~two bad dudes
one hot rock band
(one rhythm, one solo)
(one manned by nobuo uematsu, one played)
four final fantasies represented in music
no sleep till tenya
this is project FF Dog, on location in yokohama~
Nobuo Uematsu, in addition to being the composer of the music from most every game with Final Fantasy in the title, is also a cruel mistress. I went to his side-project rock-band The Black Mages' concert yesterday at the Kanagawa University Jindai Festa, and I came home with Rock and Roll Blue Balls. That phrase is copyright me. I shall explain it later, and you'll get a good chance to laugh both at and with me.
The Jindai Festa is something Kanagawa University students hold to feel cool once a year, on "Culture Day." Culture Day is a Japanese holiday where people take off work or school to enjoy Japanese culture. It always falls on a Monday. Kids stay home from school playing Pokemon instead of playing it on the train. Salarymen may or may not take their kids with them to the park, or they may or may not ditch their families at the grocery store to play pachinko. Some kids and grownups alike, it turned out, had enough gusto to venture down to Yokohama, where they took a bus out into the sticks as represented by Kanagawa University, where they stood in the rain for two hours, prayed for death, and eventually saw some rock and roll. Chuck and I stood among those kids, two of the only four gaijin in attendance. We were in the know because of our bordering-on-psychotic obsession with all things approaching Squaresoft.
Chuck had off school, so he met me at Shinbashi Station following an odd phone mishap in Okachimachi. My neighborly Frenchman was at fault; he'd said the afternoon before he wanted to witness the hell out of the concert. He's an avid Final Fantasy fan, and might at some point become a devoted fan of insertcredit's Project: FF Dog. He said he'd be awake by twelve in the afternoon, and he said this at eight in the morning -- when he got home from drinking all night. I'd previously told Chuck to meet me on the Tokaido Line platform at Tokyo Station at noon -- so I called him around eleven with the news. Chuck, who does not recognize his own cell-phone ring tone, was not able to have this scheduling adjustment communicated to him. The Frenchman ended up not waking up. Chuck ended up on a train bound out of Tokyo Station at twelve-thirty, and I called him to tell him to get his ass off the train at Shinbashi, where I'd be showing up directly aboard my private Yamanote car. I rode in that car, don't you know, while listening to "Acid Line," Robo-Z Gold's theme from Bust a Move 2, on my now-mostly-busted Sony CD player. It's good music for riding through Tokyo on a rainy-ish day.
That was, now that I look back at it, about as exciting as the day got.
We arrived at Yokohama Station aboard the Tokaido Express at a little after one PM. We found a First Kitchen at the east exit, where Chuck wolfed down a margherita pizza. I'd tipped him off about the pizza, yet was unable to eat any thanks to my current Ramadan status. At 130 yen, it's a good deal for Tokyo vegetarians and/or poverty-stricken sad sons of bitches.
After Chuck declared the First Kitchen margherita the "best 130-yen pizza" he's ever eaten, we took off for the main exit of Yokohama Station. We stopped in at a Koban and asked where Kanagawa University was, and they told us to take the #66 bus from the #2 platform, and we'd be just fine. So we went to the platform, saw that the bus wasn't coming for forty-five minutes, and went to kill some time in an arcade. The arcade was the "Namco Carrot." I had a good time, mostly: as Chuck instantly died at the new Gundam game, I was being air-conditioned and watching salarymen enjoy Culture Day on one of those giant multiplayer sit-down soccer games that use collectible trading cards as playing pieces.
Chuck and I ended up playing Dimps' Demolishfist on the Atomiswave for a long, long time. We simply couldn't die. We had to try very, very hard to die. I don't like the game. It's too easy. It has combos and stuff, yeah. I still don't like it. It has no personality. I played it for twenty minutes before I realized, "Oh, I played this a bit at E3." Only then, it didn't almost make me late for a bus.
The bus eventually reached Kanagawa University, on the campus of which people were lined up around the block, waiting to get into the Black Mages concert. A little research led us to dread: the few hundred people in line had tickets, tickets they were given at noon. These at-noon-given tickets guaranteed them entry, and even a place to sit. The hundred-something people milling around behind the line didn't have tickets. A short girl with a voice too high-pitched to be real eventually took up a microphone and directed all the loiterers to the side of the street, then proceeded to cone and rope us off. We were waiting ten minutes before it started raining. Everyone whipped out an umbrella except me and Chuck, because we're tough enough to handle that stuff without trouble.
