Two things matter very much to Michio and Kozue Funakoshi: their music and their dog, Victor. As they strolled around the Lakefill last September, Kozue carried her violin on her back — she had come straight from a rehearsal with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — and Michio, a tuba player, snapped photos of Victor. The dog padded comfortably around the path on two front paws, while a wheeled cart supported his paralyzed hind legs.
Michio spotted Victor 14 years ago when driving down the streets of Fukuoka, Japan. Prince, who had recently switched his name to an unpronounceable symbol, sang from the speakers, to the tune of a new release about the civil rights movement called “The Sacrifice of Victor.” Michio decided to name the dog Victor.
The Funakoshis are huge Prince fans. Sheet music for “3121″ rests on their keyboard at home. In the same way Michio admires Mozart for writing beautiful operas about affairs and death, he respects Prince’s choice of subject matter, because it brings up what people would rather not discuss: sex, violence and controversy. (Not just purple rain.)
Michio and Kozue tried to explain why Prince impressed them. Six-octave range, frank topics, high energy, physical attractiveness, “small hips.” At some point during our meetings from Sept. 2008 to this past January, they gave me a mix CD of Prince songs.
“I didn’t explain about Prince when we talk about Prince, because it’s impossible,” Michio said. Similarly, he was reluctant to compare and contrast the playing styles of his tuba mentors. He also hesitated when asked to explain why his dog was so important, or how he thought about music.
“If I tell you what I’m talking about Prince, it’s always through my opinion. Yeah, genius guy. It’s always right, whatever you feel from the song is the answer. That’s why I don’t like to tell people. ‘What are you thinking about music?’”
Kozue and Michio never had a wedding ceremony. Their families have met only once, when Kozue’s father went to visit Michio’s parents before they married. When the time came to sign the papers, Michio had rehearsal. His mother went with Kozue to the city hall, “and when she was signing paperwork, my mother was checking her blood pressure!” Michio said. That was 13 years ago, a year after Michio picked up Victor.
Michio left Victor in the care of his mother while he went to Chicago with Kozue. Shortly after they arrived in America, Michio’s mother broke her collarbone. She was out walking Victor when suddenly he yanked on his leash to chase a cat, and she fell. So Michio returned, feeling personally responsible for the injury, and stayed in Japan for six months, playing in an orchestra and taking care of his mother and Victor.
“And one day,” Kozue began, “and usually he doesn’t do these kind of things, he send me small mailbox–”
“Tsehehee you shouldn’t tell this story!”
Kozue continued: She opened the package and her eyes teared up. Inside was a wedding ring.
When Michio finally came back to the states, he had no ring of his own. He thinks maybe he threw it out with some fast food trash in his car, or maybe his mother accidentally did something with it. They both agree that a wedding ring is, after all, nothing more than a symbol.
They have never traveled together on a honeymoon or similar vacation. Michio began to explain why.
“He — he is joking. Joking,” said Kozue.
“If we see beautiful landscape together, we talk, ‘What a beautiful view,’ we say something.” Kozue stifled a laugh as Michio kept speaking. “I don’t say anything. Because if we speak something, impression is impossible to express. Should be expressed by sound, or color, or–”
“That’s okay, we don’t need to go into–”
“That’s why we didn’t travel to–”
“Nooo! I don’t think that’s why!”
Beneath the apparent contradictions of the Funakoshis’ conversations lie private jokes and mutual understanding. They don’t mind being separated when they need to travel or practice. They know Victor’s needs. They influence and inspire each other. Thanks to Michio’s recommendation, Kozue likes Anton Bruckner, a 19th-century Austrian composer, though his works celebrate the brass section and bore the strings.
They also have come to understand and accept the complexity of musicians, and of people overall: No one is plain good, no one is plain bad. Kozue learned this when she joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Politics play out backstage.
