stairs. It makes the place feel exotic and alluring. Word gets around. Then more Japanese girls come, which in turn attracts Japanese men: an un-virtuous circle. That's why we were given free entry to a top Tokyo club, and a little green tumbler that the barman would fill gratis all night. Upstairs I went to text my friend about what was happening. I needed someone else to know, to make it somehow real. Brad came over clutching two shot glasses in each hand. He downed both, while I sipped one of mine, agedly. Brad, I could tell, was going too hard, too fast. Beyoncé. He tugged me and Salina by the arms to the dancefloor.
The drinks kept coming. Brad was becoming droopier, his head bowed and lolling. Eventually, he slouched to the floor, semi-conscious. Shit, I thought. I rushed to the bar to ask for a glass of water. The barman looked at my green tumbler and shook his head. Water's not included. OK, a coke then, I said. When I made it back to Brad, he had been carried to a plush sofa on the periphery. Are you OK, I asked? He didn't answer. I pressed the drink into his hand. He mumbled something that I missed. I knelt and leaned in.
"I am a model," he whispered, in my ear.
"I know," I replied.
"No, you don't understand," he managed. "I am not allowed to drink soda."
The next morning I woke up with a sore head and the sense that I'd survived a dream. Brad had recovered, there on the sofa, and bravely returned to the dance floor, at which point I'd made my excuses and left. A good story, I thought, but something more than that too. I may not have saved Brad's life the night before, but in my own way, I'd accepted a perilous quest, learned about an alien world, snuck past some dubious guards and revived a new friend. The night had been video game-esque. I had, in some strange, morally questionable manner, had an adventure. I'd said yes to Shibuya and, just as I'd always been led to believe, Shibuya said yes in return.
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