Okay, so we just forgot umbrellas.
I managed to get an old woman to shield me with hers -- and I did this quite craftily. Noticing that the old woman's young granddaughter was playing Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on her cobalt blue Gameboy Advance SP, I whipped out my own (scratched, old, Artic) Gameboy Advance and proceeded to fire up my own copy of the game. Chuck did the same. The twenty-something, otherwise-normal-looking office lady in front of us, standing alone in the rain, took out her SP, as did the forty-something woman in front of her. So there we were, a bunch of people who obviously play Final Fantasy. The women and the little girl then began a discussion of their favorite games, and characters within those games.
The little girl, probably about twelve years old, and with teeth that had been around for a lot less time than that, loved Final Fantasy V above them all. Which kind of made me proud in some way I can't describe. Her favorite piece of Final Fantasy music happened to be V's "Clash on the Big Bridge," also known as the "Gilgamesh Theme." That wasn't what she was talking about with the women, though -- they were all stuck talking about Final Fantasy X-2. They were discussing this because the girl had super-deformed versions of all three heroines dangling from her cell-phone. The women were divided in opinion between who was sexier -- Yuna or Rikku. The little girl had no problem deciding -- it was Yuna all the way. I jumped in and said I liked Paine.
I did this, of course, in perfect Japanese which totally fucking shocked the hell out of them.
That's how I led the conversation on toward more interesting matters. Such as how much Kingdom Hearts sucks.
The girl was quick to inform me that, while the US version is indeed too hard, it's better than the Japanese version, which is "So easy it's like totally not fun at all."
The old woman was shielding me with her umbrella by now. The little girl was showing me her cell-phone menus, which are all adorned with Kingdom Hearts 2 character art.
"It was . . . new," she said, as if apologizing for downloading the art while not being a fan of the game. I nodded at her explanation, thinking, yeah, that about explains it.
I showed the girl my Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, just then -- how the intro screens had English text, and how the opening logo said "Square-Enix" instead of "Squaresoft." When she saw the English, she clapped her hands, and yelled to her grandmother:
It was apparently a big event for her.
At some point, two clueless foreign bastards found us and asked us what was up. We talked to them a bit, told them the situation, and also told them they'd have to get to the back of the line. Maybe they expected us to let them cut? Hell no. We don't do that shit. Never mind that we'd actually cut ourselves quite significantly to get where we were.
Well, in the end, everyone got in. I guessed they might or might not have figured that everyone deserved to see the rock. They must have deserved it so much they gave everyone a ticket with a number on it. Mine was number 501. I took this to mean that they liked my jeans, or something.
The capacity was 500, and it showed. We stragglers were confined to standing room only, which didn't stop us from being grateful to the god of Rock. Among some three hundred other people obviously not devoted enough to show up more than three hours early, Chuck and I screamed for Nobuo Uematsu from long before and until long after the show started. We might have annoyed some people. Chances are we probably didn't.
Nobuo Uematsu came out first, in a long-sleeved button-down shirt that was totally unbuttoned, rock-style. The rest of the band -- another keyboardist, a bassist, a drummer, and two guitarists, came out shortly. In all seriousness, only the lead guitarist looked like a real-life rocker: black vinyl pants, crazy hair, armbands, that sort of thing.
Quickly, the lights dimmed, and the rock began. I had my digital camera ready for the first song: "Those who Fight Further," the boss battle theme from Final Fantasy VII. This was never my favorite piece of Final Fantasy music -- nor was it my favorite piece of Final Fantasy battle music, to be honest. Yet, hearing it rocked the way it was rocked just about killed me. I literally almost died from the excitement.
The second song up was the standard battle theme from Final Fantasy VI -- not my favorite Final Fantasy battle theme by a long stretch. Yet, again, it was rocked well.
Then there was a break. The MC -- some grinning schmuck bastard -- asked Uematsu a few questions. The answers generated titters from the audience. The MC informed us that Mr. Uematsu had attended this college before. How did he like it? Well, the answers didn't interest me. I've already attended college on my own. The MC then asked Nobuo to introduce the band members. So he did. I was getting impatient by the time he got around to the lead guitarist, the "most popular" member of the band, the one who, little did I know, would be running across the front of the stage, getting the crowd to its feet, when they played "Force Your Way" from Final Fantasy VIII in a few minutes.