Sections get to choose their own subs or additional players, a policy that can result in unpleasant situations, according to the Funakoshis’ friend, CSO principal tuba player Gene Pokorny. “There are a lot of people who just think their shit doesn’t smell!” He chuckled.
Michio tries to gain perspective from as many teachers as possible. This is how he met Gene. Whenever international orchestras came to Japan in the ’80s and ’90s, Michio would try to get in touch with their tubists for some instruction, even if he had to call their hotels to get a hold of them. From the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, he met Rex Martin, Northwestern’s tuba performance professor. From the CSO, he met renowned tubist Arnold Jacobs, for whom the CSO principal tuba chair is named, and Gene, his successor.
Gene became a good friend of the Funakoshis, and Michio referred to him as an extremely influential person in his life. I met with Gene in the basement of Chicago’s Symphony Center, which resonates with the talent of 110 musicians, the sacrifices they’ve made to get there, and the constant balance of tension and camaraderie between them.
At the same time that they might compete with each other and bicker over guest players, members can serve as a web of support for one another. On a bulletin board near the mail cubbies and flyers requesting members’ evaluation forms for past and present CSO conductors was a letter posted to thank fellow musicians for their support of a leukemia patient.
After eight years, Kozue has adjusted to the high-stress environment of a top-notch orchestra, but the transition was difficult. The orchestra is full of strong personality types, musicians driven to be at the top of their field. “Competition is not music for me, in my life,” she said.
Kozue’s parents encouraged music. Her father listened to records of the British invasion, and he still plays rock on piano and guitar. Her mother, a kindergarten teacher, took her to the music store to find easy songs for her pupils to sing. Six-year-old Kozue, the only child, tagged along and picked up a tiny violin, hardly more than a toy, which her mother bought.
At first, the violin’s squeal frustrated Kozue. She kept playing and won a nationwide competition when she was 16. A year later, her mother died of a rare form of cancer.
“I always feel, I’m so lucky to be a musician,” she said. “Even if I have, I’m suffering for a particular time, I can express everything by music. Difficult thing, problem, is inspiration to make music.”
Oct. 4 was the anniversary of Michio’s father’s death and the same day Kozue won her CSO audition. On this particular day, Michio was thinking of his father.
As the sun set opposite the lake, Victor walked a few paces ahead of Michio, who switched subjects easily from the dog to his family to the meaning of music. To Michio, these conversation topics are intertwined. “We understand each other, but we never use a word,” he said, looking at Victor. “We have a lot of emotions, but we can’t, we never be able to express our emotions by words.”
Kozue explained later how she and Michio called his family nine years ago from an airport to share the news about her seat in the CSO. His mother began to cry — his father was hospitalized. He died later that day.
Even during hard times, explained Michio, the youngest child and family clown, his relatives prefer to be funny rather than sad. “They never shows, ‘Ohhh, my god!’” He made a sorrowful face and held his head in his hands. “They never show kind of face. Always make a joke.” Michio’s father had smoked heavily, so when he was cremated, one of his sisters said, “Oh, he is smoking lots now.”
“Yeah, but her boyfriend told us later, she was miserable,” Kozue said.
A shy cocker spaniel; a bulky Bouvier des Flandres; two Jack Russell terriers, one aged, the other springy; a peppy Bichon Frise; a wrinkly Shar-Pei; a lolloping golden retriever; a commanding boxer; an unsociable black Labrador; these are just some of the canine characters we encountered with Victor at the Lakefill over the course of a few months.
“He’s famous, people know him,” said Deirdre Jordan of Victor. She and her partner Bob Robinson sat by the lake and discussed Japanese ice cream with Michio and Kozue for a bit, expressing interest in meeting up with each other for dinner at some point.
Most of the Funakoshis’ acquaintances were formed through either orchestras or dogs. Gene Pokorny and his wife fill both categories: They can talk to Michio and Kozue about their music and their pets.