I didn't care how much the ladies loved this guy. I'd rather form my own opinion of him by aurally testing his guitar prowess.
I was able to do this in a moment. Even the boss theme from Final Fantasy VIII rocked me hard. Aforementioned guitarist had a godly sense of precision that was not wasted on a single hastily-composed note. I was being rocked to the point that I was becoming able to explain my rock specifically.
Then came the song the crowd had been screamingly anticipating: "Clash on the Big Bridge" -- also known as "Battle with Gilgamesh." If you recall a few years back, before Final Fantasy X was released, Square held a poll, asking Final Fantasy fans to vote for their favorite piece of music, saying they'd then get Okinawan folk singer Rikki to do up lyrics for it, and the finished product would be the coupling song on the Final Fantasy X theme song CD single. Which also featured the lacklusterly lazy "Suteki da ne." I guess they felt they had something to repay. Well, there must have been some kind of mix-up, because Aeris's Theme from Final Fantasy VII won and got remade boringly. Gilgamesh came in second place -- I think Rikki had them rig this, because she knew she couldn't make lyrics for Gilgamesh. Either she knew she was weak, and human, or she just didn't want to spoil the sanctity of rock.
Well, The Black Mages play a mean Gilgamesh. The crowd was standing -- even those graciously given seats -- and screaming. The guitar solos were freakish. The bass was razor-sharp. For four and a half minutes, the song rocked the world inside that little university auditorium.
Then it was over, and the lights went up. The MC announced that the band members were going to take a little break.
He used the term "kyuukei," meaning "break" or "intermission" -- this is useful knowledge; keep it in mind as you read the following paragraphs.
The MC then spoke to Uematsu as stage crew kids lined up and moved the keyboards back and out of the way. The drums were moved forward. The microphones were pushed back. The stage was being remodeled for something big. The possibilities ran through my head:
Oh shit, they're going to bring a choir out here and do One-winged Angel, aren't they?
Actually, it was pretty much just that one possibility.
Anyone with respectable internet access can obtain the track listing for The Black Mages' first CD. If they look at this, they'll no doubt notice that every song of the ten on that CD is a battle theme, the final one being Final Fantasy VI's "Dancing Mad," which is approximately seventeen minutes long. "One-winged Angel" is only seven minutes long, and therefore very rockable. I figured -- it's been six months since these guys' first and most recent concert; they might be introducing a new song. Maybe churning up hype for their next CD -- you know, the real one, the one with Final Fantasy IV's "Fight 2" as the opening track. The one that contains a nice, mellow-ish rendition of "Shuffle or Boogie," Final Fantasy VIII's card game theme music, complete with hand-claps from Nobuo Uematsu himself. I mean, there's another keyboardist to take care of all the actual keyboarding . . .
The stage hands set up a big flat table. Girls brought out wrapped-up packages.
A little woman (yes, that kind of little woman) brought out a big box with a clear plastic front. Inside were multicolored balls, red and yellow and blue and green and purple and orange, and all large and round.
"So, did you go to a lot of drinking parties, Uema-san?"
"Ha, hah, haha!"
"Okay, now, everyone, get out your tickets."
Nobuo Uematsu then illustrated his videogame music composing prowess by removing numbered plastic balls from a cardboard box. Which is to say, the numbers, like the styles of music Nobuo Uematsu composes (and composes well), were large, and bright, and easy to see. Gifted with genius, he was able to look in at the balls as he picked them out, and thanks to his genius, he picked only the blue ones. This means he was able to pull only the numbers "7" and "3" over and over again.
The ticket holders -- oh, oh -- they were rarely present.
Sooner or later, after about forty-five minutes of my life had been tomfooleried away, they got the rest of the band out there. They took turns pulling numbers. Some kid won a gift certificate to some restaurant that sells famous Hokkaido cuisine. They asked him his age, and he told them he was fourteen, and the MC laughed and said something about mom and dad and grandpa and grandma and everyone giggled and I was fucking seething.
I'd just heard some significant act of rock. Very significant, in fact. It was a piece of videogame music that I've loved for many, many years, and will love for many, many more. Now more than forty-five minutes later, the memory of that fine rockage was slipping into the past. I wanted to keep it in the eternal present for long enough to have it fresh on my mind when I witnessed the band's totally god-damned totally awesome finale. I was holding onto that hope with the very edges of my fingernails.
I would have settled for "The Extreme," final boss theme of Final Fantasy VIII.
Another hour passed, with laughing, and emceeing, and bingo. At one point, during a draw for a prize of 10,000 yen, the numbers 5 and 0 were pulled. Uematsu was next up.
The bastard pulled a "7." Now obsessive with anger, I was able to tell Chuck:
"That's his twenty-fourth seven tonight."
I gritted my teeth. Some college kid got the money, and he didn't look too pleased about it. He probably spent it all on three copies of the official Black Mages Band Score -- only 3300 yen, and with fancy official art. Or maybe four 2500-yen Black Mages T-shirts -- you know, the ones that said "Live at Shibuya AX 4.2003." You know -- those six-month-old ones.
In the back of my mind, I was trying to think up things to say -- you know, metaphors and literary allusions and shit -- for when I write this article. How I was going to explain how fucking awesome it was when they busted out "One-winged Angel," and even though we had to wait two hours for it, we didn't mind it being the last song, because it was that damned awesome. I'd compare its being played last, and after much annoying bingo, to the play-within-a-play in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream -- Pyramus and Thisby -- being positioned in the final act. I'd of course have to mention that act five of five traditionally comes immediately after the intermission, which makes the anticlimax all the more artistically anticlimactic.
Or, hell, I'd just read Brandon Sheffield's Minibosses feature again. Whilst listening to freely downloadable Minibosses music. I'd have to make some kind of statement about videogame rock. And about how in Japan, they do it without excessive booze, and in the presence of children on days off from elementary school.
Maybe I'd even be able to say that I liked the performance on the whole so much that it imbues me with a steady hope that a Black Mages original tune will be used as Final Fantasy 12's battle theme, because I sure as hell could use some music that rocking for my battle theme. Nobuo Uematsu's wanted to be a rock star all his life, and now he has a band that, under his . . . guidance (?) . . . rocks pretty steadily. All of his battle themes have obviously been rock from the start; now it's time to make that shit streaming. I listened for a word out of Uematsu, for him to say something with context I could blow out of proportion in the name of "journalism" -- "He's mentioned the Final Fantasy 12 press conference, which shall be on November 18th. This perhaps indicates that The Black Mages will either be there, or some connection between the band and the game is apparent. We'll have more for you as it develops."
If I heard it, I could wax videogamey, and say that the long wait through the bingo game while assorted Final Fantasy music played softly over the PA was a lot like the wait between Final Fantasy VI and today, the wait we've been enduring, the wait at the end of which the Nobuo Uematsu we knew and loved would return to rock. And that final performance of the evening -- that was symbolic of his return.
I needed context, to be able to say this. That context didn't come, and in the end I was left with only memories of music that I enjoyed mostly because of my memories of the games I enjoyed, which also contained those pieces of music.
I listened, hard, for that context that would never come. I was listening so hard that when, over the loudspeaker, the military march from Final Fantasy VII played softly, I was walking in place. Each time Uematsu spoke, I turned my ear toward the stage, and
"Is the university anything like you remember it?"
"Exactly the same."
MOTHER OF GOD
Rock and roll, at its best, fills a man with these feelings some call anger. They're not really anger, though; at their best, they're just intense feelings of in-the-zone-ness that arise when a person becomes one with his art, or witnesses someone doing so.
In my case, at the Black Mages concert -- well, hell, when they gave out the grand bingo prize and the lights came up and they opened the doors and made everyone leave, yeah, it was pretty much just anger.
I stuck around in the lobby to see the band leave. I pressed through a crowd of weeping college girls, whipped out my sketchpad, and got Uematsu to scrawl some kanji all the hell over one whole page. I also shook the man's hand, just as my digital camera battery died.
Chuck tried to get in on some handshake action, and was denied. Here, he was the last person left in the line, yet some white-jacketed kid on "security" duty told Chuck the party was over.
LAST PERSON IN LINE.
Uematsu was then escorted out of the building by six kids half my height.