Although Gene’s wife, Beth, is a businesswoman, not a professional musician, she plays a diverse range of instruments including oboe and saxophone. One day, Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony came on the car radio as they drove. She cranked up the volume. The piece “has a tendency to kind of play itself,” Gene said. In other words, same old song, even if it’s great. But “it became a more exciting piece for me because of the pep talk Beth gave to me before we played it.”
“I couldn’t imagine not being married to a musician or someone who couldn’t feel the passion for a piece of music,” said Gene. “It would be impossible.”
Rex Martin, the Northwestern tuba professor, said most musicians he knows marry other musicians. His wife is not a musician, though “she really appreciates music and understands art in general.” He says he’s glad he can come home from work and talk about subjects other than symphonies.
As far as canine companions are concerned, Rex was never a dog person. He didn’t discover why until his father’s funeral, when an old neighbor came up to him and apologized profusely: Her dog mauled Rex when he was three.
Gene, on the other hand, has a few basset hounds. “The neat thing about a basset hound is,” he explained, “you can spend an entire week playing very tough music at an orchestra hall, and when you come home on Saturday night, the dog is the only thing that looks worse than you do!”
Victor could walk just fine until two years ago when a spinal disc problem paralyzed the rear half of his body. The Funakoshis had a special cart made for him, which tended to generate attention and leave an impression whenever they went for walks.
Linn Raven, a member of PETA, seemed to disapprove when she saw Victor at the Lakefill: She thought the dog was being kept alive in pain. After talking to the Funakoshis, she changed her mind. “Thank you for taking care of him,” she said and walked away. “He certainly looks loved.”
Victor was a mutt, probably with Akita and other classic Japanese breeds in his blood. He resembled a German Shepard, but his eyes were larger, his face was rounder, his ears were taller. He was loyal to those close to him and distrusting of new acquaintances. (He once bit Rex Martin.) He was strong — before he went deaf and ceased to bark, “his voice was much louder than tuba,” Michio said — yet sometimes afraid.
Initially, Victor was jealous of the attention Michio gave Kozue, and he didn’t trust her until one stormy night in Cleveland, while Kozue had a job with the Cleveland Orchestra and Michio was studying in Chicago. Because Victor feared thunder, he followed Kozue everywhere in the apartment, “even to bathroom!” she said. After that evening, they got along better. The Funakoshis attribute their record of zero robberies in a theft-prone apartment complex a few years ago to Victor’s protective presence.
To Michio and Kozue, Victor was more than just a pet. He was a family member. So when veterinarians diagnosed Victor with prostate cancer last August, they decided they would pay any amount for medical care to keep him alive for as long as possible.
“When dog is healthy, many people humanize them,” said Kozue. “They treat as human child. But once they get problem, like paralyzed, they say, ‘This is dog. We can’t pay thousands of dollars.’”
“We say, it’s heartbreaking,” Michio said.
Some find it difficult to see why the Funakoshis were willing to sacrifice so much time and money caring for a sick dog. Victor started pricey chemotherapy in the fall, and Michio stopped playing tuba to spend more time with him. “I cancel all schedule.” He turned down several gigs, he said, and he predicts those places won’t call him with any more offers.
When something carries great personal value, as Victor was to the Funakoshis, sacrificing for its sake comes more easily. Another example: music to musicians. The best performers must spend several hours practicing every day. They usually give up weekends for shows. They have to live near big cities if they want to play in big orchestras. This put a damper on Gene’s interest in stargazing — too much light and pollution around him, too busy performing when the constellations are out.
Or another example: a child to a parent. Kozue recalled a letter her mother wrote from a hospital bed on her 17th birthday, not long before she died. “She said, ‘I’m watching sky from the window, in the hospital, and it’s so blue and beautiful, and remind me of your brilliant future.’ Something like that.”
She keeps the letter in a box filled with other letters and old pictures: her mother’s family of Buddhist monks, her mother’s father in his uniform before his ship was sunk in the second World War. (Monks weren’t forced to fight until the very end of the war, as Japan’s situation worsened.) The box isn’t stored away in an attic. It sits on a shelf in the room where she practices, next to Japanese literature, and books on music, and sculptures she made, one of a Japanese comic character, one of Victor.