Chuck and I loitered around the upstairs-outside "Goods" counter with clenched fists and clenched white, straight, gaijin teeth. We looked over the 1,500-yen cell phone straps and scoffed.
Eventually, all the crowded schoolgirls screamed and pointed. Uematsu was being guided down a glass hallway above us by now no less than twelve schoolkids, many of them holding their white "Jindai Festa" jackets over Nobuo's crouching frame.
"Jesus," blasphemed Chuck. "The man's not Elvis."
We then walked into the center of the cramped university campus. Pretty far from a major train station, Kanagawa University is mostly self-contained. Right outside the main gate are plenty of dormitory buildings. Down the hill from the dorms are a couple of convenient stores and supermarkets and cheap restaurants -- plenty of places for kids to get part-time jobs when they're never studying.
What had once been a gray, rainy campus was now black and dark and dead -- at a little before seven in the evening.
"I thought they were doing this thing until late?" I wondered.
"Doing what? The festival?"
"Yeah -- and it's a festa."
"What's a festa, anyway?"
"I don't know, man. Some ancient word, I think."
When we'd been waiting in line in the rain, earlier, we'd spied a sign in front of the student union building that said "Xbox Party: B1F." This aroused us muchly. We were thinking, if we didn't get into the concert, we'd go see if the kids were playing Halo on a LAN. We'd make a video, call it an insertcredit.com exclusive, and then make a crack about "All the Xboxes in Japan, assembled in one room."
We didn't get a chance to do this. The only festa-ing of any kind left going on consisted of three guys more accurately called "Dudes." They were standing around a wooden table, selling plastic-bagged soup-mix.
"Make good soup!" the guys said, practicing the English they'd been forgetting for two years already.
"I don't need that garbage," I told one of the guys, in my trademark Japanese.
"HaHAH~!" they laughed.
"Really," I said.
"So what brings you guys out tonight? The concert?"
With slight shame, I said, "Yeah."
"How was it? Did it rock?"
"A little bit, yeah."
"Just a little bit?"
"Well, what rocked really rocked," I explained, with much hand-gesturing. "It's just that -- well, after the twenty minutes of rock had ended, they played some god-damned bingo bullshit. For two hours."
"Yeah. I thought there was, like, going to be some more rock afterhand. Noooooooo. I was wrong. They just opened the doors and let us out."
I stood in front of that table, holding a bag of soup mix, squeezing it with my thumb like a stress ball I was only slightly interested in buying. Within the green weedy water floated a piece of octopus tentacle, and a long shred of squid. I hadn't been considering buying it, anyway. I was just holding it, and thinking, as all the concert-goers cleared out.
Early in the day, shortly after arriving at Kanagawa University, a group of hippy-ish kids sitting on a blanket sold me a stuffed Mickey Mouse doll for 100 yen. Some short girl asked how much money I had in my pocket, and I showed her I only had 150 yen. She took the hundred, and gave me the Mickey Mouse. I'd only taken it because it was Japanese with a Japanese "Sega" label, and I was feeling good about going to this generously free concert, anyway.
Hours later, under cover of night, during the dark and thirsty phase of my Ramadan, I stood with a plastic package of soup mix in hand, with Rock and Roll Blue Balls, clenching and relaxing both fists taciturnly, waiting for someone to say something.
The guys were closing up their cardboard boxes.
Chuck had taken off on a stroll down the university main street.
"You alright, man?" asked one of the guys.
"I feel like killing something."
"Yeah. I think it's a good feeling, though. I'm not sure. Killing something, or playing guitar."
The guys laughed.
"I think I'm going to go, now."
"Get my friend. Maybe go kill a stray cat."
Either they laughed at the weirdness of the suggestion, the fact that it was a gaijin saying it, or my way of speaking. However you slice it, it was the most they laughed in a long time, it seemed. I told them goodnight, and they said to me, "See you tomorrow." I didn't bother to correct them.
Some dude Chuck had been talking to during our two hours in line was hanging around, in the center of the main street, waiting for Uematsu. Chuck had been talking to the kid in English, and the kid wasn't talking back. He was more like scared. Chuck went up and said to the kid, what's up? What followed was a whole lot of English from Chuck. The kid eventually said, "Please. Speak, slowly?" Chuck didn't listen. He tried to give the kid 20 yen, telling him, "You see Uematsu, you call me, okay? Go to that payphone over there."
He pointed at the payphone.
The kid kept waving away the money.
"Come on, Chuck. Let's go home."
We walked down to the bus stop, leaving the poor bewildered kid a little bewildereder. When we saw the bus wasn't coming for twenty minutes, we stopped into 7-Eleven, and I bought a Long Can of Coca-Cola from a vending machine near the bus stop sign. I was half a sip in when a tiny white van came screaming by down the narrow street. I jumped back.
It was a "Kanagawa University" van. Chuck jumped into the middle of the street and focused his eyes in the van's wake.
The two girls at the bus stop inched a few feet farther away from us as we screamed and flashed devil horns at the van.
Two hours later, I was home, and dead-dead tired. Chuck was in his home, and I was in mine. During the walk from Okachimachi to Asakusa, I'd listened to half of the Bust a Move 2 soundtrack, and I'd been feeling the glory. Until my cheapass headphone extension cord kind of broke, killing the left headphone. So I had to use my Eggos' short cord -- normally meant to connect directly into an MD player's extension -- and hold my CD player right up next to my head. It really sucked.
I got home, and the resident Frenchman told me, when I finished unwrapped my audio setup from my hair (it's a complicated procedure), "Your friend just left."
"Yeah, a girl. She didn't speak any English. She was short. Black hair. Big head."
This was not nearly enough information.
"What was she . . . wearing?"
"She was dressed kind of like a rock-and-roller. Death-metal black, Barbie pink."
The Frenchman snapped his French fingers. "That's the one."
I sat down, and thought.
"How long was she here?"
"I guess she was here when I woke up."
"When was that?"
"Around . . . one?"
"And when did she leave?"
"Just about ten minutes ago, it was."
"What did she do here all day?"
"She watched TV with us, used your computer. Slept."
"Slept . . . where?"
"In your bed."
"In my bed?"
My fists were clenching. Why the hell did this girl even know where I lived, anyway? How the hell did that come to happen?
So I went upstairs, turned on the light, upset the Korean guy who's always sleeping (or shitting -- as he is right now), and flipped through my bed sheets. I turned over my futon blanket.
My old vellux blue blanket still lived, as did my gray pillow from days of yore. The Xbox pillow I'd hard-won at Tokyo Game Show was still intact, and thankfully. So I wasn't --
OH FUCK WHERE THE HELL IS MY STUFFED SONIC THE HEDGEHOG, THE ONE I'VE HAD SINCE I WAS LIKE THIRTEEN?
It was gone.
And it's still gone.
I'd determined weeks ago that I'm never going to contact Jun-chan again. Why, as soon as I finish writing this article, right here and right now, I'm going to get on the train and fly up to Saitama, to a new apartment with an old friend. I'm going to have some luggage-toting to do, that's for sure. It might take two trips. And I won't have internet access for about a week.
How am I to get this Sonic back? My sweet Sonic?
It may or may not be an adventure. I'll see what I can do.
Still, an adventure isn't what I want. I don't enjoy having adventures; I merely enjoy writing about them. The best adventures, I'll have you know, spring forth when one sets out on something he thinks he's thought through quite a bit.
The truth is, adventures, while they're happening -- whether they be about attending Tokyo Game Show or being homeless on the streets of Saitama amidst biker-gang wars or drinking a kimchee-flavored milkshake, are usually about the small discomforts. Feet hurting. Head aching. Belly hungry. Or, in the case of the latter -- throat burning.
What the other day's adventure amounted to was a lot of little annoyances like hunger, thirst, and standing for four hours straight, with a bigger annoyance pinned right onto the end of it:
THAT DAMNED GIRL STOLE MY SONIC.
The final word, then, on Nobuo Uematsu and The Black Mages' free four-song set-"concert" at Kanagawa University, then, is this:
I've I lost my best friend because of some dumb girl. It's going to be hell getting him back.
I've lost my best friend because some bastard could pull no numbers outside three and seven in a bingo game that lasted two damned hours.
They should have had a machine handle that bingo game. Either that, or simply flat-out told us the rock was over. The rock was finished.
There would be no more rock.
Not on that day. Not on that day would there be more rock.
--tim rogers dedicates this not-bad piece to young plush sonic; 12241993~11032003; not quite a decade, son; not quite a decade
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