On Oct. 23, Victor died. Michio and Kozue cried more that day than they did when their parents passed away. “Runny nose, and tears,” said Kozue. They stood by him for over an hour after the vet put him to sleep.
Michio went on a brief trip in November to take some of Victor’s ashes back to Fukuoka. They sent out cards with pictures of the dog — Victor watching the shadow of a squirrel, Victor looking up towards the sky, Victor’s footprints in the snow — to over a hundred people, many of whom they met on walks during Victor’s last months. Heller Nature Center, a spot the Funakoshis frequented in Highland Park, will plant a tree in Victor’s memory come spring.
December marked their first holiday season together without Victor. “Like, when I chopped green onion, ‘Oh I can’t drop it on the floor, because dog is allergic to green onion. Oh, he is not here.’ Like that,” Kozue said.
A pet’s death is not usually viewed as a life-changing event, but for the Funakoshis, it was a wake-up call. Victor’s illness came during a time of questioning. Why do we pursue music? Will we have any kids? Who are our friends? “I kept taking care of Victor. Why I have to play tuba? Why I have to play music?” said Michio. He took up an interest in jazz; a box set of a PBS jazz program sits in the kitchen near an old stuffed toy of Victor’s. (They donated most of Victor’s other belongings to an animal shelter.) Soon, they want to have a child.
Michio left mid-January for Japan again, and Kozue stayed behind with the CSO for another week of rehearsals to prepare for the upcoming tour of Asia. On Feb. 2, they had a family reunion in Japan. Michio will teach a master class, which has spurred him to pick up his tuba again for the first time in months. His mother saw Kozue perform with the rest of the CSO. They returned a day after Valentine’s Day.
Victor’s death underscored the importance of family and friends, said Kozue. We talked in their home in Highland Park after Michio had left for Japan. “Every person has many aspects,” both pleasant and unpleasant, she said, and everyone wears “sunglasses” through which they view other people and themselves. “It’s very hard to know myself. Maybe for everyone.”
Still, she thinks, people need other people. “If human being is artwork, you can’t be finished by yourself, if you are alone. It’s very hard to explain in English.” Her sentences and Michio’s seem to carry a lot of weight: Their words have been so carefully chosen and filtered by mental translation.
In January, before either of the Funakoshis left for Japan, we met at my apartment. The Lakefill was too cold, and there was no dog to walk.
“So, there’s Japanese fish called Namazu. So fish’s tail is like this.” Michio waved his hand from side to side, imitating the fluid motion of a goldfish. Kozue suddenly interrupted and said something in Japanese. Michio replied, and continued with the story, looking quite serious. “And Namazu’s tail is like this.” He waved his hand up and down now, more like rolling waves. “There’s only one fish who has this kind of tail. Then, the tail has colors, that looks like a face. Then the children, small fishes, always follow that tail.”
Having never heard of such a fish, I had asked how to spell its name.
“This story, I make this story,” he said. “This is not true.”
The Namazu fish — in some incarnations, a bird — is a teaching tool meant to illustrate independence from following musical trends. Michio is constantly trying to teach, to express what he is feeling, to perform, even in conversation, although he is convinced that ultimately, precise explanations are impossible.
So is complete understanding, Kozue said later. She can’t describe exactly why she and Michio are so attached to each other. “There are so many things you don’t know, and so many of the things, you can’t control. And that’s okay. Yeah, I notice that, and since I realize that, I have felt so easy, more comfortable.”
While Victor was alive, Michio would reference him while trying to explain human matters, subjects ranging from relationships to music to Prince. Victor had become a symbol.
“He doesn’t know he has cancer. He just think about eating, and walking, and chasing animals,” Michio said. “Human being thinks too much, has fear. And then, do you know why we need music and art?”